“Et in Arcadia Ego, Part 2” rushes to its finale and cheats its way to emotional catharsis.
“Et in Arcadia Ego” translates to “Even in Arcadia, there am I.” The title comes from a French Baroque painting from the 1600s, which contrasted a traditional idealized pastoral scene with the spectre of death. Art historians traditionally interpret the “I” in that title to refer to death itself, deliberately calling to mind the inescapable clutch of mortality that wraps around even the most wondrous and idyllic moments in one’s life.
“Et in Arcadia Ego Part 2”, like its namesake, also hinges on the notion of death. Amid the franchise-mandated race against time and interstellar battles, the episode nevertheless presents murder, self-sacrifice, fatal disease, euthanasia, and resurrection. In its season finale, Star Trek: Picard wants to uncover the meaning of life by measuring it against the meaning of death.
And it makes a complete and utter hash of it.
The season’s swan song is an endless series of cheats and narrative shortcuts that all but neuter the message the show intends to impart. Characters’ emotions and relationships turn on a dime. Plans and solutions appear out of nowhere and then disappear just as quickly. A literal, nigh-magical tool even solves whatever technological problem our heroes happen to be facing at the moment (which is, admittedly, not a first for Star Trek).
The bigger problem, though, is the rushed, unearned way in which the episode resolves all of its non-technical problems. Altan Soong (Brent Spiner) sees camera footage of the androids’ leader aiding Narek (Harry Treadaway), and suddenly he’s a good guy willing to kill his own “children.” Narek switches sides too, and everyone but Elnor (Evan Evagora) accepts him at the drop of a hat. Picard (Patrick Stewart) convinces Soji (Isa Briones) to turn off the uber-techno-demon-tunnel, and somehow that one act is enough to mollify all three sides of a simmering war.
Everything in the episode is built on relationships the show’s barely sketched and happens too fast to really matter. It devotes three minutes to Seven’s (Jeri Ryan) fight with Narissa (Peyton List) before a clumsy ADR declaration informs the audience she’s dedicating the victory to Hugh. The new crew’s scheme to stop Soji from activating the robo-death beacon comes together in another three minutes, and it amounts to little more than an excuse to assemble the major characters in once place. And however stirring it may be to see “Acting Captain” Will Riker (Jonathan Frakes) standing up to a Romulan foe via viewscreen once more, his Big Damn Hero moment plays like deus ex machina.
If you squint, you can halfway see what showrunner Michael Chabon and company intended with this jumbled mess. The episode all but announces its point when Picard declares that the Synths are living, sentient beings, but also children who need to be led by example. He means to show Soji that she has a choice, that “the organics” really do care about her, by sacrificing his life to save her people and convince her to call off armageddon.
There are just a few problems with that tack. First, as much as this finale seems to want to grapple with the prospect of Picard’s self-sacrifice, it was hardly one of the season’s motifs until a week ago. So making it such a strong thematic focus here comes out of nowhere.
The season’s swan song is an endless series of cheats and narrative shortcuts that all but neuter the message the show intends to impart.
Second, Picard doesn’t actually “give his life” to save Soji here. Sure, he faces mortal risks to stall the Romulans (including a corny, fanservice-y invocation of the Picard Maneuver). But he’s been risking his life for most of this season. It doesn’t really change anything when he does it while piloting a ship. Even so, when he “dies,” it’s not because of his choice to face down the Romulans on the Synths’ behalf. Instead, it’s just because his brain abnormality acts up at a dramatically-convenient time. Maybe the stress of the battle kinda sorta aggravated his irumodic syndrome or something? At best, it’s a stretch, and at worst, it’s a coincidence.
Third, and most damning, “Et in Arcadia Ego, Part 2” has its fingers crossed during all of this. The finale plays Picard’s death for maximum pathos — including an uber-convenient beam-down to the spot where all his new friends happen to have gathered — only to wipe it away ten minutes later. (Hello, hopefully for the last time, Star Trek Into Darkness fans!) Maybe this fakeout would have more impact if the show hadn’t telegraphed it last week. But any impact from Picard surrendering his life in the name of altruism and compassion for the oppressed and misunderstood is blunted, if not erased entirely, by the show immediately negating the consequences of his choice.
And to what end? This season centered much more on notions of regret than on death, or at least not on Picard’s death. The show did open with Picard nursing his lingering survivor’s guilt over Data’s sacrifice and his inability to let go. There’s poetry and catharsis in Picard trying to return the favor for Data’s “daughter” and, eventually, choosing to grant Data’s own wish to fully end his existence, however tin-eared the execution may be. But none of that lands when the show immediately undoes Picard’s reciprocal sacrifice and negates Data’s dying lesson when Picard cheats death one more time.
Star Trek: Picard also shortchanges the more salient notions of xenophobic mistrust and isolationism that originally motivated it. Taken charitably, viewers can read Picard’s effort to save the Synths, alongside the Federation’s renewed willingness to protect them, as a restoration of the ideals Picard fought for. But the episode spends so much more time dramatizing its memento mori fixation than it does explaining why all of these actions effected a change of heart in its characters, let alone in the broader communities they represent. The resolutions of the deep fissures the series laudably introduced in its premiere are relegated to a mere quick fix.
The consequence is that, with so many important plot and character beats crammed into such an ungainly hodgepodge of moments and themes, this ending just feels off. Characters who’ve hardly interacted before suddenly spill their guts to one another. Mortal threats pop in and out of the episode at random. Dr. Jurati (Alison Pill) quips and points out the seams of this shaggy tale as though she were suddenly beamed in from a Joss Whedon show. Some of this is good. Plenty of it’s bad. But little of it hangs together, or supports the alternately muddled and overly-didactic points Star Trek: Picard wants to make.
The finale still has power when it drafts off the goodwill of its predecessor. It’s hard not to smile when Picard thanks his former “Number One” for having his back. Despite Data’s off-putting appearance, and as cheesy as the “quantum simulation” conceit is, Data telling his former captain that the android knew of his love firmly tugs the heartstrings. And it is moving, in imagery alone, to see Data complete his personal journey to becoming human by engaging in our species’ ultimate, unavoidable act, as his father figure looks on.
But that nostalgic warmth does little to justify anything that happens with the new crew, or Seven of Nine, or the other hastily wrapped-up conflicts from this rocky first season. At its best, Star Trek: Picard could channel the affections from its protagonist’s past allies and adventures, occasionally even adding grace notes the original run missed. At its worst, the series strained to muster even a modicum of the same camaraderie or resonance for the new characters and stories it endeavored to conjure in the here and now.
It’s the critic’s crutch to read a finale’s themes as a meta-commentary on the show itself. But it’s also hard not to consider Star Trek: Picard’s last installment as a reflection of the series as a whole and its title character.
The resolutions of the deep fissures the series laudably introduced in its premiere are relegated to a mere quick fix.
The message the finale hammers home time and again is that life has beauty because it is finite. Here, as in Nemesis, Data’s final, transcendent act to achieve his dream of becoming a part of the “human family” is dying. There’s a certain triteness to that sentiment, but also legitimate profundity, which takes on a particular resonance in light of showrunner Michael Chabon’s essay on how Star Trek helped him cope with his father’s death.
And yet, his show immediately undercuts and contradicts that lesson. It erases Picard’s sacrifice, excuses his human frailties, to give him an artificial body which allows him to evade such finality. From there, the show bends over backward to try to patch up that contradiction, introducing the concept of an aging algorithm that ensures Picard will live out his normal lifespan. “Et in Arcadia Ego Part 2” tells us that the finite is better, only to remove the metes and bounds of death for its main character, and then arbitrarily restore them with a method that future Treknobabble solutions can just as easily override.
It’s hard not to see the same contradictions in the series itself. For many fans, Star Trek: The Next Generation is almost a holy work — a set of moral fables and life lessons abstracted to the fantastical and yet anchored by a role model who embodied the best of humanity. It too was something beautiful and heartening in its own way. But after seven seasons of extraordinary television and four movies’ worth of diminishing returns, it was time to say goodbye.
But we couldn’t. There’s too much money to be made mining the past and too much affection to let it go. Trekkies exalted at the prospect of Patrick Stewart returning to his most famous role and continuing his character’s story. (I know I did.) The show that followed, however, mirrors Picard here, as well as the finale that resurrects him in a far more literal way than the series premiere did.
The results of each feel like a meager imitation. Both the reborn Picard and his reborn series seem out of step with what came before. Both possess an air of the arbitrary and shameless in their returns. Both straining to justify themselves and the leaps of logic necessary for their continuation. But continue they will. CBS already greenlit season 2. So like so much in our current pop-cultural landscape, nothing is allowed to die; nothing is allowed to truly say goodbye, not even the good captain.
There was good reason to gleefully anticipate Patrick Stewart once again donning his pips and pajamas. There was good reason to be excited about his new series’ timely themes and promised reckonings. There was good reason to be optimistic about a decorated author translating TNG for the prestige T.V. era.
The final results, though, are a tribute to the message that Data, and ironically Star Trek: Picard itself seemed to send — sometimes it’s better, more beautiful, and more meaningful, to simply let something die. If not, you may end up with increasingly strained extensions of life, for a person or a franchise, that render the spark that once animated the thing people loved dimmer and more disconnected as time wears on. If only CBS, Alex Kurtzman, Michael Chabon, and their colleagues had taken their own lesson to heart.