Nepenthe: Less Forgetting Sorrows and More Remembering Them

Marie Brownhill
Game Industry News is running the best blog posts from people writing about the game industry. Articles here may originally appear on Marie's blog, Fan Collective Unimatrix 47.

As always, there be spoilers below. Read at your own risk.

This week, Picard takes a break from the frenetic action of the first half of the season to recoup in safety with old friends. Hugh and Elnor wrestle with Romulans. Soji has to make some decisions with the help of a new friend. We’re covering ST: Picard, episode 7: “Nepenthe.”

Finding a balance between nostalgia and freshness, presents unique challenges for properties such as our two major “Star” franchises. Most recently, Star Wars struggled with this issue, resulting in a lackluster final installment to the most recent trilogy. In this fandom, there were concerns when Discovery brought back Pike and Spock, though those worries turned out to be unfounded because viewers got the opportunity to see a version of the beloved 1701 that we’d never really seen before. There was still novelty inherent in the story choices. “Nepenthe” is a horse of an entirely different color because by its very nature, the story forces us as fans not only to face the reality that time has changed but also that the characters we loved so dearly have also changed. In this case, while the events on Nepenthe could have slid so, so easily into something maudlin, the episode finds that balance and creates something absolutely beautiful.

Plot Ahoy!

In the cold open, we see Commodore Oh confronting Agnes Jurati. Oh presses Jurati for information regarding her meeting with Picard and then forces a mindmeld onto Jurati. The screen flashes with unexplained images, including one of Oh tearing at her own face. Jurati throws up the lunch she’d been eating and promises to do whatever Oh needs her to do. Oh hands her a chewable tracker that Jurati willingly swallows.

After stepping through the spatial trajectory, Picard and Soji emerge into an alien wilderness, complete with “bunnicorns,” in which they come face to face with a small person aiming an arrow at Picard’s chest. Jokingly, Picard reminds her that his heart is made of pure duritanium so a head shot would be more fatal. He then reveals that the person in question is Kestra, Troi and Riker’s daughter. Kestra leads Soji and Picard to her family’s home where her parents greet them both with open arms. Troi settles Soji down with Kestra to rest while she offers Picard the use of their deceased son, Thad’s room. Both Troi and Riker not only deduce that Soji is an android but that she is Data’s daughter. Soji confesses to Troi that she cannot trust any of them, and Picard needles Soji about her feelings. Troi takes him to task. Eventually, over a homemade pizza supper, Soji opens up to the group about her experiences and confesses that she revealed to Narek details about her homeworld. Kestra uses the 24th century equivalent of a smartphone to reach out to her friend Captain Crandall, who happens to know the exact planet that corresponds to Soji’s memories.

Meanwhile, back on the Artifact, Narissa lines up the Romulan xBs and has them murdered to convince Hugh to reveal where and how Picard and the “synthetic” left the Cube. Hugh refuses to speak, and Narissa, citing treaty concerns, angrily informs him that she can’t kill him because he is a Federation citizen. Elnor reappears, and the two begin to plot to use the power in the Queencell to remove the Artifact from Romulan possession. Narissa reappears and informs Hugh that due to his plans, he has now given her cause to kill him. Elnor moves to protect Hugh, but during the fight, Narissa throws a knife at Hugh, fatally wounding him. Elnor prepares to press his attack, but Narissa transports out of the area, leaving Elnor to comfort the dying Hugh. After Hugh’s death, Elnor retreats and finds a Fenris Rangers beacon, and he activates it.

Raffi, Rios, and Jurati remain on the Sirena, but they cannot flee because the Romulans hold the ship in a tractor beam. Raffi attempts to hack the beam, but unbeknownst to them, Narek prepares to depart in a small, Romulan scout ship. As soon as he’s ready, Narissa gives the order to release the tractor beam. Rios flees back toward Federation space, though he knows a Romulan “Snakehead” is following them, and Jurati begins to panic, demanding that Rios take her back to Earth. Raffi takes Jurati to the kitchen area and feeds her cake to calm her down, but just as Jurati gets herself under control—after an impressive two and a half sizeable pieces of Red Velvet cake—Rios shouts down their shadow has returned. In her guilt, Jurati throws up, and Raffi runs up to the bridge. Rios and Jurati retire to the medbay, and Rios confesses that he thinks Raffi may be how the Romulans are tracking them. Rios leaves, and Jurati replicates a neurotoxin, administers it, and collapses into a coma. As she does, Narek loses the signal, allowing the Sirena to escape to Nepenthe without her shadow.

Plot Events

Clearly, the really big events here concern Hugh’s death and Jurati’s coma. While I cannot say that Hugh’s death comes as a shocking development, I can say that I was still completely unprepared for how affected I would be by his death. Hugh, as a character, appeared in comparatively few episodes—“I, Borg,” “Descent Part II,” and his three episodes in Picard–and yet, somehow, losing Hugh to the Romulans felt as though I said goodbye to an old friend. In part, I think Hugh’s story arc represents the fate of the world presented in TNG. The Hugh of thirty years ago matured from an innocent to a leader who, even in adversity, still exists within a fairer universe. The Hugh on the Artificat is older, more battered and has come to realize that the universe is not quite what it was. We know Hugh serves as an advocate for former drones who have been rescued, and we also know that his battle for xB acceptance has been an uphill one. When Hugh lists his own self-recriminations to Elnor, we find out that he may have been required to make concessions to the Romulans in the interests of furthering his cause.

However, something about seeing Picard rekindles Hugh’s fervor. In the face of Narissa’s extreme cruelty, Hugh finds his resolution and prepares to do what is necessary to protect not only his people but also Picard and Soji, whom he barely knows. For a moment, we, too, believe that Hugh and Elnor will manage, that somehow they’ll manage, until Narissa’s knife brings home that this universe is not the universe of TNG’s easy answers. Hugh’s gratitude to Elnor for affording him the opportunity to be a “hopeful fool” again because we don’t want his hope to have been foolish. We want it to bear some fruit, and as Elnor still survives, maybe it will. Elnor himself is none too certain. We see him huddled in a corner, and despite Elnor’s deadliness with his sword, we get the sense that Hugh’s death has left him at loose ends until he sees the beacon. My guess is that this is a setup for Seven’s return and that Seven will work with Elnor to activate the Queencell. We’ve only got two more episodes; I don’t think the show has time to draw that out.

Jurati’s coma, unlike Hugh’s death, is a bit more of a shock. After her conversation with Raffi about what constitutes a “good person,” her self-sacrifice makes sense in context, but the coma seems to be a bit of an overreaction. She’s clearly suffering and not in her right mind, but self-administering a neurotoxin is possibly the most metal solution she could have chosen. Personally, I might have gone with honesty because she does possess information that Raffi, Rios, Picard, and Soji need, but her choice feels like a story feint, to keep things murky just a bit longer.

Character Beats

Much like “The Impossible Box,” “Nepenthe” shines with character moments. Isa Briones continues to get juicer material with which to work; nothing about Soji’s trauma gets swept under the rug. Picard may be clueless as to the damage the girl has undergone, but Troi susses out that Soji’s very personhood has been grossly violated. She then gives Picard the most necessary of kicks in the pants.

Raffi’s speech about cobbling together a good person out of her wreckage is simply perfect. She downplays her own goodness while being honest about her failings, but the fact that she does scrape together enough pieces of herself to be a good person is exactly what makes her good. She chooses to try, and that choice matters. Certainly, she has failed in other realms of her life, particularly with her son, but she still chooses to try by following Picard. That effort is so beautifully and quintessentially a Trek moment.

Picard begins to grasp that he will have to see Soji not just as the means by which to achieve his own redemption but as a person. He speaks very little to Soji and simply expects her to fall in line, and as Troi explains, his expectations on that front are completely unreasonable. Once again, Picard must wrestle with his own arrogance and find his way back to the Jean-Luc Picard who captained the Enterprise. During supper, he regresses a touch, but with each successive episode, Picard seems to grasp a little bit more of what made him the man he was while still driving himself forward. He’s the heart of the show, and Patrick Stewart’s nuanced performance more than adequately carries this responsibility.

Finally, seeing the life Troi and Riker have built with their children was a revelation. Unlike Picard, they have not stagnated, in part because they have each other but also because Thad’s terminal illness did not allow them to do so. Troi, Riker, and Kestra did not have the luxury of letting life pass them by as they watched Thad’s disease progress. They had to struggle not only with their own grief but also maintaining their bonds to each other. It’s that pain that allows the fantastically precocious Kestra to reach out to Soji because she, too, understands loss. Unlike Soji, however, Kestra knows that one cannot bear these losses alone.

Troi and Riker represent a great picture of a married couple. On the one hand, their relationship isn’t perfect. Riker can still snap at his “Imzadi” while Troi can just as easily shrug off his displeasure. They’re both deeply attached to Kestra, and Thad’s death has solidified their family as their priority. When Troi tells Picard that she isn’t as brave as she used to be, she is both correct and not. I doubt that Troi’s lost courage because surviving Thad’s death required vast amounts of it, but now, she recognizes that she has more to lose than she did while she served on the Enterprise. Picard rightly recognizes that her confession reflects not cowardice so much as wisdom. Riker, too, when he explains that he prefers to remain on Nepenthe, demonstrates the same kind of wisdom. Moreover, I love that Thad’s death has not destroyed them. The family grieves, and Thad remains very much a presence in their home, their lives, and in the episode. However, they grieve in a healthful manner, and frankly, I’m glad to see that demonstrated on television.

“Nepenthe” has certainly been a necessary breather in a frenetic season, and I’m glad we had the chance to revisit old friends as we prepare for what promises to be a wild ride to episode ten.

Stray Thoughts from the Couch:

  1. Kestra, named for Troi’s deceased sister from “Dark Page,” is just fantastic. We should all be lucky to have a child with such emotional intelligence, not to mention straight up genius. Apparently, Troi and Riker produced two low-key genius children in light of Thad’s way with languages.
  2. I also appreciated that Thad’s death resulted from the synthetic ban. While I don’t know that the cure as explained by Troi makes any real sense, it’s a great example of unforeseen downstream consequences for such a blanket solution.
  3. Speaking of Kestra, I love that the solution to this huge problem of Soji’s homeworld was answered by a text. Picard’s nearly nonplussed expression is fantastic.
  4. I’m legitimately going to miss Hugh.
  5. I did appreciate that Narissa confirmed that she’s Zhat Vash, but I found the implication that there is a protocol for battles between Zhat Vash and Qowat Milat to be a little ridiculous.

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