Trying to Do Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast in The Expanse’s “Hard Vacuum”

I’m never going to stop talking about how good Dominique Tipper is in this show, and especially this season. Everyone in “Hard Vacuum” is facing something that seems impossible, but Naomi is struggling with the hardest, most physical manifestation of an impossible task. It’s an aching, exhausting, solo performance, and it anchors another solidly engrossing episode.

Spoilers follow!

Tipper never lets you forget that Naomi, stuck alone on the Chetzemoka, is in incredible pain. (If you happened to Google “what would really happen to a body that spent a minute in space,” hey, we did the same thing this week.) Her situation is tenuous at best, but the strain is upped by her puffy hands and the fact that it clearly hurts her to do anything. And she’s got to figure out how to survive the stripped, rigged-to-explode ship—and keep her crewmates out of danger. All while a fake taped recording cycles endlessly, asking to be passed on to James Holden, luring him to her rescue.

In Nemesis Games, you’re up close and personal with Naomi as this happens; you know what she knows, and what she’s trying to do. On screen, the show requires your patience, and it’s a wise choice. Not knowing exactly what Naomi’s plans are keeps our focus on the physicality of her task, on the force of will required to keep moving at all, and on her determination and anger and heartbreak and pain. One plan fails; she moves to another. And eventually something works, though we can’t know yet if it’s too late. The only people who definitely hear her edited message are the unlikely pair of Oksana and Karal, having a fraught conversation aboard one of Drummer’s ships.

Screenshot: Amazon Studios

Marco, of course, couldn’t not tell Naomi his plan for the Chetzemoka. He’s not satisfied without a steaming helping of cruelty, as he demonstrates with Filip. Claiming that Cyn’s death is the boy’s fault is vicious (and not the first time we’ve seen Marco respond to pain with intense cruelty). Marco could have used it as another wedge between mother and son, as a way to bring Filip closer in. Instead, he lashes out, once again making Filip responsible for everything that happened after he brought Naomi on board. Maybe he thinks that’ll make Filip angry at Naomi, but it’s starting to seem like this is going to blow up in Marco’s face.

On Luna, acting secretary-general David Pastor gives a speech, building himself into a tizzy that’s more about posturing and playing to people’s anger more than it is about forward motion. The point doesn’t need to be victory; it needs to be survival. These aren’t necessarily different things, but they aren’t always the same thing, either.

Avasarala’s partnership with Admiral Delgado is falling apart. They were a great team when they were playing defense, but he’s a monster on offense, insisting that the best move is to retaliate by destroying a Belter station. There’s almost nothing to be gained here; it’s pure escalation. Avasarala has been in this for so long that she understands the situation better than anyone: kill innocent Belters, and you turn the entire Belt even more against the inner planets—even those not already on Marco’s side. But Earther prejudice means half the people in the room already think Belters are all the same. Their argument is deeply uncomfortable to listen to, and later, when Pastor invites Delgado to speak freely, things get even uglier.

Screenshot: Amazon Studios

Their conversation makes clear that Pastor will consider cutting Avasarala out of the discussion. To his credit, though, he isn’t willing to immediately implement Delgado’s ideas, which come with a deeply chilling pretense of neutrality. “My job isn’t to assess morality. This is simply what we need to do,” Delgado says, as if mass murder is the only option. His argument is exactly the same as Marco’s: they hit us first, so it’s really their fault if they now get murdered. Once again, no one seems able to imagine approaching the problem in a different way.

On Earth, we get both some of the episode’s darkest moments and few much-needed moments of levity (why is the simple reality that people have to pee somehow funny?). Clarissa, who’s feeling much better, thanks, has an idea: if they can get to New Hampshire, to the private summer home of a bunch of rich people, they may be able to find a shuttle.

New Hampshire is far, but at least Baltimore is sort of on the way. The second reunion of Erich and Amos quietly illustrates just how drastically the city has changed: Erich’s people are more focused on stockpiling food (and booze) than they are in appearing threatening to Amos. The threat Erich sent Amos off with is meaningless, now, and Erich’s not foolish enough to immediately murder someone who might be useful.

Screenshot: Amazon Studios

Watching Amos’s face, as Clarissa tells a story about accepting a shitty reality, is an absolute delight. We don’t know enough about Erich to really know what he’s thinking, but surprise and appreciation—and skepticism—get tangled up in Amos’s frown as Clarissa talks. It seems maybe a little easy how quickly Erich changes gears, but he did see his city largely destroyed. Maybe all he needed was something that let him justify starting over. Maybe he just needed someone to tell him it was okay to let his domain go.

On the Roci, Holden and Bull talk themselves into being pretty certain that the Zmeya destroyed the protomolecule sample, though Monica seems to still have questions. The bigger question is at what point Bull—who is the pilot on board—is going to put his foot down and refuse to take part in Holden’s quest to save Naomi. “Searching for a pebble in the ocean” is how Bull describes the hunt. For now, he’s not arguing with Holden too much, but that tension is rising.

Screenshot: Amazon Studios

And then there’s Drummer’s family, where the strain of doing work they don’t believe in is starting to show. They’re snapping and tired and angry, and the evidence of what happens when you part with Marco is right in front of them: The ship they’re cleaning out belonged to one of the factions who voted to kill Marco, back in that failed tribunal. “Marco kills those who defy him and we pick the bodies clean,” Drummer snarls. Karal claims that the now-destroyed faction attacked the Free Navy rather than the other way around, but do we trust anything she says? Wasn’t Marco likely looking for any excuse to take out a faction that chose not to rally to his banner?

Joining Marco was the right—and seemingly only—decision for the group as a whole, but for Drummer, it’s not that straightforward. It wasn’t the right decision for her past. It wasn’t the right decision for her—for the whole person she is, past and present, and for the future she wants. Her anger and grief make her feel alone even within the group, and that sense of her emotional isolation makes the goofy reconnection over water bubbles just heart-wrenching. They’re all prickly and aching and they need that laugh so much, but the moment of normality ends, and they’re still in a precarious and dangerous situation. The way the camera lands lightly on Drummer’s face at the end of the scene is graceful and affecting, as is Cara Gee’s performance, which ranges from quiet desperation to feral screams.

There’s such incredible heaviness in the sequence where Karal tells her version of Naomi’s past—that she left them, and only cares about herself—while Drummer, alone, drunk, stews in her grief and anger. The suggestion in those edits—that if Drummer chooses to go help Naomi now, her family will see it as the same kind of betrayal—is beautifully stitched together.

Outside of Naomi’s storyline, “Hard Vacuum” is largely built of stage-setting conversations that ensure we know where the pieces in this giant battlefield are and what they’re lining up to do. We check in on the state of the defenses at the Ring; the reality of how Eastern cities were destroyed by Marco’s attack; the question of the inners’ response to Marco; and Bull’s grumbling about Holden’s decisions. It’s smart structuring; it allows the intensity of Naomi’s scenes to be the most vivid, unforgettable parts of the episode (when I rewatched this one, I was almost surprised to find it wasn’t all, or even mostly, Naomi).

This week’s episode brings into sharp focus how all these narratives are about the sacrifices people are willing to make for the people and causes they care about. Naomi is far less focused on her own survival than she is on keeping her crew alive and away from the rigged Chetzemoka. Marco values his own pain and anger over his relationship with his son, which he would clearly sacrifice in search of his own glory. Holden values Naomi over everything—even the possibility the protomolecule is still out there. The question the secretary-general mulls is whether to sacrifice the lives of innocent Belters in order to appease some desire for “justice” that Delgado believes must be met.

And Drummer, most of all, is caught in the middle, forced to decide whether to stay Marco’s course and keep her family safe, or defy him in order to try to help Naomi. It’s not just about Naomi, of course. It’s about the men Drummer respected, who Marco killed, and about other ways to lead the Belt. Other ways to be Belters. But Naomi is also the embodiment of a connected, cooperative Earth and Belt—which is exactly why Marco is so keen to turn her into part of the Roci’s destruction.

Two episodes left.

FLOTSAM AND JETSAM

  • I thought it was whiskey, not tequila, that Erich shared with Amos back in “Churn.” Guess my own tastes are showing.
  • Sure, it’s a fuzzy message, but does Marco’s fake distress call really even sound like Naomi?
  • I went back and watched the scene when the Zmeya fires on the Roci—and yes, as a sharp-eyed commenter noted, there’s one torpedo that doesn’t behave like the others. It’s a tiny blue dot in the upper left hand corner of the screen, and it blips out before the rest of them start heading toward Holden and the gang.
  • It cracked me up that Alex’s cheeseball cowboy bar isn’t just a cheeseball cowboy bar, but a chain of cheeseball cowboy bars. But I fully understand the longing a person can feel when they haven’t gotten to go to their bar for a long while.

Molly Templeton lives and writes in Oregon, and spends as much time as possible in the woods. You can also find her on Twitter.

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