The main problem with last week’s episode was that it didn’t have strong self-contained story to hold everything together. “Reload” fixes that, finding time for an excellent, suspenseful mini-narrative about a trio of Maritan ensigns who attempt take over the Contorta, as well as pushing various other ongoing plotlines into a crisis point. It’s an entry that’s cohesive even when individual scenes don’t necessarily connect with each other, one that clarifies some conflicts and sets others in motion. Momentum is one of The Expanse’s great strengths, that thrill of watching a narrative build itself out of the consequences of choice and circumstance, events spinning far beyond expectation and yet somehow still feeling personal—and “Reload” has that momentum in spades.
The ensign plot is the most immediately gripping, and also serves as a partial answer to the problem I posed last week: the show’s difficulties in making us feel the impact of the Earth/Mars war as anything more than a plot complication for the heroes. Here we get a firsthand chance to see the aftereffects of combat, as the Contorta (I’m still having trouble remembering that name, by the way) finds three survivors in the ruins of a Martian gun ship while scavenging for supplies. The survivors are initially friendly, assuming Holden and the others are Martians sent to rescue them after the attack. They aren’t exactly pleased when they discover the truth.
Here, then, is big a reason why I love this show, demonstrated in a self-contained story arc. The character behaviors are believable: of course the Martians would be suspicious and pissed at Holden and his crew, especially since they’re flying around in what used to be a Martian ship. And of course Alex would try and bond with them—he’s a nice guy, and he’s been missing his people a little. While the connection isn’t explicitly raised, this even helps to make the scene last week of his message from home more relevant. He’s not just being friendly, he’s feeling alienated from his own culture (thanks to his own actions, in part), and will take any opportunity as a chance to reach out.
The fact that all of these things make sense, and the fact that the ensigns, while quickly sketched in, still feel enough like people to be making choices, ensures that the fight which soon breaks out also makes sense. They beat the shit out of Alex and try to take over the ship. In retrospect they probably didn’t have a real chance at success, but it’s still a tense sequence because its plausibility helps to ensure we’re involved in the moment, and not worrying about what the hell is going on. It’s visceral, and immediate, and understanding the big picture of what drives all these people forward helps keep us in the moment.
What really makes this work is how it ends. I’d assumed the ensigns would end up dead. It would generate some modest drama and close off a potentially annoying plotline. It was theoretically possible that a member of Holden’s crew (including Holden himself) could’ve been shot, although I would’ve been incredibly surprised if any of the recurring characters had died. But while there’s violence—Holden takes down one of the ensigns in the weapons room—no one gets killed. Hostage situations can get tedious fast, but this one is over fairly quickly. Once Holden, and then Bobbie, arrive on the bridge, the tension becomes less about the characters we like, and more about whether these new idiots are going to get themselves killed. But Bobbie talks them out of it, and then the others fix the damaged Martian ship and send the kids home, albeit with a copy of the Errinwright video to deliver to Admiral Souther.
It’s not an astonishing twist, but it did subvert my expectations, and it did so by pushing forward the idea that even in incredibly dangerous situations, it is still possible to communicate effectively with one another and find some way through to a peaceful solution. That’s the sort of resolution that still manages to be surprising, and it speaks to a strong core of optimism at the heart of the series. It’s not naive optimism, and it doesn’t preclude cynicism or bad endings, but the insistence that different people and different perspectives matter, and that the difficult, and occasionally impossible, work of bringing disparate groups together is worthwhile, is maybe the most important theme the show has.
That theme goes directly against the efforts of Errinwright, a selfish and arrogant man who is spending all his political capital trying to sow division. It’s not just that he’s a greedy creep; he also believes that he’s right in bringing the war to Mars. To men like him, the only effective solution to a potential conflict is to have the bigger gun. It’s not hard to understand this approach—much of the course of our civilization has been defined by leaders with similar ideas—but it’s impressive just how much having him as a major villain underlines the value of negotiation and peace without ever making him come across as a symbol or cipher. Asshole that he is, he’s had one of the best arcs on the show so far, and that comes in part from him doubling down on his convictions.
The other thing that makes “Reload” great is the reveal at the end that those convictions may finally be coming around to bite him in the ass. Anna is furious with the changes Errinwright made in the speech she wrote for Esteban—the scene of her shutting him down after the speech was very satisfying—and is getting ready to abandon the capital for good. Earlier in the episode, Avasarala sees Anna reacting to the speech on a video feed, recognizes her, and convinces Holden to let her send the video recording of Errnwright’s guilt. It finally arrives a few seconds before Anna heads out the door. The whole thing is simply but beautifully done; one minute, Anna is having a frenetic but loving conversation with her wife, thus reminding us just what the stakes are for her in all of this—she has a conscience that drives her to work towards a higher good, but her family means the world to her, and it’s possible that sticking around and trying to face off against Errinwright could cost her everything. But there he is on screen, freely admitting his crimes, and if she doesn’t stay, how many more could die? In the end, given what we know about Anna, I doubt it’s even a choice.
- And of course I can’t leave the episode’s other big reveal: Mei’s friend has gone full-protomolecule, and when Mao discovers him having essentially dismantled a lab tech, Mao immediately reverses his decision to close the project. It’s a nice reminder that just because he occasionally shows some sign of a soul, he’s still a bastard. (Also, has anyone else seen “Ghost Light” from the Sylvester McCoy years of Doctor Who? Because Katoa’s behavior here reminds me very much of a scene from that episode: “I wanted to see how it worked so I dismantled it.”)
- Oh, and Drummer got the Navoo, and I enjoyed feeling even more like a jackass for forgetting that the Mormons don’t even have the damn ship anymore. (Apologies to everyone who corrected me on this. You were right!)
- Naomi and Holden have a nice moment together, and Alex and Bobbie are bonding.