It’s not unusual for a show to find its footing in its second season. There are lots of reasons for this, but one that I think tends to get underplayed is the simple fact of accrued character history. First seasons have to struggle a little to get us interested in people, and while that struggle can be exciting, there’s a lot to be said for the simple growth of attachment over time. We make jokes about Stockholm syndrome, but I think it’s more direct, and less creepy, than that; we come to like seeing the same faces. Even if the first season was a mess, all those hours spent watching characters means a certain connection has been built, regardless of the quality of those hours.
So, you take something like The Walking Dead—the writing is inconsistent (to put it mildly) and most of the characters disappear when they turn sidewise, but the show’s fanbase is deeply invested in the ones who’ve survived the longest, regardless of how developed they actually are. Or you take something like The Expanse, a better written show, and one with a clearer sense of narrative in its first season than The Walking Dead has ever really had. Holden, Naomi, Alex, Amos, and Miller (and to a lesser extent Avasarala) are people we’ve come to care about, partly because of that writing, and partly because of good acting, but the time spent remains a factor. I care about them more now because I’ve been with them longer.
A good show knows how to use that caring. In “Home,” we see what might be the end of Miller. Realizing that the only way to stop the Eros is to bring his nuclear bomb to the protomolecule “seed crystal” and blow it all to hell, he takes an episode-long journey into the heart of the station, only to find what he’s been looking for all along: Julie Mao, or at least a version of her. In absorbing Julie’s consciousness, the alien lifeform has been changed, and as it grows and becomes whatever the hell it’s becoming, whatever’s left of Julie has taken over. That’s the reason Eros is speeding towards Earth—it’s not on a mission of destruction, just homesickness. Nu-Julie is lost, confused, and scared, and trying to reconnect with the strongest impulses her absent mind has left. So she heads to Earth, and everybody freaks the fuck out.
It’s all right in the end, at least temporarily—Miller reaches Julie and manages to convince her to change course for Venus. He also takes off his spacesuit and hunkers down with her and the bomb to wait for the end, fulfilling the suicide wish I talked about last week. I say this “might be the end” of him only because I’m not entirely convinced that the landing on Venus has eradicated the Eros protomolecule. This is, after all, a creature that thrives on energy, and the crash (plus the nuclear bomb) surely provided a fuckton of that. So it’s possible we’ll see some variation on Miller in the future, rising up from the ashes with his haircut now coated in a smooth, mesmerizing blue.
I hope we do, because that would be interesting and also just because I don’t want to lose Miller completely. Most everyone on The Expanse is a sort of nuanced cliche, walking archetypes with just enough texture to avoid being cartoons. (And to offer the opportunity for more depth down the line.) Of the lot, Miller is my favorite, and it would be sad to see him go barely a season and a half into the run. Intellectually I can see how his storyline would be over now; sacrificing himself to be with Julie, however compromised and strange that “being” is, makes sense, and, if done badly, having him come back could cheapen that ending. But it could also offer a host of story possibilities, and besides, I like the guy. His first season storyline was a plodder at times, but Thomas Jane is a fun actor to watch (he’s just a little more intense than a normal person, like Nicolas Cage on decent but not wholly effective tranquilizers), and we watched him long enough that I hope there’s more to see.
Another way that inevitable affection I described above works in the show’s favor is that it makes Miller’s meeting with Nu-Julie moving in a way I’m not sure the text could’ve entirely achieved on its own. Viewed in summary, Miller’s connection with Julie Mao is thin to the point of non-existence. He’s not the first guy to fall in love with a dead girl, but it’s rare to see one actually getting to meet some version of the object of their affections. (Actually, it’s not that rare in fiction, but let’s pretend it is for now.) Complicating things further is how the former cop has found himself stricken with the conscience he’s spent most of his life resisting, and how his feelings for his idea of Julie are what drove him to go out and try to be a decent human being.
If Julie had still been alive, you’d imagine that their meeting would’ve been as awkward as it always is between two people with vastly different levels of feeling for one another. (Miller: “I love you,” Julie: “Um…hi?”) But given her current condition, it’s not that surprising that she’s happy to see a friendly face, even if it isn’t one she recognizes. But what’s unexpected is how caring about Miller, and watching every step of his journey to this point, makes his deep feeling for her seem earned. It’s remains a somewhat ambiguous moment, but seeing him lay down his burdens and give up everything for the sake of a brief connection with someone who isn’t even really there, is powerful regardless of what you take from it.
It doesn’t hurt that getting to that moment involves some pretty intense maneuvering on everyone else’s parts, as the crew of the Rocinante risks its life to track the Eros, and as Avasarala leans into her newfound trust to encourage Earth’s military to hand over control of its missiles to Fred Johnson. The crisis of the hour is the danger Eros represents to our home planet, and while the end of that result of that crisis makes nearly everything that happens off the station ultimately irrelevant, it’s still exciting to watch everyone scramble to solve a problem that could, if unchecked, kill billions.
Plus, just having all the storylines focused together on a single goal was a nice change of pace. The scope of the danger is so large that it’s difficult to really connect with—even though an entire planet was threatened, it really just seemed like yet another in a long series of “Oh shit” moments for our heroes. Besides, it never felt as though Eros would actually hit Earth. It would’ve been too much, the sort of thing that’s difficult, if not impossible, for a series to recover from.
That’s not a criticism: the crisis was interesting enough that it didn’t need to be edge-of-your-seat terrifying, and it offered a few opportunities to appreciate how much these characters have grown. Avasarala’s awkward video chat with her husband was lovely, especially for a relationship we haven’t seen much of recently, and the crew of the Rocinante’s willingness to sacrifice themselves if necessary makes sense with what we know of them. The biggest problems with this one were a couple of unnecessary scenes that seemed to exist only to clarify the obvious, and a certain structural oddity; Eros’s crash into Venus feels like it should’ve happened at the end of the first season, rather than the middle of the second. But the show’s already demonstrated its cleverness in raising the stakes as it goes. I’ll just keep my fingers crossed about Miller.
- Drummer (who is great) sends she’ll send Earth’s nuclear missiles on a long trip to nowhere. So I’m sure no one will ever worry about them again.
- One of the (many) downsides of having me for a reviewer on this show is that I’m not enough of science whiz to really appreciate/critique the show’s attempts at hard sci-fi. That said, I love how acceleration was used in this episode as a potentially deadly force. I’m not sure I’ve seen it expressed quite like that before in a TV series, and it’s a refreshing change of pace. In general, I appreciate how The Expanse doesn’t dumb things down for a wider audience; it’s not super technical, but it’s also not the “technology = magic” that you get in Star Trek. (I mean, I love me some Trek, but variety is good!)