Second episodes often repeat patterns established in the first as a way to cement them in viewers’ minds (or because the writers are still figuring out what to do next). Oddly enough, The Expanse confirms to the trend, for good and for ill. While its heavy serialization would make it seem a poor candidate for a repetitive episodic structure, “The Big Empty” follows the same route as “Dulcinea,” more or less. Once again we have three storylines, and once again, the biggest suspense comes from Holden’s thread. Miller is still tracking down Julie, in between revealing whose side he’s really on when it comes to the Belters vs. the Elites; while Avasarala continues to investigate her suspicions of the captured Belter.
We learn more information in these latter two sequences. Miller’s scenes show us he’s a smart investigator, and also help to fill in what life on Ceres Station is like. (The bit where he uses some of Julie’s water rations is reminiscent of Charlton Heston ransacking a rich murder victim’s apartment in Soylent Green.) The tensions between the haves and have nots are just as bad as we saw in the previous episode, with the added pressure of dwindling water supplies. In a nice touch, the destruction of the Canterbury has only added to the problem. Even though the three stories remain separated, the details connecting them keep growing.
Like the fact that the Belter Avasarala interrogates was carrying part of a stealth drive. We already know stealth tech exists, but Avasarala’s concern here reinforces how potentially dangerous that technology can be; not just to ships like the Canterbury, but to the political balance of the entire solar system. Avasarala’s worry falls on somewhat deaf ears, and her efforts to have the prisoner transported and further interrogated (read: tortured) go awry when he manages to kill himself in transport. So far, this storyline is the least compelling of the bunch, if only because there’s no real narrative beyond foreshadowing. We know almost nothing about Avasarala besides the fact that she’s a loving grandmother who will not hesitate to resort to brutal methods if she deems them necessary. Also, she’s very powerful. Apart from that, it’s all just so much exposition—presumably necessary in the long run, but for right now, mostly indifferent.
Thankfully, her storyline takes up the least screentime of the bunch. But when it comes to giving us some more immediate narrative stakes, we have to rely on the survivors of the destroyed Canterbury. While the other protagonists deal with more existential threats, Holden, Naomi, Alex, and the others aboard the Shuttle Knight are fighting for their lives. Their scenes touch on several classic staples of the “stranded in space” genre, from limited resources (they have four hours before everyone dies), to damaged equipment, to space madness, to oxygen withdrawal.
It’s a fun sequence, made slightly unpleasant by the fact that none of these characters have managed to make much of an impression. Holden isn’t setting the screen on fire with his charisma, and the others—hardass lady, nutty pilot, angry guy who is going out with hardass lady (maybe, or else he’s just super into her), and nervous guy—are fine as far as it goes, but there’s precious little humor to endear us to them. Everyone’s jumpy and sniping from the get go, and while the urgency of their situation makes the intensity easier to understand, it’s also something that’s going to get old if we don’t get more shades of behavior soon.
There are some moments of hope. The nervous medic puts his life on the line to save the oxygen starved pilot, and they both survive. And, while less hopeful, it’s interesting to watch Holden assume command and then repeatedly fall on his ass. Like his decision to force a response to the distress signal last week, the choices he makes here seem like sensible ones, and yet things keep turning out badly. He insists they work on the transponder and boost the signal, but when a ship comes, it’s the flagship of the Martian navy. He sends out a message describing what happened to try and give them some insurance, but the Martian ship’s jammers keep that message from going out into the void (presumably).
These are choices which could ultimately have a positive impact, but for right now, the boy is paddling the wrong way up Shit Creek, and there’s something to be said for just how badly one of our nominal heroes is botching his job. Last night I labeled him an under-achiever, but maybe the reason he keeps refusing promotion is that he knows, deep down, he’s not cut out for the job.
Still, here’s hoping he gets a win soon, because this could get unbearable pretty quickly otherwise. “The Big Empty” moves the story forward a few inches, and gets some thrills out of the Knight’s predicament, but the awe and mystery of the pilot are in shorter supply here. Hopefully next week will start giving us more reasons to care than just some nifty settings and the possibility of excitement down the line.
- Holden had as memory of the navigator he was hooking up with. She wanted to tell something for a while, I guess. (Or else he just mixed up the present with the past.)
- This week also gives us a chance to get to know some of the actors in Holden’s crew, and a few of them are not all that great.
- Miller and his boss notice Julie has a scar, and the boss is astonished when Miller makes the most obvious personality assessment imaginable. Either that, or I should apply to be a space detective.