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 episode opens with a flashback 14 years earlier, just before the synth attack on Mars while the relocation effort was still underway. Picard had assisted in the relocation of Romulan refugees to the planet Vashti and had befriended a group known as the Qowat Milat, including among them a young boy named Elnor, whom Picard took under his wing and cared for briefly as a kind of father figure. When the synth attack happened, Starfleet called him back to Earth, but he promised to return. He never did.
Flash-forward to now. Picard's in a desperate mission with a limited crew and decides he must take a detour to follow up and visit Vashti because (1) he's long overdue in making good on a promise and (2) he needs someone from the Qowat Milat to serve as his bodyguard. The Qowat Milat, you see, are skilled ninja-like warrior nuns specializing in swordplay, and they bind themselves to hopeless causes like Picard's. It's kismet of the kind that's especially convenient for the story at hand.
But first Picard must overcome a lot of skepticism and change that has happened on Vashti during the 14 years since he was last here. It turns out Zani (Amirah Vann), the woman who was his primary contact in this clan all those years ago, is still here and willing to help. But Elnor (Evan Evagora) has grown up to develop a bitterness for having been abandoned by this man who has now returned asking for favors. He's not wrong to feel this way.
The episode's best scene comes when Picard walks into a bar in town and throws aside the "Romulans Only" sign on the establishment, inviting what he imagines might be a heated conversation but is obviously destined to become a full-on conflict. It's a reckless move that borders on suicide (I mean, tactically, it's a really stupid thing to do if he intends to live to continue his actual mission to Freecloud), but benefits from a sort of twisted logic of Picard-ian self-righteousness. He's willing to die for his principles, even without putting up a fight, and that speaks to his moral convictions as well as a resignation to what has happened here in the intervening years — when the prudent move would be to leave not-so-well-enough alone and move on to Freecloud. Picard is saved by Elnor, who comes to his rescue from certain execution by Romulans who very much remember him.
This sequence works because it's about something. It's about how old hostilities resume when left to fester, and how a man decides to confront his mistakes (even if foolheartedly) when he could simply continue to run from them. And I appreciated how, once Elnor dispatches Picard's adversary (slicing his head clean off) and the immediate danger is over, Picard angrily swears Elnor not to kill again without explicit orders. If this episode is still playing setup by adding new characters to Picard's team and not moving us closer to Soji/Maddox, it's at least a step in the right direction by looking at some of the character and societal dynamics in the process.
Unfortunately, what's not a step in the right direction and absolutely doesn't work this week is the Soji/Narek subplot, which is slowly going nowhere, spinning its wheels with inane repetition. Narek is still trying to use their would-be romance to his advantage to get more information. Soji is still trying to figure out what it is about Narek that she likes and/or is mystified by. It's all but impossible to care about a relationship that's all about deceit and plotting and has no emotional character core.
Meanwhile, the ever-impatient Rizzo is still vampily playing the evil cliche who seems motivated more by movie tropes than the need to be a three-dimensional character. Not that I can say I blame her skepticism of Narek's approach. After all, as Epic Fails of scenes go, none is more obvious than the exhilarating "Borg ritual" of … sliding on your feet down a hallway that has a slippery floor? Now there's some Risky Business, har har. The way they build this up and the way it's scored, you'd think this corridor would shoot energy beams at them or something as they run through it. Nope. The end result is positively laughable.
This is problematic, because an ongoing plot needs to do varied and interesting things so it doesn't die on the vine, like this is getting dangerously close to doing. The "10-hour movie" works best if there are individual sub-stories being told throughout (like with Picard dealing with the fallout from the refugee situation), and not if you simply take a two-hour movie and stretch it out ad infinitum. They were on firmer ground last week with Soji's scenes with Ramdha and Hugh, but stepping away from that back to this is disappointing. This really needs to go somewhere new, and soon.
Some other thoughts:
- A last-minute space battle reveals a pilot coming to Picard's rescue that turns out to be — gasp! — Seven of Nine! This was obviously telegraphed by the opening credits having Jeri Ryan's name in them, coupled with (1) the need to have a last-minute reveal to take us into next week and (2) the transparent misdirection of having everyone refer to the other pilot as "him" until "he" is beamed aboard the ship and revealed as a she. Clever, this is not. But I am looking forward to seeing how Seven fits into all this.
- I'm still wondering about the political dynamic of the Romulan people in this time frame. Obviously, their empire is destroyed, but do they have any sort of central organization or government on a relocated colony, or are they nomads? Surely they have some level of organization if the Tal Shiar still exists.
- Hugh is nowhere to be found this week. This proves disappointing given how I'd like to catch up with his story from the last three decades (and certainly would prefer it to this horribly lackluster Soji/Narek romance).
- Swordplay seems like it would be obsolete against Romulan disruptors, and I presume the Qowat Milat would still use disruptors when warranted. But there's something about the use of old-tradition weapons that gives martial artists their mystique, and proves more tactile for filmmakers and stunt coordinators than energy weapons.
- I appreciate that the ship-to-ship phasers shoot laser-like streams rather than bullet-like bursts, in keeping with the TNG era of phasers, rather than the post-2009 Trekverse.