Okay, so let’s talk about cliffhangers.
TV shows love cliffhangers. They love ‘em for act breaks, to make sure audiences come back after the commercials; they love ‘em for the end of episodes, to make sure the audience tunes in next week; and they love ‘em for season finales, because nothing makes a show stick longer in the memory than a solid “Oh shi-” conclusion. But there are good ways to do cliffhangers and bad ways to do cliffhangers. Do it well, and you’ll have people marveling at your ingenuity and eager for more. Do it poorly, and you’ll build resentment in viewers who know they’ll have to keep watching to get answers, but aren’t too happy at being manipulated.
The end of “It Reaches Out” is a very good cliffhanger, and part of what makes it impressive is how easily it could’ve been a bad one. If the episode had ended just a few seconds before it did, it would’ve been a mistake. Not as catastrophic as, say, the ending of The Walking Dead’s sixth season, given that we don’t have to wait a whole summer to find out who got their head caved in by a baseball bat, but still, a slip up. A good cliffhanger isn’t about what just happened; it’s about what happens next. When Holden orders Alex to slow down and head for the Ring, it’s pretty easy to guess the ship’s immediate future—and if the credits had cut in just as everyone on board the Rocinante passed out from the strain, it would’ve been disappointing. After all, the suspense at that point wasn’t “will the ship get blown up?” It was “is the Ring going to freeze them in place like it did with the Belter’s ship?” By showing us those last few seconds, and confirming our suspicions, the episode shifted the focus to where it was supposed to be. Not “How did the Rocinante escape?” but “What the hell is going on with the Ring?”
It’s a smart ending for a smart episode, one that spends its time checking with the various factions heading towards the Ring before everything goes to Hell. That time is useful for character work—developing the tensions between Ashford and Drummer, showing us how far Melba is willing to go to hide a bomb, and giving Holden ample opportunity to connect with the apparition of Miller that keeps showing up on the Roci. That latter thread is the most interesting one for most of the episode, forming the structural spine of the hour and providing the closest thing to an immediate narrative: Holden struggles to understand what’s going on, manages to communicate with Miller, digs out a few key pieces of information, and then, in the moment of greatest crisis, is able to use that information to save the lives of everyone on board the ship.
Have a clear throughline like that creates a definite sense of progress and pay-off that a serialized show desperately needs to keep its episodes from blurring together. It also distracts us from the other key, but not quite as gripping, story of Melba first hiding the body of the man she murdered, and then working up the guts to set off the bomb. We’re so busy thinking about Miller that the explosion plays as more of a surprise than it might otherwise have done. It’s not a twist, exactly; last week made sure we understood the device was planted, and also showed us the blind camera-man messing around with the Roci, so we knew something was going to happen. But we didn’t know Holden was going to get framed for it, and that last bit of info—including a video “confession”—is all that’s needed to kick the story into high gear much faster than expected.
Really, the show has gotten so good at these sorts of “oh fuck oh fuck oh fuck” climaxes that I shouldn’t be surprised at this point when it pulls another one off. I could quibble a little at how fast everything plays out; the fact that Holden is already crumbling under the pressure even before he’s accused of trying to start yet another war happens quicker than is entirely plausible. But the show’s odd seasonal structure works to its advantage here. While the in-story Holden has had plenty of time to calm down after the events on Io, for us, all of that shit happened relatively recently; so while it’s a little odd to think that Holden would be on the verge of a nervous breakdown so suddenly, it seems more convincing just because, for us, everything’s already so compressed.
Plus, those conversations with Miller would be enough to freak anyone out. While I enjoy and admire The Expanse’s ongoing interest in the politics of a solar system divided into three main factions, I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that what I’m really here for is the weird shit. And there is some absolutely marvelous weird shit here. In addition to the pleasure of having Thomas Jane back on the show (he really was great as Miller, and his odd, mumbly energy fits this new version of the character just as well), it’s great to finally get some information about what the protomolecule (or the creatures who designed the protomolecule) really wants, delivered in a way that manages to answer questions without ever becoming pedantic or tiresome. Honestly, I don’t even really want to belabor this on a craft level, I just want to try and figure out what all this new info means.
The apparitions Holden keeps seeing are apparently distinct iterations of this nu-Miller, the “investigator;” whatever force is behind the Ring is trying to find something, and it keeps sending Miller out to find it, and every time he “exceeds boundaries,” it kills him. Then a new copy is made, and the process repeats. Only each new version of Miller seems a little more aware than the last—still talking about his old life, but eventually coming to a point where he can answer Holden’s questions (more or less), and prove that he isn’t just a figment of the imagination. The amount of info we get here is a reminder that, thanks to the existence of the source material, we don’t have to worry about a mystery getting dragged out beyond the point of coherence. This is going someplace.
So is the show. The biggest problem with ending a major story arc mid-season is that it’ll take more than an episode to rebuild all that momentum. Given how “It Reaches Out” ends, that’s no longer a concern.
- So, I’m now the proud owner of the Expanse book series, and I gotta tell you, if it wasn’t for the fact that I’ll need to read Caliban’s War before I even get to the current plot, I would be reading ahead right now. (I’ll warn you, I’m probably going to do that eventually anyway. The books are just too much fun to stop.)
- The cameraman is definitely working with whatever group just tried to start a war. Not sure if the reporter is in on it too (I’m leaning towards no), but it says something that he’d be willing to put himself in such an extreme position of danger for the cause; whomever is responsible for this is operating on principle, and not out of greed.
- I wonder if Ashford has anything to do with it? Drummer is willing to fire on the Rocinante (despite Naomi’s agonized protests), but Ashford is the one to suggest the idea.
- Amos tries to get Holden to open up about his problems, but then immediately goes and tells Alex the whole story when Holden won’t talk. It’s a little disappointing, although entirely understandable—they’re the only crew on the ship, and they have to take care of each other. Still, this probably could’ve used a little more time to build. While stripping a story down to its minimum can be (and is, in this case) thrilling, it also means that losing some of the illusion of organic character development. Holden’s nervousness is clearly meant to make him seem more suspicious when the bomb blows up; it’s also forces Amos to prove he trusts the captain even when everything seems to suggest he shouldn’t. And it all basically works, but it’s pretty easy to see the strings here. (Whenever people talk about the show being “very good but not great,” I suspect this what they mean.)
- “What’s with the hat?” -Holden “It keeps the rain off.” -Miller
- “You’re a tool that goes places. I’m a tool that finds things.” -Miller. I should mention: the reason that Holden thinks the Ring will save them is that it wants to use him. Which is not precisely comforting.