“The Mathematicians’ Ghost” is a table-setting episode, and not a particularly elegant one. The pensive voice-over narration on the painful persistence of memory can’t drown out the clunky scraping of furniture as the stage is rearranged for future storylines.
Instead of exploring the aftermath of Raych assassinating Hari, the show instead returns focus to Salvor Hardin (Leah Harvey) on Terminus, and more interestingly, a deeper exploration of The Empire’s genetic legacy. Gaal’s only presence in the episode is providing the voice-over that ostensibly acts as the glue holding the various time jumps together. But it ends up performing the worst qualities of a voice-over; neither strengthening the episode’s deeper themes with a metaphorical rumination on ghosts, nor clarifying the storyline.
The episode title suggests there’s going to be a reckoning of Hari’s legacy, but very little of that occurs. While there is some interesting dialogue alluding to a generational shift in adherence to Hari’s Plan, that’s mostly relegated to asides. Instead, the central rift is an almost Reagan-era trope of Salvor as an aggro soldier preparing for action versus the anemic, sit-and-wait brainiacs of her parent’s generation. It’s not significant on its own, but alongside the faith vs. science through-line of the previous episode, it displays a troublesome trend for the show, putting reductive dichotomies front and center, while reserving its depth and shaded character moments to the periphery.
All this has the strange effect of making our protagonists less nuanced than the trio of the emperor’s genetic source who are continuously birthed to maintain a stranglehold on the galaxy. Nearly the entire first half of the episode is dedicated to exploring the legacy of The Empire, and it is easily the more provocative half.
We briefly visit 400 years in the past, where Cleon, first of his name and lord of the Galactic Empire, faces his own mortality. The android Dermezel (Laura Birn) is by his side, and he confides in her that he wishes he could see the newly under-construction Space Bridge completed before he dies. Nineteen years after the bombing of the Space Bridge, we see Father Dusk preparing for his own death.
Day, who ordered the bombing of Anacreon and Thespan, is now aged into Dusk, though if he has developed any of the humility and self-reflection his predecessor had earned, we do not see it. The brothers take Dusk into orbit so he can look on the wreckage of the space bridge still orbiting Trantor before it is destroyed. In assuring Dusk that greater things are still ahead for the empire, Day declares, “We are the great dream of Cleon the First.”
But what is meant as an assertion of the brothers’ importance to The Empire instead demonstrates how the galaxy is shrinking and becoming more insular. Like every action The Empire has taken so far, it is a display of weakness disguised as strength. Back on the surface, Dusk meets his replacement. Only after the newest clone is christened Dawn, is Dusk granted the hidden title Brother Darkness. Dusk is frightened by his own pre-ordained end, of course. But he has also become patient and thoughtful in a way that would likely be valuable to The Empire at this uncertain crossroads. Sadly, it doesn’t matter. After being disintegrated, Darkness’ ashes are spread on baby Dawn in a baptism of genetic purity.
Onward to Terminus, where we learn more about Salvor, the woman who demonstrated a connection with The Vault. The show works to demonstrate the parallels between Salvor and Gaal. Both are unique in some way, gifted with abilities or connections we don’t yet understand. Due to their uniqueness, both exist at the periphery of their communities.
In Salvor’s case, this is also literal, as her role is warden—the person responsible for scouting, maintenance and defense of the outpost’s perimeter. Neither Salvor nor Gaal share the belief of their parents. While Salvor isn’t as hostile to her parent’s faith in Hari Seldon and their all-consuming pursuit of his plan, she doesn’t particularly believe it, either. It’s an interesting exploration of both generational change and the difficulty in keeping knowledge alive. Only one generation in, the clarity of Hari Seldon’s plan and purpose falter. Just as faith no longer held any importance for Gaal, the Plan doesn’t feel relevant to Salvor. But again, sadly, this theme is buried under a strange split between Salvor as an aggressive problem solver and the older generation of settlers as dopes.
The most concerning device Foundation falls back on is a lazy application of archetypes to distinguish characters without a deeper study of our various contradictions. The Encyclopedists, as they’re known, are shown to be fussy and passive. But it seems a person could only be so nebbish spending 34 years fighting every day for survival among the “windswept plains of frozen loon shit,” as Salvor’s space trader lover Hugo puts it. When three Anacreon warships are spotted heading for the planet, an Encyclopedist suggests calling The Empire for help, despite being an outpost of traitors that only live so as not to create a martyr of their leader. Only Saldor moves to check the armory and prepare for battle. What, if any connection the arrivals have to do with the discovery Salvor has made that the Vault’s nul-shield is expanding remains to be seen.
“The Mathematician’s Ghost” is the weakest episode so far. There’s still plenty of opportunity for the series to pick back up, especially given the transitional nature of this episode. But it’s troubling that the series demonstrates it knows how to be smart and nuanced, but chooses instead to pursue the easiest schisms between characters.
- The one unwavering quality of the show is that it’s gorgeous. Both aesthetically and thematically, I enjoy how much of it is shot with saturated hues of orange, purple, or cool blues. They’re the colors of sunset and dusk, and a diminishing kingdom.
- Look, it wouldn’t matter how badly I want to appear like a grown-up to the cool space courier, if I’m living on a barren, backwater planet and my only food comes from a fifty-year-old shipping container and someone tosses me a brick of chocolate, I’d be so happy about it.
- “We are not a cult!,” Salvor’s mother bristles against the accusation. Though her vehemence ignores such instances as Salvor’s father declaring “What in Seldon’s name is that?” upon seeing the Vault for the first time.
- I love the finality of piloting the ship straight into the surface of Terminus and immediately dismantling it for parts. Also, I could watch a whole episode that was just a time lapse of the colony being built.