One of the things that keeps me so invested in The Expanse—the show and the books—is that this story is interested in what comes after. It’s one of the things it has in common with Battlestar Galactica; it’s not (just) about how we get to a tipping point, but how we deal with it, what we learn, how we keep going. A lot of SFF focuses on the big moment of change, but I always want to know what’s next. How do we handle that kind of hard part? How does humanity rebuild after The Matrix Revolutions? How does the New Republic come into being after Return of the Jedi? (Yeah, I know, some of it’s in the books! I read them!)
I love “The Scouring of the Shire.” I love Ursula K. Le Guin’s Tehanu. And I love The Expanse, which shows again and again how big moments of change aren’t stopping points. There’s so much more to do after you survive.
[Spoilers for episodes 7 and 8, “A Shot in the Dark” and “The One-Eyed Man.”]
Episode 7: A Shot in the Dark
I wondered if the show would skip the death slugs, given that watching what everyone goes through on Ilus is very different than reading it. But here they are, just as the tension among the trapped Belters and RCE folks reaches a peak—and just as everyone’s eyes are leaking green. This planet apparently evolved all kinds of interesting life before human settlers showed up.
Murtry’s newfound amiability is so calculated and so transparent. (That scene when Chandra is just astonished by him helping up a Belter!) Now he says they ought to leave. Now he wants to help. He knows there is only one doctor in the ruins, and that she could very easily refuse to treat his people. He knows that things are likely to get worse. And he tips his hand to what he really wants out of the whole situation: power over the alien machinery. He doesn’t see the work of beings who were on this planet first; he sees something powerful that might finally get him what he feels he deserves.
To be fair, his little speech about the previous job he still has nightmares about is not entirely unsympathetic. And feeling like you’ve spent your career making other people richer is, well, not the rarest thing, is it? As ever, the problem is what Murtry wants to do with that feeling: fuck over anyone standing between him and greater profits, up to and including James Holden and the Roci crew.
Okoye continues to call Holden on his bullshit in the most refreshing ways. “You’re being given knowledge and answers that humans have only dreamt about.” She doesn’t know the whole picture, doesn’t know everything he’s seen and how much more of a burden the protomolecule voice in his head has been. But what she says is also true, and Holden tends to forget to look at it from that angle: That he’s been given a gift. A terrifying, traumatizing gift, but also one that sure helped in the slow zone.
(Okoye’s scientific curiosity is also an interesting contrast to Nancy Gao’s idealism.)
It’s a small moment in the grand scheme of things, but the scene with Amos and the orphan was beautiful—and a reminder that unexpected people can make connections even in the strangest, darkest times. Amos will always look out for the people he perceives as powerless, and that absolutely includes little kids. (Part of his friendship with and affection for Prax might’ve been because Prax was doing everything for his daughter.) It’s not just that, though, if you note the look of barely concealed panic on his face when Naomi tells them they’re going to be down there a while.
Amos hates being trapped. Helping gives him something to do, something that lets him stop thinking about how there’s no way out. Holden knows this. When he tells Amos, “I can’t do this without you,” it’s not just because he needs Amos. It’s because Amos needs purpose. (This is one of the very best moments of Holden growing into being a leader and I love it so much.)
Up in orbit, Felcia’s hands-on engineering education—and her skepticism that her annoying mom could have a good idea—is so good, and so hopeful, that you can almost forget for a second that they’re working against the clock to save the Belters and their future. Alex’s speech to Lucia felt a bit like a retread of Naomi’s previous speech, but it was also very Alex. He’s not the soldier or the engineer or the leader. He’s the guy that points the ship—and the people on it—in the right direction. He’s such a good dude.
On Earth … ok, I know it’s a very serious scene when Avasarala is judging herself, judging her speech, but I would like to talk about that… nightgown? Dressing gown? House dress? It’s white and it flows unlike anything she’s ever worn, and along with her loose hair and minimal makeup, it’s a clear indication that the battle has come to her. She hasn’t even had time to put herself together, to put on her armor. She’s on the defensive in a way we haven’t seen her before.
The person her team wants her to be, or needs her to be in order to win this election, doesn’t jibe with who she is. She’s direct. She gets shit done, she makes hard choices, and she’s learned over decades not to show weakness. None of that plays well against Nancy Gao’s polish and poise. And none of this is easy to watch, especially in an election year. We know how all of this works, all this noise about “electability” and all the ways female candidates should present themselves. Avasarala has tons of experience at being in office, but none at all at running for office. The skillsets aren’t necessarily the same, and it’s worth asking why that is, and whether it’s a problem.
Marco’s trap is set so well. So very, very, horribly well. I held my breath watching that boarding party, wanting it to work out and being crushingly certain that it wasn’t going to. The minute the UN marines got on that ship, Marco could have claimed the treaty was broken, but that wouldn’t have been a big enough splash for him. He’s too showy. He’s been planning this since before he was ever captured, and now he has what he wants: the wedge between the Belters and the Inners driven just as deep as before. His big chaos energy is really not to my liking.
You can see Avasarala realize just how fucked everything is when those feeds go dark. But right now, it’s hard to tell how much of her anxiety is about what happened—about everyone on that ship—and how much is about her campaign. She acted as if she only had two choices: blow up the ship or board it. But the third choice was not to do anything. To watch and wait. There’s no guarantee that would’ve been the right choice, either, but she never considered it.
Episode 8: “The One-Eyed Man”
It’s aftermath I wanted, and aftermath I got, especially where Avasarala is concerned. Now, she’s even less guarded—until she puts that armor back on, carefully considering each piece.
Gao gives good speech, but she gives herself away when she says that peace between the UN and the OPA “is essential for the colonization of the new worlds.” She’s no different than Avasarala; she’ll also try to turn a horrible situation to her benefit. But she’s not the one who made the choice. She’s not the one who will have to justify her actions to resigning generals and an outraged public.
In the Belt, Fred Johnson is pissed. (Hi, Fred! It’s been a while!) You know who’s more pissed than Fred Johnson? Drummer. She doesn’t care that Fred was bargaining with the UN, trying to get UN ships out of the ring space. Belters don’t sell out Belters. She quits.
Both men look totally flabbergasted. I kinda know how they feel: Drummer, don’t go! But her choice leads to one of my favorite scenes in this excellent season: Drummer and Ashford, in the heart of Medina Station, talking about what a future for Belters looks like. She doesn’t want them to be like this Inners, with their “history of coveting another’s homeland and killing to take it.” But things keep moving in that direction and she’s sad. Not angry—not right now.
It’s weird to see Drummer sad. She seemed to start out angry and stay that way, maintaining her cold fury along with her pristine posture and tightly controlled hair. Everything about her speaks of control, and it makes her the perfect foil for Ashford, always a little sloppy, his hair all on end. David Straithairn plays him like a space scarecrow, his gait loose, his expression quizzical. Watching them learn to stop antagonizing each other and work together has been one of the great delights of this season and the last one, and if she’s gotta quit, I’d like them to go on a space road trip together.
But no. Ashford’s smile when she asks to come aboard his ship is the best smile we’ve seen all season, so genuine and glad. But Drummer’s had enough of working for “big men with big dreams.” Their Belter handclasp has all the weight of a long embrace, and I hope it’s not the final farewell it feels like.
On Ilus, things are incredibly bleak. No one can see, and given the danger of instant-death slug-touches, no one can move out from under the tarps rigged up to keep the death slugs off. Holden stalks around, carrying bodies, dispensing sedatives, looking like an angel of death. He’s at everyone’s beck and call, errand boy, protector, bathroom guide.
But Amos is a mess. His terror vibrates off him. The story he tells to Chandra isn’t complete, but it’s enough to tell us that he’s suffering intense PTSD. “I thought I was dead,” he says about his childhood in complete darkness. Amos hates being helpless, hates sitting in the dark and waiting to die, and now we know why it’s so much worse for him. Holden doesn’t know about that basement, but he knows he has to fix it, or he’s going to lose Amos. And he has to assume Amos isn’t the only one feeling that way.
Up in orbit, everything goes so well with Lucia’s plan that it almost makes me nervous. It’s also stunning and cinematic and perfect in a way that makes me really wish I could watch this show on the big screen. There’s heft and grace to the way The Expanse depicts scenes in space—the complexity of living out there, the necessity of taking every precaution, can be seen in all the purposeful movement and care.
The casual way Esai Martin says, “Hey!” when he sees Bobbie at the door is unlike anything else he’s said. It’s not constrained. It’s not chilly. There’s genuine warmth. It shouldn’t be a surprise to see him with a life and a family, yet it is, because he’s closed himself off so carefully, keeping his personal life and his criminal life separate. The speech he gives feels almost unnecessary—everything we’ve seen on Mars has shown us exactly what he says about the fate of Mars—but she hasn’t faced any of the truth in what he says. She tries, when she fights with Unconvincing Boyfriend, but it sounds like she’s trying to convince herself.
The scene in Martin’s home is also an effective way to remind us that every person has an interior and a personal life. It makes all the losses that much more acute, especially in contrast with Avasarala’s memorial speech.
I’m sorry that I’m going to talk about clothes again, but that suit Avasarala wears to give her latest beautiful, manipulative speech is 100% stunning. (This screenshot doesn’t even begin to do it justice.) Most characters on this show wear clothes for utility: uniforms, layers or protective gear that needs to do a job. Avasarala’s outfits also have a job to do, but they are anything but utilitarian. And look, I am bad at clothes. On a good day my shades of black almost match. So I don’t have the vocabulary to explain all the things this look says and does. It’s black for a funeral, and a suit because she means business, and a suit means formality. But it also isn’t those things: it’s gold, and it swirls about her leg on one side. That movement makes her look almost unstable when she walks. The design makes her look vastly different from different angles. It’s two things at once, one precious and one funereal, and she wears it while being two people at once: the politician she has been, and the one who goes off-book in a calculated way.
I think she means what she says, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t calculated. It’s certainly not enough for Arjun, who sees only that she used their son for political gain.
But did she? I mean, yes, she did, but couldn’t you argue that everything she does in an election season will be seen as, and interpreted as, something she’s doing for political gain? What options does that leave her? How can she be a person and a candidate? What would it look like to not use that speech for gain? Was she trying? If you watch Nancy Gao’s face when Avasarala sits down afterward, she seems to shift from an intense stare to a surprised look, as if she didn’t expect Avasarala to look truly affected. Or like she’s not sure which of them is playing the game better. Why does she smile so much when she walks away from the reporters, though?
Arjun’s anger about the image leak goes back to their earlier conversation about doing things for the right reasons. She didn’t do it because she wants to be honest about what’s really out there. She did it because she wants to undermine Nancy Gao and change the narrative.
Chrisjen Avasarala has to do the impossible. To be the caring matriarch but to make hard choices. To be vulnerable and honest but never use anything for political gain. To tell the truth but only the right truths, and only in the right ways. And that’s just the people around her demanding those things; what is the rest of the world demanding?
The Expanse’s writers have structured her arc masterfully. I don’t necessarily want to sympathize with the career politician whose choices just got a lot of people killed. I hate that she leaked the images from Ilus not to inform, but to manipulate. I want her to be honest, like I wanted Holden to be honest on Ilus, but here, too, the truth might not be what makes the difference.
FLOTSAM AND JETSAM
- This season has so many good moments of advancing the story via background imagery and design, but Drummer’s use of her office’s decorations to make her point was a particularly graceful touch. Think of when the UN guys were “measuring her office for curtains”—she switched from the view of the ship’s interior to those massive Mormon scenes, back from when the station was the Nauvoo. It was to keep them from spying, but it was also to remind us that the Belt doesn’t have the same history. It’s younger and it’s definitely violent, but there’s been no Belter manifest destiny. They’ve caused no genocides as they built their lives on asteroids. Drummer’s sadness is the fear that it’s only a matter of time.
- Space friends stop TOUCHING your green eye goo!!!
- The more everyone says “my people” the more I feel a distant kinship between this and The 100.
- Pretty sure it’s meaningful that Arjun is teaching his students about reverse psychology. But I can’t stop thinking about how small Arjun’s class is. We don’t really know who his students are: Children of privilege? The ones who won the lottery? Are they apprentices, future teachers, future politicians? There are so few of them in that room that wherever they come from, their numbers illustrate the rarity of success.
- Seems a little weird that Okoye’s equipment doesn’t have any way to read her the results.
- The season is almost over and I still get weird vibes from Bobbie’s boyfriend.
- “Thanks for hating your parents! You might save us all from being fucked.”
- Miller is glitching and that seems very bad. Something killed the builders, after all.
TINY BOOK GEEK OUT
Bringing Avasarala—and Shohreh Aghdashloo’s careful, beautifully foul-mouthed, endlessly conflicted depiction of her—to the foreground in this season is one of the best choices in a lineup of great choices. By this point in the books—and correct me if I’m misremembering any of this—the election happens entirely offscreen, in the time between Cibola Burn and Nemesis Games. We have no idea what goes into it, how it plays out. We just know from the epilogue to Cibola Burn that Gao becomes sec-gen.
And in the books, Avasarala was trying to save Mars. Or at least that’s what she tells Bobbie; whether she means it is, as ever, somewhat up for debate. That doesn’t seem to be her purpose on the show, where her concerns seem to be more about not getting a lot more people killed by protomolecule goo/tech/etc. But I haven’t read past book five yet (all I want to do is get caught up!) so maybe there are elements here that I’m missing.