"Nepenthe" is this series at its most relaxed and natural, and it delivers all the feels for what is perhaps the best Picard outing yet. It’s refreshing to see the writers and producers of this show are capable of using the serialized Trek format to tell self-contained character stories that don’t feel like info-dumps of plot exposition.
In the past I’ve focused a lot on whether or not episodes of this series have moved the plot forward. "Nepenthe" is proof that you don’t need to move the plot forward hardly at all if you instead allow the characters to breathe and be the people they are, and reflect on their situations with thoughtfulness and self-awareness. I suspect TNG fans will find, as I did, that this feels the most like what we probably felt a decades-later TNG sequel should feel like. It does this not just by bringing back Riker and Troi in major guest appearances (although, to be clear, that certainly goes a long way), but by providing dialogue and reflection that considers the past, the present, and the choices that have been made.
What a difference a week makes.
After the dour and trope-ridden experience that was “Stardust City Rag” last week, “The Impossible Box” is nothing short of a series turnaround. Here is a story with purpose; characters with motivation; a script with curiosity and nuance; action with genuine danger and suspense; cinematic sequences of evocative atmosphere; moments of humanity and emotion; and mysteries and puzzles that are actually interesting. Oh, and a thematic point about the salvation of ex-Borg souls that speaks directly to Picard. Welcome back, Star Trek.
Speaking to the overarching tendencies of this series, it’s perhaps not the most reassuring sign that I kept dreading all the goodwill was going to suddenly evaporate in a final scene featuring some dopey twist ending (I was prepared to go on a rampage over, say, Hugh suddenly betraying Picard or stabbing Soji or some nonsense), but I’m happy to report that such a thing never happens. This story plays straight and gimmick-free to the end and is all the better for it.
I am easily bored by the "What is Star Trek?" debate. This question has been asked for decades and it comes up with every new series, and now every new episode. It is a cliche and I avoid it like the plague.
That being said, "Stardust City Rag" is all wrong. This is not Star Trek.
The unrelenting cynicism; the brutal torture/gore; the utter lack of imagination; the Shocking Plot Reveals that seem to be motivated by the running time approaching the end of the episode more than character insight or smart writing; the overly coyly hidden secrets and agendas; the, yes, grimdark (another cliche term I hate) dystopian worldview — it all cumulatively takes its toll in "Stardust City Rag." This is … well, it’s just not very fun.
If you take nothing else away from "Absolute Candor," know that Jean-Luc Picard made a mistake when resigning in protest and taking himself out of the game, and people are now telling him that in no uncertain terms.
This episode provides a reckoning for the title character in a way that was certainly contemplated in the opening three episodes but comes to the forefront here in a way that can’t be ignored. When Starfleet chose not to continue the evacuation and relocation of the Romulans, Picard quit, full stop. His error — if he was truly living by his principles that Starfleet abandoned — was that he headed off into retirement and didn’t look back, instead of continuing to try to make some sort of difference.
“The End Is the Beginning” has a title that would show a striking amount of self-awareness if it were actually “The End of the Beginning,” which is more like what it plays like. Three episodes for Picard to secure a ship and a skeleton crew for whatever mission ensues in tracking down Soji Asha and/or Bruce Maddox has been plenty enough. Let’s make it so already, shall we?
Picard, more so than Discovery, has shown that it’s going to be completely serialized, rather than taking a hybrid approach that uses both serialization and episodic story beats. This is somewhat more difficult for me, because reviewing chapters of a book makes it hard to know if what I’m critiquing is adequately informed by what might be just around the corner. (Case in point: My disbelief in Picard being returned to his home after the episode on the rooftop, which was later explained by the ensuing conspiracy/cover-up.) Am I being entertained and absorbed by the story? Yes, although this is taking longer than perhaps I would like.