The last time I wrote a full post about this series, I was about three or so episodes from the end of Season One. I hadn’t read the books, and still haven’t, so all of that post and the following is based solely on my observations of the TV series.
I’ll admit, my early relationship with the show was slow-burning, grudging admiration at first; “The Expanse” wasn’t easy to love. It was soul-crushingly dark, literally and figuratively (one early character even asks, “Why couldn’t they bring more lights?” ); and some of those first season episodes had a tendency to meander. I initially thought former asteroid ‘Belter’ detective Joe Miller (Thomas Jane) was a walking collection of ‘hardbitten detective’ cliches.
But I wasn’t giving up on it, because there was just something about it…
Some of the characters, particularly the crew of the rechristened Mars naval ship Rocinante (appropriately named after Don Quixote’s horse) and the force of nature that is United Nations of Earth Secretary Chrisjen Avasarala (played with ruthless regality by Shohreh Aghdashloo) were working themselves into my soul a bit.
These were fascinating people, and very well-acted. Despite their dour circumstances, they were starting to tell me a very interesting story and I had to follow them through it.
Well, I’m very glad that I did. In fact, I included it in my Personal Favorites of 2017.
“The Expanse” richly rewards patient viewers.
****** ASTEROID-SIZED SPOILERS DEAD AHEAD! ******
I finished my watch of season 2 a few months ago, and there are many moments of the season that still linger in my mind.
Where S1 was a bit of a chore to get through at times, S2 really kicks the show into high gear. It became must-watch TV for me, and now there’s no turning back. After Season 2, I was hooked.
Now I’m not going to go list all of the episodes of the season or give rankings on each one, because the episodes are all part of a greater storytelling tapestry. This is a novel-for-television, and each episode is another chapter. Yes, there are some standouts (“Home,” “Paradigm Shift,” “The Weeping Somnambulist,” “Here There Be Dragons,” and “Caliban’s War” come to mind), but to say any of the others are lesser would be a huge mistake. Watch all of it. Thank me later.
First thing I noticed right off; there is a lot more scope and action in season 2.
We see battlefield maneuvers on the surface of Mars, where we meet new character, Bobbie Draper. Former Belter detective Joe Miller and a vision of a transformed Julie Mao, locked inside of the asteroid Eros… flying straight towards impact on the surface of Venus.
We also see an elaborate combat sequence outside of an agricultural settlement on Jupiter’s largest moon, Ganymede (the settlement is left unsustainable after the attack). It is from the evacuation of the Ganymede massacre that we meet heartbroken agricultural researcher Dr. “Prax” Meng (well-played by Terry Chen, formerly “Chuckles” in season one of Battlestar Galactica), who begins to suspect that his presumed dead daughter may have survived, only to be used in ‘Protomolecule’ experimentation (much like missing heiress Julie Mao’s arc of Season 1).
And we see Earth again, but through the eyes of outsiders; as Martian soldiers arrive to give their deposition of the Ganymede incident (where the Martian marines are accused of preemptively firing upon UN soldiers) in the hopes of staving off interplanetary war. The scenes of Bobbie visiting a planet she’s never known (needing periodic medication to combat its oppressive gravity) were haunting and beautifully shot; they capture the serenity and entropy of a decaying oceanic world…as seen through the eyes of a scrappy ‘duster’ from Mars.
But in addition to the increased scope, scale and adventure of Season 2, the best thing that happened (for me) is that the core characters really began to click and felt newly energized in ways that the more dour Season 1 just didn’t afford them.
The crew of the Rocinante have become a far tighter group this year (well, for most of the year, anyway…).
The budding romance between Jim Holden (solid lead Steven Strait) and his Belter-sympathizer crewmate Naomi Nagata (Dominique Tipper, who is terrific) finally blooms…and of course, creates issues; but surprisingly not with Amos (who seemed to have a bit of a torch for Naomi himself). The chemistry between Holden and Naomi is palpable, and I really found myself rooting for the two of them. It’s also ironic that their personalities seem to be switching; Holden is becoming more cutthroat and ruthless, whereas Naomi is becoming more about preserving life at all costs.
As they are now? I suspect it would’ve been Naomi who would’ve broke their original captain’s orders and answered the Scopuli’s distress call in Season 1.
Amos, on the other hand…
Amos crosses the line at times; and comes very close to turning off his emotions altogether in a chilling subplot with a frighteningly myopic scientist. Amos is one of the most intriguing characters on the show, mainly because he is played to dead-eyed soulless perfection by Wes Chatham.
Chatham walks an actor’s tightrope of playing a emotional blank slate, but without becoming dull. His Amos reminds me a bit of Leonard Nimoy’s Mr. Spock; in his attempt to distance himself from his own traumas and emotions, he goes to an opposite extreme, but he’s always fascinating to watch.
There is also, of course, the Martian-born pilot Alex Kamal (played by Cas Avnar). Avnar plays him with a much-needed lighter touch. He goes from being an ice-trawling ‘space trucker’ in Season 1 to a top-notch flying ace who is capable of performing piloting miracles in Season 2. Yet it all feels entirely innate to the character. Alex earns his stripes over the two seasons. It’s also a relief that while Alex is clearly the comic relief, he’s is never addled with dumb jokes or artificial humor that don’t fit the show, the mood, or the character. Love the character’s slight Texas accent, too! He’s a good ol’ Martian boy (hehe).
Joe Miller (Thomas Jane), a character I wasn’t overly fond of in Season 1, had a terrific exit in Season 2. Miller is finally ‘united’ with a protomolecular-version of Julie Mao, the missing heiress-turned-belter sympathizer whom Miller was contracted to find (and later fell for himself, though they’d not actually met).
The two are on the runaway asteroid Eros (under control of the protomolecule-entity itself) which impacts on the surface of Venus… and seems to create something very unusual there. I’m not sure if we’ll ever see some exotic, Julie Mao-ish form of Miller in the future, but I’d be okay if we didn’t; he got a heroic and fitting exit.
And what happened at the Venusian crash site is very compelling. Will the protomolecule attempt to change the hellish surface of Venus? Will it evolve into something new that can survive Venus, as it did in the vacuum of Ganymede’s unprotected surface? Will Joe and even Julie return in some new altered form in Season 3? We will see (those of us who haven’t read the books, anyway…).
And of course, there is the United Nations Deputy Undersecretary Chrisjen Avasarala, who is played by my single favorite performer on the show; the magnificent Shohreh Aghdashloo. She gets the best lines as well. In a typical exchange during a heated inquiry regarding Martian actions in the Ganymede tragedy, she is asked, “Where exactly are you going with this?” to which she replies (in her inimitable deep rasp), “Wherever the f–k I want to go!”
And in a rare moment of humanity slipping through her pragmatism, she welcomes Martian defector Bobbie Draper into her circle. Yes, admittedly, she’s using the girl (of course; to her, people are chess pieces… to be moved as needed), but she does so with such cunning and manipulative skill that you can believe she is sincere. Even when she strategically uses her dead son to get the necessary means to her ends, she is never quite unsympathetic. Scenes with her grandson and her husband (“Big Bang Theory”/”Deep Space Nine”’s Brian George) humanize her as well. She’s strong, complex, manipulative, and ever-watchable. She’s a survivor. And that voice of hers… damn, I love this character!
If I ever meet Aghdashloo at a convention someday? It’s very possible that I might faint…
I also liked the two of the new members of the ensemble:
Former Martian marine-turned-defector-to-Earth Bobbie Draper (played by athletically imposing Frankie Adams), who goes on an arc from gung-ho, uber-patriotic ‘duster’ to eventual defector. The turning point is the Ganymede incident; where she sees her comrades killed, encounters something she cannot explain (a glowing, vacuum-dwelling super-solider), and learns of the murder of innocent colonists of Ganymede. Adding insult to injury, she is ordered by her superiors to take the fall for it. Her unshakable faith in herself is what drives her to tell what she knows to the one person who wants to hear the full truth; Chrisjen Avasarala. It’s an uneasy alliance; and compared to Chrisjen, the tough-as-nails marine looks every bit the innocent kid.
It’s a fascinating partnership, especially when they board a Martian luxury liner under the guise of a ‘negotiation.’ Both Chrisjen and Bobbie play to their relative strengths as bullets fly. Chrisjen uses her skills to manipulate the negotiators, while Bobbie the soldier does the heavy lifting. I wonder if their partnership will continue into Season 3? I sincerely hope so.
I also enjoyed Dr. Praxidike “Prax” Meng (Terry Chen). The poor guy goes through a hell of a lot in his introduction. When we first see him, he’s in a pressure dome on the surface of Ganymede tending to his horticultural duties when the dome comes under attack. His young handicapped daughter is seemingly killed. He is then forced onto a refugee ship, where he witnesses most of his fellow refugees airlocked into space. After reporting the atrocity he witnessed aboard the ship, he is ‘recruited’ by the Rocinante crew, who (at first) treat him more like a captive than a guest. They eventually take Meng back to Ganymede to aid in his search for his missing daughter, who is the unwitting subject of protomolecule research. Slowly but surely, Meng allies himself with the Rocinante crew, even garnering the grudging respect of Amos (no small feat). I genuinely like Dr. Prax Meng, who adds a less-cynical, more intellectual element to the Rocinante’s rough-and-ready complement.
There are also many terrific secondary characters, such as the morally ambiguous ‘Belter’-advocate and terrorist, Fred Johnson (Chad Coleman). Johnson is neither hero nor villain; he is whatever circumstances and his own personal gains force him to be, and he can switch effortlessly from one to the other. An ally of convenience never to be fully trusted.
Also back in S2 is ‘Belter’ revolutionary/terrorist Anderson Dawes (played by former “Mad Men” costar Jared Harris), who gets into a power struggle with Johnson over control of some wayward U.N. missiles as well as the protomolecule itself. Another untrustworthy, yet very compelling character…
Sadivir Errinwright (Shawn Doyle), a Chrisjen-designated fall guy who pays the ultimate price for politics. We get a glimpse into his family life before he’s resigned to his fate, and his farewell to his unwitting son was surprisingly moving.
Also enjoyed Chrisjen’s attack dog Cotyar (Nick E. Tarabay); who, at times, seems to have a fleeting attraction to decency that his boss would rather he not. At the end of the day, Cotyar can do the dirty work; partly because he seems to know the exact length of his leash…
As a fan of “The Mythbusters,” I also enjoyed a cameo by Adam Savage as an ill-fated pilot of a Venusian expeditionary spacecraft. Sadly, I haven’t yet seen the latest incarnation of “The Mythbusters” (with the newer cast), but hopefully someday.
Also loved “Superman Returns”/“Being Human” actor Sam Huntington, in the semi-flashback episode “Paradigm Shift.” Huntington plays Epstein, the ill-fated inventor of the drive that allows faster access to the outer reaches of the solar system.
With so much able support, “The Expanse”’s core of characters have really come together in Season 2.
Make no mistake; the show hasn’t turned into a cosmic Brady Bunch… far from it. It’s still hard-hitting and not quite ‘light entertainment,’ but the shift towards broader adventure and even a bit of daylight here and there has done a lot towards making the series a bit more enjoyable to newer “Expanse” fans like myself. This isn’t so much a ‘brighter, lighter’ version of “The Expanse” so much as a more adventurous and higher stakes one.
In my humble opinion, this show is the true heir to SyFy’s own brilliant “Battlestar Galactica,” and is rocketing on full thrust toward a third season.
I don’t know how far this televised ride into “The Expanse” goes (as I’ve said, I haven’t touched the books), but I’m definitely onboard for as long as it lasts.
Season 3 of “The Expanse” is slated to return sometime mid-year.