The show finally finds its groove with a detour, an abandoned boy, and a lost cause.
The key emotion that drives Star Trek: Picard is regret. Picard (Patrick Stewart) regrets how the institution he supported for so long could abandon its core values. He regrets that he didn’t do more to prevent that change from happening. And he regrets the personal mistakes, the ones borne by his friends and colleagues, that emerged from that fissure. The thrust of his current mission, and all that comes with it, is an effort by Picard to make things right, for the world and for himself.
Episode 4, “Absolute Candor”, blends that broader-based remorse with Picard’s more personal regrets and comes out the better for it. On the way to Freecloud, he and his new crew make a detour to visit Vashti, a Romulan relocation colony that happens to represent plenty of both for the good captain.
The locals there resent Starfleet for its broken promises, having closed ranks and started to look warily upon outsiders. But it’s also home to a little boy who once saw Picard as a father figure and who now resents the former Starfleet officer for abandoning him as much, if not more, than his countrymen resent the Federation for walking away on a much grander scale.
It’s a blend of the type of character-based storytelling and broader, societal commentary that fans hoped for from showrunner Michael Chabon, who has his first sole writing credit for the series here. There’s a resonance to “Absolute Candor” that comes not only from the way this young man, Elnor’s (Evan Evagora), feelings for Jean Luc mirror those of the Romulans toward the Federation, but also from how the episode tracks the shifts in each from past to present.
In the opening flashback, the Romulan citizens of Vashti flock to a jovial Picard with happiness in their hearts, welcoming his return and offering thanks for his assistance. When he comes back fourteen years later, his name does nothing to help his new ship gain clearance. His quasi-homecoming and efforts to speak the local tongue earn him nothing but dirty looks and the rough equivalent of a “No Terrans Allowed” sign.
At the same time, the cold open presents Elnor as a young orphan raised by an all-female society of Romulan assassins. They believe in the titular principle of “absolute candor” — no separation between thought and speech. Despite, or perhaps because of that, the notoriously child-skeptical Picard takes a shine to the young man, play-fencing with him, reading him The Three Musketeers, and forging the sort of playful paternal relationship he could never quite muster for Wesley Crusher. This is already an older, more open Picard. The pointy ears resting on his shoulder speak to an endearing warmth from those old days that accounts for Elnor’s well-earned bitterness in the present.
The key emotion that drives Star Trek: Picard is regret.
Thankfully, there’s more fun to be had with Picard’s new crew in the interim. For all the clunkiness and lack of chemistry when assembling the new crew last week, Chabon and company find a much better group dynamic here.
Dr. Jurati (Alison Pill) and her pestering, kid-sisterly approach to Rios leaves her feeling more like a Joss Whedon character than one from Star Trek, but the pair’s adorable rapport is still encouraging. Raffi’s (Michelle Hurd) disbelief over this pitstop, Jurati’s naivete about the boredom of space, and even Picard’s awkwardness in telling his new pilot to open a channel, succeed in making this collection of misfit toys feel more like a fun, well-balanced team. Maybe Star Trek Picard simply needed fewer one-on-one introductions and more bouncing these characters off of one another to get that mix right.
Were that the same could be said for the misadventures on board the reclaimed Borg cube. The series continues to hinge a great deal on the soap opera dramatics of Soji (Isa Briones) and Narek’s (Harry Treadaway) relationship, and boy is that a mistake. The two cannot make even the barest of sparks fly together. “Absolute Candor” tries to play their romance as the charged pairing of two people with their own secrets and missions that put them in conflict with their feelings for one another. But the tepid chemistry between them, and the over-the-top cheesiness of shtick like their sock-sliding date-turned-argument, keep their dalliance as the weakest part of the show.
Or it would be, if not for the bizarre vibe the series continues to build between Narek and his sister, Narissa (Peyton List). To be frank, I had to double-check Memory Alpha to make sure that I hadn’t misconstrued something and confirm that these two Romulan operatives actually were presented as siblings. Lord knows why Chabon and company continue to invoke the odd, thinly-veiled incest subtext between them, but this episode can “boast” the pair’s most awkward bed-bound interaction yet. Perhaps it’s part of some misguided attempt to draft off Game of Thrones or otherwise inject some cheap titillation. But whatever the motivation, it’s a choice that continues to feel miscalibrated for the franchise and downright strange, but not in the good “new worlds and new civilizations” sort of way.
Thankfully, the Picard-centered parts of the episode are rooted in more…uh…traditional family relationships. When Picard asks for Elnor’s help in the present, the young Romulan receives him like a deadbeat dad. “Absolute Candor” does a good job of accounting for both plot and character motivation on all sides here, which gives that rejection and later acceptance the weight and complexity it deserves.
Elnor understandably harbors ill-feelings for his onetime grown-up playmate. Picard acted as a surrogate father at a time when Elnor desperately needed one, and then he just disappeared, creating abandonment issues that persist to this day. After the Synth attack, Picard tried not to show any favoritism to Vashti in general or Elnor in particular out of a fear that it would be letting his personal feelings cloud his judgment or do what’s fair. It’s a noble aim that still left lasting scars for Elnor that seem not to have fully healed.
“Absolute Candor” laudably connects that personal strife rooted in the past to the plot in the present. The episode invents this Samurai-esque Romulan order as a sworn (albeit heretofore unknown) enemy of the Tal Shiar (and presumably, Zhad Vash too). The group’s rules ever-so conveniently require Picard to define his quest as a lost cause. But despite some contrivance, Chabon and company do a good job of linking the the plot-necessary, the practical, and the personal here.
Picard needs a fighter capable of going toe-to-toe with his well-trained foes, and the show needs another character to round out the cast. The episode, however, uses Picard’s contrition over what happened to deepen the plot-machinery elements at play. Picard half-pleads with Raffi this may be his final opportunity to say goodbye to those he cares about on Vashti, or to make things right, or even just to see someone he loves and regrets hurting.
What follows is some of the usual Star Trek fireworks. Elnor saves his fallen father figure with some swift swordplay, reaffirming their strained connection. The new crew gets into a dogfight with some local warlords and a planetary defense system. And Seven of Nine herself (Jeri Ryan!!!) gets the Big Damn Hero moment, a debut appearance whose excitement is only muted by the fact that the opening credits gave it away.
What elevates “Absolute Candor” above prior outings from Star Trek: Picard, though, is not just that airborne excitement or cameo-caked sabre-rattling. It’s the way the episode makes Elnor more than just another new face. He is a reminder of mistakes that Jean Luc aims to rectify, traced in the distance between an inquisitive child in a growing new community and a wounded adult in a place that’s turned desperate and bitter. There’s a power in that, one that channels Chabon’s own complicated relationship with his father, and which ties the regrets of one man over a little boy, with those for an institution, a planet, and a people.