Existentialism in SPAAAAACE: The Expanse, “Dandelion Sky”

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This was a surprisingly talky episode of The Expanse! “Dandelion Sky” touched on free will, determinism, the nature of consciousness, the nature of fear…there was a lot going on as our intrepid space people drew ever closer to The Ring. There are spoilers below, obviously, but also a content warning as I’ll be talking about suicide, specifically how it was depicted in this episode, so if you need to tread carefully or simply not read that part I’ll drop another warning in when we get there. (And if you haven’t seen the episode yet, note that it shows a suicide, in a blunt, graphic scene, so if that’s something you don’t want in your head, just read a recap for this one.)

First of all… HOLY SHIT HE LEFT A NOTE. Holden actually left Amos and Alex a note. I’m proud of him. I’m going to go ahead and come back to Holden at the end, but I just needed to get that out of my system.

Meanwhile… Anna, What Have You Done?

Of all the things I anticipated in this episode, I did not expect Anna to go on an unintentional killing spree. First, she ignored Nemeroff in his time of need, and he suicides, and then she tells Tilly to reach out to Melba/Clarissa, and naturally Clarissa feels cornered, bites one of her HAM pills, and launches herself at the woman.

ANNA. Either help more, or way less. I’m not even sure which.

So about Nemeroff. Just as the UN Thomas Prince is about to make the transit into The Ring, a man approaches Anna. (I don’t remember seeing him as anything other than a background character before—did I miss him?) He says he’s a Methodist, like her: First Methodist of Cedar Rapids, Iowa. With that out of the way, he lets his mask drop, and looks openly terrified. He asks her directly: “Do you think God wants us to be here?”

Anna has a choice. She could lie and just say yes, to calm him down, or be a bit more open and say she doesn’t know but she believes so. There are many things that she could do that would be appropriate. But my girl is EXCITED. She doesn’t want to comfort someone, or deal with fear right now, so instead she says, “Scripture is quiet on this one.” And then she says “Excuse me,” and walks away.

Reader, I said “oh, no!” out loud.

This man, an avowed member of her literal flock just reached out to her and she rejected him. As became clear last week, Anna wants to see The Ring because she finds it exhilarating. She wanted a private moment, personal, to experience history on her own terms without being interrupted or distracted. It makes sense—I’d want the same thing.

But.

As a pastor, Anna made an agreement with the humans of her church (and, you know, God) that she’d put others first. She would care for others’ emotional well-being before her own. She agreed not to be selfish. And technically this selflessness holds for anyone—if an atheist Buddhist who has a grudge against Methodists walks up to her, she’s supposed to listen to them. But this is a fully-fledged flock member, who announces himself as a Methodist, which probably makes it even worse for him when she refuses to engage with his fear.

She has her moment, the pure exhilaration of the transit, and then she spends some time theorizing with her Kolvoord, guessing that maybe the objects floating in The Ring function like cysts would in the human body. The scientist says the ship is “where angels fear to tread if they had any goddamn sense” and then apologizes for cursing, calling her pastor. Only then does she check on Nemeroff, who is vibrating with fear. She asks if he’s OK, but she does this in public, perfunctorily, rather than asking if he wants to go somewhere private to talk, or reassuring him, or trying to set a time for them to talk in the future. (Any of the things that might have calmed him, basically.) And he says he’s fine and walks back to his quarters and kills himself.

I’m going to come back to this.

A few scenes later, Anna’s walking with Kolvoord, telling him that her father used to say, “God gave us two texts: scripture and Creation. If they seem to contradict it’s because we haven’t understood one of them yet.” When Kolvoord remarks that that’s enlightened, she laughs and says it pre-dates the Enlightenment, because she later learned her dad was quoting Augustine. (Pedantic note: Anna says “Ogg-gus-steen” rather than “O-gustin”—this doesn’t really matter, I’m just always intrigued by which pronunciation people use, since the second one seems more common in academic circles.) This is fun and cute and once again reminds us that Anna is the major voice of wisdom on this show, which is a perfect way to break all of our hearts when another crewman informs her of Nemeroff’s death. Of course, he says it was an accident, but Anna immediately knows better. And what’s more, as she says to Tilly: “I should have been more focused on why I’m here. I’m not a scientist, I’m a pastor. I’m here to offer comfort. To sit with people when they’re scared. That’s what a minister is supposed to do.”

She delivers the eulogy at his funeral, admitting that she didn’t know him well, and then saying: “He asked me if I thought God wanted us to be here. I didn’t know answer, and I don’t know it now. What I do believe is that God wants us to be together. To care for each other.” She urges the rest of the crew to be gentle with each other, and to keep track of each others’ emotions. This is good, but again, I have a few thoughts. I’ll be talking about the suicide scene in more detail now, so hop down to the next heading if you need to.

The arc of Nemeroff’s fear, suicide, and funeral seemed much too rushed to me. I like how all the actors played it, but I couldn’t help but think of how much better it would be if we’d met Nemeroff more explicitly last week, if he’d tried to approach Anna but changed his mind, or even if they’d had an initial conversation before. Unless I missed him, this seemed to be our introduction to Nemeroff, and he went from scared to suicidally depressed to actually killing himself all over the course of what looked like a single day? And then the funeral was immediate, but people didn’t really seem grieved or shocked enough. Plus, Anna is giving a eulogy for someone whose death is being publicly called an accident, but her repeated requests for the crew to take care of each other is a huge hint about what actually happened. I don’t know, it just didn’t quite work for me, and Anna actually seemed too much in control given her guilt over his death—which, obviously, it is not her fault. I think this episode shows his death as too much of a cause-and-effect situation, which is another reason I wish they’d seeded this in earlier. I think it’s fairly obvious that he’s reacting in panic to contact with an alien intelligence, which is different from someone who lives with suicidal depression, but it’s still unsettling that the show kind of codes this as “Anna ignored his pain, and that’s what killed him.” I don’t know, I’m still working through this one, so I’m interested in hearing what other people think.

The other thing though is that they made the choice to show Nemeroff shooting himself, with the camera essentially plunked at the perfect angle so we saw everything. And I don’t think there was any value in that. Showing Maneo liquifying as his ship hit The Ring was one thing—that showed us exactly what happens when a ship comes in too fast, which set the stakes for all the other ships that were approaching. Now we know that if Holden or Naomi or Drummer or anyone else speeds up, they might get squished. Maneo’s death showed a narrative purpose, and showing it served arguably even more of a purpose. This, though? We already know that blood beads and floats in zero G. We know what happens to a human head when a bullet goes through it. We know people are terrified about going through The Ring, and yes, showing someone killing himself to avoid first contact is extremely effective, but we could have gotten the entire emotional arc just from seeing him look at the screen, and then hearing the shot. Anna still would have realized the truth, and felt guilty.

In conclusion, I’m not sure what to do with all of these emotions. The other part of Anna’s storyline is simpler. Tilly bumps into Melba, and realizes that she’s Clarissa Mao. When she tells Anna, the pastor, reeling from her own lapse in judgment, recommends that she reach out to try to help Clarissa. Obviously none of them know that she’s plotting against Holden; they simply assume she’s in hiding because of her father. Of course, when Tilly tries, Clarissa goes on the attack.

 

Meanwhile… Naomi? What Are You Even Doing, Naomi?

Naomi’s still trying to get in touch with the Roci. The MCRN threatens to arrest her, she argues with Martian, the Martian tells her she has to stand down. That’s it for her plotline so far.

 

Roci Time!

Mostly the action on the Roci this week is Amos and Alex bouncing off each other while they deal with Holden’s note. We do get two great Amos moments, though. First he claims not to have felt fear since he was five years old.

That’s…oddly specific.

Then when Alex confesses that he’s afraid they’re all going to die—humanity, not just the people in The Ring—Amos replies with the most comforting story he can think of.

Amos: Back in Baltimore, I had this friend, she said if the end ever came she’d go on the roof with a bottle and her two cats, have a toast, and jump.

Alex: With the cats?

Amos: Like a freakin’ pharaoh.

Then he cups his hand on Alex’s cheek, kind of under his ear. “Don’t worry. I’ll take you with me, too.” This moment becomes even funnier if you think about the fact that most cats love it when you scritch them under their ears, so Amos is, essentially scritching Alex to comfort him. 

 

Behemoth!

Oooof this was tiresome to me. Ashford puffs his chest, Drummer tells him to quit it, the jerk kid from two seasons ago tells Ashford he should be captain, more chest-puffing ensues. Just coup if you’re gonna!

 

And Finally: Holden

Holden’s note did in fact say: “I have to do this on my own” and “Do not follow me—that’s an order,” and he does in fact spend the entire trip to the nucleus bitching about how he NEVER ASKED FOR THIS and “I’m starting to feel like I’m cursed” (which, seriously? Just now?) until Miller tries to shut him down by telling him he’s just following the program. Holden replies with, “I have this crazy notion of free will” (ha! I happen to be #teamfreewill, so I followed my own programming by applauding that moment) and Miller snipes, “You’re the patron saint of lost causes, kid. Quit runnin’ from it.”

This encapsulates what works on this show. This is a tense, action-based scene. Holden is floating through space into unknowable danger. But rather than cranking up the soundtrack we just get two characters (one of whom might be an alien, or dead, or both) debating free will vs. determinism. It’s great. Holden wants to know whether Miller is truly Miller, and the reply is, surprise, unsettling. Basically a human (or maybe all matter?) is “a fancy hand terminal with a trillion buttons”—the proto-molecule is running the Miller program so Holden will understand what it needs, which is to get the system back online.

The Martians are en route to intercept, and Bobbie tries talking to him, but Holden is so busy arguing with Miller (whom of course no one else can hear) that Bobbie has to agree with her commander that he’s “cracked.” But at least they all seem to agree that he’s probably not a terrorist? Holden speeds up to try to get away from them, even as Miller warns him that The Ring will squish him if he keeps it up. “Just exercising some free will,” Holden says. “Bein’ an asshole,” Miller responds. They make it to the nucleus, which Miller explains used to be a civilization, but is now a bunch of closed doors. He wants Holden to pick the locks. Once inside the nucleus it basically looks like a cave made out of the Matrix. The matter here can rearrange itself at will, just as the proto-molecule did on Eros. Holden needs to act like a good hand terminal, and complete a circuit for the alien. But Holden, being a human, still wants to know whether there’s any Miller left in Miller. He blips out of sight for a moment, and then the Miller who reappears seems much more like the one we used to know. He goes into a poignant story that Julie told him, about angels leading children halfway into death so they wouldn’t be afraid. He tried to be that angel for Julie, but was so scared that she held his hand. So this is seemingly a bit of Miller’s true consciousness, pushed up to the surface of the proto-molecule to reassure Holden.

I don’t know. This whole thing seems pretty horrific to me.

Of course the Martians show up to intercept him, Bobbie tries to talk to him, they shoot, the bullets freeze in time because they’re going too fast for The Ring’s physics, and then Bobbie’s commander does a Truly Dumb Thing and throws a grenade. When I watched this I thought that the sequence was thus: The Ring perceived the grenade as a threat and dismembered the commander in self-defense, Holden used the chaos to stick his hand in the circuit, then time slowed with a jolt and possibly killed everyone on all the other ships. Molly pointed out though that The Ring perceived the threat and immediately slowed all the ships so they would move slower than the grenade, then Holden completed the circuit. Either way, a lot of people just got squashed.

Holden kwizatz haderachs all over the place, sticking his hand in the pain box and turning into a living, breathing Galaxy Brain meme. He seems to experience everything the proto-molecule has done, in a series of rapid visions, before being flung back onto the floor. He, um, he looks pretty dead.

 

Random Thoughts Floating in the Void of Space

  • So what’s happened to all the people who were just forcibly slowed down? Has everyone flattened?
  • At least it looks like Clarissa and Tilly’s fight was interrupted?
  • Amos’ love for Alex makes me so happy I’m glad the show doesn’t spend too much time on it, because it would render me incapable of thinking about anything else.
  • Bobbie being part of the Holden Interception Plan seemed super forced to me.
  • Ditto Naomi just…flying around.
  • A Martian, on the Nucleus: “Maybe little green men will come out?”
  • Holden, on being pursued: “Ugh. Martians.”
  • Holden, trying to understand the Miller Program: “Even the hat?”
    Miller Program: “I like the hat.”

 

Book Notes for Book Nerds

I watched this so late at night, and was so anxious about the Great Slow(er)down, that I almost forgot: THE PORTALS! WE SAW THE PORTALS!

I don’t know why I’m so excited about this when I am not looking forward to toxic lizards and the villain of book four, but… it was appropriately epic for what was going on this episode. And a lot of other bits … didn’t feel epic enough. The show’s been struggling a lot with scale: the massiveness of the Behemoth never feels massive; the occasional establishing shot of the Ring does make the ships look mighty tiny, but then we spend so much time up close and green-glowingly personal with Holden and Miller that the scale of all of this fades away again. I want to feel dwarfed. I want humanity to look so small.

Not having shown us the center, and the inner scale, of the Behemoth is part of this, and I don’t know that we’re ever going to see that, which means we’re going to lose some of the effect of everything being slowed even further. But it’s ok! I think. I understand that this was just a tease, that we’re really going to get into the aftermath next week, but it didn’t exactly work. The impact was so diffuse as to almost be unclear. Putting Bobbie on the station with Holden does, as Leah notes, seem forced; the balance between the characters’ stories felt off this week. The Ashford/Drummer conflict feels like an afterthought with no way forward; Tilly’s underdeveloped, and so her gentle approach to Clarissa seems almost out of character; Holden’s relationship with his destiny/free will argument kind of feels like going through the motions. For now.

Maybe this is just me wanting more, more, more, though. Did the slowing work for you? Was the station alien enough? Is Anna still going to do that thing she does? Two more episodes!

Leah Schnelbach wants to make it clear that her love for Pastor Anna will still be strong, no matter how many times she screws up. Come talk about guilt on Twitter!

Molly Templeton might have to go home and watch this one again. You can find her spilling her Expanse and other feels on Twitter.

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