The centerpiece of “CQB” is the Donnager’s last stand against a group of mysterious attackers, an explosive, doomed defense full of gunfire, blood, and some zero-gravity heroics. It’s a sequence that comes close to wearing out its welcome but is by and large successful, showing off the series’ knack for finding interesting approaches to familiar scenarios. Lives are lost, the Donnager ultimately self-destructs, and one small group—Holden, Alex, Naomi, Amos, and Lopez the interrogator—flee on an escape ship, breaking past the final kaboom (which hopefully took out most of the attackers as well as the Donnager) with some eye-watering burn.

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That’s all well and good. What’s frustrating is what Theresa Yao, captain of the Donnager, says right before she gives the okay for self-destruct: “I didn’t think we could lose.” This is a dumb line. It’s not a dumb line because it’s out of character for her to feel this way, or because it’s implausible or inconsistent with what we’ve already seen. Yao and the other Martians’ complete confidence in their tactical abilities was established very early on, and their nonchalant, even eager response to initial contact with their assailants was more than enough to establish their hubris. Which is why it’s so dumb that Yao feels the need to say this. It ruins what otherwise could’ve been a strong moment of sacrifice by rubbing our noses in bland characterization.

The Expanse is very deft at world building. (Universe-building?) It tosses out scenes like Miller’s visit to the soon to be pan-fried Bizi Betiko’s apartment as though it was no big deal at all; Miller wanders into a room full of people cheering on a “sneakshot” while watching live-feed of a guy (Bizi) in a one man ship trying to break some kind of speed record, and we’re just supposed to assume it all makes sense. There’s a clear explanation for all of this, but the sequence plays out in a way that doesn’t spoonfeed you anything, even if there’s still a beginning, middle, and end.

That’s good storytelling, because the “sneakshot club” is probably not something that’s going to be hugely relevant. It doesn’t matter if we don’t grasp all the intricacies. What matters is layering in the world of Ceres and the other settings of the show with a sense of wider experience. The show is based on a series of novels (which I haven’t read, but am getting more and more curious about), and the wealth of source material comes through regularly without threatening to overwhelm the central narrative. It’s still more or less clear what’s going on; the details on the side just add flavor.

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It’s unfortunate, then, that those details can’t extend to the story’s central characters. We’ve spent four episodes with some of these people, and they still embody the same archetypes they did at the start. Saying “the setting is the main character” is something of a cliche in reviews, but it’s more or less true here, at least when it comes to holding our interest. The setting comes first, with its various tensions and conflicts; then the story, which is the process by which we see those conflicts unfold, and learn the mysteries behind them; and finally the characters, who are at best perfectly fine, and at worst immediately forgettable.

That’s not a fatal flaw in a show like this. Genre has a history of propping up its fantastical worlds with functional protagonists, and, so far at least, there’s no one here who’s dull enough to distract from the plot. The biggest liability is probably Holden and the crew he’s trying so desperately to save; they’re not bad, but the fact that so much time is spent on rescuing them to salve Holden’s conscience means they’re supposed to be people we care about, and I’m not sure I do. I’m mildly interested in Naomi’s real identity, but that’s about it.

A great show is one in which the characters, the story, and the setting are all working in conjunction, one where if one of those three elements should be a little weak for an episode, the other two are strong enough that it doesn’t matter. So far at least, The Expanse has kept its story and setting moving at a good clip. This week, the Donnager is destroyed, we learn definitively that Mars had nothing to do with the attack on the Canterbury, Holden and the survivors have a reason to testify to that fact, and we meet the man who might be in charge of the OPA. (Chad Coleman!) We’re moving steadily, and if Miller’s and Avasarala’s segments don’t accomplish much, they didn’t bog us down. The Expanse doesn’t need to be great to be enjoyable, but it’s walking a fine line. If the story starts to slip, if they run out of clever ideas to doodle in the margins, we’re going to lose interest. Fortunately, there’s little sign of that so far.

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Stray observations

  • Very little happens in Avasarala’s two scenes. It’s not a bad way to remind us she’s around and what drives here, though.
  • Miller figures out that the body he connected to Juliette last week was some kind of “data broker.” That’s it, although the episode does a good job of making it feel like more. Because this is based on other source material, and because of how clearly designed the narrative is, it’s easier to trust the time we spend with characters which doesn’t immediately seem relevant, because there’s a strong sense those characters and what they know will be important later on. (Also, both Miller and Avasarala are on the short list of The Expanse’s actually interesting people, so that helps.)
  • Havelock’s alive! That’s unexpected.
  • Lopez, the interrogator from last week, gets some more time to define himself. He’s the only crewmember of the Donnager to escape the blast, but it’s questionable if he survived; the hard gs of the escape might have done him in, especially after he was wounded during the firefight.

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