The Expanse does a better job of capturing what it feels like to read smart, well-plotted science fiction than any other series in recent memory. Obviously it has certain advantages in this regard, considering that it’s based on a series of novels which, at least as far as I’ve heard, are smart and well-plotted. But it still impresses me how the well the creative team on the show has managed to achieve what I’ve always loved about great science fiction—the way it builds worlds out of our expectations and then follows those expectations to logical conclusions. The pure pleasure of watching effect spiral out of cause in unpredictable but still logical ways: when it’s done well, it’s just so damn satisfying, especially when it can combine the almost mathematical procession of events with honest emotion. I can’t think of many other shows that managed to deliver so consistently on the promise of the genre: a future that seems not only fascinating but plausible, offering possibility without ever feeling like an optimistic (or pessimistic) lie.

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“Immolation” is a fine example of how well this all works when it comes together. Yes, the flaws that are still inherent to the series haven’t gone away (sometimes things happen a little too fast, in a way that’s easier to avoid in written fiction; it can occasionally feel like a solar system that has maybe twenty in it, although the folks doing the adaptation at least try to keep bringing in new faces), but to complain about those now seems meanspirited, especially given everything the show does right. We’re a little less than halfway through the third season, and already reaching what feels like a climax of a major storyline. It’s a trick the show has pulled before back in season 2, and almost certainly the drawback of adapting a mammoth series of novels into a ten or 13 episode television season. But that doesn’t make what happens here less thrilling to watch.

After a quick check in back on Earth (they’re monitoring the situation but due to physics, there’s a 36 minute delay on updates), we head right back to the thick of the action, with Holden and the others watching in horror as the hybrid pods are launched into space. Alex shoots as many of them down as he can, but some still escape, one them hitting the Agatha King and fucking it up righteous while the others zoom off into space headed for Mars. While Holden, Bobbie, Prax, and Amos go into the compound to find Mei, Alex and Naomi board the King to try and reroute the pods; back on Earth, Anna decides to take action with the Errinwright video and brings it to Esteban.

What you have here is pretty much an episode full of climaxes, as multiple stories reach their conclusions at once. Tension is high throughout the hour, as each different storyline has its own distinct stakes, but all of those stakes ultimately connect back to Mao’s work with the protomolecule, the nasty business that started all of this mess. Which is funny, because Mao doesn’t even seem that big a deal anymore—Holden finally capturing him and bringing him in front of Avasarala is maybe the episode’s third best resolution.

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That makes thematic sense, really; while the human villains of the story matter, they were always a threat more due to their selfishness and arrogance than because of their power. Mao was rich, and so he dumped money into the protomolecule because he thought he could harness it; Errinwright went along with it for political reasons; and Strickland is about as much a mad doctor as they come. But while each of these characters is interesting, none of them make sense as the “Big Bad” of the show or the season, at least not in the usual sense of the term. There isn’t one single human menace in control of everything, just as there isn’t one person who can be defeated in order to restore balance to the universe. The closest the show has to a consistent menace is, of course, the protomolecule itself—but while that’s a force capable of astonishing and horrifying destruction, it’s less evil in the conventional sense than it is inexplicable. (Like a disease with just a hint of Lovecraft’s elder gods.)

So of course the most disturbing scenes in “Immolation” are aboard the Agatha King as the protomolecule slowly undoes everyone inside—including Cotyar, who at least gets to go out like a hero, even if his heroism actually puts millions of lives at risk. (Then again, who knows if Naomi would’ve had time to reroute all the hybrid pods even if he hadn’t blown up the ship.) Really, though, pretty much everyone in the episode gets a chance to have some sort of emotional apotheosis, apart from Avasarala, who largely stays sidelined and has to settle for having Holden dump Mao in front of her. The weakest payoff is back on Earth; Anna brings the Errinwright video to Esteban, who calls Errinwright into his office and has him arrested for treason. It’s not a bad scene—Errinwright has really come into his own, and I’d be surprised if this is the last we see of him; and Esteban gets a nice dig in at the end, pointing out to Anna that in serving justice, she just handed him a very convenient patsy.

But it plays out a little too quickly. I don’t know what will happen next, and if this is just another step in the political maneuverings back on Earth, and not really the end of anything, I’ll be pleased. Yet Anna comes off looking like a bit of a chump here, and I’ll be disappointed if she doesn’t get more to do soon. Still, there’s so much here that’s exciting and cathartic that it’s hard to get nitpicky regardless. Watching Bobbie go toe-to-toe with a hybrid makes for a fantastic action set-piece, a great bit of resolution for her (finally getting some payback for what happened to her squad), and a legitimate tragedy. However lost he was at the end, the hybrid still started life as a friendly and innocent human boy. He didn’t choose any of this, and he was just as lost as anyone. It’s hard to be proud of a victory when it means you have to kill children.

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There are several great moments like this, and the best ones are the ones that had the longest time to build. Like Naomi finally regaining some measure of trust from her fellow crewmembers and convincingly (rightly, so far as I can tell) to turn to Fred Johnson for help in destroying the rest of the hybrid pods. Or her and Holden ending up back in bed together. But the bit that will stay with me the longest is when Prax gets his daughter back. The show has done of a fine job of making believe it absolutely would kill a little girl if necessary, so the reunion never felt like a foregone conclusion. Just as great: Prax tells Mei to stay with Amos (his “best friend”), and then tries to shoot Strickland. The man deserves it, as much as anyone does; he literally just shot a co-worker in the back in an effort to save his own skin. But before he can pull the trigger, Amos steps in and does the job for him. It’s not the biggest plot twist of the hour—that would almost certainly be the giant fucking alien spaceship that rises up out of Venus at the end—but having gotten a chance to watch Prax and Amos to build that friendship first hand, it’s an excellent reminder that the most important stories the show can tell are still the ones that happen between people, one scene at a time.

Stray observations

  • Yes, I’ve heard the show was cancelled. Fingers crossed it gets picked up by another network soon.
  • I decided to start reading the series. I’m going to try and hold off getting too far ahead of the show, but no promises.
  • I wonder what made Katoa look up at the end, giving Bobbie time to shoot him. Maybe he heard something on Venus.
  • “I am that guy.” -Amos

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