Oh isn’t this nice. Last week I’m going off about how The Expanse needs to work harder to make us care about its characters, and this week, we get some actual non-plot related scenes of the Canterbury survivors (now the crew of the re-christened Rocinante) being, well, characters. Nothing astonishing, nothing that really changes our ideas about these people, but just enough to make them more than just walking story delivery devices. It’s a small thing, maybe more no more than five minutes of screentime, but the slight change in pacing, the willingness to let these people breathe a little, is entirely welcome.

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While “Back To The Butcher” isn’t a revolution, it bends the mold of the previous four episodes to a noticeable degree. Unless I missed something (entirely possible), this is the very hour we’ve had without an appearance from Avasarala; and while her character is certain to be important later on, it’s a relief to not have to spend a handful of scenes watching her look pensive over events she can’t control. “Butcher” focuses on Holden and the others as they decide what to do in the wake of the Donniger’s destruction, and on Miller as he continues to look into Julie’s death. But for the third segment, instead of Earth, we get a flashback to eleven years ago, and the destruction of Anderson Station.

This is the first major flashback the show’s done, and it’s a mystery flashback—the kind that tells a definite story (we’re introduced to Brown, the leader of a group of miners who took over the station to protest against bad treatment and horrific health risks), but one whose connection to the main plot isn’t evident until the very end. It’s a nifty trick, and one which, when not over-used, uses novelty to worm its way past our expectations. In this case, the point is giving us some more backstory on Fred Johnson, the man we met last week at Tycho Station, but that information is withheld until the very end.

In fact, Johnson barely appears in the episode: we see him in a pair of video messages he sends Holden and the others, inviting them to Tycho and the safety of anonymity, and we get a glimpse of him at the very end of the flashback, standing outside his ship in the vacuum while dead miners and children float past. He’s still a largely inscrutable figure, and while the flashback provides information (Johnson was in charge of the marines who slaughtered the miners aboard the Anderson after the surrendered), it’s not even clear what this information means. Anderson is a monster? Or did killing so many at his government orders drive him to join the OPA?

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That lack of a final, clear “a-ha!” moment, a beat beyond the simple recognition of why this story was being told in the first place, robs “Butcher” of some dramatic impact. The flashback structure still basically works, though—the story of the miners, and their awful deaths, helps establish even more clearly the stakes between the Belters and the rest of the universe, and at the very least suggests that Johnson is not someone to fuck around with.

What else works? I’m still enjoying Miller’s storyline; the confrontation between him and Havelock over the prostitute who’s been teaching Havelock Belter language has his his defensive cynicism isolating him from his new partner quite efficiently, and the discovery that he’s sobered up even as he continues to dig into a case no one else seems to be interested in is telling. The biggest step forward, apart from finding a data chip in a robotic mouse, is Miller’s conversation with one of Julie’s exes, a conversation that deepens our understanding of Julie (she was devoted to helping others even if it meant putting her own life at risk), and also adds to the growing sense of melancholy around this entire case. This is pure noir, and while nothing here apart from the setting is really new, it’s a familiar story told well, with just enough mystery to pull us along.

The fate of the Rocinante crew, and what’s going to happen to them on Tycho, is where the real narrative hooks dig in, and if I had to guess, I’d say the show won’t completely kick into gear until at least two out of the three of its central trio of storylines finally connect. But what’s impressive is how well it’s working now, even as that trio remains largely separate. There’s little drag, and even the scenes that should be padding don’t feel like padding. It’s all very well done, and with this week’s addition of some minor, but very welcome, character touches and slight shift in format, the show continues to improve. We’re only at the halfway point for season one: I’m eager to see what other tricks are in store.

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Stray observations

  • Anderson Dawes makes another appearance, this time offering Miller a chance at the man who attacked Havelock. Miller passes. In general, the scenes that test Miller’s loyalties as a Belter and as a cop are interesting in concept, but don’t really have much edge to them yet.
  • Rocinante is also the name of Don Quixote’s horse. That’s maybe not the best omen.

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