The Enterprise is en route to Earth so that Picard can give the commencement address at Starfleet Academy, when word arrives that Cadet Crusher has survived an accident that killed another student.
When we last saw Wesley (s5e6 “The Game“), he was cheerful and well-adjusted; however, Picard and Dr. Crusher are surprised he not only won’t open up to them, but politely asks them to toddle off when his flight leader Locarno shows up for a chat. Before the commercial break, we have learned just enough to suspect that something’s up.
Picard seeks out the groundskeeper Boothby, whom he had described as a mentor in s4e9 “Final Mission.” We learn Picard’s academy days involved some unspecified trouble that might have destroyed Picard’s career had he not heeded Boothby’s advice to do the right thing.
At the inquiry, Locarno and the others testify that their deceased teammate Josh had been having trouble staying in formation, but they didn’t report him because they didn’t want him booted from the squad. It looks as if the team is only reluctantly bringing up Josh, but we’re aware that this is all part of the story that Locarno has convinced the team to stick to.
Josh’s father apologizes to Wesley that his son let the team down, and we can see Wesley is deeply conflicted.
A scene after the gagh hits the fan, when Wesley begs his mother not to try to help him, is powerful, but the good doctor doesn’t get much screen time.
After deducing the secret Locarno wants Wesley to conceal, a grim Picard powers up his rhetoric compositors and serves Wesley a blistering private lecture about honor.
Locarno offers his own speech, insisting that loyalty to the team is more important than abstract truth, which of course reverses what we all know about Picard — that his crew follows him precisely because of his unwavering commitment to the truth.
Of course, we know Picard has the moral high ground and Locarno is a weasel, but Locarno’s scenes are powerful enough that Wesley’s uncertainty seems genuine. It’s excruciating to watch Picard waiting to see whether Wesley will do the right thing.
Trek is less optimistic about the Federation in later series, but it’s thrilling to remember the optimism that pervaded TNG. I think it was very wise of TNG to bring Wesley back earlier in the season to show him chipper and thriving at the academy, because now we have had a sense of what he’s risking.
Thanks to some exposition provided by Boothby, the Wesley/Locarno dynamic works very well, but the other members of Nova Squad aren’t as well developed. The time devoted to Data and LaForge doing forensic science really wasn’t necessary, other than giving the ensemble something to do.