Star Trek: Picard Season 2 Episode 2 Review – Penance

Trapped in an alternate timeline by Q, Picard and friends struggle to find a way out of their newfound dystopian nightmare.

Patrick Stewart as Jean-Luc Picard in Picard
Photo: Paramount+

Warning: This article contains STAR TREK: PICARD spoilers.

Star Trek: Picard Season 2 Episode 2

After a fairly low-key premiere that was primarily focused on catching us up with where our favorite characters stand emotionally following the events of Season 1, Star Trek: Picard kicks things into high gear by following through on the promise of its Season 2 trailers: Alternate realities, time travel, and trial by Q. Oh, my.

The first ten minutes of this episode are a tour de force from Star Trek: The Next Generation fan-favorite John de Lancie as he and Patrick Stewart face off in high style, flinging everything from Shakespearean references to Star Trek deep cuts at one another (“Yesterday’s Enterprise”!) There’s even some physical violence at one point.

Yet, despite Q’s fevered ramblings about tests and atonement and the distant possibility of forgiveness, there’s still little hint as to why he’s chosen this moment to return to Picard, or what exactly he’s attempting to make his nemesis pay for. Nor is there any hint as to why our favorite weirdo god-being has chosen to alter reality in this way, or what thrusting his best frenemy into a literal dystopian nightmare is meant to teach him. Why would Q choose to save the Stargazer crew from a certain self-destruct death in order to do…this? What are they supposed to prove there? (Or learn?)

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In this warped version of the reality we know, Picard is a monster, an authoritarian warrior who revels in conquering other races and preaching the gospel of human superiority. He’s got an office full of the literal skulls of his enemies (Sarek!!!), a houseful of oppressed alien slaves, and an apparent penchant for dramatic public executions. But Picard’s personality is not the only thing in this timeline that was apparently vastly altered. Seven of Nine is Annika Hansen once more, but while her human self wasn’t assimilated by a species of cybernetic humanoids in this timeline, she still appears to have somehow been equally transformed. Here, she’s the President of the Confederation of Earth, she’s married to a man, and it seems as though she is as much of a true believer in alien eradication as Picard was. 

Raffi appears to be Picard’s Chief of Security in this timeline, where Rios is a captain helping to lead an attack on Vulcan, and Elnor is a Romulan rebel, pushing back against the Confederation government. (And possibly committing some mild terrorism, I’m not super clear on that.) Even the Earth itself has changed, its skies darkened by pollution and crisscrossed by what appears to be some sort of half-finished bioshield. The only character who generally seems anything like themselves is Agnes, who is apparently a lonely anti-social scientist in every possible reality. (In this one, she has built herself a truly amazing Tomagachi-esque animated cat friend. I want one, is what I”m saying.)

Thankfully, at least everyone remembers both who they are and the original world they come from so valuable screen real estate isn’t wasted on getting them all on the same page. Instead, we get to watch Picard, Seven, and the rest of the La Sirena team play-act at being fascists while attempting to figure out both what has happened to them and what their best path to putting the timeline to rights might be. Which is truly more entertaining than it has any right to be. Seven is probably the most terrifyingly good at her role, but it’s Agnes who steals the show for me with her hilarious off-the-cuff lying about everything from how she knows Seven to what their group of misfits was doing hanging out together in her lab with a decapitated Borg head.

(In truth, I”m honestly a bit sad that we only get one episode in this dystopian nightmare reality—watching Picard and friends try to pretend to enjoy being the worst versions of themselves was actually kind of fun.)

Alternate timelines are always fascinating narrative concepts because they allow us to see how different potential futures for characters we know and love could have been caused by the simplest of changes or different decisions. (My personal favorite example of this trope is the Doctor Who Season 4 episode “Turn Left,” in which the fate of the Doctor and much of humanity hinges on which direction a particular character turns at an intersection.) So many things go into the formation of a person and our lives are full of these tiny moments, that seem so unremarkable at the time but that might contain the seeds of multiple futures.  

On Picard, we don’t know what specific change Q has made to the past in order to bring about this specific dystopian nightmare, merely the location and time (Los Angeles, 2024) in which whatever it is takes place. Therefore, our faves will need to embrace some Star Trek: The Original Series-style time travel in order to stop whatever it is from happening and thereby restore the world they knew. (And presumably without, as so many science fiction shows have taught us, drastically changing anything else.)

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For viewers, it’s understandable to wonder how the human race and the optimistic ideals of the Federation could possibly have become so corrupted that our society turned into…this. After all, it’s difficult to picture how any version of the man we currently know as Picard could possibly grow up to be a bloodthirsty fascist who supports the eradication of all non-human species in an attempt to conquer the galaxy. But, since the La Sirena crew is now traveling back to a time that’s roughly 300 years before Picard existed, it would appear anything is possible. A Picard shaped by a different history, raised to embrace a different idea of what human ideals are could well have existed, had someone, somewhere made different choices when it comes to creating the world he was born into. 

Though why Q seems to hold our Picard responsible for the different world that shaped those choices is….something I haven’t entirely figured out yet. The name of this episode is “Penance,” but it’s not super clear who is meant to be performing such a rite, nor whose sins they are meant to be answering for. (Are they Q’s in some way? And how does his frazzled, seemingly desperate demeanor play into this?)

The reappearance of the Borg Queen—not the hooded, mysterious version from last week’s premiere, but a figure who feels much more familiar to us—who knows of Annika’s assimilation and that Picard was once Locutus could be a hint that the answers lie somewhere in the thematic questions posed by “The Star Gazer,” about whether or not it’s possible to trust those you once considered your greatest, most hated enemies. As a series, Picard has been especially interested in wrestling with both Jean-Luc and Seven’s lingering Borg-related traumas and it seems likely that, since they’re both now forced to time travel with one, that is something that will continue in Season 2. But how her presence will help or hinder their trip back to the past remains to be seen.