This The Expanse review contains spoilers.
The Expanse Season 3 Episode 3
With the war in this season of The Expanse escalating quickly, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that all of the destruction we’ve seen thus far is predicated on Errinwright’s need to regain Earth’s possession of the protomolecule, which he and other factions see as the ultimate weapon. The power of this episode, though, lies not only in the unfathomable disaster of having a nuclear bomb detonate in South America but in the tension between characters as they struggle to see eye to eye on matters that resist compromise. Aside from Holden’s somewhat drastic motivational shift this season, everyone’s reactions carry the power of emotions that inform the personalities we’ve come to know and enjoy.
That’s not to say Holden’s decision to stop fighting quixotic battles he can’t win isn’t an enjoyable conceit, although Avasarala mentioning his childhood desire to be a knight might have been a bit on the nose. It makes all kinds of sense when Holden says things like “We’ll fix your comms; after that we don’t owe you anything,” to Bobbie or “I’m nobody’s savior,” to Chrisjen. After all, why should he care about the larger fight when he’s got a mission to save Prax’s daughter? The thing is, we don’t believe it for a minute, and when Io’s status as a Mao-owned lab comes to light, it’s clear his hero status will return to him whether he likes it or not. The anticipation of his regression is part of the fun!
Maybe it’s everyone else’s more consistent personalities that makes Holden’s out-of-character behavior more hard to swallow. Alex is unable to stay mad at Naomi, for example, commending her for her commitment to the Belt, and Amos says he’d shoot the scientists on Io to rescue Mei and nuke the rest — because that’s Amos. Even Naomi telling Avasarala they won’t be friends and that she’s only staying to make sure Earth doesn’t get a protomolecule sample seems consistent with what we know about her. In fact, the instant rivalry between her and Chrisjen is almost endearing.
Some character details aren’t quite as smoothly developed, but some back stories can be difficult to introduce organically. For example, the scene in which Alex receives a message from his wife telling him, “We don’t need you anymore,” will undoubtedly inform his choices moving forward, and Amos talking about the fact that “Dying is the only way of getting out of Baltimore” is clearly a setup for the development of side stories to come. Maybe even the contentious way in which Bobbie throws her weight around with the crew will give her the stronger image her character needs in this new season.
Avasarala manages to bridge the mission to Io with the stories going on between Mao and Strickland and between Cotyar and the two admirals by explaining how the war could be averted by sending a tightbeam transmission to Admiral Souther. This nicely sets up Souther as someone we can trust so that when he approaches Cotyar to get the truth about Avasarala’s disappearance, we know he’s got Earth’s best interests at heart. However you feel about Cotyar killing Theo to protect their interests, the fact that Admiral Nguyen is in Errinwright’s pocket helps us choose sides quickly.
At this point, Errinwright’s warmongering has become about as dangerous as it can get. Secretary General Sorrento-Gillis is clearly not a strong leader as evidenced not only by his desire to have Pastor Anna put God’s seal of approval on his declaration of war but also by how easily Errinwright can manipulate his actions. It must be said, however, that Errinwright’s talk about bringing humanity together in the face of first contact lacked sufficient persuasiveness, even for someone as easy to influence as Esteban. For him to go from wisely telling the military to stand down because “82% is not good enough” to initiating first strike was a bit much to swallow. But it sure was exciting!
But what’s done is done, and the nuclear detonation on Earth is immediately blamed on the SG’s initial hesitance to act instead of on Errinwright’s premature charging up of the rail guns. To be honest, the audience is simply being swept up in the overwhelming escalation and the awe-inspiring nature of the scale of war The Expanse is capable of. The impressive rail guns, the scatter-shot of the Martian nuke, the planetary defenses that fail to bring the missile down, and the final explosion in South America comprise a series of events that just aren’t seen anywhere else on television. This series continues to excel in achieving this sense of action even in the massiveness emptiness of space.
The most surprising plot element in this episode, though, is the methodical humanizing of Jules-Pierre Mao, a development that no doubt has readers of the Corey novels scratching their heads. His initial reticence to continue the project was tempered by the potential of the new hybrids, but once the boy Katoa began rejecting the protomolecule treatment, the profiteer who just lost his daughter to the alien organism wants nothing more to do with it. Again, Mei asking Mao, “Are you someone’s dad?” isn’t subtle. The consequences for this crisis of conscience are yet to be seen, but his change of heart is definitely the most enticing development of the episode.
The Expanse has certainly upped the stakes this season, and so far the sense of adventure, the scale of the fallout, and the political machinations have held our attention. Along with some carefully crafted character moments, the story has unfolded effectively in these initial episodes. We may still wonder what’s going on with Venus, and we may be certain that Holden will return to his heroic ways, but in the meantime, we bide our time and enjoy the show. As long as the series continues to deliver on its central mystery of the nature of the protomolecule and the importance of the Roci team’s role in stopping the war, this season will carry on the strong reputation of its predecessors.