As always, Spoilers Abound Below, read at your own risk.
“Absolute Candor” tries to straddle the line between quiet character piece and action episode, and it utterly fails to find that balance, which is fitting considering that the episode’s themes center around failure. As far as plot goes, Picard asks Cris Rios to take a detour to Vashti while on their way to Freecloud. Vashti is a Romulan resettlement world, and the episode shows us what Vashti was during the evacuation—a thriving world in which Picard is a welcome visitor. The Vashti of the present has not lived up to that early promise. Crime, xenophobia, and despair weigh down the society that has developed in the wake of the Federation’s failure to keep to its promises. Significantly, Picard gave voice to those promises, and he abandons Vashti when the Federation opts to discontinue evacuation efforts in the wake of the Utopia Planitia attack just as he abandoned Raffi. Picard of the present visits the Qowat Milat convent, where he asks Elnor to bind his sword to Picard’s cause. Elnor grew up with the Qowat Milat as the lone boy living with a group of warrior nuns, and even though he can never be Qowat Milat, they did train him in their presumably ancient martial arts. Angrily, Elnor nearly refuses, but just as a group of Romulans begin to attack Picard when he refuses to accept a challenge, Elnor literally flips into battle, beheading one of the Romulans. He agrees to Picard’s request, and they return to the Sirena.
Meanwhile, on the aforementioned Sirena, Rios and Raffi attempt to dodge an antique Bird of Prey piloted by the local warlord, Kar Kantar while waiting for a window in the planet’s Romulan defense grid to beam Picard and Elnor back to the ship. Once they do, Rios tries to out-fly Kantar, but he can’t quite manage it. An unknown ship intercepts Kantar and cripples the Bird of Prey while sustaining critical damage, forcing the pilot, Seven of Nine, to request a beam out.
Back on the Cube, Narek continues to try and charm Soji, but he comes off more as a creeper than anything else, particularly when he tells her that there is no record of Soji’s trip to the Beta Quadrant. A little bit of “Risky Business” reenactment later, Soji seems to have forgiven Narek’s weirdness in favor of sating her curiosity regarding the Borg’s records concerning the Shaenor‘s fate. Narek, however, has not presented Rizzo, now sporting her Romulan ears and eyebrows, with anything of note. She gives him another ultimatum.
Though the action elements of the episode feel relatively irrelevant, the character and cultural beats are far more interesting. The Qowat Milat, which have somehow never appeared before, practice “The Way of Absolute Candor,” meaning that they tell nothing but the truth. That practice sets them apart as the diametric opposite of the Tal Shiar and indeed Romulan culture as a whole. Furthermore, Picard informs us via expository conversation with Jurati that they are the most proficient warriors he’s ever seen. The Qowat Milat prefer to use blades, unlike any Romulans we’ve ever seen in canon, and that preference seems to be widespread. When Andrev, the former Romulan Senator, challenges Picard to a duel, they throw him what looks to be a saber rather than a disruptor. In fact, it’s only when Elnor declares himself Picard’s qalankhkai that someone stops to pull the “you brought a sword to a disruptor fight” move. The sequence almost has a “pirates vs. ninjas” feel to it.
Vashti itself is interesting. From “Romulans Only” signs to Vani’s stories about Qowat Milat nuns serving as an ad hoc police force, protecting the planet’s roads and trying to keep travelers alive, Vashti has clearly suffered from the Federation’s neglect. Vashti has fallen to control by warlords who rushed to fill the power vacuum created by the Federation’s withdrawal, and Vashti has also become home to the Romulan Rebirth movement, which is a concept I wish the episode had explored a bit further. Vashti’s failure is the Federation’s failure, and by extension, Picard’s. Andrev drives that point home when he spits Picard’s promises back in his face. Elnor, too, represents Picard’s failure. Not only did Picard fail to keep his promise to Vani to find Elnor a more appropriate home, but he also abandoned Elnor, which devastated the young boy who clearly viewed Picard as a surrogate father figure.
The episode’s most defining moment occurs when Picard attempts to apologize to the Romulans in the bar. To his credit, Picard does not shift blame; he acknowledges his role in allowing Vashti to fall to crime and desperation. He acknowledges his failure to save other Romulans, and when he does, it’s a well-crafted sequence. Picard stands alone, surrounded by Romulans, with his shoulders hunched and downcast mien. It’s simply gut-wrenching to see Picard brought so low, and Jonathan Frakes, who directed the episode, lets us as viewers feel that moment. I just wish that shot had occurred in an episode that wasn’t simply rehashing the same exposition we’ve already gotten. Elnor’s suffering mirrors Raffi’s; Picard abandoned both of them, and neither coped well with that abandonment. Raffi turned to snakeleaf, and Elnor became some sort of Romulan ninja, though he did not work through the daddy issues stemming from his abandonment by Picard. I’m willing to guess that Elnor’s adherence to the Way of Absolute Candor will set him up as the Data-surrogate in that he will say things that should not be said.
Moreover, the Kar Kantar threat simply doesn’t hold together. The Sirena should have been able to outshoot and outfly the Bird of Prey by virtue of its more advanced technology. Y’all, the Bird of Prey Kar Kantar flies? It’s the same model from TOS’s “Balance of Terror.” That ship is around a century old. Kantar attacking the Sirena, is akin to the Red Baron trying to take down an F-16. Sure, I suppose it could happen, but it’s not likely. That the Sirena cannot simply outfly the Bird of Prey makes zero sense. I don’t care how much retrofitting Kantar did, there’s only so much you can do to bring a ship that old up to current specs. Granted, that entire sequence serves to give Seven of Nine a great introduction, but there are so many other, more believable ways they could have accomplished the same goal.
Look, we all get it. Picard failed. Picard wants to atone for those failures. Can we move the story along in the next episodes? Pretty please?
Stray Thoughts from the Couch:
- Going back to the Qowat Milat, I truly do not understand how the Senate and the Tal Shiar allowed them to remain active. One can argue that their prowess as warriors afforded them some protection, but there’s no way that the Tal Shiar could not have suppressed them considering the organization’s reach and resources.
- I get that the destruction of Romulus devastated the Romulan people, but swords? Vashti almost feels like it’s taken from a bizarre spaghetti western. Even allowing for the utility of bladed warfare in space travel (no one wants to blow a hole in the very thin skin protecting them from death-by-vacuum), I don’t quite understand why the use of bladed weapons is so widespread. Vashti’s population struggles with poverty, and I can imagine that blades are cheaper than disruptors. However, in a universe in which one can purchase old Romulan planetary protection grids, I cannot imagine that there isn’t a black market source for energy weapons.
- I still love Santiago Cabrera’s turns as the various crew holograms.
- I’m also starting to wonder if Rizzo is ever going to make good on her threats. She keeps promising she’ll do something awful to Soji, but somehow, she has yet to replace Narek. Aside from Ramdha’s attempted suicide and teasing mentions of Borg data regarding her ship’s, the Shaenor, fate, none of the Cube sequences added anything to the episode. Even the performances were largely forgettable.
- I’m finding Elnor’s wig/hair extensions/whatever to be so bad as to be distracting. His long hair is weird and out of character for Romulans, which I guess is in-keeping with the spirit of the Qowat Milat.