Last year, The Expanse got a double-episode season premiere — and it really could we have used one this time around too. The way the show lets its narrative bleed from one season to another means that there’s never any downtime, and no need to ramp back up again, when a new season starts; we’re still in the thick of it, and the “it,” right now, is on the verge of all-out interplanetary war.
But war isn’t even the biggest part of the scope of this show, as the very first scenes of “Fight or Flight” make clear. It’s not James Holden we start with, fixing the Rocinante after getting rid of a glowing blue space monster; it’s not Chrisjen Avasarala, betrayed and pinned down on what amounts to an enemy ship.
(Spoilers for everything up to and including the season three premiere!)
No. We start with what’s left of the Arbogast, the ship taken apart—breathtakingly, gorgeously, horribly—by the protomolecule in last season’s finale.
That’s a scene I felt in my gut, in my sternum, a raw shudder like the first glimmer of a panic attack. Humanity’s infighting is nothing new, but this is. This intelligence can take a ship apart piece by piece, leaving its biological components—humans—whole, witnessing their own destruction.
Which is what’s going on all over the system, if you think about it. From the Arbogast we fly through the planets, listening to news briefings about the protomolecule, and about humanity’s saber-rattling. Next stop: the UN, where the Secretary General is leaning toward peace until that horrible creep Errinwright manipulates him, with disturbing effectiveness, toward war. This is the next-biggest picture stuff, the men whose bad choices will further damage any sort of peace.
Only after that stage-setting do we find the Roci, which is literally and figuratively damaged by the events of last season. Repairs to the ship are easy enough (though that glowing glob hiding under the deck is not good); repairs to the crew are a lot harder.
I can’t say enough good things about the nuances of the writing of this show, which constantly juggles at least a dozen plots, concepts, emotional arcs and potential threats. When someone spells out an emotional conflict, or a detailed situation, it’s for a reason; for the most part, these writers neatly relay their characters’ mental states through their behavior. By now, we know about Amos’s temper, Holden’s dangerous idealism, Alex’s good nature—and so it’s very clear, when Alex stops Amos, and says to him, “We’re not done here,” that Alex knows the risk he’s taking. Amos could easily knock him out, and Amos is angry: angry that his moral compass, Naomi, seems not to be the person he thought she was, and angry, though he will not admit it, that their crew-shaped family has fractured.
That’s what drives Alex, who later sends a message to his estranged wife and daughter, explaining, as best he can, that he chose space over them. It’s cruel, but also honest and gentle, and it demonstrates the way love isn’t necessarily enough to make a person change their nature.
As quiet and mellow as Alex’s message-sending scene is, this is a huge theme for the people aboard the Roci. Like Alex loving his family but leaving them anyway, they love each other but can’t stop being who they are: Holden can’t stop tilting at windmills anymore than Naomi can stop being loyal to the Belt. They make the choices they need to make, and they can ask for understanding from each other—but they can’t demand it.
With all of the tension on board, Holden nor Naomi can stop reaching out to other people, looking for understanding, or just a conversation that’s not tight with anger. For Naomi, this is underlined by the moment she asks Prax for the new name for the Roci (they need to not be easily identified, lest Mars reclaim the ship, or Earth blow them up on sight). He’s surprised she asks him; “Why not?” she asks in return. Who else would she ask, right now, when no one wants to talk to her?
He offers up Pinus Contorta, a pine tree that does well in low G and needs fire to be reborn. A phoenix of trees, if you will.
And for Holden, it’s finding a new windmill to tilt at: the mystery of Mei, Prax’s daughter, last seen being loaded onto a ship by the very dubious Dr. Strickland. When, at the end of the episode, he inspires the crew to head to Io (rather than to Fred Johnson and relative safety, as Naomi advises), it’s not just that it’s a new, dangerous purpose. He’s driven by a lot of things, and one of those things is guilt—survivor’s guilt, over and over again, after the Canterbury, after Eros. This is a new sliver of guilt to spur him on: their failure to save Mei. But it’s not just guilt: it’s hope. Nobody wants to go twiddle their thumbs on Tycho Station when they might be helpful somewhere else.
Speaking of Fred Johnson (who is always Fred Johnson, never just Fred or Johnson), his choice to get into bed with Dawes is both crummy and understandable… sort of. The best thing to come out of this choice so far is the pure, unalloyed rage of Drummer, who enters this season doing violent sit-ups while her stitches bleed. Dawes almost got them both killed, but more than that, he’s the worst version of what the Belt could be, and she knows that with a fury. But in the end, she lets hope win over anger: When Fred asks her to lead a mission to salvage the Nauvoo, last seen meandering off into space after failing to crash into Eros, she gets it. She sees the purpose—and the hope.
All of this, and I haven’t even gotten to Bobbie and Avasarala and Cotyar, holed up on Mao’s ship, having been betrayed by that snake Errinwright. He wants Avasarala out of the way, but he hasn’t counted on the loyalty she’s inspired in her two companion.
He also hasn’t counted on Bobbie Draper with her power armor. She may have some doubts about working for Avasarala, but in a crisis situation, with clear objectives, she has all the certainty and purpose she needs. All three of these people are scary good at thinking under pressure: they transform stress into competence, and they get the damn job done. Which at this very tense moment involves getting the hell off Mao’s ship before it gets blown up by its UN escort.
I don’t love all of this part of the episode—sending Bobbie outside to have her mags nearly fail, and throwing ever more obstacles into the way of their escape, makes it feel a little video-gamey. But I couldn’t wait to see Julie Mao’s oft-discussed racing sloop, the Razorback, in all its terrifyingly efficient neon-interior glory. It’s just a rocket! A rocket that people go in! At six Gs! Truly, like Avasarala, I would prefer not to.
But she has no choice – and, at this point, no clear destination. By the end of the hour, few things have been resolved and even more things have been set in motion:
- The UN’s declared war on Mars.
- Holden’s convinced the Roci crew to run off to Io to see what’s happening with the protomolecule there, which seems like a totally safe great idea, Holden, you have no idea what you’re getting into and no backup and there are probably more blue glowing space monsters and did you learn nothing from the raid on the station housing the evil scientists last season and probably it is clear I am already tense just thinking about how this is going to play out.
- Drummer is off salvaging the Nauvoo, which will probably not further endear Fred Johnson to the space Mormons, but I’m pretty sure he does not care about that.
- Bobbie and Avasarala are shooting off in search of a safe harbor from which she can try to clear things up, politically speaking, and clear her name (though she doesn’t know yet just how badly Errinwright has sullied it)
- And the “this season on The Expanse” promo offers us one tantalizing glance of Elizabeth Mitchell’s new character, being led somewhere past a lot of angry people waving “UNtrustworthy” signs. I cheered, literally, out loud on my sofa, because I love her and have wanted her to have a truly great role ever since Lost offed her Juliet so cruelly.
There’s so much potential ground to cover this season, and I keep thinking of, well, of a Loki line: “burdened with glorious purpose.” Holden needs a purpose, and isn’t always able to tell whether that’s good or bad. Avasarala has a purpose, which is to keep the peace, but she’s stymied by trolls and goblins among her own institution. Purpose changes Bobbie, who puts on her suit and is a marine once again, if not necessarily a Martian marine. And Naomi finds that her own purpose puts her at odds with the people she loves.
And that’s not even getting into the rest of the interplanetary conflicts. Abaddon’s Gate is my favorite (so far; I’m on book five) of the Expanse novels, so I’m so very, very excited to see how this season plays out, and at what point we get to that plot! But Leah Schnelbach will be back to discuss the rest of the season with you next week.
BOOK NERD NOTES
Syfy’s two current great adaptations—this and The Magicians—are playing similarly and interestingly with the narrative structure of the books they’re based on. The Magicians is now way off-book, but from season one to two, it acted very like The Expanse, ending season one before book one’s finale, and setting that finale in the middle of season two. The Expanse did that from S1 to S2 and looks to be doing the same thing here—which means we’ve only got until mid-season, most likely, for the last line of Caliban’s War to be uttered. I’ve got anticipation jitters thinking about it. And I keep trying to figure out where this season will end—if you theorize about this in the comments, please turn your text white to avoid spoiling anyone!
I also spent this morning obsessing over why the show took what was Holden’s decision in the book—to give the protomolecule to Fred Johnson—and made it Naomi’s. Narratively, it makes sense as Belter loyalty, but the way it’s turned the whole Roci crew against Naomi feels like something else. Was she seeming too good, too kind, among the family-deserters and murderers and bad-decision makers?
- Just how stressed is Holden? Stressed enough to destroy his the machine that makes his beloved coffee. The look on Prax’s face after is such a great sort of mild astonishment: “You should try tea.”
- I adore the admiring way Drummer says,“Bitch” about Naomi, when Fred tells her Naomi’s the one who gave them the protomolecule: it’s not even an insult coming from her.
- I hate Errinwright beyond reason. His tactic—the thing where he turns around everything he’s done and pins it on Chrisjen and pretends to be worried about her—is the most infuriating villain tactic. I want him to meet a horrible end.
- “You’ve done your planet a great service.””She says that to everyone.”
Molly Templeton can hardly contain herself with the bounty of SF shows returning this month (The 100! Westworld! Something else she can’t remember right now!) but is definitely most excited about this one. You can talk to her about it on Twitter.