In the cold open of the first episode of The Expanse, we learned one important thing: there was a glowing blue substance that was killing people. In the final scene of the final episode of that same season, we learn a little more. The blue stuff, whether it started as a bioweapon or else just something the scientists discovered and decided to exploit, is alive. Eros Station has been turned into a giant petri dish, and the blue stuff is taking advantage of the space and the food source (shudder) to become something new. We see it mimicking Kenzo’s shape, before snatching him up into the rafters to be, presumably, devoured alive. (Or absorbed alive. There are options).
This is a terrific closing visual for a season that hasn’t lacked for neat things to look at. The question is, is it enough to justify the time it took to get here? That final scene wasn’t the only thing we learned about the blue stuff in “Critical Mass/Leviathan Wakes;” we also meet Dresden, the man who’s running the experiment, and discover that he’s working for Julie’s father (who also has close ties to Avasarala’s boss). The conspiracy quickens. Really, though, when it comes to actually pinning anything down, these last two episodes continue to play coy. The discovery that the blue stuff comes from Phoebe Station wasn’t much of a discovery, and the idea that it’s alive, while cool, is the sort of twist that really would’ve fit better earlier on. It suggests possibilities without delivering on any of them.
Still, this double barrel finale comes close to greatness. The pacing is as measured as ever, but there’s a sense of desperation running through both hours that helps give us some of that urgency we’ve been missing. The show is so composed, so patient with its storytelling than it can sometimes come across as sterile. Tonight it showed its teeth, and while nothing we saw is going to leave any scars, it’s another step in the right direction.
I’m mainly talking about Miller and Holden’s Butch and Cassidy style team-up, as they investigate the shelters Eros’s residents are being herded into, before getting hit with a lethal dose of radiation. They both make it out okay which, in retrospect, is not really surprising; but the amount of suffering both characters endure on their way back to the Rocinante is convincing enough that the danger seems real. Watching the two of them argue about tactics and weigh their options gave life to a show that has occasionally struggled to find its pulse. Miller’s “fuck it” attitude played nicely against Holden’s Boy Scout routine in a way that was more interesting than the latter’s occasional sparring with Amos.
I’m not sure whether to criticize or laud The Expanse for its insistence on audience patience. Sometimes the slow and steady approach leads to a greater investment in the characters, and a better feel for what they’re going through. (I’m thinking of Holden’s struggles with killing—it’s not a new idea, but the almost physical discomfort he had with Miller’s casual brutality was a lot more affecting playing out over multiple scenes.) On the other hand, it creates a certain lethargy that’s hard to shake off. I’m not sure the show has ever gotten boring in this first season, but apart from the occasional moment of beauty or effective acting, it’s rarely been particularly vital.
There’s an essential level of competency and talent, from the show’s production design to its main narrative, that it feels churlish to ding it for not being amazing. But the thought I couldn’t shake watching these last two (combined) episodes was that everything we learn here is information which could’ve been delivered in half the time. Avasarala’s discovery that she’s being played is a crucial step towards finally making her a relevant figure in the main plot, but the information doesn’t have enough impact to completely justify all the time it took to get there. Same with the discovery that Julie’s father is behind all of this, or that Eros is being used as an incubator. This is potentially explosive information, but there doesn’t seem to be any good reason why it was withheld from us for so long.
Really, it’s a structural issue: if we knew about Julie’s dad and the blue stuff and Earth from the start, there wouldn’t have been much mystery to keep us interested. The season was designed to build to the revelation of Julie’s death, and to then provide us with a new status quo for the season ahead, one with Miller aboard the Rocinante with a grudge against someone, and Avasarala working on the inside to stop the people she once counted as friends. But the journey getting to this point wasn’t always worth the destination. The structure was too rigid, to traditional; the few surprises it offered us were borderline anemic.
But it’s still good, y’know? It still more or less works. And it’s not all about information. The flashback to Julie’s adventures and eventual death doesn’t really teach us much, but it’s not really about teaching. It’s there to make her more than just a symbol of Miller’s grief, or a token representative of The Evil Men Do. Her story is more or less a straight line through bad luck and misplaced trust, but it remains heartbreaking nonetheless, and it adds to the despair running through the entire finale.
If nothing else, “Critical Mass/Leviathan Wakes” represents a triumph of mood. This has never been a cheery show, but here, the elite’s contempt for the working class reaches full, murderous flower. Miller and Holden get dosed with radiation in “shelter” full of the poor, huddled masses of Eros station, and the body count doesn’t stop there. Going forward, I’m crossing my fingers that The Expanse will find a way to augment its beauty and melancholy with some bigger narrative risks. There are signs of the writers getting more adventurous in the season’s latter half; here’s hoping the trend continues. And more blue stuff. Yeah, that blue stuff is cool.
- Most unexpected discovery: the cold open of the first episode actually took place after the destruction of the Canterbury.
- Amos shot Miller’s friend Semi because Semi was pointing a gun at Naomi. This may have repercussions down the line?
- The scene in the pachinko parlor was great—a clever design choice giving personality to an already intense situation.
- Another reason to hope: the final set up here gives our main characters a mission that’s more urgent than discovering the truth or finding a missing woman. Dresden and his men have casually murdered hundreds, and clearly mean to kill more. That means we have a villain now, and stakes, and that should help tighten the screws a bit.