Steven Strait
Photo: Rafy (SyFy)

Given how season three ends, it seems reasonable to assume that The Expanse did its best to get to the ends of two books this year instead of just one. That’s an understandable goal; whatever you think of the trip it took to get to the final minutes of “Abaddon’s Gate,” those final minutes are pretty clutch, providing a cliffhanger that suggests possibilities instead of simply teasing out a lack of information. Speaking for myself, I’m glad I don’t have to spend half of this review pointing out yet again how weird it is to have a finale in the middle of a story. I expect you’re as happy about that as I am.

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Unfortunately, while the double shot of “Congregation” and “Abaddon’s Gate” works well on an emotional level, providing some great character moments and a rising sense of imminent doom, trying to cram this much plot into the back half of the season had the unfortunate effect of making for some clumsy storytelling. Up until “Congregation,” it’s been about a slow build with escalating stakes, the only glaring weak spot being Melba (Chrissy Mao) and her uninteresting obsession with revenge. But in these last two episodes, the show attempts to shift gears and rush pell mell into its climax, with the result being a finale which, while thrilling in part, fails to do the necessary groundwork to make all of this plausible.

The most glaring problem lies in the nature of the crisis that drives the finale. It’s not hard to follow the basic steps: Kolvoord (who seems to be the only person left on the Thomas Prince) convinces Ashford to detonate a nuclear bomb inside the Ring so they can get a better understanding of how the Ring works, with an eye towards using the Behemoth communications array to send for help; the bomb goes off and the Ring sphere goes into overdrive; Ashford decides this is the start of some sort of massive explosion that will destroy everything, and convinces the others that they need to destroy the Ring with the communications array, trapping themselves in Ring space but, presumably, saving human civilization; Holden manages to get in touch with Miller, who tells him that they need to turn off all the fusion drives in the area to convince the sphere they aren’t a threat; and Holden, along with nearly all of the other main characters, more or less goes to war with Ashford to make this happen.

I can see this working, but it’s tricky business, especially considering how much effort the show has put in to make us like Ashford. For me, the two key failures here are the lack of proper motivation for the nuclear bomb detonation, and the rush to turn Ashford into some kind of Ahab-like obsessive, ignoring even the most sensible advice in his determination to achieve his ends.

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On the first point: you need the nuclear bomb going off to change the sphere’s behavior. That makes sense. But detonating a nuclear weapon inside an alien structure that’s already shown it responds badly to any show of aggression doesn’t make a lot of sense. It’s the sort of big, risky action that needs a lot of external pressure to justify, and the way it’s handled here is more of a shrug than anything else—Kolvoord comes up with the idea, tells Ashford he thinks they should do it, and Ashford buys in. There’s some objection, but it doesn’t last, and the end result is less a commentary on humankind’s hubris than it is a “oh shit, I guess we have to kick this off somehow” writer’s moment. Yes, people do stupid, inept things all the time, and often those things get them killed, but in a story like this one—one which is interested in the unintended consequences of actions while still being careful to show how those actions came about—it undermines much of the tension going forward.

It doesn’t help that while things are dire inside the Ring, the situation had to some extent stabilized; it couldn’t hold long term, but for the moment, everyone was working together towards a common cause, and the Ring sphere wasn’t doing anything immediately threatening. We saw people who were stressed and concerned, but no one was on the verge of the sort of panic you need to really make a decision with such a huge potential for unexpected outcomes. Up until this point, the season had done a very good job of making sure each successive problem with the Ring was something that came out of individuals operating under extreme stress. Here, it just seems to give that up solely in order to get to the big crisis that much quicker.

As to the other problem, Ashford’s blinkered determination to destroy the Ring at all cost jibes poorly with everything we know about the character. Up until now, he was reasonable even if people we liked didn’t always agree with him, and he’d shown every indication of being a good captain on the Behemoth, opening the ship’s doors (symbolically) and committing to an effort to help everyone he could. Sure, he did this with an eye towards politics, putting himself in the position to be the de facto leader of the humans trapped in the Ring, but it was still a noble aim, and one that suggested someone who was capable of playing a long game and making smart decisions. Then, forty minutes or so later (our time), he’s raging against Holden and the others for daring to question his will, as though destroying the Ring—an idea which I don’t remember him (or anyone else) ever mentioning before—was the culmination of his life’s work.

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It’s not hard to see what the writers are trying to do here. Ashford makes a speech at one point in “Abaddon’s Gate” in which he argues that the Ring is, essentially, an unexploded bomb, and if they don’t destroy it, eventually someday someone will. That’s not a bad motive, and it at least goes some way to explaining why he doesn’t just try Holden’s plan first to see if it will work. You could even make a case that Ashford’s past has driven him to desperate acts, as he’s seen time and again just how humanity deals with its problems. But it’s not enough. The character shift is too drastic; you can see it in David Straitharn’s performance, as he goes from recognizable, complicated human being to raging villain without much justification for the switch.

I can’t say for sure that more time would’ve fixed these problems, but it’s hard to ignore how rushed this is, and how much we’re expected to simply accept for the sake of landing those big climax moments. Hell, they even do their best to give Melba a redemption arc—it comes closer to working more than Ashford’s fall, but it’s still a bit much to see her changing sides after a lecture from Anna and some Holden eavesdropping. Honestly, the only reason it doesn’t stand out worse is that Melba’s original motivations were never all that convincing to begin with, so it’s easier to accept her changing them.

I’ve spent most of this review being critical, which (all evidence to the contrary) is not something I enjoy, especially not when I’m talking about a season that was as relatively strong as this one. But that’s the problem with improvement; once you show you can do better, audiences start to expect that you always will. There was still a lot of good in these two episodes. Anna continues to be excellent, and giving her and Amos a chance to talk is an absolutely brilliant choice; the two characters play off each other wonderfully. I especially loved her explanation for why she does what she does, and I desperately wish we could’ve gotten more of her with Melba, as that was the closest I’ve ever come to finding that character interesting. It was great to see Naomi and Holden reunited again, and like I said earlier, the final moments—which has the Ring opening gates to new systems, and Holden realizing that Miller is trying to figure out what killed the civilization that built the Ring in the first place—are galvanizing.

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It’s just a shame that we had to take so many awkward shortcuts to get to that point. Another three episodes—hell, maybe just a single extra episode—could probably have avoided all of this. A show that moves as fast as this one is always at risk of turning into something of a montage summary of a more complicated narrative. One of the things that impressed me so much about this season is how the writers were able to keep the pace up without losing the rhythm, finding moments of grace and empathy to make the world of the stories they told feel as lived in as possible. It’s disappointing to see them trip up at the finish line, but that doesn’t erase the good work that came before it; and it doesn’t make me any less excited for next season.

Stray observations

  • I’m actually not sure when that next season will be, but still! Excited.
  • Also I’m happy to have Miller back.
  • The finale was surprisingly reluctant to kill anyone off. Oh sure, minor characters dropped like flies, but both Ashford and Melba survived, despite having arcs that seemed to demand some kind of ultimate price (Melba especially). Drummer’s still around, even after trying to sacrifice herself for the good of the many yet again. Any one of these cases in isolation would be fine, and I’m not sure it’s actually a problem even with all three, but it’s still striking.
  • So, the protomolecule was never intended as a weapon; it was just a machine that built roads, albeit one that didn’t give a flying fuck about the species it hurt along the way. Glad to have that cleared up.
  • Bobbie kind of got screwed in all of this (she spent way too much time telling people who wouldn’t listen that she trusted Holden), but at least she appears to be part of the Roci’s crew now?
  • Melba asking Ashford if he thinks that one good act can make up for a lot of bad ones is a really bad writing choice; it’s a cliche, for one thing, and it more or less spoils what’s about to happen next.
  • “Why do you do it?” “Because it needs to be done. I think that’s what most of my life is: seeing what needs to be done, and doing it.” “Mine too.” Please give us more Amos and Anna scenes in the future, thank you. (Although Anna should be heading home now, so that’s probably unlikely.)

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