The True Enemy is Revealed in The Expanse: “Critical Mass” and “Leviathan Wakes”

The Expanse ended last night with a two-part finale that easily ranked as a highlight of the season. Both episodes were tense, balanced perfectly between action on Earth and in the Belt, and best of all, gave us solid character development through the action. It also left us with a few answers, but many more questions as we wait for season two. I’m tackling both halves of The Expanse season finale, and once again, I think it’s easiest to pull the threads apart where I can and discuss the show in pieces.

Spoilers ahead!

The first thread, and still the least interesting, is back on Earth. Avaaserala seems to be picking up the pieces after her friend Frank DeGraaf’s suicide. She goes to see his widower, and asks to be allowed to say goodbye. The man lets her in, but responds with venom:

The only thing Frank would say is, ‘It’s impossible to stay properly angry at that brat.’ I’m not Frank.

She goes into DeGraaf’s office, and takes old-fashioned wooden pencils, which turn out to be thumb drives of the future. The pencils have information about experimental drives for ships, and Avaaserala can’t find any information about them. But what does it mean?

Meanwhile, on Tycho Station: Fred Johnson sends a message out saying that the stealth ships that destroyed the Donager were not built by him, but by a naval yard on Earth. He believes that someone is rigging a war and trying to drag the Belt into it, and warns his fellow Belters not to fall for the plot. When Avaaserala sees this transmission, she begins to think that there’s a larger plot at work that she isn’t in on.

MaoinRoom

We’ll come back to this thread in a bit, but most of the action in these episodes is, unsurprisingly, on Eros.

We begin with a flashback to Julie Mao’s last days. It’s as terrible as you’d expect: Julie, the rich girl turned freedom fighter, was captured and forced to watch as her Belter shipmates were beaten to death, and then thrown into an airlock. We hear a tiny bit of exposition about setting a trap for the Cant, and blaming Earth and Mars, but wisely the Scooby Doo-ishness of the dialogue is just a backdrop for the real drama of Julie’s fight to get free. She finally does, avoids being eaten by the bioweapon, and makes it all the way to Eros before her infection overwhelms her. She spends her last hours in her room, feeling herself die and wondering why Dawes never answers her pleas for help. At the end she has a vision of Miller coming in with her necklace and a hummingbird. But she’s never met Miller?

We cut from this to the exterior view, as Miller and the Roci crew find Julie’s body. Naomi and Holden both urge Miller to come with them, and they unknowingly save his life when they stop him from touching her. Again, this is one of those moments that makes the show work for me: in the midst of horror, a few of the characters instinctively try to help someone despite not knowing him, simply because they see that he’s in pain.

Sematimba is the first to arrive at the hotel, fortunately, and the Roci crew usher Miller out with them. He tells them that Julie “was an Earther who died for the Belt,” and then they learn in short order that a ship has blown up, there’s a radiation warning, and the docks are on lockdown. Miller’s cop instincts flare up and he thinks it’s all a set-up, but for what? He spots someone in the crowd who might have answers, and goes after him. Holden finally hits full “I Want The Truth!” levels and goes after him, telling Naomi to lead the others to Roci, and give him three hours, but no more.

MrMao

Meanwhile, a “cop” called Dresden has wrested the hotel from Sematimba and is extracting blood from Julie’s body after telling his crew to “prepare the injections”. That sounds fabulous. He calls Julie’s father, who seems to be consulting charts about the bioweapon, and while weeping over his daughter’s death says, “We are lucky. Proceed as planned”.

So, is Julie Mao’s father the architect of whatever ate the crew of the Anubis? Was this all a giant plot? Was Julie a patsy?

Whatever the truth turns out to be, I want Miller to wring her father’s neck by the end of this series.

After a brief near-riot, Sematimba rejoins with the crew of the Roci, and they all take out some of the “cops” to free some Belters. Miller and Holden interrogate a “cop” into letting them into one of the radiation shelters, where they find people lying mostly dead on the floor. Have they been infected with the same thing that killed Julie? As they stare in horror, the entire room is dosed with radiation. They stumble out, and Miller asks, “How bad?” Holden looks up and says, “We’re dead”.

Cut to credits. Well done, show!

Radiation

The next episode wisely focuses on Eros for most of its runtime, but to sum up the Earth activity: Avaaserala believes Fred Johnson. She quickly sees that her superior at the UN is in league with Jean Pierre Mao (Julie’s dad) and puts some pieces together. There is a plot. She’s not part of it. Frank DeGraaf’s suicide was a murder. She tells her husband to go and take their grandkids off to Luna just in case someone comes after her. In the meantime, she’s going to play the part of a stubborn old woman who doesn’t realize her time is past, in the hopes of staying alive long enough to unravel the plot. So that should lead to some fun intrigue next season…

Back on Eros, Naomi is asking Sematimba to take her to the colony’s airshafts. Then she can lead him and the crew back to the Rocinante, because the OPA used to use shafts for smuggling… wait a minute. OPA? Alex and Amos exchange a look. Is Naomi coming clean? Or is there still something else at work here? Sematimba agrees, and Amos allows some of the Belters to come along with them. By now it’s clear that Eros is being purged, or experimented on, or something terrible, and their escape attempt has turned into a rescue mission.

Holden and Miller, meanwhile, are already showing the effects of radiation. They find stimpacks and inject themselves so they can try to make it back to Roci. They stagger past a tag of Holden’s face saying “Remember the Cant”.

Meanwhile, that creep Dresden is still harvesting samples from Julie, and says, “She’ll make her father very proud. She’s going to save us all.” Ick.

The episode wisely sticks with Miller and Holden for a while. The radiation takes effect fast, and Miller’s puking blood up every few minutes. Holden’s doing better—is it because he’s an Earther? The two end up trapped in a pachinko parlor when “cops” swarm a courtyard. Miller wants to charge them and take his chances (“I grew up in a pachinko parlor, I don’t wanna die in one”) but Holden insists they look for a way out. Miller reluctantly starts looking for an escape, tempering it by saying, “Optimism is for assholes and Earthers.” There’s your shirt, guys. While he looks, he gives Holden and the audience a glimpse of his childhood. He and Sematimba used to steal coins from Pachinko parlors in order to eat, until they got too big, got caught, and got beaten. That’s when Sematimba suggested they become cops:

“So you wanna be an ass, or do you wanna be a boot?”

“Which one are you now?” Holden asks.

“Yeah, which one are you now?” a vision of Julie Mao asks.

Uh-oh.

Now, Miller’s irradiated and already half-dead, but we did already see Julie have a vision of Miller. Are these two connected in some way? Is this Julie herself appearing to him somehow, or is it just in his mind? He says he’s sorry, and makes the “I love you” gesture on his lips.

They both have to hide when a “cop” comes in, and they team up to choke him out. This is interesting, as Holden’s reluctance to kills people keeps coming up. He admits that he’s never shot anyone. He’s shocked by Miller’s willingness to kill. Is this good—a sign that there is still something incorruptible in him? Or is this going to get everyone he cares about killed? After Miller caps two corrupt cops for their uniforms, Holden goes off to investigate a sound and finds Kenzo the Spy. Kenzo pleads with him: “I’m putting my life in your hands. You’re not a killer, you’re a good man.” Holden says, “Tell me why I’m a good man” and then shoots at him repeatedly, driving him back into a tunnel. Leaving him here is a death sentence. So Holden is willing to abandon him, but not to put a bullet in him. Which is worse? He unloads the gun into the walls, wasting all of his ammo, and then turns to see that Miller has watched the whole exchange. They don’t discuss it.

As we cut between Miller and Holden and the Roci crew, the tense action underscores the real important character work that’s happening. Amos and Alex are repeatedly choosing to trust Naomi, despite her frequent wrong turns in the tunnels. Amos is keeping an eye on all the Belters that have come with them. And Sematimba is willing to kill anyone he thinks might be infected. Once they finally reach the Rocinante, Sematimba shows his true colors, training a gun on Naomi when she says they’re waiting for Holden. They’re still within his three hours, and she is the acknowledged captain of the ship, but Sematimba just wants out. He barks at her to get out of his way, and at Amos to fire up the consoles. Amos walks offscreen… and a bullet goes through Sematimba’s back. His blood spatters Naomi’s face, and Amos says simply “You say we wait, we wait, boss.”

On the one hand, I really liked Sematimba. But it’s weirdly touching to see Amos come back squarely into Naomi’s camp after the tension between them. Murder brings them together.

Miller and Holden fight to make it through, with Miller finally fomenting a riot by yelling slogans in Belter patois when Dresden’s crew begins bullying Eros’ corrupt cops. He also manages to shoot the bald man he’s been pursuing since last episode, telling Holden “He had it coming. It’s a long story.”

The two sit, almost to the safety of the ship, but too far gone to make it. Miller asks Holden what rains tasted like, and then asks, “How could you leave a place like Earth?” “Everything I loved was dying,” Holden replies.

Then Julie Mao opens the airlock? Oh, wait, it’s Amos! So are these visions just Miller’s misfiring brain? But then, how do we explain Julie’s vision of him? Am I seriously going to have to wait a year to find this out? Miller and Holden are strapped into medical chairs. Miller finds out his oldest friend is dead, and Naomi tells Holden, “We saved a few. We should’ve saved more.” “We will”, Holden says, and they clasp hands.

Alex pilots them out, breaking the clamps, and they escape with at least a few hopefully healthy Erosians. But wait! Dresden is on a different ship watching the carnage at the bioweapon infects all of Eros. He’s sending a transmission to something called Thoth. And Alex spots the ship, and its transmitter. Will the Roci go after Dresden?

We don’t get to see Alex’s response, because instead we check back in with Kenzo the Spy. He staggers into a courtyard, see the bioweapon, and watches as it first forms a copy of his body, and then engulfs him.

The end credits unspool over the eerie hissing sound of the bioweapon.

bioweapon

Thoughts Randomly Floating in the Void of Space:

  • OK, first of all, again with the guy floating helplessly away into space! Ugh.
  • We finally got a good long look at the bioweapon and its effects, and it is exactly as terrifying as the show’s been hinting. We also know that there’s a plot wayyyy high up in the U.N. working with Mao, who may be the engineer of the weapon. Avaaserala will presumably be under threat from that plot. The Rocinante is potentially going off to chase Dresden, who works for Mao, and Miller is now even more dedicated to finding out what happened to Julie. It seems that all the threads will be coming together in the next season.
  • I’m really pleased that the show gave us some time with Julie before she was infected. Rather than letting her remain a symbol the show wrapped back around to that opening scene, and we got to see Julie the fighter, who loved and was loved by Belters, and who used her own skill to help them. She wasn’t just an angsty rich girl, or an icon for Miller to worship, or a pawn to be used by her father and Dawes.
  • I love that the complications of Holden’s morality has become the center of the show. Obviously, we’ve all been trained by Batman to admire the hero who won’t kill. But at this point, is Holden’s unwillingness to use extreme force a good or a bad thing for his mission? Is this the sign of an untarnished morality or, in these extreme circumstances, has it become a moral failing?
  • Naomi and Amos are friends again yaayyyyy!
  • What is Dawes’ actual game? Was he just using Julie? And is Fred Johnson as innocent as he claims to be?
  • I loved Miller’s arc, from being a pale imitation of a noir hero to a resourceful anti-hero. I think the radiation agreed with him?
  • Overall, I think this season was excellent. The show consistently balanced action with character development, and had enough sharp dialogue and flashes of wit to get me past the occasional clunky exposition. I’m also impressed that the showrunners have chosen to put class warfare front and center. They’re showing us the miserable lives of Belters, while also making it clear that people like Dawes have their own agendas. They made Miller kind of a dick, but then you learn more an more about his horrific childhood. They make Holden a stereotype of a white male action hero (even introducing him via a mid-air sex scene in which his partner compliments him on his prowess) and then undercuts that with his aversion to violence, his posturing, and insights into his own Quixotic childhood. We still don’t know much about Amos or Naomi, or what happened to Alex’s family. And I’m now concerned for Avaaserala, whom I started out loathing.
  • What do we want to see in Season Two? Personally, I’d like to actually go to Mars. Our brief glimpse of Martian culture was fascinating, and I hope it’s explored more as the show goes on.

Leah Schnelbach would also like to see more Space Rats, please. Come talk to her on Twitter!

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