The thing about space travel is, it’s not easy. There’s a lot of space, and not a lot of us by comparison, and in order to transport a fleshy, vulnerable, air-breathing human body across millions of miles of void, sacrifices must be made. Often in science fiction, that sacrifice is time, but most narratives find some work around; hypersleep or warp drive or tesseracts, and while some versions strive for greater realism than others, it’s all a variation of speculative magic. The Expanse isn’t different, exactly, but the show has shown a concern for the immediate realities of space travel that other shows don’t always do. There is something distinctive about watching various characters suffering the actual physical impact of close quarters fast travel. It gives just enough realism to ground the story and make everything feel that much more desperate, without going so far as to get bogged down in the details.
“IFF” is essentially a transitional episode that accomplishes two important story beats: introducing Dr. Anna Volovodov (Elizabeth Mitchell) and getting Bobbie and Avasarala aboard the Pinus Contorta (nee Rocinante). The former event happens fairly early on, while the latter, with Bobbie carrying an unconscious Avasarala into the ship asking for help, is the episode’s final scene. There’s a fair bit of talk and action between those two events, and little lag time as the script goes about establishing a new character and shifting old characters around; in some ways, this feels more like a beginning than the season premiere.
Not that that matters—I’m just impressed that we can spend the whole hour (well, forty minutes minus commercials) building up to Bobbie and Avasarala’s arrival, and not have it feel like stalling. I still haven’t read the books, but I wouldn’t be surprised if, say, the bit where Dr. Meng doesn’t close a locker firmly and a bunch of tools get flung around the ship in the middle of a high pressure dogfight, was an invention of the show’s writers. From a remove, it has the feel of a time filler, of something to make sure that the episode’s last shot can be as dramatic as it is. Padding, to be blunt about it.
The thing is, though, that it doesn’t play like padding. Intellectually it’s possible to notice the seams of something that’s been inserted to fill out a structure, but it’s also a well built piece of suspense that reminds us that Prax isn’t really prepared for the sudden change in his life, and that Amos is an incredibly stand up guy. Admittedly those are both things we should probably realize at this point, but the sequence does a fine job of reinforcing that knowledge while also adding a bit to the two characters’ growing friendship.
All of which is really a roundabout way of pointing out once again how well built this show has become, how good the writers are now at grafting an episode-by-episode blueprint onto a series of novels. Sure, it would be nice if the climax of each respective book corresponded with a different season finale, but we can’t have everything.
Prax and Amos’s adventures with hardware also ties in with Avasarala and Bobbie’s suffering on the racing ship, both sequences doing a great job of reinforcing just how awkward and unnatural space travel can be. The punishment Avasarala endures is more of an on-going concern, a thread to build suspense throughout the episode until she finally falls unconscious in the final moments, but these ideas come from the same place, just as Meng’s plan to grow plants on the ship to help with the air filtration system. Instead of restricting the narrative or turning into tedious lectures (oh hey, the authors read a book about space travel once), all of these elements work together to give the show part of its distinctive personality, as well as making sure the audience is always aware of just how dangerous this sort of life is, and the risks our heroes take regularly in living it.
Contrast that with things back on Earth, where Secretary General Esteban, Errinwright, and their cronies all live high above the concerns of the rioting citizens below. We spend most of our time on Earth seeing things through Anna’s eyes, and she’s an immediate, and welcome, addition to the cast. Part of this is because it’s a relief to have someone who’s not a corrupt asshole facing off against Errinwright (not that Esteban is necessarily as much of a monster as Errinwright is, but he’s compromised at the very least); the first time we see Anna, she’s intervening in a near riot and insisting that protester get his broken arm treated. It’s always possible that her principles will serve as an obstacle later on, but for now, it’s just good to see someone who actually believes in being a decent, caring human being.
The other reason Anna is so welcome is Elizabeth Mitchell. Mitchell’s obvious warmth and intelligence helped make her turn as Juliet so indelible on Lost—that she can be idealistic but never come across as foolish or predictable is a great gift, and she fits right in with the cast as it currently stands. If the ending of “IFF” is anything to go by, Avasarala and Bobbie are going to be hanging out with Holden and crew for a while. It’ll will be great to see the group bouncing off one another, but it’s smart to have someone else we check back with on Earth. Between all this and the discovery that Strickland is using children with a rare genetic disorder to harness the protomolecule, the season is already building up a fine head of steam. I wonder what will blow up next.
- Speaking of Strickland, early in the episodes he tells Mei, “Big girls don’t cry,” in case you needed a reason to hate him more.
- So, Mei is definitely on Io, but she may be moving soon. Jules Pierre-Mao arrives at the start of the episode, and, given what Strickland’s learned, he might be taking the kids with him when he goes.
- I don’t think we officially know the fate of Cotyar and that other guy. I may have missed something, and Avasarala and Bobbie both seem to assume they’re dead, but I don’t think we saw the drop ship blow up? I could be wrong though.
- By defending Bobbie and Avasarala’s ship against Erringwright’s, our heroes have put themselves in a bit of a spot. Or, as Holden puts it: “We just declared war on Earth.”