Halfway through last season was the point when the story shifted from the war between Earth and Mars to the matter of the ring, so maybe it’s not a huge surprise that the midpoint of season four brings a whole new threat! A big one! One that totally freaks me out! Let’s get right to it!
[Spoilers for episodes 4 and 5, “Oppressor” and “Displacement.”]
Episode 5: “Oppressor”
I’m one of those idealists who always—as impractical and unrealistic as it is! I know!—wants the truth to be what counts. I don’t know what to chalk that up to—my astrological sign, a childhood obsession with fairness, just the way my internal compass is set, or what. So I hated watching Holden finally decide to tell the truth, only to have it accomplish zilch. Truth isn’t what’s going to help the shitshow on Ilus resolve. The truth is that the Belters were there first. The truth is that RCE believes in their legally binding charter. The truth is that the planet isn’t giving them much choice.
None of that helps.
The piece of the truth that Holden offers at the episode’s start—that alien artifacts are waking up; that the machine could’ve destroyed the settlement—isn’t enough to convince anyone to leave the planet behind, only to try to use the information for their own ends. Holden’s evacuation idea is met with scorn from all sides: Murtry’s like, Nah, you first, while the Belters are absolutely right to recognize that if they leave, they will never get to come back.
The Belters take hostages, retaliation for Murtry murdering a bunch of them and locking the rest in their homes. It’s a terrible idea that’s followed by another one: Murtry wanting to gas everyone, restrain the people with weapons, and forcibly return them to their ship.
And in the middle of all of this, Naomi—back breathing easy aboard the Roci—gently reminds Holden that no one has a right to make the Belters leave. Not Murtry, believing in his government’s righteousness (and his own authority), and not Holden, believing that he knows what’s best for everyone, and feeling responsible for their fates.
The conflict on Ilus’ surface is so ugly that it can be easy to forget one simple fact: The Inners could have left the Belters alone. They could have called back the RCE ship. They could’ve ceded one planet in the vastness of the ring gate systems to the Belt. But to do that would require a realignment of how everyone thinks about the ring systems, and no one is ready to back down—or to be honest about the potential threat—yet.
Except maybe James Holden, who basically got into all of this way back when by being honest. By telling the whole system the truth as he saw it. When he marches out into the square and announces he’s unarmed, Amos’s response is simply Oh shit, because Holden is Holdening again.
“This planet is not what you think it is,” is a good start, but he goes straight to trying to explain Miller, and loses everyone so fast. Okoye wants to test the impossible. Carol scoffs, saying he’s just a guy who made some lucky guesses. Murtry wants to control the artifacts, and/or undermine Holden with mockery (“Oh, the ghost didn’t tell you, but the vision did! I can see why you didn’t tell anyone”). Carol still doesn’t see any other options but for the Belters to stay: they have nowhere else to go. And Murtry will never stand down.
No one wants to give an inch. Trusting Holden would mean giving up the illusion of control that each leader clings to. It would mean setting aside ego and all the reasons each party has to be suspicious of the other. It might mean sharing resources! Imagine that!
In orbit, the RCE and the Roci do just that: Fayez asks Naomi for her data, and quietly adds that Murtry is a) not his boss and b) kind of a dick. This gives them common ground, and that tiny moment of cooperation, of ignoring all the battle lines, is a huge breath of fresh air. So is the scene with Naomi and Lucia, when Naomi uses her own history to illustrate how “deserving” to live isn’t the issue. She doesn’t tell Lucia what to do; she tells her how Marco tricked her, how she walked away and never saw her son again, how she almost walked out an airlock. It’s not instruction; it’s just a story about how things can change. “There is a path from where you are to where I am. All we did was buy you a little time. You decide what you want to do with it.”
(Naomi is space Gandalf.)
Back on Earth, Avasarala and Gao have their first debate—or part of it, anyway. Gao’s take on the Eros incident is deeply concerning; is she really that naive? That it was just “frightening”? Thousands of people died, and she wants to run out and embrace her new alien friends?
But Avasarala’s misstep on the Basic question is huge. She’s underestimated Nancy Gao—her ambition and her awareness of how she got to where she is. Gao knows the people behind her in line for her apprenticeship; she knows firsthand how the system works or doesn’t. “Six thousand people fight for one slot and we say anyone can make it. Any one of those six thousand. Not two. Not ten. Certainly not everyone. We all know the system is broken. We all just want a chance. We aren’t afraid to work hard.”
Gao spins this into advocating for colonization of the systems, of course, because all she sees are enough planets to create jobs for everyone. Or, in her words, “a chance.” Quick question: Why is “a chance” always a matter of work? What if we reconsidered what it means to have a chance, or a life? Maybe Basic doesn’t work because it was built by capitalists who believe people exist to be productive. (OK, maybe that’s a stretch? But maybe not?)
Alas, I feel like Gao is going to have a lot more chances to make uninformed decisions about people’s futures, given what happens when security fetches Avasarala out of the debate.
Remember when all those bodies went past Medina Station, and Drummer and Ashford discussing whether or not the Inners knew what happened to the Sojourner? Well, they know now. Now that ship is on a collision course with Earth’s early warning systems, and Avasarala has to choose quickly whether she believes the message it’s broadcasting or thinks it’s a fakeout. And no matter what she does, her choice will be used against her politically.
Imagine if any of them could see what Alex sees on Ilus: what looks like a supervolcano turning into what looks like a mushroom cloud. A lot of arguments are about to become irrelevant.
Episode 6: “Displacement”
For the most part, this season has been clever about moving between its narrative threads. What’s happening on Mars connects to the greater scope of events in the system on multiple levels. The Earth narrative is so much about power and ignorance: the ignorance of Nancy Gao’s colonization dreams, and Avasarala’s struggles to stay in power. Ilus, the centerpiece, is a reminder that “empty” places aren’t actually empty, and stands in for what might happen on hundreds of planets if humanity starts to explore all the gates.
This week’s Mars section spends too much time setting up its payoff: that Martin isn’t a monster, and that he values Bobbie enough to save her life. Bobbie almost looks like she enjoys herself for a minute, and she’s clearly getting used to Leelee’s endless bitchiness. (Though WHY would she introduce herself to the new guy with her full name!) Her jaunt outside, though, sits a bit weirdly against everything else going on this episode.
Mars, Earth, and the Belt are relatively minor players this time, because the core of “Displacement” is a largely a disaster movie, and a terrifying one. On Earth, Avasarala’s news is out of date, and no new messages have come through. Not to her, and not to the OPA. No one knows how bad it’s gotten.
On Medina Station, the UN are being shitheads, using the Sojourner attack to justify stepping on Belter toes. Drummer doesn’t hesitate in telling them that Marco Inaros was responsible. The UN blowhards are a little bit useful: They detected a tightbeam comm laser (gosh, wonder where Marco’s people got those?) sent to the Belt during the attack. It’s enough intel to help Drummer and Ashford (who tries very hard not to say “I told you so”) find the ship Marco appears to be on, and to keep an eye on it.
(I don’t at all know what’s up with the video of Ashford singing to a baby. Any guesses?)
What eventually makes everyone listen to Holden is proof. After establishing, via Naomi and Alex, that what’s coming is very, very bad, he sends the data to everyone’s comms. They confer with their own ships, and everyone in orbit confirms: shit’s gone sideways. There is no arguing your way out of the science. First: a seismic quake. Second: a shockwave moving at the speed of sound.
Third: a giant tsunami.
As Amos says: “Fuck. Me.”
People listen to the science, in the sense that they believe the other side of the planet has just exploded, but the disaster is still hours away (just! hours!) and people keep on peopling in the meantime. Carol wants Holden to promise to support the Belter claim to Ilus. Murtry wants to make a terrible deal with the Belters before he’ll lift a finger to help them. And while they argue, everything goes from bad to worse:
- The reactors of every ship in orbit stop working. The Roci can’t land, but also, without reactors to keep them in orbit, all three ships will all eventually fall out of the sky.
- The shuttle meant to evacuate people melts into nothing.
- A moon might be melting?
Plan C it is, and friends, I don’t like plan C. Plan C is going to the big alien structure, which involves going down into what look like a giant moat and there is a tsunami coming, please, have you considered up? Up’s nice.
Murtry just gets worse, basically asking Chandra if push comes to shove, will she murder Belters in order to keep RCE people alive, even if Holden and company have a problem with it? Her answer is wisely evasive: “If that’s the case, I’ll do what needs to be done.” (Given her “in case” smooch on Amos before they climb into the structure, I’m not sure Murtry’s going to like her choices.)
The shockwave is awful. Poor Okoye, who’s just discovered some gnarly green floaties in her eye, has been having a very bad time. The look on her face when she steps outside after the shockwave is a stark reminder that in the last few weeks? days? she’s been nearly exploded in a shuttle; watched a man be murdered in cold blood; seen alien technology (or creatures; remember what she said about evolution) in action; been kept in the dark about what might really be going on; and now, knocked around by a shockwave that’s just the prelude to a much bigger disaster. She leans on science as much as she can to explain things, but not everything can be explained.
But: these disasters aren’t entirely unnatural. Yeah, ok, the supervolcano-reactor explosion is a bit out of the ordinary. But volcanoes erupt. Tsunamis happen. This time, it’s (probably) about the protomolecule builders. But these things could happen anywhere. They could happen on Earth. And sometimes when they do happen, the damage is worse because of what humans have done to the planet.
(Thank you, show, for that bit of sweetness when Holden doesn’t want Alex to feel left out of his conversation with Naomi, and Alex gets all awkward, because he understood.)
Those of you who read along with last season’s recaps may recall how much Leah hated watching people get spaced. It’s now my turn to be wildly uncomfortable and stressed out by my beloved show: tsunamis freak me the hell out. Watching that wave rush in made me sick to my stomach. It just swallows the town. It swallows everything.
And it almost swallows Holden, out there doing the brave and stupid and necessary thing. That final shot, of Holden swinging from the rope while water pours down on him and everyone else, is crushing. How does it work? How does anyone survive? How do we keep clinging to these tiny rocks in the vastness of space when things keep trying to shake us off?
FLOTSAM AND JETSAM
- Nerd point: “Oppressor” was written by Ty Franck and Daniel Abraham, aka James S.A. Corey. The guy who tells Avasarala about the ship that’s targeting their early warning system? His nameplate reads “Franck.”
- The rare moment where Murtry’s arrival DEfuses a situation—when Holden finds Amos restrained—is an interesting one. But there are two small and unnerving Murtry moments in “Oppressor”: when he wants the second shuttle made into a bomb, and when he demands every detail about the alien tech.
- Extremely glad Naomi got to correct the record on what happened with her and Marco.
- I was trying to cut the show some slack—there’s so much going on—but it may be time to admit that Alex is underused this season. This is no shade on Cas Anvar, whose reluctant-doc scene was incredibly good, but things feel a little imbalanced.
- A moment of appreciation for Avasarala’s ““Get the fuck out” response to being told she needs to come off as “approachable” and “nurturing” in her campaign.
- The structure’s door being slightly open: Miller, or the earthquake?
- Amos’s version of affection: “Get your ass back here, Cap.”
BOOK GEEK OUTS
Honestly? I’ve got almost nothing—I’m a little too in awe of that last Ilus sequence to think straight. Except that I can’t stop thinking about the Sojourner, and about how far into Marco’s timeline we might be. With Drummer and Ashford stalking him across the system, there’s no telling how much that plot might advance—not, uh, all the way to that thing that we should definitely not spoil for anyone who hasn’t read book five, but definitely closer to the start of it.