Caterpillars and Butterflies: The Expanse: “Home”

Well, that might have been the best episode The Expanse has given us yet. This week’s “Home” was an incredibly tense balance of hard sci-fi and hard-won emotion. Let’s dig in.

Spoilers ahead.

The UN Council realizes that Eros is on a collision course with wackiness—er, Earth, and they all deal with their tension in various ways. Avasarala calls for a mass evacuation (presumably to Luna?); the Deputy Director leaves a scathing voicemail for Jules-Pierre Mao; the President calls up the nuclear arsenal. Only Avasarala has the presence of mind to warn Mars, so they don’t think Earth is picking another fight with them.

Only one problem: the second the nukes fire, Eros disappears! Wait, no, it’s still there, it’s just not appearing on radar. Fred Johnson and Holden appear in quick succession on the UN’s comm screens, offering help.

This is a perfect culmination of season one—these are two hated vilified terrorists. Most Earthlings have no idea that Fred Johnson is a hero, and only Avasarala has any empathy toward Holden. But here are these two guys, popping up on a 15 minute delay, saying that they can see Eros and can guide the missiles manually in order to save Earth. It’s the delay that really gets them: they have to decide immediately whether or not to trust them, because if they hesitate there won’t be time to change their minds.

“There’s no time to bargain. We can only choose to trust each other. I pray that we will.” Holden says, and then cuts transmission to get back to helping Miller.

The Expanse—Avasarala in her office

Backed into a space corner, Earth’s president hands the reigns of the missiles over to Johnson, who in turn asks the Roci to steer them. Then the Earth, and all of its people, just have to wait.

Avasarala chooses not to evacuate. Earth is her home, and if she can’t save it, she’s going down with the ship. She makes one last call to her husband Arjun, and he makes a half-hearted attempt to get her to come to Luna, which she rejects:

“If I left, you wouldn’t respect me anyway”
“Why did I marry such a great woman?”
“You got very lucky, didn’t you?”

Having said her goodbyes, Avasarala climbs out onto her favorite spot on the roof, stares up into the stars, and waits.

Meanwhile, in Space…

expansemillerhand

The sections of this episode set on Roci and Eros were among the best work the show has ever done. The interactions between the Roci crew were perfect—they’re all checking with each other, finishing each other’s sentences, communicating more with a look than with words. It’s beautiful to watch, both on the show level of loving these characters, and the meta level of appreciating the actors. Every time Amos and Naomi check in with each other I smiled, no matter how tense the situation was. Especially the two of them, because while Holden and Alex will work themselves up into a guilt-ridden frenzy, they’re the two who actually love Miller.

The Expanse—Amos

While the Roci tries to keep tabs on Eros, redirect missiles, and map the station for Miller, Miller gets to do the really hard work of “taking his pet nuke for a walk” deeper and deeper into the station. He wants to find a “hot spot” to leave it, schedule a detonation, and then hopefully flee so he and the Roci can get clear of the blast right before Earth’s missile make contact.

If you think that happens according to plan, you haven’t been watching The Expanse very long.

But that’s an easy thing to say—out in space, everything goes wrong, and the sci-fi show ratchets the tension up with a series of mishaps.

The interesting thing is how they twist the knife. The Expanse has always been special because of their version of hyperdrive—they don’t have hand-wavy FTL, they have the Epstein Drive, which has only existed for about 150 years at this point in the show, and which wreaks fucking havoc on the human body when it’s used. When the Roci chooses to keep Eros in sight with the thin hope of saving Miller, they’re doing it knowing that accelerating like that might kill them. When Alex kicks them into high gear and says “here comes the juice” he literally means that a drug cocktail is pumped into their bodies, and it’s excruciating. Yet they have to take it, think through it, steer the ship through it, talk to Miller through it—this isn’t Scotty coming up with some miracle in engineering, this is a choice for physical sacrifice. And the detail of the scene, where Holden the Earther yelps in pain, but Amos seems to almost get off on it, is perfect.

The Expanse—pachinko

Even better? Miller’s slow, torturous progress through the space station, dragging a nuke behind him. He finds a dolly, but he has to put the nuke down and laboriously unload the dolly before he can wrestle the nuke onto it. The dolly tips, it gets caught on bodies strewn across the floor. At one point the floor itself opens up beneath him and almost swallows him nuke and all. All the while hard-drinking Miller wheezes and coughs and side-eyes the proto-molecule wisps dancing around him. This is hard, painful work, but if he stops he’ll die, and even if he doesn’t stop he might die, and the entire Earth might die, too. He even has to trudge through the Pachinko Parlor all over again, while one of the dead voices whispers “Everybody’s a winner on Eros!” in his ear.

And of course then the episode goes in a direction I was not expecting. Miller realizes the “hot spots” are leading him back to Blue Falcon Hotel—i.e., where they found Julie’s body. And Miller quickly realizes that she’s still in there, that her consciousness has survived the proto-molecule takeover and she has become the “seed-crystal” that is currently steering the station. Earth’s only hope is for him to walk into that room and reason with whatever is left of her.

Here my brain split into two warring factions.

The Expanse—Miller's fairy tale ending

One: I am a sucker for the cynic-who-becomes-a-romantic plot, and I thought this was a perfect resolution to Miller’s arc. (For now, at least, I have no idea whether he comes back.) He briefly thought he might get out of this alive. Now he knows he’s trapped, he cuts the comm link and accepts it. The new, humanist Miller is the one who speaks to Julie, who assures her she’s not alone, and who accepts whatever fate comes to him as he helps her veer the station into Venus. He saves Earth and achieves communion with Julie, the only thing he’s ever believed in. I love that the show’s writers allowed this to play out in an unbroken scene, and that they really went for it emotionally, from having the bird from Ceres lead Miller into a fairytale setting, to his vulnerability as he removes his helmet an gloves, to the way he kneels at Julie’s side. It’s heartbreakingly beautiful.

Two: Julie doesn’t know who he is, where she is, or why any of this is happening. She wakes up, seemingly, in a strange place, melded with the proto-molecule, She has no idea where she is. Eros has been rocketing toward Earth only because she was dreaming about going home. Suddenly this strange man shows up, wakes her out of her dream, doesn’t truly explain the situation, and offers to die with her. He says he believes in her, but she doesn’t know what that means. She hasn’t experienced his visions of her, from her perspective. There’s no indication that she’s led him here. She is literally trapped on this station, and this man kneels beside her and kisses her, and then the nuke goes off. If the Julie that we meet is a fragment of Julie’s old consciousness, she blacked out and/or died alone in a hotel room, woke up next to a stranger, lay there helplessly as he kissed her, and died again.

The Expanse—Julie Mao's view of the fairy tale

I love this and have serious issues with this in equal measure.

Random Thoughts Floating in the Void of Space

  • As the president decides to launch the missiles, he murmurs, “What the caterpillar calls the end of the world, the master calls a butterfly.” So apparently the writings of Richard Bach have survived into the future? Are we going to encounter a ship called the Jonathan Livingston Seagull?
  • I really, really love the throughline with the Pachinko Parlor
  • I feel bad about doubting Miller’s love for Julie. Thomas Jane sold the heck out of those last scenes.
  • Naomi saying “Don’t get all Holden on me” to Miller was priceless, as was Miller teasing them about their not-so-secret relationship.
  • Speaking of Holden…

The Expanse—Holden

  • OK. I’ve been mean to Captain Emo this season. But this week’s episode paid all of that off, I thought. Once again, Holden’s arc is to relent, to give up control, and give up his hope for a heroic ending. Last week he tried to be the good guy and let the Humanitarian Space Doctors leave, but instead had to kill them all for the greater good. This week he risks his own death and makes a wrenching physical sacrifice to save Miller, but in the end, has to submit to Miller’s choice. And in yet another perfect moment, he doesn’t even really get to apologize, or have the man-to-man bonding he’s looking for: Miller tells him he owes him a bottle of gin, and then cuts the link so he can find Julie. Miller’s an adult, a Belter who’s seen some shit. He knows when he has to face the unknown alone. And this time Holden accepts it, doesn’t yell or curse, just gathers everyone for a toast to Miller’s empty seat after everyone’s safe.
  • I also love how Fred Johnson’s attempt to be the good guy was immediately screwed. Now the Earth might think he took the missiles for his own purposes, and he’s back to square one of being a hated terrorist.
  • Fred Johnson: The Eeyore of The Expanse? Discuss.
  • How about this nuanced view we’re getting of Chrisjen Avasarala? We’ve watched her do some cold-blooded shit, but when her home is threatened, she chooses to stay and die with it if she has to.

What did you think, Internet humans? Again, I’m not reading ahead, so the twist in Miller’s story came as a genuine shock to me, and I loved it. I love that this show keeps surprising me, and remains dedicated to challenging, character-driven sci-fi. I hope other non-book readers are watching!

Leah Schnelbach never expected her high school guru Mr. Bach to show up in a serious sci-fi show. What’s next, Edgar Cayce getting a cameo on The Magicians? Come join her in the illusion that is Twitter!

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