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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

In its second season, The Expanse tightens the screws

Illustration for article titled In its second season, The Expanse tightens the screws

The first season of The Expanse was well-made, often smart, and with a good, slow burn on developing its main characters. What it wasn’t was particularly thrilling: while the origins of the Rocinante and Captain Holden’s desperate efforts to keep him and his crew alive offered some immediate stakes, most of season one was about world(s) building, introducing a conflict between Earth and Mars, getting us familiar with the plight of the over-worked, ready to explode Belters, and, of course, making us nervous about a murderous and mysterious batch of glowing blue goo. Intellectually, it was fascinating, and there were moments throughout that suggested something deeper and richer. But for the most part, the show was content to stay on solid… um… space.

Season Two is where all that careful work starts to pay off. We start with Earth and Mars at each other’s throats, with leaders on Earth pushing for war for reasons of their own. That blue goo? An alien life form that spreads like a plague, can’t be reasoned with, can barely be understood. Miller’s on the Rocinante with Holden, Naomi, Amos, and Alex, which means that two of the biggest storylines of the first season have finally met up with each other—always a relief. And the writers are taking bigger risks. Last week, our heroes found Dresden, the scientist behind the destruction of Eros. He warned of a devastating alien attack, swore he was the only person who could process the information they were getting, and Miller shot him. A lot.

Which, on the downside, means that Miller is on his own again—Holden’s good guy routine doesn’t much care for cold-blooded murder, and even if he did, there’s the fact that Dresden was the best chance to stop the protomolecule. Still, even with the two leads (temporarily, I assume) on the outs, “Static” continues that increased sense of purpose, moving forward and juggling a wide variety of complicated loyalties and ambitions without ever losing sight of the humans operating inside of larger systems. One of the strengths of the first season was how the show managed to express larger political struggles on a personal level, and if anything, that’s become even more important now that Earth and Mars are getting ready for war.

The biggest benefit of having Miller and the crew of the Rocinante in the same area together is that episodes no longer feel quite so much like a collection of story clips. Even if Miller spends most of the hour wandering around, getting drunk, and trying to figure out his next move, he’s still working off the same on-going disaster that Holden and the others are struggling to deal with. Which means the majority of the episode feels like it’s following a single thread. Instead of Miller looking for Julie while the Rocinante makes deals with various devils, they’re all trying to figure out what the hell to do about the protomolecule, a very real, very creepy danger that manages to remain unsettling even when it spends most of the time off-screen.

This additional focus also means that when we follow characters who aren’t directly connected to the main plot, like the Martian marines introduced back in the premiere, it doesn’t kill the momentum of the rest of the hour. It helps that the marine arc, while brief, tells a coherent story that helps to given a sense of reality to the Martian threat while also demonstrating just how dangerous that threat can be. Watching Gunny and her squad struggle with their frustrations at being held back from a war they think they need helps to show just why the tensions are so high between the planets. It’s not just because some bastards on Earth want to set things off. There are deep-rooted problems here, and seeing comparatively sympathetic characters struggling with those problems keeps them from being purely academic.

Still, the heart of all of this is learning more about what Dresden was trying to accomplish in his studies of the protomolecule. Since Dresden is dead, Holden, Johson, and Amos turn to the sole data engineer Johnson’s team brought back alive, a creepy guy named Cortazar. Holden tries to reach him by empathizing with him (Cortazar’s mom died from Huntington’s, so presumably he got involved with Protogen so he could find a cure), but it’s a literal dead end; presumably as part of the deal for working with Dresden, the guy had part of his temporal lobe fried, as did everyone else on the station. It killed any ability they made have had to understand the pain of others, which is what made it possible for him to stay connected to Eros as everything went to hell.


It’s a deeply creepy idea that works on a story and thematic level. What infuriates Miller so much about Dresden and people like him is their casual and reckless willingness to sacrifice the lives of the people they deem unimportant in order to further their own ends. Sure, Dresden claimed to be working to save the species, and he might even have been right—but the fact that he had to burn out the decency in every person working for him in order to move forward is emblematic of the worst possible ends-justify-means thinking. In killing Dresden, Miller arguably risked the entire human race—and yet even if Holden is infuriated with him, there’s no sense that his decision was an unquestionably evil one. At some point, math is no longer an effective way to judge human cost. And what would’ve happened if he hadn’t gotten the answers he wanted? Would it have been 200,000 dead next time? Half a million?

Regardless, he’s gone, and whatever he started on Eros is still going on. If season one was all about the set-up, season two so far has been seeing how tight we can turn the screws until something bursts. To that end, nothing, not even Avasarala back on Earth, feels entirely unconnected. There is bad news coming, and worse, it seems to be coming from every side at once. That’s no fun for the characters, but good times for us on the other side of the screen.


Stray observations

  • Love the detail that a data stream from Eros has been picked up by a DJ and turned into protest music.
  • Amos and Miller bond a bit over Miller being on the outs with Holden. It’s impressive how much the characters have grown; each member of the Rocinante crew gets their own mini story this week, and all of them are engaging. (Although Naomi’s feels a bit unfinished.)
  • Fred Johnson and Chrisjen Avasarala are now secretly working together. If this comes out, it would be terrible for them both. Even more tension!
  • To get back in touch with himself, Miller cuts his hair. I missed this guy.
  • “I killed him because he was making sense.” -Miller, re: Dresden.