Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

A brutal The Expanse finds weight in zero gravity

Illustration for article titled A brutal The Expanse finds weight in zero gravity

This week’s Expanse feels more episodic than usual for the show, and I don’t mean that as a criticism. “Fallen World” does something TV actually does better than books or movies, at least when it comes to genre storytelling: stopping to take stock of the consequences. In a book, scenes of the aftermath of events at the Ring node might take up a chapter, probably less; in a movie, you’d get a few minutes. On a TV show, you can give over a whole episode to dealing with the immediate impact of a crisis, connecting scenes in various locations in a way that feels cumulative and paints a very clear picture of the devastation. The overall story moves forward (and at least one plot twist had me shouting for joy), and the devastation we see is clearly important for what happens next; but it also matters just because it happened. Holden takes the full hour before waking up and sharing a glimpse of what he saw, but this doesn’t play out like a stalling tactic. On a show that often rushes through narrative (generally to great effect), there’s much to be said for slowing down just to take stock of the damage.


Given how hard the show has worked to keep a semi-realistic gloss on its world-building, the fact that the sudden, massive deceleration caused by the Ring node would wreak havoc on the ships on the vicinity shouldn’t be surprising. That’s how physics works, after all. And yet I was surprised. After decades of science fiction shows and movies treating space travel as more or less a lark, the reminder of just how much suffering a body can endure in zero gravity remains shocking. Last week, when we saw the immediate effect of the slow-down, it seemed like a clever visual montage to show us just how powerful the Ring was. This week, it’s clear that the Ring’s defensive measures weren’t just a neat visual. It turns out, when you suddenly stop a spaceship mid-flight, things get nasty in a hurry for whoever is unfortunate enough to be onboard.

It’s smart how the episode builds to this revelation, starting first more or less when and where the last episode left off: with Holden unconscious, and the Martian marines trying to decide their next move. Bobbie figures out quickly that the “speed limit” inside the Ring has changed again, but manages to get what’s left of her people back to the drop ship. Meanwhile, Naomi regains consciousness and flees her skiff when the electrical systems short out (creating a very cool, and deadly, glowing bubble effect), heading for the Roci. Back on the drop ship, we learn that a bunch of Martians died when everything stopped, and plenty more beyond that are still wounded.

Part of this is just my own lack of understanding when it comes to how basic things like acceleration and g-force actually work; but even taking that into account, the build here is almost like something you’d expect in a low-key horror movie, with the threat lurking in the background until it becomes too overwhelming to ignore. We see the impact of the slowdown on major characters first; after checking in with Bobbie and Naomi, the episode cuts to the Behemoth, where Drummer and Ashford are pinned down in the holding bay. Drummer is bleeding out, but neither are in great condition. They’re also not in a position where they can call for help, nor are they able free themselves without killing each other in the process.

This is when it finally sunk in what this episode was going to be about, which is when we cut to the Thomas Prince and get a much fuller picture of the damage. It’s really very well done, right down to the unsettling reminder that since none of the ships have working gravity anymore, the injured are more or less going to stay injured. Bodies can’t heal properly in zero-g, and anyone with internal bleeding has a death sentence. Anna, who was napping when the crisis hit, wanders astonished through what looks like the aftermath of a great battle—the Prince is filled with floating bodies, the cries of the suffering, and far too few people still on their feet trying to help.

“Fallen World” does such an excellent job of making you understand just how bad all of this is, and just how lucky anyone would be to survive it unscathed, that when Naomi finally gets back to the Roci, it’s impossible not to wonder what had happened to Alex and Amos. This is the first episode in a while to not spend significant time checking in on the Roci and its crew, and that lack of information becomes more and more unsettling as time passes. The fact that Alex and Amos were okay, and the fact that in retrospect it would’ve been super weird (and arguably not great writing) to kill either of them at this point, doesn’t retroactively take away that suspense.


It’s also worth noting how the episode manages to get in a fairly cliched concept—two characters trapped in a life or death situation, forced to bond and work together to stave off death—without belaboring the point. Drummer appears to be alive by the end of the hour, but that in no way minimizes her willingness to sacrifice herself to save Ashford when all other hope seems lost. That, plus Ashford’s decision to start the Behemoth drum, essentially risking everything to create a sustainable gravity source, makes for some great character and story work. I was a little worried the show was going to go down an uninteresting path with a Drummer vs. Ashford power struggle, but while that’s still possible (if Drummer lives, I can’t imagine Ashford will be too keen to give up the captain’s seat), the fact that both characters operate in good faith here means that any confrontation between them will be that much more painful—and that much more compelling to watch.

I suppose the big tease at the end of the episode, with Holden telling Bobbie that he saw “the end of everything” is what’s supposed to stick with you, but for my money, Anna following Melba to the Roci and saving Naomi in the nick of time is one of the best “fuck yes” moments the show has ever managed. It caught me completely off guard, and even better, more or less holds up: Anna knew what Melba (who I’m calling Melba again solely because that’s what everyone else is calling her) was up to, knew that she’d killed Tilly, and was perfectly capable of following her from the Prince. But while I assumed someone was going to save Naomi at the last minute, given everything else, I just expected Amos to do his Amos thing. That it wasn’t him, and that Anna is now being thrust into the middle of things, is absolutely terrific. “Fallen World” is one of my favorite single episodes the show has done so far, and I can’t wait for next week.


Stray observations

  • The surviving marines in Bobbie’s group are not happy with how she’s treating Holden. One of them tries to talk her into shooting him. Given the chaos, I doubt they’re going to be alone in wanting to find someone to blame.
  • I like how, in her final words, Tilly manages to point out that Anna’s advice is what sent her to talk to Melba, which led to her death; it probably helped push Anna towards the Roci in the end, and also lets Tilly go out on a relative high note. The character had unexpected depth, and while her death seems necessary, I’m surprised at how sad I am to see her go.
  • Another important point: one of the marines points out to Bobbie that, with the current speed limit in effect, it’s going to take seven months for any ship to get out of the Ring. That’s probably going to come up again.