Grab onto your butts: The Expanse is back. When last we saw Holden, Naomi, Amos, Alex, Avasarala, Bobbie, and everyone else, things weren’t great; things don’t really improve for anyone in “Fight Or Flight,” although no one we care about dies, which counts for something. The premiere of the third season picks up more or less where season two ended, giving us the briefest of refreshers on the way things stand before launching into a full on war between Earth and Mars. The Rocinante’s crew is handling the fallout of Naomi’s confession, and for once, not even Amos is taking her side. And Bobbie Draper, Avasarala, and Cotyar are fighting for their lives after Errinwright’s double cross left them wounded and adrift.
Stakes are high, then, which helps to cover for the fact that the episode doesn’t exactly play like a premiere, much the same way “Caliban’s War” didn’t play like a finale last season. We’ve been on this point before, and I don’t intend to harp on it for too long; in fact, there’s something almost refreshing about how quickly and effortlessly the episode gets down to business without spending too much time on the bombast. A quick montage of reactions to the destruction of the Arbogast on Venus (the remains of the ship appear to still be floating, frozen, like a model kit straight out of the box) to remind us of something that’ll probably be very important fairly soon, and then it’s back to Earth, where Errinwright manipulates the Secretary General into issuing a formal declaration of War against Mars. Later, he pins his crimes on Avasarala, because if you’re going to be a complete bastard, it’s important to cross every t.
Apart from that montage, “Fight of Flight” doesn’t spend much time re-establishing the show’s various settings. It’s something that will only really be noticeable now, after the episode’s first airing; in the weeks and years to come, anyone going through the series will likely enjoy this as much as the rest, without needing to pause a moment to remember who the hell everyone is. As it is, I did have to look up a few names, but I never felt all that lost. This is, more or less, the standard pacing the show has established—focus spread out over a handful of different storylines, with a clear narrative throughline and conclusion to each, creating problems and solving them in ways that build to something new.
While I do hope the season finds time at some point to dig a little deeper, I appreciate the efficiency of all of this, and the way that the writers and actors still find time to give nuance to characters even as the plot rushes forward. Like watching Bobbie take over despite Avasarala’s increasingly frustrated efforts at command, or Avasarala’s obvious concern about Cotyar. Or Amos and Alex debating what the hell comes next after Naomi’s revelation. Or Holden taking his anger out on a poor, defenseless coffee machine. (Dr. Meng: “You should try tea.”)
It’s the sign of a show working well when it manages to develop and strengthen character relationships without needing to pause too long on story. And while I could nitpick a little, I still think this is some quality structure, with a clear sense of forward momentum even as the episode shifts through various character pairings. Little time is wasted explaining what a war between Earth and Mars would mean, but only because the show spent much of last season preparing us for just that possibility. And it’s impressive that three seasons in, the narrative is still raising tension in ways that don’t feel forced or inelegant; each new escalation seems more or less inevitable, the result of taking a single idea (the incredibly powerful and bizarre protomolecule) and expanding logically (pun!) outward.
I’m especially fond of Holden’s brief arc here. He can be a difficult character to like—a man determined to do what he decides is the right thing, whatever the cost. (If that doesn’t sound tiresome to you, try running a D&D campaign with a paladin.) While it’s hard to argue with someone who wants to do good, there’s an unspoken arrogance when that someone always believes they can figure out what “doing good” actually means. In “Fight Or Flight,” he’s at least self-aware enough to paint himself as a Don Quixote to Dr. Meng. Last season saw his optimism curdle into rage as the situation spun out of control, finally climaxing in the fight against the protomolecule creature that might once have been Dr. Meng’s daughter, Mei. But it wasn’t, and while Holden and the others don’t have the same proof of it that we do, Holden decides to follow some clues and continue the hunt for Mei—thus putting everyone on board the Rocinante (newly re-christened Contorta, after a tree that needs to burn to spread its seeds) at risk.
It is, in some respects, a typical Holden move: the riskiest call with the noblest intentions. Yet everyone but Naomi (who wants to head back to Tycho for Fred Johnson’s protection) immediately signs on, and it’s not hard to understand why. Alex is heavily invested in the idea of the crew as a sustained group; Amos has lost his faith in Naomi; and Mei is Dr. Meng’s daughter. But there’s also the fact that these folks have been through a lot of misery, and the chance to save a life in the face of all the death that’s sure to come has to mean something. And as much as Naomi sounds like she has the practical, sensible idea, I’m still rooting for Mei. Which is another reason to love The Expanse: it can be grim and unsettling, but it presents a universe in which it is still possible to be a hero. You just have to be willing to face what happens next.
- I love Alex’s message home to his family. It’s not really plot relevant (apart from reinforcing how important the ship is to him), but it gives us a bit more about his past and character. I also like how he’s basically saying he abandoned them to go into space and he prefers space, but it doesn’t seem like the episode is judging him for it at all.
- Speaking of judging, it’s a sign of how relatively nuanced the show’s political take is that I’m still not sure what to make of Naomi’s decision. On the one hand, the protomolecule is bad news. But on the other, the Belt probably would be in danger of getting wiped out in a Mars/Earth conflict if it didn’t have leverage, and it’s not like the sample Fred has is all that’s left. I’m leaning towards thinking it was a bad call, but an understandable one, but I appreciate that we’re left to make that decision for ourselves.
- Pretty sure Fred calling on Anderson Dawes was a bad play, but he’s a smart guy, so we’ll see. (I’m not thrilled that he wants the Mormons’ ship back, as that means the Mormons, and they aren’t that interesting, but who knows.)
- Bobbie Draper is awesome.
- “Good job, Marine.” “Same to you, spy.”