Picard is relieved of command and assigned to a special ops mission, as the Cardassians provoke a war with the Federation.
The new CO arrives with plans to reorganize every department. Jellico is very hands-on, giving Riker specific details for reworking the shift rotations, and crawling trough the Jeffries tubes with LaForge. He cheerfully shows Troi pictures drawn by his son, but he’s bluntly not interested in listening to anyone else’s input.
Instead of actually showing Picard’s team surreptitiously making their way to an illegal Cardassian weapons lab, we get a budget-friendly scene in a bar where the characters *talk* about arranging anonymous transportation (including a cringe-worthy bit where Crusher seduces a Ferengi) and then we see our team running around in the standard cave set.
The excursion is the B-plot, with the main story being driven by Jellico shaking things up on the Enterprise. When the Cardassian envoy asks after Picard and smarmily expresses a wish that his new assignment is “not too dangerous,” that’s our first hint that the McGuffin hunt is a trap.
Giving the amount of effort the Cardassians put into laying their trap, it’s rather unbelievable that Worf and Crusher are able to get away (off-camera).
Part 1 ends with a handcuffed Picard being presented to Gul Madred for interrogation.
Part 2 opens with a drugged Picard answering his captor’s questions, apparently truthfully, but he doesn’t have any useful information about the Cardassians’ next target.
It’s very unsettling to hear Jellico giving the captain’s log voice-over, stating that negotiations aren’t going well. Things get even more tense when Gul Lemec reports that Picard, Worf and Crusher were captured during a brutal assault that caused many civilian casualties. (We saw them shoot a few guards, so we know Lemec is clearly exaggerating.)
Jellico admits he knew about Picard’s special ops mission, and sends Riker in a shuttle to the predetermined rendezvous point. After returning with just Crusher and Worf, Riker requests permission to go back for Picard, but Jellico refuses.
During negotiations, Jellico won’t admit Picard was operating under Federation orders, and won’t acknowledge that a state of war exists between the two powers, so the Cardassians smugly announce their intention to treat Picard like a terrorist.
Riker, pushing back hard against Jellico’s willingness to sacrifice Picard, finds himself relieved of duty.
We’re not supposed to like Jellico, but as he brainstorms with LaForge and Data to investigate what the Cardassians are up to, we see he is competent and capable. The scriptwriters saw to it that Jellico’s sneaky plan requires the skills of the best pilot on the ship, which just happens to be Riker. That sets up a good scene between RIker and Jellico, but in Part 2, all this is the B plot.
What really makes this episode remarkable is Picard’s efforts to hold himself together. He clings to the truths his senses tell him and the truths his cultural and political values have taught him — including the immorality and impracticality of torture as a means of intelligence-gathering.
Picard even praises the little daughter his captor brought to work with him.
For his part, when he’s not brutalizing Picard, Madred seems civil, intelligent, and very loyal to his worldview. Though he teaches his daughter that humans are just animals, he seems genuinely interested in Picard’s ability to resist.
As Riker and LaForge work on Jellico’s plan (laying mines near the Cardassian fleet that’s hiding in a nebula, or so the dialogue tells us — we see some clouds and some props inside a shuttle, but that’s about it), Madred feeds Picard and monologues about being a starving six-year-old scrabbling for food in a war-torn city. Perhaps his intention is to prove to Picard how far he’s come, and how a Cardassia led by the military is better than the old days. But Picard turns the table, insisting that from now on when he looks at Madred, he will see a starving child terrified of bullies.
When Jellico reveals that he has mined the nebula and can destroy the entire Cardassian fleet that’s gathering for an unprovoked assault, Gul Lemec is ready to turn tail and run, but Jellico also asks for the immediate return of Picard.
Madred has one more chance to break Picard, but a flustered Gul Lemec arrives just in time, telling Picard he’s to be returned to the Enterprise.
Back on the Enterprise-D, Picard shares a chilling detail about his final encounter with Madred.
This was some good world-building, leading into the premiere of Deep Space Nine (which started shortly after this episode aired).