Star Trek: Picard Episode 7 Review: Nepenthe

Star Trek: Picard hits its narrative best by bringing in some much-loved TNG characters, and letting its characters breathe.

Star Trek: Picard Episode 7
Photo: CBS All-Access

This Star Trek: Picard review contains spoilers.

Star Trek: Picard Episode 7

Deanna Troi has always been a superhero, but when it came to Star Trek: The Next Generation, she was ahead of her time. In the late 80s and early 90s, the idea of emotional intelligence was only starting to become a thing (“emotional intelligence” as a term was coined in 1990), but our mainstream culture’s appreciation for empathy, therapy, and emotional intelligence as a strength has come a long way in the last  30 years. Now, Troi can be better recognized for the gifts her Betazoid side has given her: the ability to sense others’ emotions.

Of course that is only one half of Troi’s power, and the other is not natural at all and totally learned, a skill set Troi has intentionally developed. It’s one thing to be able to sense others’ emotions, but it’s another thing altogether to know what to do with that information. In her work as a ship’s counselor and probably in other spaces, Deanna has become adept at guiding others’ through their own emotional journeys so that they, too, can sense and maybe understand their own emotions. It’s an underrated skill that Star Trek: Picard puts in the spotlight in a way that Deanna Troi has often deserved but rarely gotten.

We see Troi’s skills on display in her conversations with Soji, of course, who is freshly traumatized from Narek’s manipulations, the attempt on her life, and the realization that almost her entire life has been a lie, but we also see it in her conversations with Picard. In the fact that, as soon as she meets him, she gives him what he so desperately needs: a big, long hug; a reminder that he is not alone, that he will always belong with them if he chooses to; a confirmation that, even when he makes choices he is not proud of, he is loved.

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Troi knows when to challenge him, too, as she did when she was his ship’s counselor. She calls him out for his failure of empathy when dealing with Soji. While Picard is a thoughtful, compassionate person (as Troi points out), it feels very realistic that Picard would have reached his limits over the last few days. He is exhausted and, when exhausted, even the most generous of people will find those qualities harder to call upon. Luckily, Picard has reinforcements in the Riker-Troi family, most eagerly in Kestra.

Kestra is Will and Deanna’s only surviving child; their older child, Thad, died from a rare disorder that could have been cured if the synth ban hadn’t taken effect. Apparently, both of Riker and Troi’s kids are casually wunderkind (in The Next Generation tradition), with Thad having spent much of his time making up fictional languages and Kestra seemingly becoming fluent in all of them before his death. She carries on speaking them no doubt in an effort to keep him alive in some way. 

Thad’s absence is a palpable thing in a way that the loss of a family member so often is. He may not be there, but he is always there. In everything the Riker-Troi family does. In their saddest moments and their happiest ones. It’s one of the more realistic depictions of (healthy) grief I’ve seen on a television program not specifically about that subject.

Kestra is the perfect companion for Soji in this moment. She is eager to get to know her in a way that kids can often get away with better than adults, and has no qualms letting Soji know how cool she is or saying honest things about the difficulties of their respective situations in ways that adults are often socialized out of. (No doubt having Deanna Troi as a mother is also helpful in this regard.)

We finally get to see Soji in a different context than her relationship with Narek and it does wonders for her character and our ability to get to know her, too. Her reaction to the family homestead situation is so realistic. She wants to be comforted by it, but she does not feel safe. She is too traumatized to. The most fundamental of the boundaries of her personhood have been violated in horrific ways, and she is not in a place to be able to trust again, especially this soon. The fact that she is able to articulate this at all to herself and to Troi is deeply impressive, and is one of the first times in seven episodes I have felt like I know who Soji is.

Troi is patient with Soji, not asking her to feel something that she is not ready or able to feel, but it is Kestra who is able to convince Soji to consider trusting Picard. “You could have him and he could have you. You could have each other,” Kestra tells Troi, and has there ever been a more beautifully simple description of family, home, and belonging? 

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“Nepenthe” is the best episode of Star Trek: Picard (or at least the most effective one that also has narrative priorities aligned with my own personal storytelling interests). Yes, partially because we are reunited with these old, dear friends and found that their lives have gone on in interesting and realistic and fulfilling ways since we last saw them, but also because of scenes like this one: character-driven vignettes that tell us how all of these characters are feeling about the batshit events of the last few episodes. We viewers needed this breath as much as Picard and Soji did: a chance to check in with the characters and understand, on an emotional level, why any of this matters.

Thad isn’t the only missing loved one whose presence is felt in this family gathering. Data is there, too—in the thoughts of Picard, Riker, and Troi, who have obviously shared fond memories with Kestra. “Well, he was always trying to be more human,” Kestra excitedly describes Data to Soji. “He could do all these amazing things, but all he ever really wanted to do was, like, have dreams and tell jokes and, like, learn how to ballroom dance.” And he’s there in Soji, of course, whose head tilt immediately tips Riker off to the fact that she is not only some kind of android, but also related to Data in some way.

Meanwhile, back on the La Sirena, Agnes is having a really tough time and Raffi and Rios are severely underreacting. When they look at Agnes, all they see is a nerd freaking out because she is far from home, outside of her comfort zone. They make assumptions about her meek presentation that have already cost them a lot. In reality, Agnes is about to have a nervous breakdown over the fact that she murdered someone she seemingly loved and is actively carrying a tracker given to her by Commodore Oh.

Is Agnes starting to regret the decisions that brought her to this place? In the flashback that begins the episode, we see the rest of the scene first begun in “The End is the Beginning.” In it, Commodore Oh approaches Agnes while she is on her lunch break at the Daystrom Institute. In “The End is the Beginning,” that’s more or less all we saw. Now, we know what happened next: Oh uses a mind meld (wait, is she actually a Vulcan and not a Romulan-pretending-to-be-a-Vulcan?) to show Agnes what will happen if Soji and all synthetic life is not stopped: the end of the world or something. It’s all pretty vague, which is disappointing given that it is meant to show the motivations for Agnes’ very drastic actions to follow.

In the short term, Agnes (chews and) swallows a tracker that will allow Oh & co. to follow Picard’s mission once Agnes volunteers. In the long term, this apparently means killing Bruce Maddox and potentially eventually Soji. At one point, early in the episode, Agnes tries desperately to get Rios and Raffi to abandon the mission in favor of returning to Earth. She plays it off as homesickness, but it is probably something else. She knows that, as long as she is with Picard, the Romulans will also know where she is. It also makes me wonder if she has been sent to kill Soji, and she is hoping to avoid putting herself in that position.

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Of course, Raffi and Rios brush off Agnes’ protestations and they continue on to Picard, so Agnes must take much more drastic action. Embrace Elnor’s way of radical honesty and tell the truth? Not that drastic! No, instead, she injects herself with a neurotoxin that serves to both short out the tracker so that Narek can no longer follow the La Sirena and put her in a coma. Agnes may just be the most hardcore member of this crew, and that’s a relatively competitive category.

The weakest part of the episode came in Hugh and Elnor’s attempts to escape Narissa’s fatal clutches. While we get to see Elnor show off some of his combat skills, the fight scenes aren’t unique or cool enough to give this storyline vibrant life. We also aren’t able to spend enough time with Hugh and Elnor to build their relationship in a way that would make Hugh’s death scene as Elnor looks on trying to staunch the blood more emotional. 

I am devastated by Hugh’s death as a longtime Star Trek fan, but I am not devastated by Elnor watching Hugh die specifically. I don’t know enough about Elnor yet, about how he might feel in this moment past the basic horror any feeling person feels watching another person die, to know what this means for this character or this world. I am sad that we won’t get to see Hugh continue on his journey to advocate for and help the Ex-Bs, which was politically interesting. 

In the end of the episode, Kestra casually figures out which planet Soji saw in her dream (with the help of a local nomad-captain), which means Picard and Soji have the next step in their plan. Soji has decided to trust Picard, if not let him in on a more personal level, and the La Sirena swings by to pick them, presumably not with Narek in tow. Agnes is still in a coma, which will keep Soji safe from her in the short term at least, but this all represents another big chance for Soji. 

Part of me wishes Soji could just stay, safe, at the Riker-Troi homestead—a chance to heal and be taken care of for a while by a loving family who understand loss (and who have a professional in-house). Alas, that’s not the kind of show Star Trek: Picard is; that’s not what any mainstream genre TV shows are like. I wonder what that would look like…

Additional thoughts.

  • Hugh died, and I am not OK with it.
  • Agnes eats two giant pieces of cake and starts on a third before throwing up. I am impressed.
  • I loved Agnes and Raffi’s discussion of the difference between being a good person and pulling yourself together long enough to be a good person for a little while, when the situation calls for it, which I think actually amount to the same thing.
  • Star Trek: Picard contextualizes Narek’s actions much more villainously in this episode, which makes me enjoy the inclusion of his character so much more. I am not against Narek as a character at all; it’s just that, previously, I have felt a disconnect between how I felt about this character (like he is one of those cops who tricked activist women into romantic/sexual relationships) and how I thought the show wanted me to feel about him (like he is a viable romantic hero). Perhaps the writers were trying to lull us into a false sense of security and make us think that Narek might actually care about Soji enough to betray his sister and the Zhat Vash, but that was never a trail of breadcrumbs I was going to follow, which just made that contextualization of his character frustrating, especially as it made Soji seem dumb. I am intrigued to see what happens to his character next, and if the show will continue to contextualize him as the worst, which he is, and we get to see here in the show’s centering of Soji’s trauma and pain.
  • Lulu Wilson, who plays Kestra (and does a great job), has such a Spielberg child actress vibe about her. I feel like I am watching an 80s film whenever she is on screen.
  • The photo of Baby Thad with Picard? Possibly the cutest thing I have ever seen.
  • This sneak peek into Will and Deanna’s post-TNG life has similar narrative priorities to fanfiction, which tends to prioritize not plot developments but rather emotional interiority and healing as a main theme. To get more specific, it feels like the hurt/comfort subset of the fanfic world. Reading hurt/comfort fanfiction is often the narrative equivalent of wrapping yourself up in a warm blanket or letting out a breath you didn’t know you were holding, which was also the experience of watching the Nepenthe-set parts of this episode: cozy, healing, safe. 

Rating:

5 out of 5