Star Trek: Picard has spent its debut season telling a story that, at times, has tried to balance nostalgia for its past with an interrogation of just what having nostalgia for that past in a time of crisis really means. Its season one finale, for better or worse, decides that the best thing any of us can do is to embrace that nostalgia wholeheartedly.
“Et in Arcadia Ego, Part 2” naturally picks up with the nightmare scenario our heroes were faced with in the climax of last week’s moralistic setup.
The Romulan fleet is minutes away; the androids, convinced by Narek’s murderous escape from captivity, are preparing for an organic apocalypse at the hands of some unknown higher being; and Jean-Luc Picard is seemingly unable to get anyone to listen to him as attempts to gets both sides to stand down. Oh, and Narissa’s been hiding away in a tiny nook of the downed Borg Cube without anyone noticing—Seven and Elnor sort of just hanging around waiting for the fight up above to get going, not noticing any Romulans doing a passable sneaking job in their proximity—just in time for the escaped Narek to hook up with her. Overall, it’s a bad time!
Narek and Narissa begin to hatch their own plan to destroy Copellius station—courtesy of some purloined grenades—even before Oh and her fleet can get there to wipe it off the map, but it’s from here the episode takes a sideways step for the perplexing. It turns out Narek is playing a much longer game than his sister, and instead of taking the grenades to Coppellius station...he takes them to La Sirena, offering a waiting Raffi and Rios (who are repairing its engines with a bit of Coppelian tech that, at its most reductive, is essentially a magic wand that lets you imagine whatever you like and it makes it happen) an uneasy alliance.
Narek’s not the only one seemingly making an about-turn, because back at the station—where Soji and Soong are now working on the beacon to bring forth the mysterious synthetic alliance to destroy all organic civilisation—Dr. Jurati, who had sided with Soong in the prior episode, arrives to break Picard out of confinement. One quick trip back to La Sirena (unaware that Narek, Elnor, Raffi, and Rios have now gone to the encampment to enact their own plan to destroy the beacon), the two realise the Romulan fleet’s arrival is imminent. It’s here, after episode after episode of only touching on it, Picard finally revels in the heroic imagery of the Jean-Luc we know and love.
Taking La Sirena up into the atmosphere himself while Jurati mostly watches in awe from a nearby station, Picard confronts the arrived Romulan flotilla in vainglorious fashion. It’s as gleefully nostalgic as it is incoherent and messy, as Picard and Jurati weave the ship around Coppellius’ newly launched orchids, dodging through disruptor fire trying to make a point to the Romulans—while on the surface, the ground team’s plan backfires, leaving Narek restrained as Soji continues to build the beacon. It’s hectic and messy but admittedly driven by that joyful thrill of simple pleasure. Joyous as it is though, it masquerades a fatal flaw: Every time you ask a question of just how or why anything is happening, “Et in Arcadia, Ego Part 2” simply offers up a bucketload of nostalgia instead of actually answering.
What did Picard hope to accomplish taking La Sirena on a suicide mission against hundreds of Romulan Warbirds? But isn’t it cool, Jean-Luc is flying a spaceship and making it so again! How does the synth wand Rios had used earlier to repair La Sirena also suddenly have the ability to clone the ship to fool the Romulans? Never mind that, they said it’s the Picard Manoeuvre, even though that’s not how the actual Picard Manoeuvre worked! Why does Narek just completely vanish from the episode after he’s restrained and is never mentioned again? Forget that, Starfleet showed up for a standoff and Riker’s in the Captain’s chair!
There are parallels to Star Trek: Discovery’s second season finale, which likewise spent much of its explosive runtime trading a consistently logical plot with the spectacle of nostalgia. But what makes it all the more frustrating here is that Picard has been relatively restrained in indulging in its TNG roots so far.
It has even, at times, used it as an opportunity to question if that nostalgia is even a good thing in the first place, if Jean-Luc himself has started to get high on his own supply at the cost of hurting the people around him. Its complete retreat to it here at the apex of its climax only serves as a realisation that Picard was seemingly never honestly interested in those questions in the first place, or perhaps, cynically, that it was too scared to do so when it came to the legend the show is named for.
As quickly as it gave into that nostalgia, however, the finale seems for a moment as if it’s about to pull itself out of it. After Jean-Luc makes one last desperate plea not just to stop the Romulans and Starfleet from blowing each other away, but to Soji to shut the beacon down before the Synth Alliance’s robotic-tendrils can fully emerge from the rift said beacon has opened, he hits home on the conversation they had about what it means to sacrifice in last week’s episode. They choose to throw their own lives away in these moments, Jean-Luc argues, because they exist to save each other, not to save only themselves. Picard and the Federation aren’t helping because it’ll stop them from being killed by mysterious synth overlords, but because they believe it is the right thing to do.
Not only does the plea work, but Picard’s sacrifice becomes literal. As Soji stands down and the Federation and Zhat Vash both amicably leave Coppellius without further conflict, the rigour of his nostalgic escapade finally catches up to our titular hero. As he bids what he believes is a final adieu to Riker, the brain abnormality that has lingered like a not-quite-ticking timebomb throughout the show finally rears its full danger to bare, and, surrounded by his newest crew, his newest friends, Jean-Luc Picard dies.
It is perhaps the most emotionally honest moment of the episode, not just for the gutwrenching fallout, as everyone from Seven of Nine (who is also emotionally turmoiled by having wanted to kill Narissa for revenge—oh, by the way, that also happened in the earlier mess—and actually doing so) to Elnor takes a moment to grieve Picard’s death. But it’s also because it is the one moment of this episode that feels earned in regards to the thematic ideas set up in “Et in Arcadia, Ego”’s first half when it comes to the value of sacrifice. Picard completes his mission, and in doing so, realises that he was indeed willing to give his life for another, paying back in some small way Data’s sacrifice for him in Star Trek: Nemesis.
And that’s something that’s hammered home almost immediately afterward when Picard suddenly finds himself not dead—well, not alive, either—and meeting with his old friend Data (played once more by Brent Spiner) in some sort of computerised limbo. It turns out, just as a fragment of Data’s positronic neurons (in essence, his soul) had been preserved to create new synths, Soji, Soong, and Agnes have managed to preserve Picard’s mind. It gives Picard one seemingly final gift: to be reunited with his android companion.
Yes, it’s nostalgic as is so much of this episode, but here it’s treated with nuance and to tie into the episode’s wider message of sacrifice. This isn’t a character just saying “Make it so” because that’s the thing from TNG, it’s using these figures we know and love to say something about life, and, in this case, death. Data’s belief that life is not truly lived without the experience of it being finite—that we must have the ability to sacrifice something so valuable to actually make it valuable in the first place—is the ultimate thesis that not just reminds us of his own humanity from the moment back in Nemesis, but of the great value in what Picard has now done for Soji and her people.
...that is, until our characters, and Picard itself, decide that Jean-Luc is actually far too important to make that sacrifice.
Carrying with him a request from Data to actually have his final neurons shut down—so he can die and therefore have lived a fulfilled existence—Picard is brought back from the grave by Soji, Soong, and Jurati, his preserved mind transplanted into the synthetic golem Soong had built for himself. The body isn’t enhanced in the way Dahj or Soji’s is, but his brain abnormality is gone, he can still die eventually, and for now, Jean-Luc is back in the world of the living, and better than ever.
It was to be expected that Picard would somehow cheat this death. After all, the cast and crew, Patrick Stewart included, have repeatedly noted that there are plans for more seasons of Picard beyond this. But the way it’s done here—Picard at peace with his end only to have it undone at someone else’s behest—completely undercuts everything the episode has to say about the idea of sacrifice, the very thing that diffuses the conflict between the Romulans and the synths, and everything Data had literally just said about the point of being alive.
It instead posits something far more cynical: Data can make that sacrifice because he’s Data. He was a supporting character. Beloved, yes, but not the hero. Jean-Luc Picard? Jean Luc Picard is too important for sacrifice, whether he wants to be or not.
And in the end, we are left to ask—not at Picard’s nudging, mind—what has Picard been allowed to sacrifice this season? He never had to address his hubris over the Romulan supernova situation nor how retreating into that hubris hurt people close to him like Raffi and Elnor.
His greatest regret about Data’s sacrifice for him is not only amicably resolved, he arguably gets a better version of it than he had, getting to properly say goodbye to his friend and pay tribute in the way he could not the first time around. He doesn’t just get a fancy new body, but he, at long last, finally gets a ship to command again, a crew that loves him, and not just being proven right in the eyes of the Federation, but approved and embraced by them once more. For nostalgia’s sake, Jean-Luc gets to be the mythical hero again, but now that myth is just reality.
In the end, that nostalgia leaves “Et in Arcadia, Ego Part 2” and Star Trek: Picard with far too many unanswered questions, brushing aside so many lingering threads for the sake of it. How did the Federation overturn its synth ban so quickly? Why is Agnes suddenly more than fine to not turn herself in for killing Bruce Maddox? What is the Federation itself like right now, with the exposed rot of its former recalcitrance—is it just magically OK again? What will Oh, the Zhat Vash, and the Romulan remnant do now? What will become of Sutra, deactivated by Soong for her subterfuge? And seriously: Where the hell is Narek?
All that, it seems, will have to wait for the second season, as will new adventures now that Picard and Rios are seemingly sharing command of La Sirena with a full complement of smiling, happy crewmembers (even Seven appears to be along for the ride). But a new season will hopefully bring with it more than just answers to these current questions, but new ones too. With a bright new future established, what will more Star Trek: Picard actually have to say?
Hopefully next time it will decide that it’s worth saying whatever it is more than saying “Engage,” for old time’s sake.
For as much as the nostalgia overload of this episode disappointed me, I will say this: Jonathan Frakes looked real good in that 2399 Command Red. Real good.
I get that Starfleet is meant to have been on the backstep and had its shipbuilding infrastructure dealt a crippling blow with the attack on Utopia Planitia but...did Riker show up with just a whole bunch of the same class of ship? It looked so weird.
Interestingly, speaking of Starfleet’s, uh, fleet, the design looked very reminiscent of a hybrid between the Sovereign-Class introduced as Nemesis’ Enterprise-E and the evolution of it, the Odyssey Class, glimpsed in Star Trek Online. It didn’t quite match either, so presumably, this is a new class of ship just meant to evoke the design, but still, it could be a neat little Easter egg.
Speaking of nostalgia done right, though: Data’s final moments being set to “Blue Skies”—the song he had sung at Troi and Riker’s wedding in Nemesis—was a lovely touch. Everything about Data’s appearance in this episode was pretty much the best sendoff for him, really.
Was it just me, or did the tendrils of whatever the hell the Synthetic Alliance actually was look eerily familiar to the tendrils of the Future-Control A.I. probe the Discovery crew faced in “Light and Shadows”? Can’t tell if that was intentional, or creepy robot villains from the future are just really big into tentacles.
One of the very last shots we see of the episode as the crew of La Sirena makes its way to the bridge with Picard is Raffi and Seven playing Kal-Toh, the Vulcan game of strategy beloved by Tuvok aboard Voyager (Seven once beat him in a single move, much to Tuvok’s consternation). But even more interesting than that little Easter egg is that Raffi and Seven, for a quick moment, intimately clasp each others’ hands. Are they...in a relationship now? Somehow? Although LGBTQ representation has not been explicitly addressed in Picard yet, showrunner Michael Chabon has previously noted that there can be interpretations of queerness in both the backstories of Raffi and Seven, even if it’s left unsaid on screen. If this is a hint at something more, and something between these two, hopefully, Picard’s second season will actually make such representation explicit.