Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

The Expanse reminds us that everything falls apart

Illustration for article titled The Expanse reminds us that everything falls apart

Bobbie Draper wants to see the ocean. Being from Mars, she’s never seen the ocean, and now that she’s on Earth for the first (and possibly last) time, she wants a glimpse at what she’s been missing. Her search forms the spine of “Cascade,” and what’s striking about it is the pragmatism of her efforts. This is entirely in keeping with the little we know of her character. Once she makes that initial decision to disobey orders and go for a walk, she follows through, first breaking out of her room, then asking strangers for directions until one finally gives her the answers she wants (and a little more besides). When she finally gets where she’s going, there’s a feeling of satisfaction but not much triumph. Here’s a beach, and it’s not much to look at. What’s next?

Maybe that’s the real reason for Bobbie’s brief escape—searching for the beach at least gives her something to do. After her disastrous testimony last week, when she failed to satisfy her bosses, Avasarala, or the dictates of her conscience, Draper is adrift. She’s betrayed her squadmates, and the usual things that keep a soldier on track—duty, honor, very large guns—don’t seem to be as effective as they once were. “Cascade” doesn’t get into this too deep (The Expanse is generally more interested in the systems characters live inside than the characters themselves; its ensemble is deeper, and more interesting, than cliche, but doesn’t have the same nuance as the larger picture), but it does trust us to understand that this is what’s driving her: a desire to hold onto something, anything, when the whole universe seems up for grabs.

There are two major developments on Earth in this episode. Both revolve around Avasarala, and the first is the most surprising: Sadavir Errinwright confesses his work with Jules-Pierre Mao on the protomolecule conspiracy. Errinwright’s been shaken over the past few weeks, but his sudden decision to give everything over to Avasarala is unexpected, if not entirely out of character. In a way, this makes him more interesting; while he’s still a bit of a bastard, there are lines even he won’t cross, and as Avasarala argues later in the hour, the near destruction of Earth by Eros was a step too far even for him.

That means the Avasarala knows nearly as much as we do. Errinwright tells Avasarala that Mao’s project was about developing the protomolecule as a “weapon,” which, while entirely in keeping with what we know, is still revealing. This isn’t an unusual development for science-fiction, of course, as anyone who’s seen the Alien franchise can attest to. Corporations and governments are always trying to harness incredibly dangerous and unknowable forces as a way to get an upper hand in armed conflict. (While the Alien movies are probably the most recognizable example of this metaphor from the past few decades, sci-fi has been incredibly skeptical of our rush to use things we don’t understand as murder toys ever since we dropped the bomb on Hiroshima.) What adds the much needed new wrinkle here is how slight the protomolecule seems at first glance, how easy to control and manipulate. This isn’t a seven foot tall nightmare with a double smile—it’s a molecule, for god’s sake. That doesn’t make Mao’s efforts defensible, but it at least makes him slightly more canny than whatever jackass is pushing Weyland-Yutani’s marketshare.

So, it’s a moderate-to-big-deal that Errinwright comes clean, because the more Avasarala knows, the more effective she is; and she’s already been pretty damn effective. While this is going on, Dr. Meng and the crew of the Rocinante (minus Alex, who’s chilling back on the ship in rather spectacular fashion) start the hunt on Ganymede for Meng’s missing doctor and the potentially villainous Dr. Strickland. They make a little progress, getting in touch with a local “can-get-it-for-you” guy who Amos beats into helping them, but what’s really interesting here is Meng’s discovery that Ganymede—the largest food-supplier of the region—is essentially dead.

It’s developments like these that make me love the show; the sort of smart, interesting twist that has me nostalgic for all the years I spent as a teenager reading Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke and others. (I wasn’t always reading Stephen King.) The protomolecule is bad enough, but its impact is worsened by the all-too familiar human sins of greed and neglect.


And hell, that’s probably being too harsh on the Ganymede rescue efforts. There are monsters on the station (the dude exchanging information for much needed emergency supplies doesn’t seem too nice), but as Meng himself explains, artificial systems don’t have the necessary redundancies that natural systems develop over time. You barely need conscious effort to destroy something as delicately balanced as a space station. Just bad luck, and no time, and a lack of information. The Expanse is not a hopeless show, but it’s one that uses the backdrop of space to repeatedly remind its audience of the simultaneous resilience and vulnerability of human life. We carry on because that’s what we do, but not a day goes by when some damn thing (usually our own fault) rises up to destroy us.

Which brings us, more or less, to the other major development: Avasarala and Draper making contact on the beach. Nothing definitive happens here, at least not obviously, apart from Avasarala making a plea for help and giving Draper all the info she has on the protomolecule, but it feels like the beginning of, if not a beautiful friendship, than at least a partnership which will bear fruit down the line. Bobbie’s been betrayed by her own people, and she’s now seen enough of Earth to at least know that it’s not completely full of spoiled assholes. Chrisjen may not be the nicest woman in the world, but if you need to get shit done, she may be the best hope left.


Stray observations

  • Draper’s conversation with the slum “doctor” is a nifty way to fill in some info about Earth (and develop the Martian marine’s understanding of the planet) without spending a lot of time on it. Earth still seems fairly small, but at least now we know there are people suffering on it.
  • Dr. Meng: “How many people have you killed?” Amos: “I’m not sure.”
  • Amos bonding a bit with Dr. Meng makes sense, given that Amos is weirdly good at bonding with people, even when they don’t completely trust him.
  • Alex’s scene messing about in zero gravity is entirely inconsequential to the plot (apart from the very end, when he learns that Ganymede has been closed off), and delightful. I always appreciate when a show like this (heavily serialized, with the plot always moving forward) allows time for goofing around.
  • I’d either forgotten or never heard that this season would run three episodes longer than season one. Either way, excellent news!