"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.
This episode lays the groundwork for Picard's troubled relationship with Raffi Musikar (Michelle Hurd) by flashing back 14 years to just after the synthetic revolt on Mars and showing us the moments immediately following Picard's resignation from Starfleet. (I like the TNG-style uniforms of the era.) He threatened to quit, Starfleet called his bluff, and then Raffi was cashiered from Starfleet immediately afterward. (Why was her career torpedoed because of Picard's stance? Because reasons, I guess?)
I must say, Raffi's emotional state at the mere sight of Picard is overstated to the point of being ham-fisted. Michelle Hurd does what she can with these scenes, but I found them to be overwritten, with the pained expressions bordering on tears, and her constant iron grip on the liquor bottle. Okay, I get the desire to set up a troubled character, but this is pretty heavy-handed. Why is she living out in the middle of the desert in exile 14 years after her career was destroyed? She couldn't pick up the pieces just because Picard didn't check in on her? More here may yet be revealed, but this could've been a lot more subtly set up than what we got.
On the other hand, I do find it interesting that Picard is not blameless here. For whatever reason, whether it was reclusive self-pity or bitterness, he opted not to make the best of a bad situation, and the fact that he hasn't even spoken to Raffi for so many years speaks to Picard's own inability to rise to this particular occasion. Between this and his realization in the opening episode that he has been "waiting to die," we are getting glimpses of a man who did not necessarily live up to his own ideal when the going got rough.
This episode's thread is mostly about Picard securing a ship and its pilot, an ex-Starfleet officer named Cristobal Rios (Santiago Cabrera), whom when we first meet him is removing a piece of shrapnel from his shoulder with the help of his holographic assistant, who looks exactly like him but speaks with an Irish accent. It's strange to encounter him with this inexplicable wound while he's sitting idle in orbit on an empty ship. It'd be like if you found me in a parked car with my jacket on fire, holding a detached steering wheel. Maybe this is shorthand for his roguish nature; maybe he's sneaking around doing secret missions and then beaming back to his ship. Whatever it is, I like that it's left almost completely uncommented upon.
The other main thread here is Soji's interactions with an ex-Borg working at the reclamation site in the Borg cube. This ex-Borg is played by Jonathan Del Arco, so I assume this is our one and only Hugh from "I, Borg," although the episode does not use his name or so much as hint at the connection or how it may become relevant to what's going on here. Again, this speaks to the slow-burn serialization of the storytelling, where things are not revealed until they become relevant to the story at hand. But it also can prove frustrating, because they're dangling something like that out there without so much as an acknowledgement that's what they're doing. It's all about the long game. (Oddly, this coy non-reveal is like the polar opposite of how they introduce Raffi.)
Mysteries are afoot. Hugh takes Soji to meet an institutionalized group of freed Romulan ex-Borg who have clearly been changed in some paranormal way that allows them to sense beyond the here and now. One woman named Ramdha (Rebecca Wisocky) has a conversation with Soji that reveals ominous warnings that Things Are Apparently Not What They Seem regarding Soji. Ramdha was on a Romulan ship that was, significantly, the last to be assimilated by this particular Borg ship before its collapse. Where this goes or what it means will clearly be addressed as the season goes on, but for now it's an adequately effective mystery that connects the Asha sisters, the Borg, and the Romulans in strange, unknown, prophecy-of-doom ways, possibly going back centuries. Maybe.
As for the Tal Shiar/Zhat Vash, their involvement clearly runs deep into whatever is happening on the Borg cube, and they know something about the Asha sisters that clearly goes beyond a simple hatred of AI and taps into something deeper, and they aren't done trying to silence Picard, which they try to do by literally storming his castle.
This action scene is all the more effective because it's thrown at us like a hardball we had no idea was coming. The episode lulls us into the false sense of security around Picard's investigation and the assembly of his forthcoming team, and then all of a sudden we have Romulan secret agents busting into the chateau and trying to kill everyone. I'm glad neither Laris nor Zhaban die during the course of this fight, although I do wonder how these old-timers are able to fend off a death squad of supposedly highly trained secret police.
And so by the end of "The End Is the Beginning," we've got our motley crew of adventurers, and Picard declares "Engage" with some relish. We're finally off Earth, so let's see where this takes us next.
Some other thoughts:
- It appears this series is completely retconning the fact that money doesn't exist on Earth in the 24th century. It's the only way to justify Raffi's life station, since the Earth of TNG would never have shown such a thing. Say what you will about how naive Roddenberry's notion of a society with no money might have been, but this is a pretty fundamental shift in the Trek landscape, accomplished with no real explanation other than a pure retcon.
- I really don't need the close-talking incest-y vibe I'm getting from Rizzo and Narek. It feels like it's trying to be edgy, but mostly this just feels played out.
- Speaking of Rizzo, did I miss something? How did she end up back on the Borg cube, with her Romulan ears reinstated, no less? Wasn't she assigned to keep tabs on Picard? This feels like a Discovery-like narrative gap.
- I wish Laris and Zhaban had gone with Picard rather than staying behind to tend to the grapes and Number One the pit bull. They feel like they should be members of this plucky and unlikely team. Are they even going to be safe on Earth, given the Romulan plot and Commodore Oh's conspiracy inside Starfleet Headquarters, not to mention harvest season and the penchant for deadly fires at Chateau Picard?
- In terms of the slow-moving setup, I don't think there's anything necessarily wrong with what we've seen unfold on the screen so much as it's taken three weeks for it to happen. In a single binge-type sitting, this would probably not feel sluggish, especially since the episodes themselves are only running about 45 minutes and don't feel blatantly padded.