THE EXPANSE offers more intimate instances of problem-solving in “Caliban’s War,” putting all of the usual suspects in personally dangerous situations rather than system-level ones. Utilizing everything from science to diplomacy, the second season finale delivers an excellent, suspenseful, tightly-plotted adventure that offers closure on many plot points while opening up vistas of possibility for the future.
By the end of last episode, every major plot thread had wound its way into a small space, each intended to contain large conflict. The Expanse usually deals in system-wide catastrophes and consequences that affect billions of people so maneuvering every storyline into an enclosed space allowed each respective climax to focus on the characters involved rather than huge action scenes. Chrisjen stuck in Mao’s ship, the Rocinante crew dealing with an alien hitchhiker, and the UN science ship over Venus all had beautiful narrative structure in this episode that moved forward each story and provided all of the characters—even those we barely know—with the opportunity to process what was happening to them and grow.
Sometimes, when a story gives you exactly what you want it’s anti-climactic and awful. When The Expanse does it, it tends to be deeply moving and cathartic. It was inevitable that Chrisjen would end up in trouble by going out to Mao’s ship on Mao’s terms. The man is a war-mongering, rich nutjob. It was a setup from the beginning but such an obvious one that I’m fine with the ultimate outcome. Bobbie got to put on her armor and absolutely destroy Mao’s security detail to rescue Chrisjen and her security guy Cotyar. I loved that Bobbie improvised and compromised her way to her suit, and even when resorting to violent conflict she never had polished fight choreography. It felt just as improvised as it would be in that situation. It was also nice to see her talk her way past the guy guarding the UN skiff. Bobbie isn’t just a one-note unthinking soldier. She’s intelligent and constantly reasoning her way through situations. Sometimes talking will get you further than punching. Even Cotyar got his character moments by discussing his motivations for protecting Chrisjen, negotiating on her behalf, and almost selling her out. All three characters got a chance to blossom and show us what they were made of. I love that because so often fight scenes and conflict are simply excuses for technically excellent martial arts or special effects. With this show, the characters are always center stage, even when the entire solar system is at stake.
The situation on the Rocinante was just as suspenseful, action-packed, and full of problems to solve as Chrisjen’s hostage situation. The conflict on the Roci between Prax who wanted to reason with the protomolecule-human hybrid and everyone else who just wanted to kill it was a good starting point for the story. It escalated from there to first figuring out if they could save Holden, then trying to prepare the ship to get rid of the creature, and finally discovering a brilliant scientific solution to the problem at hand. I have way too much love for Amos in all things, but one of my favorite things is how casually this show dismisses seriously intense engineering knowledge as commonplace. Amos is the dumb one because he’s “just” a rocket scientist. The optimism in that notion makes me smile. Everyone here has a different idea of how to get the creature off the ship and all of them are great. Amos wants to pressurize the ship, Alex tries to figure out how to slow the thing down, and Naomi mostly just wants to save Holden. Prax is the real star with his botany metaphors and rational scenarios. I was 90% sure they were going to have him tame the beast with his intense daddy love but it’s so much better that he solved the big problem with science. That’s the Expanse I know and love. No corny, hacky nonsense for this show. It would probably gag on it.
Usually when characters—especially female characters—say that they have some dire secret that they need to tell someone it involves a traumatic past, or some strange romantic or reproductive reveal suitable for melodrama. I always expect it because it’s such a programmed default that it’s one of my instant “abort” buttons on a story. Because I always expect it, I’m always pleased when secrets turn out to be anything else. In this case, Naomi’s secret was narratively catastrophic and brilliant for it. I shouldn’t want anyone to have a weapon of mass destruction, but oh it feels so good that the Belters do. Earth and Mars strip the Belt of all of their resources and the Inner Planets already started with infinitely more power. The Belt leveling the playing field in even one area is deeply satisfying. Naomi is also the perfect person to commit such a morally ambiguous act. First, it will put a crack in Holden’s shiny idealism. Second, she is just as idealistic though far more practical than Holden so her judgment is not just considered more sound by the narrative it is more sound. She called this one correctly. Third, she’s a Belter and she understands the politics of the system better than anyone and the subjugation and oppression that Belters face. Fourth, she gave the protomolecule to Fred who is an Earther-turned-Belter with a tactical mind and enough resources to mount some kind of resistance. I kinda love all of this.
Finally, the last piece of this episode was the scientific mission over the Eros crater on Venus. The UN commander and the Australian scientist have a few nice moments of understanding between them even as they still play at animosity. I don’t even remember their names but even they got their character moments—largely made of allying for the sake of knowledge and marveling at the unknown which fits with what we know of them. This tiny sliver of plot even tied in the conflict with Mars as they end up racing a Martian ship to the surface. The rippingly cool part was that the protomolecule blasted their ship perfectly into all of its constituent parts like it was studying a diagram of the thing, and they all still seem to be alive through the explosion. The protomolecule is so utterly bizarre that you never know what to expect from it and yet the show is so solid on its science that I’m sure the nature and motivations of the thing are held to a consistent standard. I find that pleasing.
A good episode of The Expanse is always so nuanced, well-structured, and compelling that it’s deeply satisfying to watch. I mean, an episode ends and you just feel like everything is complete, even as each one sets the stage for the next ride. I’m sad this season is over, glad we get another one, and just generally content with every scrap of what we’ve been given. It’s so good. I’m almost mad about how good it is.
Season 2, Episode 13 (S02E13)
The Expanse airs Wednesday at 10PM on SyFy
Dana is a digitization archivist by day and a masked pop culture avenger by night. She spreads the gospel of science fiction and fantasy wherever she goes.
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Dana Leigh Brand | Contributor