Where Death Lurks: “Et in Arcadia Ego” Part 1

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, I’m covering ”Et in Arcadia Ego Part 1,” and the episode sets us up for an incredible season finale. However, before I address the episode, I do want to apologize for this post being as late as it is. I am apparently not as immune to the COVID-19 work from home time vortex as I had believed myself to be.

There is some excellent news regarding Picard, however, which you already know if you caught GiN’s toon this morning. Sir Stewart has announced that CBS is granting non-subscribers access to all episodes of Star Trek: Picard with the promo code “Gift.” I highly recommend that if you haven’t, you give it a try. If you have, share the news with someone who hasn’t! Note, according to the linked article, the code is valid only through April 23rd, so act quickly.

Plot Ahoy!

I am only going to summarize the episode’s plot as far as the grossest of details go. I highly recommend that you click the Memory Alpha link above for a more detailed synopsis. Basically, after traversing the transwarp conduit, the Sirena and her crew come up on Soji’s home planet, Coppelius, just as a Borg cube appears through another conduit. They collectively attempt to dodge the Romulan Snakehead, but a fleet of “orchids” force the vessels to crash land. Picard and crew leave the Sirena to trek over to the Borg cube where they find Seven, Elnor, and the surviving xBs attempting to bring the cube’s more vital systems back online. Picard asks if they can get long-range sensors online, and the sensors indicate that a massive Romulan fleet will arrive at Coppelius in a matter of days.

Picard, Soji, and Raffi strike out for Coppelius Station where they find an idyllic settlement of synthetics, whose appearance ranges the gamut of permutations of Data’s own. They also discover Altan Inigo Soong, Noonien Soong’s estranged son, and Soji reveals the coming disaster. Her older sister Sutra offers to mindmeld with Jurati so that she can experience the Admonition, which Oh left in Jurati’s subconscious. Sutra reveals that the Admonition is not intended for organic life but is in fact a message from an alliance of far more evolved synthetic life that offers to help any intelligent synthetic life by exterminating the organic life that oppresses them.

Sutra and Soong argue that the synthetics should reach out to this alliance, and Picard argues that he can guarantee the synthetics Federation protection. Meanwhile, Soji visits Narek, who has been brought to the settlement, and they argue through his cell. Sutra frees Narek and likely kills her sister Saga with her own brooch in order to frame him. She uses the synthetics’ collective horror at Sutra’s murder to persuade them to allow her to contact the synthetic alliance and orders Picard confined.

Literary Hints

The episode’s literary allusion game was entirely on point, so I want to open the actual episode discussion with that. The episode’s title comes from a painting by Nicholas Poussin that rather famously features a series of shepherds examining a simple tomb. Poussin juxtaposes therefore a symbol of bucolic utopia, the shepherds, with the symbolic representation of death, and the implication of the title, if you’ll forgive my translation—And I am in Arcadia—seems to refer to the fact that death remains inescapable, even in a place synonymous with the joy of living. The painting can thus be interpreted as a pretty solid entry in the “memento mori” category, but the message in the episode equates the sentiment more with a warning.

In that vein, the synths have named their settlement “Coppelius Station.” That, too, is a reference to a much darker story. E.T.A. Hoffmann wrote “The Sandman” in 1816, and the story depicts the descent of Nathanael into madness, in part due to the influence of “Coppelius.” The story purports to be told by an unnamed narrator who knows one of the characters, Lothar, so the reader never directly encounters Coppelius/Coppola, but from the three letters that open the story, we know that Nathanael believes that Coppelius tortured him. Without going too far into the story itself, Coppelius represents Nathanael’s own darkness that eventually drives Nathanael insane and to commit suicide. During the process, Coppelius battles a third character, Spallanzani, for possession of “Olimpia,” a character Nathanael previously believed to be a human woman but is revealed to be an automaton. Setting the rather disturbing implications of Nathanael’s obsession with Olimpia aside, the links to the synth settlement seem clear. Taking Coppelius as the metaphorical manifestation of Nathanael’s darker impulses, including his obsession with an automaton, the synth’s choice, or perhaps it’s Altan Inigo Soong’s, to name their settlement after that obsession tells us what we need to know about the madness underlying the idyllic village.

Having covered all of that, Sutra’s actions are not entirely shocking. The moral question of the episode centers around the dilemma of how far is too far to go to protect your people. Soji directly asks Picard whether sacrificing every organic life in the Alpha Quadrant is an acceptable action, and Picard clearly doesn’t believe that it is. Sutra does, which is why she’s more than willing to sacrifice Saga to gain the synths’ approval. That action nicely mirrors how the Zhat Vash staged the attack on Mars in order to spark the ban on artificial intelligence research, and I think Sutra’s actions will set up a nice quandary with which Soji will have to wrestle in the second half of the episode.

Character Beats

My primary complaint with Picard as a character at the moment is that he still believes that he can guarantee Federation protection. By and large, Picard has been a show about what happens when your social institutions fail to uphold your (and presumably their) values; in “Absolute Candor,” we see the terrible and terribly personal fall out that Picard’s assurances and the Federation’s failures have caused. The downstream effects of the Federation’s ban get screen time in “Nepenthe,” and Seven reinforces just how the Federation’s withdrawal has created chaos in its weak in “Stardust City Rag.” Literally and metaphorically, Picard wrestles with Starfleet, trying to drag it back in line with his principles, in the person of Admiral Kirsten Clancy, but he still advocates for the Federation, still makes promises on behalf of the state. When he spoke to the synths, I confess that I wondered whether he learned something from his experiences on Vashti. We get a glimpse of Picard seated before a comm device calling out to Starfleet only to hear nothing, and that image effectively summarizes Picard’s relationship with Starfleet since the first episode of the season. Despite the institutions’ continued failure, Picard simply cannot shake the belief that by his actions and those of his new crew, he can force Starfleet and the Federation as a whole not only to remember the principles on which it was founded but also to observe them. I hope he’s right because this issue is the most topical of all the issues with which Picard wrestles.

I do think “Et In Arcadia Ego pt. 1” seems to be setting us up for Picard to receive a mind transfer into Soong’s golem, becoming a synth if he, as my partner contends, is not one already. The episode opens with a reminder that Picard is dying, and each character has the opportunity to say goodbye. Raffi tells him she loves him and nearly begs him to respond in kind, which to his credit, he does. Picard leaves the fate of the galaxy in Seven’s hands, and Jeri Ryan’s face tells us how hard that is for Seven. The hardest of the goodbyes is Picard telling Elnor how proud of him he is. Elnor has only just gotten his father figure back, and Picard has to tell him that this return is profoundly finite. Evan Evagora’s expression nearly made me weep, no matter that I know this plot wrinkle is low stakes. We’re getting a second season. They aren’t going to kill off the eponymous character. That’s series finale-level drama. Still, my reaction speaks to how well these actors convey their characters’ emotional truths.

I’m similarly convinced that Sutra’s plan to wipe out the organic life in the galaxy to secure her survival won’t work, but I am interested to see how the story will play out. Isa Briones gets a great opportunity to step into Spiner’s shoes by portraying not only Soji but a darker almost-twin, and she renders Sutra into something incredibly creepy in a way Lore never quite was. I’m concerned that Jurati will not survive what’s coming as her character arc has been entwined with concepts of sacrifice since Oh mindmelded her into becoming a double agent. I do want to know what happens to Narek in the finale. He was delightfully pathetic and creepy in this episode, and I can only imagine how Harry Treadaway will keep that going.

Stray Thoughts from the Couch:

  1. I loved seeing Brent Spiner appear as yet another random character featuring Soong’s face. We’re up to six now, I think, including his appearances in Enterprise? We’ve never heard of Altan Soong, but as was the case in TNG, that could not matter less. When in doubt, just add another Brent Spiner to the plot!
  2. In all fairness to Mr. Spiner, I think referring to himself as a Data that got old and let himself go may be a bit harsh.
  3. I really appreciate the appearance of Spot II, though having the cat felt a bit like fanservice. In addition, I have to admit that I found Arcana’s eyes to be jarring. Yes, I realize they’re supposed to recall Data, but still.
  4. The costumes worn by the synthetics all reminded me of TNG-style idyllic wear, though I saw at least one bodice that reflected the outfits worn by female characters in the “Cloud Minders.” The running synths brought “Justice” to mind for me, but your mileage may vary. It would be thematically appropriate considering that episode took place on an “Arcadia” that featured a fairly dark underlying issue.
  5. I loved the orchid concept. There’s a very real flower motif on Coppelius, which is interesting in a desert.
  6. Also, Altan, much like his father, should never be allowed to name anything or anyone. With siblings named Arcana, Sutra (discussion), and Saga, suddenly an ambassador named “Beautiful Flower” makes more sense, even if it’s still silly. I feel like Soji and Dahj as names reflect Maddox’s influence.

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