This The Expanse article contains spoilers for Season 5, and major spoilers for The Churn novella.
In the most recent episode of The Expanse Season 5, “Hard Vacuum,” Amos returns to Baltimore, this time with Clarissa “Peaches” Mao in tow, as part of his larger plan to get the heck off of Earth. Once there, he seeks out the assistance of Erich, Amos’ old friend whom we first met in the second episode of the season, “Churn.” Looking out over a decimated Baltimore, Erich says Amos: “I figured this was just the Churn again, but… it’s gone, isn’t it?” What exactly is he talking about? Let’s break it down…
In the meta of the show, the phrase “the Churn” is often a reference to the Expanse novella of the same name. The story, which was released as an ebook back in 2014, gives the backstory of Amos Burton—or, as he was originally called, Timmy. In it, readers learn about the events that led to Amos getting out of Baltimore and off of Earth. We meet the character when he is still Timmy, when he is working for Baltimore mob boss Amos Burton. When Timmy is asked to kill his friend Erich, who also works for Burton, Timmy decides to kill Amos instead. Erich then creates a fake profile that allows Timmy to take Amos’ name and get off of Earth.
The Expanse TV show has always drawn from the Churn novella in shaping Amos’ character, but the connections become even more explicit in the second episode of Season 5, when Amos returns to his hometown of Baltimore after the death of Lydia, the woman who raised our Amos. (Lydia is a central character in The Churn, as well—in the novella, we learn just how messy her relationship with Timmy was, complexities the series chose to skate over.) While “Churn” as an episode works in its own right, it has an even greater weight for fans who have also read the novella, especially when it comes to Amos’ relationship with Erich.
While “the Churn” may be the name of a novella and episode, the title comes from an idea that is central to Amos’ understanding of the world and it’s a framing that Amos actually got from the original Amos Burton. In Season 1’s “Windmills,” Amos explains it to Kenzo, a stowaway spy on the Rocinante. Here’s how their exchange goes:
Kenzo: It must be nice, having everything figured out like that.
Amos: Ain’t nothing to do with me: we’re just caught in the Churn, that’s all.
Kenzo: I have no idea what you just said.
Amos: This boss I used to work for in Baltimore, he called it the Churn. When the rules of the game change.
Kenzo: What game?
Amos: The only game. Survival. When the jungle tears itself down and builds itself into something new. Guys like you and me, we end up dead. Doesn’t really mean anything. Or, if we happen to live through it, well that doesn’t mean anything either.
As someone who, like our Amos, grew up vulnerable on the streets of Baltimore and who worked for mob boss Amos Burton, Erich also uses this frame of “the Churn” to understand his own life and the world around him. For Erich and Amos, “the Churn” is the next, inevitable catastrophe for the working class and poor community in Baltimore. Because that next downfall, tragedy, or bloodbath is an inevitability in their world of Baltimore, it takes on almost a mundane, matter-of-fact quality—at least when it comes to its discussion.
When Erich voices aloud to Amos in “Hard Vacuum” that this isn’t the Churn, he is recognizing that the asteroid that hit Earth is not just another “normal” setback or tragedy; it is something new and bigger and more terrifying. He can no longer frame this cycle of hardship as another rotation in “the Churn” because “the Churn,” or at least Erich’s understanding of it, is something deeply rooted not only in Baltimore but in a degree of civilization. What Amos, Erich, and Clarissa are witnessing is the (hopefully temporary) crumbling of civilization, a breakdown of some of the fundamental agreements of a society. This isn’t the Churn; this is something else.
How do you understand the Churn? Let us know in the comments below!