The Expanse: “Back to the Butcher” Asks Us to Choose — Coffee or Liquor?

This week’s episode of The Expanse, optimistically titled “Back to the Butcher,” shows us a new angle on the conflict between Earth and the Belt, deepens our view of Julie Mao, and presents Holden’s crew with a choice: now that the whole system thinks they’re terrorists, where can they run?

Again I think it’s simplest to look at The Expanse one thread at a time.

Miller is faced with a choice any noir detective would find difficult: does he avenge his partner, or continue pursuing the femme fatale? He chooses the latter. Havelock has lived, and Miller visits him in the hospital room, only to find that Havelock’s language tutor is there, too. He sneers at Havelock to “put her on my tab” and accuses her of luring Havelock into him down there to get spiked. She tries to smack him but he catches her hand and pushes her, and Havelock is furious. “You put your hands on her again and you see how fast I get out of this bed, Miller!” he says, failing utterly to get out of the bed.

The Expanse Back to the Butcher

Yup. Still my favorite.

Shit, scratch that, I said nothing.

Miller storms out, and sees that she makes what I’m assuming is an “I love you” sign in Belter, tough her fingers to her lips, then to Havelock’s chest. This only annoys Miller more, but he leaves them alone. Even though the whole police force is up in arms about Havelock, and the chief explicitly tells them to kill his attacker, Miller chooses to go back to apartment and keep researching Julie Mao. Octavia finds him, and he opens up to her more than I expected, showing her his theory that a ship called the Anubis (which he cannot pronounce no matter how he tries) was carrying something that has led to the destruction of the Scopuli, Canterbury, and now the Martian ship, the Donager. She’s impressed, but thinks he should kick it over to someone higher up, which is the wrong thing to say: he ignores her, and chooses instead to Blade Runner the shit out of his plotline by doing his research at a noodle bar.

He discovers that the man Julie Mao attacked at he docks is named Neville Bosch, and that this was no random attempt at a pick up: he makes the same “I love you” gesture to Julie’s back as she stomps away from him. This is not something a guy just looking for a quick date would do, and Miller guesses that they must have a history. However, since no scene can pass without Miller being morally compromised, Anderson Dawes walks in. Miller refuses his offer of a drink, so the mini-bribe doesn’t work, but…Dawes has Havelock’s attacker in an OPA safehouse. All Miller has to do is promise to share his findings about Julie Mao, and then he can kill the crap out of his partner’s would-be murderer. What’s a noir detective to do?

For once, Miller stays clean(ish). Rather than taking Dawes’ offer, he pursues his lead on Bosch, and gets to see a new angle on Julie Mao. Bosch also thought she was just a spoiled rich girl looking to piss off Daddy (that’s been the running line on Mao) but then he took her to a Belter mining camp. She chose to stay down in the mines with the workers, helping children, breathing poison air, and learning their stories. She’s not just some tragedy tourist—she truly wanted to help people, and sacrificed her own health to do it. It’s obvious that Bosch has fallen in love with her, and he’s destroyed when Miller tells her she’s probably dead. Miller, for his part, is slightly nicer to Bosch than he is to most people. He’s still trying to track down facts about the “data broker” he found last week, and ends up back at Mao’s apartment.

The Expanse Back to the Butcher

He takes a chip out of her mechanical hamster (which is a really fun thing to type) and finally puts his hat to good use by tucking it into the lining. But! As he leaves Mao’s apartment, two people get the drop on him and drag him away with a bag over his head. Who has kidnapped Miller? Which faction are they from? I get the sense plenty of people hate him…

Meanwhile, out in space, Holden’s people are in a holding pattern. Amos is injured, but a space leg brace fixes him up so he can walk. Alex cryofreezes the Martian (whom I liked, whoops), Naomi is nervous that the ship seems to anticipate her needs, and Holden finds a coffeemaker! But no coffee beans. Life in space is harsh. Right after Alex tells them that they’re a “floating tumbleweed in space” they get a message. They shouldn’t be able to get messages, as no one should know they’re alive. And yet, here’s Fred Johnson, the leader of the OPA, telling them they can find safe harbor at Tycho Station. Should they take the offer? Naomi, who has known “men with causes” before, says no. Alex and Holden are both afraid that they’ve been branded terrorists, and have no where else to turn. Amos isn’t sure. What they say makes sense, but he trusts Naomi utterly. As they float, they weigh their options, and finally decide to go for Tycho. First, they have to reconfigure their transponders (which will let Mars know where they are, which might be very bad) and they have to rename their ship. Alex suggests “The Flyin’ Alamo” but Holden thinks Rocinante will be a little more appropriate, and even Amos agrees. He seems to have warmed up to Holden, and the whole group seems ready to accept him as a leader now. Things seem better: Alex settles in to pilot the ship, Amos finds some liquor, and Holden’s finally able to brew a cup of coffee—but then we see Naomi, fetal in a bed, staring at nothing. Why is she so scared? What is she hiding from the rest of them?

The Expanse Back to the Butcher

Our third thread puts all of this in a much larger context. Fifteen years ago, the oil ore refinery Anderson Station was shut down in protest of working conditions, and we see the workers and their families huddled together into one small room. The UN is refusing to listen to their demands, which soon turn into pleas as it becomes clear that they’ve been labeled terrorists. Only their leader seems to understand the truth, and gives in, promising an unconditional surrender to the UN Marine force. When this is ignored, he tries to get a message out past their jammers. The colony’s children have all been diagnosed with “hypoxic brain injury” from the low oxygen at the refinery. Their requests for medical help have been rebuffed, which is why they finally turned to protesting. As he’s introducing the galaxy to his daughter, the colony is blown up. And who did it? Is that Colonel Frederick Johnson? Wait a minute….

Who is the Rocinante choosing to trust?

This episode shows what The Expanse does best so far! The balance between the three threads is perfect, and teasing out the idea that each of the three groups has to make nigh impossible choices works well. Even the scenes on the Rocinante, which could have been dead spots, instead worked to give us quiet character moments. In Miller’s storyline, while his conversation with Octavia was a bit stilted and expository, it was more than balanced out by Anderson Dawes’ speech about the Belters need for a home. I particularly love how we’re gradually learning that resentment of Earth weaves through each aspect of the show. The Martians and the Belters both hate the Earthers for taking their air and water for granted, and the Martian ambassador resented his home for forgetting to dream.

A second theme runs through the show, as a lighthearted counterpoint to the larger decisions. Twice Miller is seen drinking coffee rather than liquor. The first time, Octavia comments on it with amazement. The second time, he refuses Anderson Dawes’ offer of a drink to try to stave off bribery. Later, further out in space, Holden’s hectic search for coffee beans contrasts with Amos happening across a full bottle of liquor. Faced with good fortune, Amos gratefully gulps it down, while Holden has to create his own comfort.

The Expanse Back to the Butcher

Finally, the quiet moment after the destruction of Anderson Station, while scientifically inaccurate, is perfect. The labor leader and his daughter, still clinging to each other, float silently into the void. The show lingers on their bodies for a long moment, forcing us to focus on the father’s desperation and terror, before moving on to the next plot point. If the show can continue giving us stuff like this, where we’re presented with the real consequences of all the political maneuvering, it will keep being vital, thought-provoking television.

What did everyone think? Who kidnapped Miller? Who is Fred Johnson working for, really? Is Naomi connected to Anderson Station? Can Havelock trust his girlfriend? How the heck did he survive stabbification? What was on the Anubis that was so important? And what fearful windmills await the Rocinante?

Leah Schnelbach would probably choose coffee. Come share in her caffeinated thoughts on Twitter!

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