The end of Eros last week (or what looked like the end of Eros) marks the conclusion of a major storyline, so it’s no surprise that tonight’s episode feels more than a little like a season premiere. Hell, it’s even called “Paradigm Shift,” a title which is both relevant to the events of the hour (especially that final reveal), and also sounds like a meta-gag about narrative direction. Miller and Julie Mao are apparently gone, and with them, a large quantity of the protomolecule. That doesn’t mean anyone can relax, though, and what makes “Shift” a thrill to watch is realizing that the show is on solid enough footing to change focus without skipping a beat.

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Of course, we don’t actually know what that change in focus is going to be. I have my guesses: Avasarala sends a friend (and former lover?) as a spy on Earth’s mission to Venus to check out whatever was left behind after the Eros crash, and I’m thinking they’re going to get more than they bargained for. Fred Johnson managed to snag 30 of the nuclear missiles out of the swarm the UN launched, and while he promises he’s just going to use them as a “deterrent,” that’s another potential powderkeg waiting to go off. The tensions between Earth and Mars haven’t calmed down, and the OPA is using Miller’s sacrifice as an excuse to turn him into a martyr for the cause, a development at once hilarious and inevitable. Oh, and that squad of Martian marines we’ve been following since the start of the season apparently just got massacred by what looks more than a little like an alien threat.

That last bit is the biggest surprise of the hour, and it’s very well done; after spending so much time building up the potential of a war between Earth and Mars, I was expecting the visit to the Ganymede Agricultural Station to end with some sort of accident (maybe a little more intentional than not, given how frustrated the marines were getting) kickstarting an intergalactic incident, but the introduction of a new danger to the mix is a thrill, especially after I’d assumed the protomolocule was as alien-y as the story was going to get. However, given how quick this goes down, and how little we see of whatever the hell it is we’re seeing, it’s going to have to wait till next week to be more than just a very effective cliffhanger.

Thankfully the rest of “Shift” is compelling enough on its own, due to some terrific character work and a moving, if oddly unfinished, sidebar. The Expanse has used the “flashback to some historical event” structure before, and I appreciate the variation on more conventional expository devices. Instead of showing us the past through the perspective of a major character, what we get feels more like a footnote that’s been integrated into the main text. (Someone mentioned in the comments that when this happened last season, the “past” scenes were adapted from a short story connected to the novels, which is very clever.)

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The origin of the Epstein Drive, which apparently cost Solomon Epstein his life, isn’t really necessary from an informational standpoint, but the reminder of the human cost of innovation, and the way that innovation expands outward from itself, is important thematic material. It also fits perfectly with the show’s mood—the characters aren’t always the most nuanced, but there’s a fascinating empathy at work here in showing how systems of repression and dominance develop, and how “progress” shapes lives in ways that can only be predicted in retrospect.

The only downside to these scenes that even though the flashback ends in Epstein’s apparent (there’s that word again) death, it feels a little unfinished, in part because of Epstein’s own narration; he’s telling the story of his discovery and what that discovery cost him, but in a rueful, “That’s the way it goes” tone. This could just be an artistic conceit with no greater meaning, but it’s an unusual choice, and given the way his tale ends (it just sort of stops), has me wondering if there’s more to this.

The rest of the episode follows up with Avasarala on Earth, as she tries to dig deeper into the Eros mystery, and sees the crew of the Rocinante returning to Tycho station for some much deserved R&R. Avasarala has one of her best scenes yet, confronting Errinwright in his office and demanding that he convince Jules-Pierre Mao to turn himself in. We haven’t seen her quite this forceful in a while, and what makes the confrontation especially effective is that she’s threatening both men without acknowledging that she knows any conspiracy has taken place. The ambiguity of that (subtext!) gives Shohreh Aghdashloo more to work with than she’s had in the past; she’s a terrific actress, but given how much time her character has spent on the sidelines, it’s a pleasure to see her get a chance to let loose a little. Hopefully there will be more to come.

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As to the Rocinante crew, I remain delighted at just how much I’ve come to like all four characters. Holden remains a fine mixture of the inspiring and the exasperating (it’s fun to have a wild card-esque character whose sudden, plot-altering decisions are driven entirely by a quixotic desire to find moral certainty in a perpetually gray universe), and I appreciate how Naomi has managed to maintain her own distinct identity in the wake of their relationship. Her decision to go against Holden’s orders in regards to the surviving protomolecule sample was fascinating—these people care about one another, but that caring won’t stop any of them from having their own private goals.

Speaking of the Naomi/Holden pairing, Holden’s decision to share their couplehood with Alex and Amos led to one of the funniest scenes in the hour, as Alex loses a bet. Alex and Amos’s burgeoning friendship is a great chance to get to know Alex, who was probably the least developed of the four coming into this season. Just watching him bounce off Amos’s determined, if misguided, efforts at bonding is delightful. (Best moment: Amos enacts a complicated plan to pick a fight with Alex so that Alex can, I dunno, feel all badass again after Amos defends him in a bar.) The fact that the season has managed to find time for this sort of character work—scenes that don’t precisely move the plot forward, but do work to make sure that we’ll care when everything goes to shit—without losing its sense of momentum is impressive. Is it next week yet?

Stray observations

  • If the Martian marines are all dead, it’s going to feel like a waste. I get wanting to make sure we know who they are so their deaths have an impact, but getting rid of them so abruptly would be, well, too abrupt. I’m hoping for at least one or two survivors.
  • Nice to see the g-force that was so important to the crew of the Rocinante last week figure so prominently in the Epstein Drive story. Which is an odd thing to say about a basic scientific principle, but hey, y’know. Science.
  • According to Avasarala, the UN has three pages of instructions for meeting with aliens and the first step is “Find God.”
  • Naomi wanting to preserve Miller and Julie’s legacy is a nice touch.
  • Amos (re: Naomi): “I mean, don’t get me wrong, I’d do her if she let me.” Holden: “I’m glad we had this talk.”

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