Well, this is a little more like it. The wheels have stopped spinning (for now) and we're getting some forward motion.
I shouldn't be sarcastic, I suppose. After all, I really liked the first season of this show, and it is arguably slower than this one. But the first season showrunner was the literary novelist Michael Chabon, and five episodes into this season, I can see that made all the difference. Chabon had a far better grasp of the characters and a knack for dialogue than the new guy (I think Terry Matalas is the new showrunner) and structured the episodes so well that I didn't care if the pace was glacial: the characters and their interactions held my attention throughout. The new showrunner is emphasizing plot and pace more, and for the most part the show suffers as a result, in my opinion.
One constant remains the excellent acting. Of course, with Sir Patrick Stewart you can't go wrong, but I have really been impressed by Alison Pill this season. Her scenes in the last episode when she went toe-to-toe in a mental battle with the Borg Queen were a tour de force. Brent Spiner returns in this episode, playing Dr. Adam Soong (the in-universe explanation for the uncanny resemblance of all the Soongs must be that they've been cloned for generations), and he has a couple of delightful, crackling scenes with John De Lancie. Michelle Hurd's Raffi is still unhinged by Elnor's death and not thinking clearly at all, and Jeri Ryan's Seven is trying her best to rein her in. I presume those two are going to get together at the season's end, but if so they need to show some signs of it.
Plot-wise, we get quite a few answers in this episode. The Watcher is indeed "watching" a single person--Jean-Luc's ancestor Renee Picard, who apparently must participate in the manned mission to Europa to avoid fracturing the timeline. (This plot element makes me wish they had not set the show in 2024. We're not even getting back to the damn moon by then, much less anywhere else.) Q, who for some reason has been robbed of his power-generating snap, has been masquerading as her therapist, trying to manipulate and gaslight her out of going. The Watcher didn't realize this, of course, but Picard spots him right away. Since we still have the damn three-day artificial deadline, Picard's group cooks up a scheme to attend a gala held for Renee and the other astronauts on the night they go into quarantine for the mission, to watch and protect her from any interference. The obstacles inherent to actually getting in the room--coded invites, facial recognition and the like--necessitate Agnes Jurati using her "Intro to Ancient Coding" (!) college class to insert the others' IDs into the system. Of course, she also has a problem no one else knows about: while Picard was gone, the Borg Queen lured a hapless policeman aboard La Sirena to use as a hostage to force Agnes to hand over the ship, except that Agnes grabbed a gun off the wall and shot the Queen's legless ass. (Good thing a shotgun hanging on the wall of a house abandoned for decades would still have shells in it.) The Queen died, but just before she managed to touch Agnes long enough to inject some nanoprobes, so now Agnes is carrying around the Queen's ghost in her head.
(And I am calling it now. I will bet that the Borg Queen we saw in the first episode, who beamed onto the Stargazer with a peculiar metal mesh covering her entire face, that Agnes, watching, remarked, "That's new," is Agnes herself, partially assimilated and needing Picard to trigger the auto-destruct to set everything in motion.)
Brent Spiner's Dr. Soong is introduced as a scientist whose daughter Kore has an incurable genetic condition that he has been trying everything to fix, including conducting illegal experiments on volunteer ex-soldiers. His license and funding is pulled, which is when Q steps in and offers a cure, if Dr. Soong will eliminate Renee Picard. We still have no idea why Q wants to splinter the timeline and why he can't just snap his fingers and do it, or why Renee's failure to go on the mission would be so catastrophic.
One funny little scene occurs when Picard's gang gets back together. Of course, Raffi (and everyone else) sees the Watcher's resemblance to Laris. (Nobody remarks on how much Dr. Soong looks like Data, but Picard hasn't seen him yet.) Raffi confronts the good Admiral: "I know you said it was complicated, but are we going to talk about your new--"
"No, but she looks exactly like--"
"Well, doesn't that make you feel a little, kind of creepy--"
Patrick Stewart's stiff and abrupt line delivery is perfect for this scene, as you get the sense he's finally beginning to realize what an idiot he was for turning Laris down.
I am enjoying this so far, but....I'm sorry, I don't think it's as good as the first season. But we shall see.