"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.
When Picard and Soji stepped through the teleportation device at the end of "The Impossible Box," I wrongly assumed they would be going to Soji's homeworld. Instead they go to Nepenthe to lay low for a while. It's a world where Riker and Troi have retired, and it provides a safe haven to hide out. The Rikers have a nice house in the beautiful countryside, and one of the benefits of modern streaming TV is that it really allows the lushness of the location photography to stand out in stunning HD.
Picard fully admits to Riker that he's in over his head and that perhaps his mission parameters were not fully baked when he took it on. That being said, he remains mum on what he's actually been up to over the past few weeks, because he doesn't want to put his old friends in the danger he now faces. Nonetheless, Riker puts all the pieces together and figures out exactly what's going on in a humorous scene that pokes fun at Picard's stubborn tenacity to go it alone as if he's the sole stakeholder and Decider.
"Nepenthe" is filled with small moments, honest emotions, and stellar performances. Consider the scene where Deanna hesitates and braces herself to open the door leading to Thad's empty bedroom. With this brief piece of subtle acting, we're conveyed pretty much everything we need to know about Thad, before the dialogue tells us what tragically happened to him all those years ago. This is an episode that finds the music between the notes.
Meanwhile, aboard the Borg cube, things get unfortunately grim for Hugh, as Narissa interrogates him under the threat (which she carries out) of killing his freed ex-Borg friends, while announcing she can't kill Hugh himself because of the treaty between the Federation and the Romulans. This seems like stalling, considering she finds a loophole under which to kill him later, for acting outside the boundaries of his supposed authority. (I mean, what evidence does she have that he did or didn't break the rules of the reclamation project?)
I was sad to see Hugh get so unceremoniously offed in the course of this episode, and wished the writers could've found a less obvious way of ending his brief character arc. But the story is done with him, case closed. Such is the fate for supporting characters, I guess. Hugh's death is mostly a means to an end to make Narissa that much more of the series' Big Bad. She has a bout of hand-to-hand combat with Elnor here (they both put away their weapons), because she's Zhat Vash, and he's Qowat Milat, and This Is the Way Things Are Done Between Us. I guess it's something that Narissa abides by the rules of these ancient codes rather than being a completely evil cartoon, and this seems to be setting up an endgame that will see these two opposing, ancient Romulan societies duking it out for the win.
Still better is the storyline aboard La Sirena, where plot and character dovetail to make for some good angst and suspense. Jurati, already wracked with guilt over killing Maddox, now finds herself on the edge of a mental breakdown as she realizes Narek can continue to track the movements of the La Sirena despite Rios' clever piloting tactics, because Jurati has a tracker in her that will allow Narek to continue finding them — a secret she continues to keep.
We see in the opening flashback that Commodore Oh didn't tell Jurati why the synths will spell disaster; she showed her via a mind meld. This cleverly allows the story to show a few cards without tipping the whole hand. We still don't know what Jurati knows, even though this confirms Oh definitely showed her something Very Bad. This also makes me continue to believe we're being set up for a massive reveal that's going to have to move entire planets to be worth all the build-up and not be disappointing — a nearly impossible task without resorting the usual Armageddon stakes that feel false precisely because they're so overblown. We'll see.
For now, however, this works exceptionally well as played through Alison Pill's conveyance of extreme mental duress, and Raffi's maternal attempts to help her through it. But then Rios finds himself suspecting ill motives of the wrong person when he muses how Raffi might be a traitor based on her brief (suspicious?) absence while on Freecloud. So even in a story that's mostly not about plot, there's some intrigue still happening, and happening well.
But this is an episode about what happens on Nepenthe, where we get some nice conversations between Soji and Kestra (Lulu Wilson), the teenage daughter of Riker and Troi, who ranks very high on the list of child characters to appear on Star Trek. Isa Briones continues to draw empathy in Soji's difficult journey through realizing her true identity, and like Kestra, she still possesses enough uncertainty about the world and her role in it to provide the perspective of a youthful innocent.
Meanwhile, Troi gets perhaps one of the best counseling scenes in the history of her character when she breaks down for Picard just why Soji feels the way she does in being suspicious of the world, and urges him to more actively consider Soji's feelings from her point of view. As counselor scenes go, this is a top-tier example of how Troi should've been written in the TNG days, but only rarely was. It's not often that I'm nodding in agreement with a Counselor Troi empathy speech, but here we are.
And that dinner table scene, where everyone's sitting around it like the conference table on the Enterprise: Soji finishes her story, and Picard asks, "Thoughts?" Even if the dialogue hadn't gone out of its way to set up this notion explicitly in the preceding scene, the moment would've still been crystal clear.
And how about Jonathan Frakes? Seeing him here, dispensing charisma and charm in every scene, makes you re-appreciate the value he brought to all those years of TNG, even if we didn't always credit him for it at the time. His chemistry with Stewart shines through, as when the two old friends sit on a dock over the river and just appreciate the moment. For a moment, all seems well in the universe.
Of course, that's the rub. By the end of "Nepenthe," Picard and Soji are back on their mission, where more dangerous things await them. Romulan secret police are after them, trying to protect a dark secret larger than all of them. Things are going to get ... less good.
But for now, "Nepenthe" represents an hour where our characters (and we in the audience) can just catch our breath and enjoy our time in the world. Every once in a while you need to do that, and when it's this much of a pleasure, you're glad you got the chance.
Some other thoughts:
- It would be nice to have a fuller understanding of the treaty between the Federation and the Romulans (or indeed how much of the Romulan Empire remains as an organization). It appears the Romulans have free reign to travel in Federation space unrestricted, allowing Narek to pursue La Sirena without consequence. But it's not completely clear.
- Riker's house has shields. I like that even in this very back-to-nature type of setting, we still have our modern sensibilities.
- As good as this episode was, Hugh's death just felt dumb and shortsighted given how much he emotionally anchored "The impossible Box." The writers don't play Hugh's death as a shock (which is a relief, I guess), but more like one of those Unavoidable Conclusions of Basic Screenwriting. Unfortunately, making this so routine just feels like the writers said, "Okay, we have to move on with more important things, and we can't leave this loop unclosed." But of course they could've if they weren't being so lazy about it. Meh.
- Riker makes pizza with real, home-grown ingredients. This feels right.