This review contains spoilers for Star Trek: Picard, episode 10, “Et in Arcadia Ego, Part 2.”
The Federation isn’t an organization, exactly. As Star Trek: The Next Generation so often showed, the Federation is a group of people. People are fallible, fearful, and rash in their decision-making, but at their heart, they can be good. “Et in Arcadia Ego, Part 2” is all about how the choices individuals make can matter more than any organization, and it all starts with our boring synthetic friend, Soji.
At the beginning of “Et in Arcadia Ego, Part 2,” Soji has fully embraced her role as the destroyer and is ready to summon ancient synthetics to begin Ganmadan, a Romulan end-of-the-world prophecy similar to Ragnarok. A prophecy presupposes some level of destiny, that people are inherently good or evil and agency doesn’t matter. Soji, however, is not inherently evil. In fact, she has the choice to stop this and ultimately does so, halting the end of the universe.
This is an incredibly common narrative device, but it works here because it is so woven into the idea that no organization or system can take away the ability to choose. This redemption of all our heroes lies in this choice. The culmination of Soji’s arc could easily come off as forced and trite, but this is the first time her character has actually worked in the narrative.
To further drive home the point that the decisions of people can move mountains, Starfleet finally comes to the rescue. The Romulan fleet, headed by Commodore Oh, is ready to destroy the synthetic settlement when hundreds of Starfleet battleships show up, commanded by William Riker. Here, we have the duplicitous Romulan spy who worked within Starfleet for evil against one of the most morally upstanding men in the entirety of Starfleet.
They are two sides of the same coin, representing two ideas of what the Federation can be. Should we destroy that which we fear, paving the way for some sense of peace on the back of intimidation, or should we protect the weak? The answer may seem clear, but it’s a struggle that Starfleet has been dealing with since its very inception. Here it is simply personified by two warring sides of an ideology. Had Commodore Oh been the primary villain of the season, it could have worked, but sadly they had to go with Narek.
He’s back and just as baffling as ever! They try to give Narek a bit of character intrigue in that he was the unloved, failed child of the family and that he might have some issues as a result, but it’s too little, too late. Even with the window dressing of a backstory, he is still a non-character whose only real quality is that he’s duplicitous. When he goes to our heroes, convincing them that Ganmadan is imminent and they need to destroy the beacon, we know immediately that he’s wrong, even if the heroes don’t. Nothing of value happens in what follows. Then Picard tries to sacrifice himself.
This is where our themes get a bit muddled. There was a tiny undercurrent of mortality throughout this season. Jean-Luc has a terminal brain illness and only recently told the crew. It hasn’t affected any of the plot in the season until “Et in Arcadia Ego, Part 2,” where he is suddenly on death’s door. Picard dies in this episode, and though emotionally affecting, it doesn’t work for a key reason.
Characters in this episode speak philosophically about mortality and how beautiful it can be, that life being finite makes it worth living. When Picard dies, his “soul” is transported to a room with Data, where they speak at length with poetic language. Data says, “A butterfly that lives forever is not a butterfly at all,” and Picard nods knowingly. Data wants to die, and Picard agrees to destroy his consciousness.
This would be beautiful, but then Picard gets put into a synthetic body and is brought back to life. I’m sorry — did we not just have an extended conversation about how death is a beautiful thing and a finite life is the only life worth living? Yes, they give this synthetic body a clock so that he will die in a natural way, but what this plot leaves out is the main reason why mortality is so important.
We don’t know when we will die. It can happen in an instant without us seeing it coming or over the course of years, our body deteriorating. If mortality is what gives life meaning, then not knowing when we will die gives us urgency and a need for spontaneity. That’s what Data was talking about, even if he didn’t know it. Now not only does Picard know exactly when he is going to die, but he knows that if he dies of any cause that isn’t natural in his field of work, they can just pop him into a shiny new Picard body.
Yes, this subplot is beautiful on the surface, full of poetry and philosophy, but if you dig any deeper it falls apart. If that isn’t the best metaphor for what makes Star Trek: Picard keep coming up short, I don’t know what is. There were moments in this season where I felt as though I were watching Star Trek for the first time all over again, like a kid gazing into the stars wondering what lies beyond. This was spending time with Riker and Counselor Troi, discussing the humanity of what is synthetic, or exploring the nuance of vigilantism with Seven of Nine.
But for every time I got hope, Star Trek: Picard took it away with boring, useless subplots, characters that should have been cut, and action scenes that should have cut less. “Et in Arcadia Ego, Part 2” almost sticks the landing of this flawed season, but with most episodes of this show, I am left both wanting more and never wanting to look at it again. That’s the paradox of Star Trek: Picard, but even 10 episodes later, I don’t want this game to end.