The Expanse: “The Big Empty” Focuses on Character Rather than Action

Sophomore slump normally applies to entire works of art—when a wunderkind releases an amazing debut novel/movie/album, and then their second project, even if it’s great on its own merits, can’t live up to the first. Unfortunately, the second episode of Syfy’s The Expanse shows a little bit of sophomore slump. There are two reasons for that—one’s a boring personal reason, but the other reason is actually integral to what makes the show work so well, and part of why I definitely want to keep watching.

The first, boring reason for the slump? I liked the pilot enormously. I enjoyed it at Comic-Con, where I was lucky enough to see an advance screening, and it held up, even improved, when I re-watched it a few days ago. So the second one didn’t quite live up to that momentum. It was an hour of tying up some of the threads of the first hour, and there wasn’t the same sense of wonder and worldbuilding. Justin Landon walked us through The Expanse‘s fantastic sets in his review of the pilot, but now? Well, we’ve seen the three major playing fields, and “The Big Empty” doesn’t add much to that. What it does instead is dive into character and thwarted expectations, and that is simultaneously the reason for a feeling of deflation and the most interesting thing about last night’s episode. This was an entire show dedicated to the idea that heroic acts usually fail. And that was great, thematically, but it resulted in a pretty disheartening 45 minutes.

To catch everyone up: Holden and his skeleton crew, Alex, Naomi, Amos, and Shed the medic, just watched the destruction of their ship, the Canterbury; Detective Miller is looking for missing girl/probably Outer Planets Alliance terrorist Juliet Mao; UN representative Avasarala has just tortured a Belter in the name of protecting Earth and preventing war, and is seemingly shipping him off to a horrific prison on the Moon.

We start the episode with Holden, as he tries to leap into action hero mode. He can still see the ship that dusted the Canterbury, and yells at the rest of them to give chase. Alex refuses do it, and when Holden tries to take control of the ship, Naomi shuts the power down. Not to keep hammering on the “Game of Thrones in space” line, but I was reminded of nothing so much as Theon Greyjoy attempting a rousing speech to get “his” men to take Winterfell—a speech that ends when another man clocks him. Holden was refusing command throughout the last episode, and now, when he wants to wield it, he learns the hard way that “his” crew don’t see him as a commander. Naomi’s the one who quickly takes control, ordering Holden and Amos out onto the hull to repair an antenna, so they can send a distress signal. Amos flatly tells him that he considers Naomi the captain, and even threatens to throw him into the void of space. When Alex’s suit malfunctions, Shed manages the only genuinely successful bit of heroism by splicing his oxygen line into Alex’s, and sharing air between them. It nearly gets both of them killed, but in the end the gambit works. Naomi, for her part, does not let anyone know that Holden was the one who logged the distress call that got them into this mess. How long will that secret last?

Miller’s plotline is a little less urgent. He runs out of water during his morning shower, and a fellow Belter says that the inner planets are “Thirsting them out.” He finds Mao’s apartment and begins sifting through her life, including her healthy water ration. This bit serves as a good but fairly obvious lesson in the class politics of the Belt. Mao is a rich girl—she has a gorgeous apartment with the best artificial light money can buy, she has a more water than she could ever use, and she has a ton of cute guys lined up on her Space-Tinder. Miller, the slightly corrupt working stiff, will never get close to a life like hers, but he’s the one who’s expected to get her out of whatever space-jam she’s gotten herself into.

Meanwhile, in the far reaches of space, Holden kicks the antenna until it works, but the people who pick up the signal may actually be the same ones who attacked the Canterbury. Holden again tries for hero status and sends out a desperate message that Mars attacked the Cant, and that he and the remaining crew are about to be taken prisoner. Alex is furious, Amos holds a gun to his head and looks to Naomi for approval, but the real problem is that since they were in jamming range, the message probably didn’t get out anyway. Oh, and just in case you were feeling uplifted for a second? The prisoner that Avasarala was torturing last episode killed himself on route to the prison she was sending him to, so her giant moral sacrifice was for nothing.

Avasarala

So the theme of The Expanse’s second episode is that traditionally heroic actions are futile, even silly, in the outer reaches of the solar system…. At least that’s how it seem right now. Each of the heroic acts Holden tries for get the remaining crew of the Cant into worse trouble. If he’d ignored the distress signal, the ship would have made it back to Ceres with no problem, and the city would have its needed water. If he’d fixed the antenna faster, Alex and Shed wouldn’t have almost died. His attempt at CPR on the medic seemingly cracks his ribs, but it’s unclear whether it was the CPR that started him breathing again. Finally, he sends a desperate missive out into the universe—the sort of thing that, in a lesser show, would be applauded by the crew and rewarded by the show’s universe. Here, the crew is disgusted. Most likely the only people who heard him were the Martians who are about to pick them up. They’re most likely facing death, and he’s found a way to make it worse.

The only one who gets off easy in this hour is Detective Miller, who gets to finish his shower! He also intercepts a group of poor kids who are trying to siphon Ceres’ water off for sale on the black market, but Miller lets them off with a warning. Gutter punks gotta stick together.

I am really enjoying the The Expanse‘s slow-burn worldbuilding here. Each of the characters is gaining depth organically. We get to watch side characters learn about main characters onscreen, adding to our own understanding. Detective Havelock, Miller’s new partner, is shocked when Miller lets the water thief go, because he still doesn’t understand just how poor and desperate Miller used to be. One of Avasarala’s colleagues is horrified as he realizes that she’ll protect Earth by any means necessary. And the last fragment of the Canterbury, five crew members who, for the most part, weren’t part of the same social circles before, are all being forced to peel back layers in front of each other, in tight quarters, with little oxygen. Will facing off with the Martian military bond them together, or tear them apart completely?

What did everyone think of last night’s episode? Were expectations met? Exceeded? Blown up like so many Canterburies?

Leah Schnelbach wishes Miller’s hat had gotten blown up instead of that adorable space rat. Come explain Belter patois to her on Twitter!

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