After the high of last week—space battles! Yelling! Avasarala and Bobbie boarding the Contorta!—“Assured Destruction” slows things down a bit, devoting most of its in-space time to watching Holden and crew adjust to their new passengers, and spending time on Earth as Esteban and Errinwright struggle over the future of the war. The pacing is a bit slower in than previous episodes, with more time spent on character interactions and decision making, and while individual scenes are effective, there’s a certain loss of forward momentum, giving you time to remember that yes, this is a TV show, and from time to time there’s going to be an episode that’s just sort of there.
Which is getting a bit too dismissive, maybe; there are momentous events here, as Jules Pierre-Mao finally meets Mei on Io, and Esteban orders (at Errinwright’s urging) an attack on Martian missile platforms that achieves its goals but leaves two million people in South Africa dead. It’s not all quiet on the ship, either—Avasarala learns that Fred Johnson (and by extension, the OPA) has a sample of the protomolecule, which she’s understandably not thrilled about. And yet while none of this is bad—and really, some of it will mostly likely be of critical importance in the weeks to come—there are just a few too many scenes of characters interacting without much weight behind them, a few too many beats that tell us what we already know.
It’s a shame, because the episode also serves as an inadvertent reminder of what may be The Expanse’s most glaring on-going flaw: its struggle to convey a scope of the situation beyond the perspective of its central characters. It’s a problem, I suspect, that’s more a result of adapting the source material into a TV show than it is anything inherent in the narrative. Space battles cost money and time, and when a show has only thirteen episodes to tell a story in, it can’t just pause every few minutes to make sure we understand that there’s a war going on. Ideally, we should be able to pick up the nature of the Earth/Mars conflict through context clues. We are, after all, privy to the discussions of the leaders of one side of that conflict.
And yet the whole thing is a little too theoretical. Early in “Assured Destruction,” while Errinwright is trying to push Esteban towards a preemptive strike on Martian missile platforms capable of firing on Earth, he suggests that the Martians are winning the war. Given that it hasn’t been that long since the Security General made his pronouncement, I was surprised by this knowledge. Now, things between Earth and Mars had been getting worse for a while before Esteban made it official, but Errinwright’s comment, here used as evidence to push Esteban to make a bold choice, just throws into focus how little we know about the actual war. We’ve seen a few soldiers (this week also brings back Admiral Souther and his new ship the Agatha King, which has seen some shit), but any real information we get about what’s going on happens in incidental dialogue.
This is understandable; none of the characters we’re following at this point are directly involved with the combat, and the actual war isn’t the core of the store so much as it is the context. But it robs some of these big moments of their emotional impact when so much of what’s behind them is just exposition we have to take on faith. The climax of “Assured Destruction” has Esteban going along with his plan, and having that plan almost entirely succeed—except for the aforementioned two million dead. It should be a deeply unsettling conclusion, and it mostly is, but when the numbers get that high it’s hard to have much of an emotional response to them, especially in fiction. The event is intended mostly to underline how Errinwright’s warmongering and Esteban’s inability to resist that warmongering is going to continue to be very bad indeed, as well as reminding us (at the very end) that Anna is pretty much the only thing left to keep all of this from getting even worse. But while that is effective, it also pointed out how thin the show can sometimes feel, for all its universe-building.
Still, even if the scope can only support a certain distance, the show remains effective at throwing people against each other and making us care about what happens next. Watching Avasarala try and order her way through the Contorta’s crew is a hoot, and the tense scenes between Bobbie and the others is a reminder that factions have an impact even outside of the battlefield. Avasarala and Holden get a scene together (their first face to face, I think?), and there’s a lot history there—history the show doesn’t always have time to look back on, and which helps to give their conversation weight. And I love how Naomi accuses Avasarala of wanting to help them just so she can have her own chance at the protomolecule; a charge which Avasarala doesn’t deny.
Things get pretty interesting on the Io and the Agatha King as well—Mao decides to cancel the project after spending some time with Mei and realizing, oh hey, we’re torturing children. (Strickland objects, so my money is on him trying to snatch some of the kids and continue his experiments.) And we finally learn the fate of Cotyar and Theo; the Agatha King finds their dropship, and Cotyar snaps Theo’s neck (apologizing all the while) before being taken into custody.
It’s a dark move, but an understandable, if not necessarily defensible, one. The stakes are very high now, and while Theo was relatively (though not completely) innocent—a low level drone working for a Big Bad—he would have spilled pretty much everything. Worlds are currently at sake on The Expanse, and while that’s not exactly new, it’s nice to have a reminder of the sort of impact those stakes can have on the people operating within them. But a little more pressure this week might have helped things from drifting.
- Alex also gets a message back from the wife he abandoned, saying pretty much what you’d imagine she’d say. It doesn’t seem all that necessary, but maybe it will play into his motivation down the line.
- “Dying’s the only way out of Baltimore.” “So how’d you get out?” “I died.” I want an Amos flashback episode.
- “How do you know what it’s like to wear pumps?” Amos: “I didn’t always work in space.” I demand an Amos flashback episode.
- Errinwright really turns the screws on Anna in their final scene. I think there’s a good chance that he’s underestimating her.