Star Trek: Picard may have finally begun its quest in earnest last week, but Jean-Luc is not quite done navigating the mistakes of his post-Starfleet past. “Absolute Candor” provides that aplenty in the form of another new crewmember for team Picard—one who draws interesting parallels to one of the show’s current threats.
Before setting off to Freecloud as originally intended—by both Picard and the ever-increasingly-burdened Raffi—La Sirena makes an unanticipated stop at the edge of the Romulan Neutral Zone for much of “Absolute Candor” on the ex-Admiral’s orders. The planet Vashti was once a human colony world, but, as flashbacks show us, it became an important site in Picard and Raffi’s relief operations, home to evacuation efforts as Starfleet sought to ferry millions of Romulan citizens out of the way of the Supernova about to rip the Star Empire apart.
But, as those same flashbacks show, Picard’s work on Vashti was interrupted: the attack on Mars, the scuttling of his relief fleet, his resignation from Starfleet all just moments away as we watch him learn for the first time just how wrong things have gone. It’s a moment of tragedy, to see the momentarily happy Admiral’s face sour, shocked but unaware of the true depths of sadness to come as the situation spirals out of his control. But it also gives us a stark reminder of the same criticisms levied at Picard by Raffi last week: Picard quickly flees Vashti, his work half undone…and, up until the present when he finally has need of the world once more, he never returned, too wrapped up in his own dismay at the Federation’s moral decline.
Those problems are made even clearer when Picard beams down to Vashti and finds the world very different from when he was there a decade and a half ago. The Romulan refugees have made a home there, yes, but they are divided and segregated, bitter and distrusting. The world, once safeguarded by a caste of all-female Romulan warrior-monks called the Qowat Milat, is now run by pirates, with the Qowat Milat left to operate as blunted guardians along trade routes and off-beaten paths. And, more crucially to Picard, one outcast member of the Qowat Milat, a male student named Elnor (Evan Evagora) who idolized him as a youth, is bitter and angry that Picard simply left him and Vashti behind all those years ago.
Elnor is a fascinating lens that the episode mines for all its worth, both into Picard’s regrets and his privilege, as well as into what has become of the Romulan civilisation after the Empire’s fall. Elnor, like other Qowat Milat, was raised under a distinctly un-Romulan doctrine: the simple act that all followers of the order must always speak their mind clearly and openly, never hiding behind honeyed words or duplicitous obfuscation. Elnor, unlike other Qowat Milat, is male, taken in by the female order simply because there was no place for an orphaned child in the middle of a refugee crisis—trained by them, but never truly among them, torn between worlds and without his own identity.
These two fascinating ideas come to a head when Picard, blissfully unaware of the sort of pain, personal and on a societal level, his total abandonment of the Romulans on Vashti caused, returns to the Qowat Milat as if nothing had changed in 14 years. Brazenly expecting them to just offer up one of the order as a “Qalankhkai”—a Ronin-esque blade for hire, a warrior bound to a seemingly futile cause so that they may live, and perhaps die, with honour—for his quest because, well, he’s Admiral Picard and he’s on a mission, Elnor is offered to Picard as a potential sellsword.
But as Elnor has been taught his whole life, he rejects Picard’s plea plainly and angrily because he is angry. Why should Picard just waltz back into his life, not a word since he left it all those years ago, and expect everyone to do as he says? The world has changed, even if Jean-Luc Picard hasn’t. And that’s a stubbornness that’s lead to Picard hurting so many of the people he cared for. His quest for perfection, as he laments, saw him retreat entirely when all that he could offer was merely something good.
Elnor’s religious devotion to honesty draws interesting parallels in what little time we spend aboard the Borg cube in this episode, with a very different kind of Romulan honesty in action. Narek’s ploy to draw Soji close to him is, just like the Qowat Milat’s commitment to candor, distinctly un-Romulan (much to Narissa’s chagrin, as we learn). Sure, it’s in the name of duplicity—a very Romulan trait—but it’s an approach that has, as Elnor’s presence as the sole man in a female sect did, put Narek out of sorts with his fellow Zhat Vash. There’s an earnestness to it, because, if there wasn’t, Soji would rightfully peg that Narek was up to something. But unlike Elnor’s candor, it’s in service of far more sinister goals.
But what’s perhaps most interesting about contrasting Elnor and Narek here is that for all the good Elnor’s candor serves him later in the episode (as we’ll see shortly), Narek’s faux honesty is seemingly beginning to work. Just as Soji seems to suspect that her Romulan paramour isn’t quite what he seems—and that she herself may not be what she seems, a realisation Narek desperately does not want her to come to—his puppy-dog-eyed, soft-haired romantic persona becomes an important tool. One bottle of Romulan ale and an earnestly cheesy game of slip-n-slide down an abandoned Borg corridor later, Narek’s not just drawing in Soji closer on a carnal level, but begins to dangerously wave more information about the cube and its former collective inhabitants to draw her tighter into his clutches.
Whether it will ultimately work remains to be seen—especially with Narissa growing increasingly impatient (and, uh, weirdly sexual) with her brother’s closeness to Soji. There is a potential, she fears, that Narek’s faux-earnestness may actually become truly earnest, compromising him before the Zhat Vash can eliminate Soji and any more synthetics Maddox may have made. But right now, his candor with Soji on a personal level is hard to read one way or the other—another intriguing parallel between Elnor and Narek’s commitment to their causes that has me frankly dying to see the two eventually cross paths in Picard’s mission.
Back on Vashti though, Picard’s failure to support Elnor is a microcosm that, when the Admiral is rebuffed by his former idolizer, becomes reflective of Picard’s wider failings on the colony world in general. From atop his moral pedestal, Jean-Luc can offer a “Jolan Tru” to a disenfranchised populace and then haughtily bemoan how standards have fallen when that greeting is rebuffed because he’s had the liberty of being so far away from that populace when they needed his presence the most. In the moment, so dedicated to his cause and his own moral purity, he’s entirely ignorant of the fact that he’s rebuffed by Elnor and by the community at large because instead of doing anything to stop those standards from falling, Picard retreated into his moral clarity so entirely that he cut off all those he should’ve carried on helping in spite of his exit from Starfleet.
That ignorance almost costs him dearly, when a former Romulan senator calls Picard out for abandoning Vashti and challenges him to a duel. It is only because Elnor comes to his rescue (with a very cool spinning sword slice, admittedly) and becomes Picard’s Qalankhkhai that the former saviour can at least attempt to apologise to the Romulan refugees that he abandoned. And yet, he can’t even quite fully do that; although he admits his own failure to return once Starfleet abandoned the rescue attempt, he still pins their grievances on the Federation’s decline as much as he does himself. And as he and Elnor beam back aboard La Sirena before the situation can get bloodier than it already has, Picard has the audacity to lecture Elnor for coming to his aid by hacking his assailant’s head off—once again so caught up in his own moral superiority and his need to get on with this quest that he’s blind to the privilege he had in getting to shut himself away from a tumultuous and changing galaxy.
Between Raffi, Elnor, and the seemingly testy relationship of that delightfully unexpected crew pickup at the very end of “Absolute Candor,” Picard is setting up a series of personal conflicts to remind the Admiral that there was a human cost to his own retreat from galactic events beyond the fact there was no longer a Jean-Luc Picard as the apple of Starfleet’s eye. His absence from the world hurt those he sought to help on a personal level too, and sooner rather than later, he’s going to have to reckon with that failure if his quest to find Bruce Maddox is going to get itself some allies who don’t believe it’s as lost a cause as Elnor does.
Although I appreciate that Raffi’s role in the team dynamic is to be the one sceptical foil to Picard’s legendary status, it is also deeply hilarious that this just often leads to her being entirely tired of everyone’s shit, whether it’s in relation to Picard or otherwise. Extremely relatable.
The battle between La Sirena and the old Romulan Bird of Prey is an interesting one, beyond the nostalgia of seeing the classic ship in action once more. There’s a scrappiness to it, and a dynamism, that doesn’t just reflect Rios’ own style and the fact that this is a dogfight between smaller, distinctly non-Starfleet vessels, but feels fresh in comparison to the sort of space battles we’re used to in Star Trek, which can feel like ships firing broadsides at each other like, well…ships. Some people might bristle that it’s almost a little too action-packed for it is own good (can’t be having that in Star Trek!) but it was a fun way to end the episode.
Speaking of which: Another Rios hologram, and this one both likes firing phasers and is just comically hairy. Like, Endgame Thor levels of hair. I love it, as much as the presence of yet another Emergency Rios Hologram just has me asking even more questions about holographic labour circa 2399.
We’re not done picking up friends, it seems, as “Absolute Candor” ends with the most delightful cliffhanger: the pilot of the ship that comes to aid La Sirena against Romulan pirates is beamed aboard moments before their fighter breaks up…and it’s none other than Seven of Nine! Who promptly collapses on the floor, but not before demanding Picard owes her a new ship. We’ll have to wait and see just what Picard did to create such a testy relationship with Seven, but it seems like we’re finally ready to point Picard’s mission directly in the path of whatever’s going on in that Cube…