‘The Expanse’ Continues Season Three With a Masterclass in Storytelling

Please note – this is a review of the second episode, ‘IFF’, and yes I’m posting it after the third episode is already out. I’m just a messy bitch who is addicted to procrastination.


My first attempt to watch ‘The Expanse’ a couple of years ago resulted in me losing interest after a few episodes. Which makes it weird that I now view it with a level of affection that I normally reserve for vegan junk food and attractive women who star in films about time travel.

The first episode of Season Three was reasonably standard. It was a decent “this is where everyone is, and this is what they need to do.” It put the Rocinante on course to one of Jupiter’s moons, it put Gunny and Chrisjen on an escape trajectory, and we got a brief aerobics course with Drummer.

Episode two, ‘IFF’, is not without its faults, but it does an amazing job of setting up the rest of the season to follow. Let’s get a few random observations out of the way first:

  • Gunny has really come into her own in these two latest episodes. I’m not sure if the actor, Frankie Adams, is finally finding her comfort zone, or if she’s just getting better lines, but she owned the first episode and was on form this time as the knowledgeable but unqualified pilot of the Razorback.
  • Amos is continuing to develop into a genuinely lovable murderous thug.
  • The renaming of the Roscinante to Pinus Contorta felt like the writers were mocking me personally, given my recent troubles.
  • We meet a new character, Anna, a charitable human being who is dragged into the UN’s murky politics. I don’t know for certain that her being in a multiracial lesbian marriage makes ‘The Expanse’ more progressive than ‘Star Trek: Discovery’ and its multiracial gay couple, but I’m going to say that it does because I hate ‘Discovery’. And at least the fact that Anna doesn’t kiss her wife is because they’re physically separated by an ocean, and not because the show makers didn’t want to scare middle-America.

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  • Speaking of progressiveness, in my last article on ‘The Expanse’ I brought up the limited number of times that the show manages to pass the Bechdel Test. Well, so far, with Gunny and Avasarala at least, the writers seem determined to smash that particular glass ceiling. I hope the writers of ‘Discovery’ take note of how easy it is to have female-driven storylines when you’re not trying to cram as many hidden-identity sub-plots into each episode as is linguistically possible.
  • ‘The Expanse’ really is much, much, much better than ‘Discovery’.
  • Like, much, much better.
  • In every way.
  • God, I hate that show.

The Power of Set-up

Episode Two of Season Three, ‘IFF’, suffers from a key flaw. All of our primary protagonists (listed in the image below for easy reference) aboard the Razorback and the Penus Distorta are exposed to life-threatening danger, and that danger is nullified by the meta-environment of this being the second episode of the latest season of a really successful series, so we’re confident that they’re all going to make it. And this same problem applies to all genre TV, and even films – we can be confident that Captain America, the first Avenger, isn’t going to be killed during the first half of a movie called ‘Captain America: The First Avenger’.

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A handy guide to the main players in ‘The Expanse’. I didn’t include Fred Johnson or Drummer because they both deserve better than this.

The unfortunate consequence of this knowingly-absent danger is that it kills a lot of the tension that we might otherwise enjoy, and that the director has worked had to create. That doesn’t mean these scenes can’t still be exciting, or surprising, and a lot of drama can be derived from seeing how our heroes survive, rather than if they do. We all knew Luke Skywalker was going to survive the battle on Hoth, but we can still enjoy seeing him and Rogue Squadron bringing down AT-ATs with creative tactics.

However, the tension in this episode of ‘The Expanse’ isn’t the most important point. The purpose of this episode isn’t for it to provide a standalone piece of television, but to lay down the groundwork for what’s to follow in the rest of the season.

The first episode of this season, ‘Fight or Flight’, was about setting up the political state of the solar system and the physical and emotional state of our characters, so that we can get solid pay-offs in nine episodes’ time. The information that the audience learns in the first half of the season feeds into the second half. We don’t care if one of our characters goes off the rails if we didn’t know what rails they were on in the first place.

However this episode, ‘IFF’, is doing something that you wouldn’t normally need to do in other shows – it is setting up the physical laws of the universe itself.

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Everybody understands the way things work on the surface of the Earth. You walk off the edge of a building, you fall. You get shot or stabbed, you die (unless your name is in the opening credits). Even other things, like making a phone call, or getting out of breath when you run up a flight of stairs, are well understood by the audience, and so don’t need explaining. If a character tumbles off the side of a building, we aren’t going to be surprised by what happens next (unless they land on a Harrier Jump-Jet piloted by their dad).

In space, however… matters are less straightforward. Distances are so huge that traversing them in reasonable time requires unreasonable speeds. Unreasonable speeds require incredible acceleration. Incredible acceleration means g-forces, and g-forces are the things that cause pilots to black out and Jeremy Clarkson to turn into a physical metaphor for his own opinions.

Not only that, but inside a spaceship, there’s no effect from gravity on the ship’s contents to keep things in place. You can put a diet coke from the drive-through in the cup holder in your car and resume your journey confident that you’ll remain dry and unmolested by fizzy brown water. In space, that cup of mediocrity needs to be fixed firmly in place, or else as soon as you engage the engines you and all of your equipment will be getting a bukkake of carbonated zero-calorie dogpiss.

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All of which isn’t immediately obvious in a pop culture world in which the laws of physics are routinely unknown or ignored not just by audiences, but by showrunners themselves. One of the most egregious offenders is J. J. Abrams, but he’s hardly alone in dismissing physical constraints for the sake of a neat visual or emotional story progression.

But ‘The Expanse’ and its creators have a staunch dedication to writing a story that feeds off of the harsh realities of space travel, as I’ve covered before. Their sole concession to storytelling over realism is the presence of the Epstein Drive, a powerful, hyper-efficient engine which simply allows us to follow stories that take place over weeks rather than decades. In all other cases, they cling tightly to showing us just how difficult life in space really is – which makes the mysteries of the physics-defying Protomolecule even more compelling.

All of which is to say that the second episode of this season, ‘IFF’, is a masterpiece in setting up a universe which is governed by some very harsh and uncompromising rules.

From the get-go, Angry Hagrid and the Swearbear Bunch are stuck in the Razorback trying to evade an Earth frigate set to destroy them. Their one defense in the racing skiff is speed, but even though the ship is one of the fastest in the system, Gunny and Chrisjen are frail humans with squishy human bodies. And as they continue their flight from the Earther ship, Chrisjen’s physical condition deteriorates more and more, as the huge acceleration adds more and more pressure to her vital organs, her muscles and her blood vessels.

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Later on, the Pinus Contorta, captained by Kitt Spacington and the rest, arrives on the scene to save the Razorback. But even this powerful gunship is subject to the whims of inertia. Prax, their newly-adopted botanist, fails to properly secure a tool locker. As the Contorta spins, accelerates and shakes under a myriad of forces, the locker falls open and all the tools inside, including hammers, wrenches and power drills, begin flying around the compartment.

What would be a mild inconvenience in the back of a speeding truck becomes a lethal shrapnel-party in a fighting spaceship. What’s more, solving the problem is itself a nightmare, since the one thing that prevents pancake-ification of a human body inside a Newtonian paintshaker is a good set of seatbelts and a comfy chair.

And, like with any good set-up, we are exposed to these ideas again and again. The bulk of the episode centres around the drama that results from doing anything in space. We are left with no doubt that space is a dangerous, horrible thing that will do everything it can to kill human beings who dare to venture into it.

Why is this important? Why go to all this trouble?

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Well, let’s take another character-driven space series with some Newtonian Nonsense, ‘Battlestar Galactica’. With so many colourful, driven personalities, imagine the audience’s dismay if someone like Gaius Baltar or Saul Tigh were killed by, I dunno, a heavy box falling on them, or getting run over by a forklift or something. It would feel like a cheap, random way to kill an otherwise compelling character in whom the audience has invested a lot of interest.

But, ‘The Expanse’ is a setting where very pedestrian things really are deadly, and pose a very real threat. If you don’t properly seal your spacesuit, or you leave the wrong door open, or if you just get up to go for a piss at the wrong moment, all sorts of horrible demises may await you.

Setting up the dangers of space travel early on in a season, either for new viewers or as a reminder to returning viewers, establishes this everyday lethality and prepares the audience for what may be to come. By seeing Chrisjen collapse due to prolonged acceleration forces, we won’t feel betrayed if those same forces kill another character later on. By seeing Prax nearly lobotomised by a loose power drill, the narrative precedent has been set for a similar fate to befall another character at a more dramatic point in the story.

amosunf
You may have noticed that I’ve included a lot of shots of Amos in this article. That’s because he is a beautiful, beautiful man, and should be honoured as such.

This, again, probably sounds pretty obvious and rudimentary to most people, but it’s amazing how frequently setup like this is ignored, in TV and films alike, so it’s nice to be able to pick out a particularly focused example for commendation. Episodes like this highlight the difference between good writing and bad writing – and I say that as an unashamedly crap writer myself.

The rest of the season still has a lot to live up to, but between the nicely rounded characters and the rich, well-realised solar system in which they live, it seems like everything is on track for an excellent season of genre television.

Just as long as Holden keeps his gob shut.

A Review of James Holden’s Coffee Cup in ‘The Expanse’

Look, at some point in your life some bright spark is going to wax lyrical at you about how manipulative and amazing Avasarala is, or how charming Alex’s cowboy affectations are, how compelling Gunny’s naive idealism is, but forget all that: the real star of the ‘The Expanse’ doesn’t even get listed in the credits.

James Holden’s Coffee Cup may only appear on screen three times in a single episode, and it may not get any lines, and it may not be some mysterious glowy blue material that drives interplanetary wars, but James Holden’s Coffee Cup us more important to the narrative than you will ever realise. It does more to shape character development than some of the main cast members of other shows.

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Unrelated CBS promotional image.

Here’s the scene: two ships are docked to one another, the Rocinante and the Guy Molinari, and en route to a mysterious station, which is their objective. The vulnerable freighter Guy Molinari aims to board the station with detachable breacher pods, whilst the gunship Rocinante covers the attack and intercepts enemy defence vessels.

Inside the Rocinante, its Martian pilot, Alex, reaches out and grabs his helmet, floating motionless beside him. Further down the ship James Holden, the captain, takes a sip from his sealed coffee cup and then lets go of it. It spins slowly next to him. It’s emblazoned with the initials “MCRN” – Martian Congressional Republic Navy. The Rocinante is a stolen ship, built by Mars, now a freelance vessel in the business of justice for the exploited.

Now, when I watched this, I was annoyed. Because the first thing I thought, being a fucking dweeb, was “As soon as they switch on the engines that coffee cup’s going to go flying.” Nevermind, it’s hardly the most egregious failure in accuracy in a sci-fi show. Soon after, the crew seal up their flight suits so they can depressurise the ship. Why? “We gotta do it, they’ll be poking holes in us,” Holden explains. “Yeah, but this feels like we’re agreeing to it,” his engineer, Naomi, responds.

Chilling.

Y’see, they’re about to go into combat, and any damage to the hull will result in air escaping. So if they’re not all suited up, they’ll choke. And even if they are, the escaping air would act like a miniature thruster, pushing the ship off course.

Once they’re depressurised, Holden gives the order to detach from the Guy Molinari, and the Rocinante peels away from the larger ship and into a casual spin, an effort to look like a piece of debris.

And, as if to spite me, the coffee cup goes drifting off through the crew cabin. Amos, one of the other crew members, calls out to Holden. “Didn’t the Navy teach you to stow your gear before we went into manoeuvres?” He holds out his hand and catches the cup.

cup3

Amos and Holden have previously experienced a lot of friction. Well, to be fair, Amos experiences friction with everybody. This light jibing is a sign of them functioning together more successfully following a few dangerous misadventures. It’s a small character moment, but it hints at a complex relationship between the antisocial, antagonistic Amos and the rigidly righteous Holden. The Navy reference also reminds us that Holden was once a military officer – he’s not just some random space trucker, there’s a reason he’s out here, committed to a cause. And there’s also a reason he’s not a Navy officer anymore.

It’s also a nice bit of science thrown into the mix. Because when you’re in a car, and the car speeds up or turns sharply, you can feel your body being pulled or pushed in different directions. That’s because the car is changing momentum – it’s changing its direction of travel. Because your body is stuck in the seat (and you better be buckled up, kiddo, safety first), your body will also change direction. But your body doesn’t want to – your body has its own momentum, and it wants to keep going the same way it’s already going.

If your body wasn’t in a seat, you’d feel the effects of momentum much more harshly. In fact, you can – if you’ve ever been stood up on a train or a bus, you can tell how difficult it can be to stay standing in one place without holding onto something. Without some sort of anchor point to the vehicle, such as a handle to hold onto – or your arse in a chair – you can easily be thrown about, and that can be dangerous.

In space it’s even worse, because there’s no gravity in space (or rather, you won’t feel its effects). So on a bus, you’ve at least got your feet being stuck to the floor by the weight of your body, and that gives you some point of contact. If you were floating, then you wouldn’t move at all when the bus did until you hit the back of the bus – or rather, until it hit you.

So when the Rocinante fires up her engines and begins turning and accelerating, even only very gradually, the coffee cup moves around the inside of the ship, because there’s nothing keeping it attached to the ship. There isn’t even any air resistance, because they’ve vented all the air because they’re going into combat. The most sensible way to prevent this would be to do as Amos suggests – stow your shit. But Holden is a scruffy waster with no shame, so he just lets his shit loose all over the place.

Now, why is this coffee cup so important? Why spend nearly 900 words already talking about it? We’ve already seen the last of it – Amos grabbing hold of the damn thing is the last time we get to look upon its beautiful brushed aluminium finish.

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Beauty shot.

But here’s the thing – later, during the battle, the Rocinante gets damaged, and so Amos, he of The Great Dysfunction, goes to repair the damaged system. Whilst he’s there, a new situation develops, requiring the Rocinante to pull some serious manoeuvres. And Naomi even warns of this, explicitly telling Amos before and during his repair excursion that even a few gs of acceleration could send him flying, wounding or killing him, even inside of the ship.

Because the same physics that cause the coffee cup to go rogue under gentle acceleration produce bone-shattering forces under high acceleration. Amos could get flung into a bulkhead with the same amount of force as a car slamming into a concrete wall at 70mph.

The knock on to all of this is that it causes Alex, the wannabe-cowboy pilot of the Rocinante, to hold back for a moment, go a bit slower to avoid killing Amos. And as a result, they don’t destroy a space cannon before it shoots one of the breaching pods from the Guy Molinari, killing twenty five people aboard it. And as a result, Alex goes through something of an emotional breakdown later on, after the mission, obsessing with ways of saving that breaching pod. And as a result of that, he and Amos clash, Amos being insensitive to Alex’s emotional fallout.

And all of this works, from a narrative perspective, because of that coffee cup. Because that coffee cup is the “show, don’t tell” of this entire plot line. Without the coffee cup, sure, the physics would still all be there, but to most of the audience the only reason that Alex would have to slow down the ship’s manoeuvres would be because Naomi said that they had to. And even though Naomi’s established as an expert engineer, the essence of storytelling would be absent – it would feel like technobabble, used to add artificial drama in the very worst traditions of the likes of ‘Star Trek: Voyager’.

Sure, you could’ve used any object, it didn’t have to be a coffee cup. But you had to do something, this episode, in the lead up to that key scene with Amos, to quickly establish the laws of physics in space. And from that, you get all the cool character stuff that follows.

There are plenty of other lovely touches just in this particular sequence – such as Miller trying futilely to reach his floating helmet whilst Drummer briefs the boarding party. Or Fred Johnson, briefly remorseful over his sending of soldiers to their deaths, adding yet more complexity to his character. Or of the sounds of Drummer’s magnetic boots as she walks along the floor in a zero-g environment. Christ, this show has a level of detailed consistency to its footwear than other shows do for the major biological traits of their main characters.

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Unrelated CBS promotional image

I’ve now written 1400 words about a single coffee cup in a short scene in ‘The Expanse’, and I feel like I could go on. The thing is, great storytelling comes in many different forms, not just coffee cups – but a well-written story can take any form, including coffee cups, if it really needs to. Every scene doesn’t need to be a hyped-up emotional overload, and the quiet tension of this sequence works so well in setting up a battle that ends up feeling climactic, but is ultimately barely even a minor skirmish in what’s to come.

And this is only the twelfth episode of ‘The Expanse’. And the second episode of the second season. There’s already so much history to the characters, the ships. There’s complex politics, cultural clashes, schemes within schemes. We’ve met dozens of different characters, many of whom are already dead, all of whom had dreams, and ideas, and objectives of their own. As one of my friends pointed out, we only meet the crew of the Martian flagship Donager for two episodes, and yet their loss is keenly felt when the die in service to their planet. Some shows can go fifteen whole episodes without ever giving their main character a goal or an ambition, instead just having them wander from one crisis to the next whilst stuff happens around them.

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Unrelated CBS promotional image.

‘The Expanse’ will be getting its third season in just a few weeks, and the endless possibilities that abound have got me excited. It’s not a perfect show, by any means. I love its slow pace, but that could be tedious for some. And it rarely passes the Bechdel test compared to Anti-Bechdel (although it has some fantastic female characters).

But the fact that it structures its narratives so well, setting up key, powerful events with something as simple as a coffee cup, is a testament to what can be achieved when you’ve got real love for your art. When you actually want to tell a story, and explore a world, this is what you can do, and the audience will thank you for the results

Although thinking about it, it may not have been coffee.