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Strong choices and unexpected results make for a thrilling The Expanse

Illustration for article titled Strong choices and unexpected results make for a thrilling The Expanse
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At various points tonight, I was convinced that two different characters were heading towards their deaths, one by suicide, the other by a sort of desperate nobility that was also, basically, suicide. “The Monster And The Rocket” opens with Errinwright shaving and remembering how much he’s doomed, before watching him walk his son to school and offering the kid some cliched but seemingly well-intentioned advice. (“Listen to your heart.”) This is pretty classic “compromised businessman sets his affairs in order before killing himself” stuff, made even more telling by the fact that I don’t think we’ve ever seen Errinwright’s son before. Any time a show suddenly introduces family into the life of a secondary character in a bad spot, there’s trouble ahead.

Which is clearly what we’re supposed to be thinking. I mean, at one point Errinwright finishes off what could very easily be a suicide note, and then looks closely at a vial of what could very easily be poison. (Turns it out it is poison, just not for him.) In retrospect, it’s a set-up so aggressive it borders on comical, but while I had my suspicions, I’d be lying if I said I had any idea what was actually going to happen. It seemed too obvious that Errinwright would just bump himself off, but it also seemed entirely in keeping with what we know of the man: he’s someone with just enough self-awareness to know he’s screwed, but not enough to avoid that screwing in the first place. Dudes like this are always taking the “honorable” way out in fiction. But then he did something else entirely, and the game changed.

Naomi’s situation looked to be heading towards its own inevitable conclusion, albeit it one less driven by outside forces and more by her own guilt. Making good on her promise from last week’s episode, she and Amos join up with the Weeping Somnambulist; Naomi bullies her way into fixing the ship (well, “bullying” isn’t exactly the right word as she’s clearly the only person who knows what she’s doing, but she doesn’t take no for an answer), only to find out that due to an air shortage, the Somnambulist can only take 52 people in addition to the crew—which means they’re going to be leaving folks behind on Ganymede to die as the station collapses.

The pilot, Melissa Suputayaporn, reluctantly decides they’ll have to leave without taking anyone else with them—the people waiting to get in are near rioting already, and the knowledge that they can’t all board won’t calm anyone down. Amos agrees with Melissa, but Naomi, driven by what she saw on Eros, goes out of the airlock and tries to make a deal with Champa (Gugan Deep Singh), a big guy Melissa “hired” to keep the crowd in line. Get everyone organized, explain the situation, and maybe some lives can be saved. It’s a noble gesture, but noble gestures have a bad habit of backfiring horribly—as James Holden could attest to. Thankfully, Naomi seems a bit luckier (or smarter) than he is.

These two story arcs aren’t the only points of interest in the hour: we also see Avasarala have her long awaited meeting with Jules-Pierre Mao, and Holden turn increasingly Ahab in his hunt for the latest Protogen experiment gone rogue. But Errinwright and Naomi’s choices are what end up driving the plot, cutting short Avasarala’s attempt at negotiations before they can even begin, and giving Holden a chance to redeem himself before his obsession pushes him (and the people with him) over the edge. The outcome of these two arcs define the episode as a whole, and serve to raise this one above last week’s solid but mildly choppy entry.

Those outcomes also demonstrate the complexity of the show’s moral universe. Errinwright isn’t planning on killing himself, and his apparent moral turn earlier in the season has been all for naught; after Avasarala refused to help him (at least, that’s how he sees it), he’s decided to take matters into his own hands, killing the Martian ambassador with a genetically tailored, untraceable poison (one that essentially blocks all the anti-grav drugs the Martians have to take and causes a heart attack) and blowing the ship that Mars had sent to pick up the Protogen “weapon.” It’s a shockingly bold move from a player who’d been presumably removed from the board, ending Mao’s arrangement with Mars in one fell swoop, and also shutting down his conversation with Avasarala.


It’s a strong narrative gambit, throwing the situation on its ear once more, and it also serves to make Errinwright considerably more interesting. He’s not just a not-quite-bad-enough villain; now he’s put himself up as a major player, albeit one who still acts a bit on edge about everything. What happens to Naomi doesn’t really change how we look at her—she’s always been trying to do the right thing, albeit in unusual ways (I wonder how much her behavior here is driven by the fact that protomolecule torpedo she failed to destroy), and while seeing her take down Amos and willingly attempt to sacrifice her life for the sake of others is further than we’ve seen her go in the past, it’s not that much further.

No, what makes this interesting is the hope it finds in scared people who, when given the opportunity, ultimately do the right thing. Once Naomi manages to convince Champa to organize the crowd, they follow his lead—even though this means most of them will die. It’s a lovely play on our expectations of the behavior of crowds, and it doesn’t feel forced. Even the fact that Champa doesn’t get much in the way of personality works; Singh is good in the role, but ultimately he’s just some guy, and the point is less about him specifically and more about how humanity is capable of sacrifice and working towards the greater good when given the chance. Not always, and those motivations can easily be corrupted by greed or stupidity or national pride, or any of the hundred other ways we fuck up. But this show only works if we believe that the universe Naomi, Holden, and the others are fighting for is worth the effort; it’s good to have the occasional reminder that it is.


Stray observations

  • Holden finally backing down and letting Alex bring the Rocinante to the Somnambulist’s rescue is a great moment, and a relief as well—having him stuck in grim avenger mode was getting old.
  • It briefly seemed inelegant for the show to leave the “monster” behind on Ganymede, but the final shot of the Rocinante shows the creature’s managed to stow away aboard the ship. Which is fantastic.
  • I’m curious how much Melissa featured in the books; I’d assumed she and her husband had been invented for the TV show to give us a one-and-down b-plot for Holden and his crew, but she’s turned out to be slightly more important than I’d expected. Which is fine, although she doesn’t have much of a character yet. (Also, the fact that she hates James Holden enough to ban him from her ship by name is a little odd. Like, I get that she’s not happy about what happened, but singling out Holden is a bit much.)
  • “Don’t talk down to me, Plant Guy!”
  • The poison Errinwright uses was formally banned because of the one-sided danger it represented to Mars/Earth relations. He’s using it, in part, to make a point about why he’s trying to secure Mao’s work for Earth, when Mao claims to want to use the protomolecule to keep both factions in line. Once you open Pandora’s box, you can’t close it. (Which makes what happens on Ganymede even more symbolically important, because it suggests that people can do what’s right, when given the chance.)
  • Champa trading Naomi’s life for his own is arguably a bit of Main Character Death Exemption, but it works well enough.
  • “You people are shit magnets.”