I’ve spent a lot of time lately praising The Expanse for how good it’s gotten at storytelling and pacing. That plus an increased depth in its major characters has gone a long way towards resolving the doubts I had during the first season. But the show isn’t perfect, and while “Here There Be Dragons” doesn’t represent a huge step down in quality, it does suffer from some flaws inherent in its overall approach to narrative. There’s still plenty to like (including a cool cliffhanger ending), but I found myself wondering about certain decisions more than I think I’m supposed to wonder, which is a sign of writers putting plotting ahead of character.
Bobbie Draper is the big offender here. And yeah, I know: it was immensely satisfying seeing her beat the shit out of Martens, and thrilling to watch her flee to the Earth embassy for asylum. These are major choices that, if done well, pay off hours worth of build up. We’re seeing a character we’ve come to know and (presumably) care about finally standing up for herself and throwing away what she thought was her life in the process. Moments of people doing what looks like the right thing against all odds are really exciting to watch, especially when that choice will mark a major shift in the narrative going forward.
Moments like this need to be earned, though, and I’m not convinced that everyone involved did their homework on this one. It’s a slight itch, a minor niggle. Because it’s obvious from a meta level why Bobbie had to do what she does. She’s been established as an important character by now, and having her shipped back to Mars to live out her days in ignominy wouldn’t make a lot of sense. Just as important, her and Avasarala’s interactions so far have been building towards some kind of working relationship. Viewed from a distance, all of this checks out.
And hell, if we’re going to stay at that distance, the actual character beats aren’t that much of a stretch either. Bobbie’s been marginalized, lectured, and betrayed by the people she’s supposed to trust, and her trip to the beach last week was a clear indication that she was pushing at the edges, struggling to find some way to maintain her sense of self and purpose as her own government ran roughshod over her understanding of the truth. It’s just—this is almost too easy. She goes from confused and upset to openly rebellious in very short order, and a chance that major needs a lot of work to justify.
It’s a question of degree. Draper ending up in Avasarala’s office by the end is a major shift, especially given that there’s no immediate danger pressing her to act; yes, the enemy she saw is a threat, and one that could have drastic long-term consequences for the stability of Earth/Mars relations, but it’s not something that’s right up in her face. She’s upset that she’s been forced to frame one of her own squadmates, but it’s as though we missed just a piece or two of the personal info that will make her sudden swerve into something she had to do, and not just something that the plot needed her to do to move forward.
This, really, is the major danger in the sort of storytelling the show is most interested in, because, when it fails, it can reduce individuals into mechanisms which operate at the whims of writerly necessities. The characters we follow are nuanced enough to avoid being cardboard cutouts, and one of the reasons this season has been such a success is that it generally feels like, when people make big decisions, those decisions spring from what we know of their personalities, even as each choice works to reshape the larger story around them. But the faster that larger story needs to move, the more important it is to get everyone where they need to go by a certain episode, and the greater the risk that someone will do something that feels less like they had to do it and more like it had to be done.
Bobbie Draper’s actions in “Here There Be Dragons” fall a little too close to that second category for me to be comfortable with them. It’s not damaging to the integrity of the show as a whole, and it doesn’t precisely contradict what we already knew, but it doesn’t have the support that, say, Holden’s growing grimness has. Even Naomi’s decision to split off from the protomolecule hunt has more grounding. Bobbie going from “desperate to obey but confused” to “outright rebellion” makes sense, but it wobbles a bit, and things have been going so well that it’s hard not to notice that.
Overall, tonight’s episode manage to move things substantially forward in a number of deeply unsettling ways. While Bobbie is making her decision on Earth, Holden and the others are digging through an old section of the Ganymede station, following Strickland’s trail. (At various points we flashback to Strickland and Mei following the same route, and wow do I hope Strickland dies, preferably in great pain.) We get confirmation of what most of us probably suspected for a while now: Strickland and a group of scientists were injecting kids with the protomolecule. Dr. Meng finds one frozen in a cryo tube (presumably one of the less successful tests), and it’s a twisted, alien looking thing that Holden burns immediately.
The scientists who are still working on the project try to fight back, but a poorly timed grenade toss throws everything to hell, and the end of the hour has Holden, Meng, and Alex getting ready to chase a creature that looks a lot like the one who murdered Bobbie’s unit out onto the moon. All of which ties in neatly with what Bobbie learns from Martens: the Ganymede disaster was just a demo run for the group looking to sell the protomolecule as a weapon. Mars was impressed, and one of the reasons they’re trying to keep Bobbie’s mouth shut is that they want to buy.
All this, plus the Arboghast’s discovery that the Eros protomolecule isn’t exactly dead and Mao’s invitation to Avasarala for a chat, means that the final episodes of this season have plenty of bombs waiting to go off. I have every reason to believe they’ll do so smoothly. In a way, the failure of Bobbie’s arc to be perfectly calibrated just reinforces how much I’ve come to trust the show as a whole. They can do better, and I’m excited to see them try.
- Alex’s adventures on the Rocinante give us some clever sci-fi space stuff and also reinforce that he is an endearing dork.
- Avasarala telling Errinwright that the security council is going to use him as a fall guy for the Eros disaster is a terrific scene.
- Naomi lost a son. Has this come up before?
- “Don’t you want to be able to fly one day?” An airlock is too good for Strickland.
- Holden is definitely in ends-justify-means territory, which I assume won’t end badly at all.
- “You don’t have to call me sergeant, ma’am. I’m not a soldier anymore.” It’s stuff like this that made me want just a little more about Bobbie, because that line is a heartbreaker; I feel we’re being robbed of some tragedy here, and I want all the sadness, dammit. The reversal on that anecdote about her and her father was clever, but not quite enough.
- “Suit up. We’re going on a hunt.” -Holden (Better not be another bug hunt.)