The Expanse aired the last episode of its second season a little over a fortnight ago. Everything has had time to settle in our minds. Now, we can take a look at that story as a whole, and consider how it stands up when viewed from a distance.
A Season Split In Half
The first thing that stands out about this season is how very clearly it was divided into two parts. One until Eros crashes into Venus, the other covering everything after that. Plus a little bridging part on Tycho that sort of belonged to both. Still, the split was so pronounced that I sometimes had trouble remembering that all the business with Eros was this season.
This is not entirely the show’s fault. If anything, it’s praiseworthy that they wanted to make a faithful enough adaptation that they chose to spread the content of the first book over more than one season to have enough space. But still, one wonders if more couldn’t have been done to make it merge more seamlessly.
Nevertheless, the shift happened in the central themes of the plot, central plot points, and even the central location as well. Some of this, at least, could surely have been avoided. For example if Ganymede become a prominent location a little earlier. Had Bobbie’s introduction wholly taken place there it would have made the shift less pronounced. Especially if combined with some early glimpses of Dr. Meng.
Another option would have been to seed the zombie terminators a little earlier. That would make it feel like that wasn’t a new element, but rather a continuation of something we had seen previously.
And conversely, too, issues from the first half of the season should have been more prominent in the second half. Let all the characters be more affected by the fact that Eros just flew into Venus. Bobbie could have known someone there – or perhaps more likely, Dr. Meng could have. Chrisjen’s storyline probably did best with this continuity. But even there, the frequent call-backs were a little incomplete. We only ever hear her state that either she or the Secretary General are heroes because they saved Earth, something we never learned the rationale for. We don’t actually see them treated as heroes by anyone. If we were allowed to actually watch the Earth-wide admiration they received for it, it would have made the continuity stronger.
That being saidEros moving on its own and then heading towards Venus, combined with Miller’s death, would have always been a major break in the story. But it shouldn’t have been a break in every single storyline.
Issues from the first half of the season not continuing into the second brings me to another point. Some things were explored thoroughly in the second season of The Expanse. Most notably the idea of redemption and falling that culminated so wonderfully in Errinwright’s and Jim’s storylines. Some, on the other hand, were dropped like a hot potato. At times they were randomly picked up at some later point. At other times they were never seen again.
Frequently, this happened with guilt that different characters felt or were supposed to feel. Jim does some pretty bad things in this season. He shot down a ship full of humanitarian workers, for example. Yet for all we saw, it bothered him about as much as a forgotten call on his mother’s birthday. Alex’s guilt over letting twenty-five OPA fighters die is explored rather intensely at the very beginning, and then never heard of again. Naomi suddenly pulls out her guilt for not doing enough on Eros as her chief motivation towards the end of the season. But it’s not something that was truly present for her before, so it feels abrupt.
All of this weakens both the characters and our immersion in the story. It’s a shame, because the characters are pretty brilliant. All of them. But not all of them get a chance to shine properly.
Jim shooting down the humanitarian ship is also one of quite a few plot issues that are included but never have any repercussions. Another was the random mass murder of Belters by the refugee ship Dr. Meng was on. Why did we need to see that again? It led nowhere. It only added to already problematic depiction of Belters.
Naomi’s dramatic departure from Jim only to meet up again an episode later is related as well. I assume that little added drama was created to give the season a little more of a closing, being in the middle of a book as it was. But compared to the strong significance that scene of parting seemed to have, it was a letdown.
And there was also the dead end of all dead ends: Naomi’s child. Do I even need to explain how unexpected and jarring that was?
Jim…and the others
Jim Holden is one of the few characters who can actually be said to have a decently executed arc this season. Yet even with Jim I can see how it could have been made even more poignant. His obsession with destroying the protomolecule, which comes to such prominence later, could have been emphasized more in the first half. You know, back when it was chiefly Miller’s gig. Jim seemed to take it on later. He did so in his own way, since Miller was never so obnoxiously self-righteous about it. But still, he took over. However, this switch in roles was never actually explored in meaningful detail.
Nevertheless, Jim had a clear goal, faced a temptation related to reaching it, and with the help of his friends managed to overcome it. As said above, certain things about him should have been explored more, but painted with a broad brush, it was fine. The other characters on the Rocinante, though. Well, that’s a whole different can of worms.
The most prominent is of course Naomi. And Naomi’s story this season sucked. Or, rather, it wasn’t there.
I don’t want to be too harsh. Her central moment and conflict was of course tied to the hidden stash of protomolecule. It explored her conflicting loyalty to the Belt and to the blindingly white (metaphorically so, since many Belters are of course white) Jim. But it just seemed half-assed.
She had some truly brilliant scenes, chief among them her pretending to launch the protomolecule into the sun. Later, trying to actually do so when they discover another protomolecule signal on Tycho, was quite amazing as well. In these little moments were were able to watch her whole dilemma play out beautifully. But more should have and could have been done with that.
The chief problem is that her final decision to give the protomolecule to Fred, the momentous point in her arc, was almost invisible. We mostly learned about it after the fact. And the decision wasn’t made because it was a culmination of her character journey. Rather, it was made because she thought she would die. That is a good impetus to act, of course, but we should have been shown the journey to that mental place, not just the result.
Besides, I continue to have issues with Naomi choosing the secretive approach. It still seems out of character for her, who, I think, would be more inclined to simply argue with Jim head on. Add to it my frustration that her scenes with Fred’s deputy led nowhere, and you will see why I’m dissatisfied.
She got her own bonus subplot with the Somnambulist towards the end, and while it contained some of her high points, it also seemed to hit a false character note. This time in her bull-headed insistence that they would help the Somnambulist lady. That seemed more like something Jim would do, with his hero complex. It could have easily been avoided by the Somnambulist lady accepting her help in the first place (her chief beef was with Jim), so I’m not sure why this conflict existed in the first place. But, I was very happy to see the very strong moment of Naomi risking her life to save her fellow Belters. That, again, was one of her high points.
The side characters in this storyline got even less, naturally. Alex had only a few nice scenes. While I would like to see more of him and know more about him, that wasn’t a major issue. Not everyone can have their own story, and they did not entirely ignore him. Amos, whose story was sort-of started, but left entirely unfinished, is way more troublesome.
I assume—hope—the rest of it will be covered in the third season. But still, what happened to him this season should stand alone at least to some degree. His statement that he was trying to make his own choices, and how hard it was, actually was deeply moving. It gave me even more regret for not having a little more done with him.
Dr. Meng actually did best out of that little crew. He had his own mini arc: wanting to save the zombie terminator for fear it might be his daughter and then realizing it was actually dangerous. And he made the choice to put the safety of the ship—and its actually demonstrably self-aware crew—first. He had occasions to make his expertise show. Oh yes, he was a great addition to the party.
The Political Drama
On the high end of things, we had Chrisjen and those around her. Or that’s the way it should have been, in any case.
The thing is, though, Chrisjen didn’t really have much of a story, either. She had a collection of scenes, most of them amazing. She did things, consistently, and with a clear goal. But all her challenges were on the outside. None of them reached her deeply or changed her in any way. With the possible exception of the business with Errinwright, that is. And that storyline was present only at the cost of making her look completely stupid. Her ”arc” in that case consisted of “I don’t trust Errinwright; I suddenly absolutely trust Errinwright more than I usually trust anyone. Oh look, I shouldn’t have trusted Errinwright.” That’s less of an arc than Dr. Meng has, for crying out loud.
It’s certainly miles less than Errinwright had.
In fact, Erinwright was the actual protagonist of not only what was supposed to be Chrisjen’s story, but of everything outside of Jim’s circle. His arc was by far the most interesting of the whole season.
Some of it, of course, is due to Shawn Doyle’s unparalleled, brilliant acting. But the actors can only act what the script gives them an opportunity for. No one beside Jim (and Naomi in a few scenes) got material half as interesting as Errinwright did. At the same time, though, his arc was the best thing about the entire season, so I’m hardly going to criticize them for including it.
No, the problem is that they prioritised it over Chrisjen’s, primarily, but over Bobbie’s too, as I’ll discuss bellow. And they did so without considering them for a moment. Because it could have been avoided with minimal effort.
First and foremost, Chrisjen should have never been shown as fatally stupid and naive. If there is one thing she never is, it’s this. She has failings enough. We first saw her torturing a prisoner for crying out loud. But she is not an easily trusting character. Nothing justifies writing her like that. Especially not when it wasn’t necessary.
The situation with Errinwright was mostly out of her hands. It wasn’t her idea to bring him in for the hearing. So, she could have offered him more support without the pressure on him lessening much. If instead of “I won’t help you” she had said “I’ll do everything I can to help you, but I’m not in control of this and you have to go there and tell the committee the truth,” it would have been a smarter choice. If she had followed that by some attempted safety measures, even better. The security measures simply wouldn’t have worked because she wouldn’t have expected Errinwright to actually assassinate the Martian PM. That is an entirely understandable mistake to make, even for such a cynical person as Chrisjen. That’s an acceptable level of naiveté. Come on, it’s a bloody, well, bloodless, assassination!
In fact, it would have shown how a person backed into a corner may do things that wouldn’t occur to people in a better position. And without making Chrisjen look stupid. Her visit with Mao could instead have been discovered because Errinwright has spies of his own, not because she outright tells him. Or any number of other changes. I don’t doubt that the writers could come up with a thousand better ideas than me. It bothers me that they don’t seem to have tried.
In these changes, too, Chrisjen would have got an opportunity for a more interesting arc of her own. Because instead of naively accepting that Errinwright had a complete change of heart and is effectively a saint now, she would have been looking for a way to balance her long-standing friendship of sorts with him with her safety measures. She would have been trying to determine how much she could trust him and how much she should force his cooperation. How much she should tell on him and how much should she trust him to admit the truth. She would have been weighing the fact that if she forces him, he will blame her later. All of this would have presented a whole series of interesting dilemmas on par with those Jim faces, if not exactly Errinwright (since I admit his story is hard to match).
None of that was given to us. Instead, we had her blindly walk into a double death trap.
Oh, Chrisjen. You deserved better.
As I have said, Bobbie was pushed into the background too. That is, frankly, even more scandalous. Just think about what happened to her this season. It was momentous. She was a devoted Martian Marine who fully believed her country’s ideology and dreamt of Mars transforming into a garden one day.
Then her entire team died. She was confronted with the lie of what they were told about Earth, and she found out that her own government had sacrificed her team in a weapons test. This should have been the most prominent arc of the season.
It very obviously wasn’t.
Part of that is probably Frankie Adams, whose acting isn’t quite up to expressing all the torment of what she is going through. But it also needs to be said that the script didn’t give her many chances. It did well enough with the loss of her team, where she had space and we clearly saw how lost she was and how heartbroken. Her disillusionment with Mars was less explored, but there was something at least. But her reaction to changing sides and taking political asylum with someone she considered her worst enemy until then? We got nothing.
How could we get nothing about something as hugely important as this? With one of the protagonists? As much as I adored the scene with Alex playing with his sodas, did it really deserved priority over such crucial character moments? Couldn’t a few episodes be a few minutes shorter to show us Bobbie’s reaction to changing sides? How do you leave out something like that?
And, again, showing that would have also given more space to Chrisjen, since Bobbie’s reaction would have likely taken place at least in part before and in conversation with her. They killed two character arcs with these choices, and that’s a travesty.
Even more so because of what Bobbie represents. Bobbie’s character was robbed of some crucial moments, which is a problem for the character herself. It’s a larger problem because she is our chief window into Mars. The Earth boys continue to take precedence over everyone, including two prominent female characters, one of them a Martian.
To be fair, though, it’s not only Earth boys who get their proper due. One character whose story worked perfectly was Miller. It was the logical continuation of everything he did in the first season, and had the perfect culmination in his self-sacrifice. There is truly absolutely nothing to fault The Expanse for about him. It’s great to be able to say that.
Other Belters, unfortunately, fare a little worse.
Fred’s story in the first half of the season was interesting, but he had a lot of very random moments in it. First, he’s all in for destroying the protomolecule. So much so he risks his whole reputation by sending the Mormon ship in. Then he wants to keep it and experiment on it. He gets along with Jim the entire time. But then suddenly after Jim and the rest of Rocinante save his life, he kicks them out of Tycho station. Probably because the script tells him so. Much like Chrisjen, with whom he has any number of parallels, Fred had many truly excellent scenes this season, but his overarching story was hurt by inconsistency.
Additionally, after making it seem like his days as a relevant player were numbered, he cheerfully grabs Naomi’s protomolecule sample at the end, making the plotline of his political downfall sort of pointless as well.
I have expressed my frustration with the story of his deputy going nowhere several times already, so I won’t repeat myself. There was no hint of Anderson Dawes either after he disappeared from Tycho with the mad scientist, and he was an extremely well done character this season. But at least his presence had a clear and reasonable ending, so he should be able to reappear in the third season without many problems, along with Diogo, who I certainly expect to see again one day.
All in all, looking back, it’s disappointing how many balls were dropped. The brilliant moments were truly brilliant. But did they have to come at the cost of others? Especially as the ones getting brilliant moments were mostly white guys? And the ones who got robbed of important moments were mostly women of color? Questions, so many questions.
Let’s keep our fingers crossed that season three will focus on Chrisjen, Bobbie and Naomi entirely, with Fred’s deputy perhaps added to the party. They can leave Jim on some abandoned moon for a time for something. Errinwright will hopefully rot in prison.