How much character work is too much character work? It depends on the kind of show, really; for a low-key drama, you could spend hours delving into psychology and internal conflicts, whereas with a sitcom, you’d have to convey even the most complex mental state in between the one-two stream of constant punchlines. The Expanse isn’t under restrictions quite so rigorous, but it has done well so far by keeping things moving forward at a good clip, even as it sometimes dawdles with the subplots. While the character development has been a bit of a slow-burn, the show has done a very good job of maintaining a consistent pace, so that even when the importance of a scene isn’t immediately relevant (or if a sequence is clearly serving to remind us that a character exists rather than accomplish anything story-related), the feeling of “getting somewhere” remains storng.
That feeling doesn’t fall apart in “Rock Bottom,” but the seams do start to show. I wouldn’t go so far as to say this is a stalling episode; important things happen in both the Rocinante and Miller storylines, and we learn a crucial bit of Avasarala’s backstory. But that pace, which up until now has been so exemplary, skips a few beats, or else lingers too long in places that don’t benefit from the attention.
The biggest flaw, at least for now, is the sad story of Uncle Mateo and his nephew Diogo, a pair of asteroid miners who run afoul of some pissed off cops. As always, it’s possible I’ve missed something, but for right now, the only reason Mateo and Diogo appear on the show seems to be to demonstrate the tension between the Belters and the Earthers, and how that tension has now been pushed to the breaking point. After the cops put Mateo and Diogo in a no-win situation, Mateo cracks, shoves his nephew (and a space suit) out the airlock, and suicides his ship into (I think) the cops’. It’s an okay sequence, but one that fails to provide us with any information we don’t already have. The Anderson scenes from last week at least gave us some backstory for Johnson. This, at least so far, is just a bad thing that happened, and while it’s consistent with what we already know, it doesn’t feel necessary in any way.
It also doesn’t help that, for maybe the first time, Holden and his crew don’t appear to be in immediate dangers. He’s able to negotiate a deal with Fred Johnson that ultimately ends up with the lot of them heading off (with the ship disguised as a gas freighter) to track down one of Johnson’s contacts, a person who might be the only one left who really knows what happened on the Scopuli. The opening stand-off between Holden and Johnson is well done, and it’s a relief to see characters we’ve come to like finally getting one over on someone, but once Holden makes his deal, the urgency fades a bit.
Still, there’s something to be said for taking a breather every now and then, and while Johnson remains something of a mystery, he does reveal that he’s the one who sent out the Scopuli. And we do learn that Amos used to be a hustler, which is unexpected and not a bad twist at all. Holden finally confesses that he’s the one who logged the distress signal way back in the pilot, and while that leads to some brief tension, it also lays the groundwork for the episode’s final scene, where Holden, Naomi, Amos, and Alex team up to search for Johnson’s contact. They’ve bonded now, and for the first time, they really do feel like a crew.
If you’re looking for tension, the best place to find it is in Miller’s storyline, which has his relationship with Anderson Dawes finally turning violent. After Anderson’s people grab Miller off the street, we get some light torture, and a lot of heavy questioning about Miller’s motives, and about just why he went back to Julie’s apartment. Anderson rages against Miller for being a traitor, then explains how he had to kill one of his sisters to save his family, a piece of backstory that not only explains Anderson’s determination to fight for Belter independence, but also makes him a scary, scary dude. Realizing Miller just has a stupid crush on Julie (I’d argue it’s less a crush and more a desire to believe in something again, but tomayto, tomahto), Anderson tells his goons to throw him out an airlock.
Really, it’s not just tension; so far at least, Miller’s story has been one slow descent into misery. His security officer friend Octavia Muss rescues him from Anderson’s people, but that’s only a brief respite before he can make the classic good guy mistake of trying to bring what he knows to the authorities. Something happened on Pheobe Station, they created some kind of bioweapon, and the OPA went looking for it. Then all hell broke loose. But just when Miller thinks he’s cracked the case, his boss fires him for pushing too hard. Anderson is in control of Ceres Station, which makes Miller a marked man.
The arc makes sense for the sort of private detective noir-type feel the Miller scenes have been going for, and hopefully hitting rock bottom will lead to bigger and brighter things for the man. “Rock Bottom” may have hidden depths that I’m not reaching, but, at least on first glance, it’s the weakest hour of the show so far, lacking the strong sense of focus that has made this show so effective up until now. It’s still a decent episode, but hopefully this is just some throat clearing before the final four.
- Avasarala remains on the periphery; she essentially blackmails a guy into giving her access to his spy on Tycho Station, and we learn that her son was killed by the OPA.
- “You’re either some kind of genius, Mr. Holden, or you’re the biggest dipshit in the universe.” Yeah, the jury’s still out on that one.
- The contact’s name is Lionel Polaski, but it’s a code name; could be anybody.
- Miller should look on the bright side. Usually when someone asks, “Did you tell anyone this?” they’re about one “No” away from shooting you.