The Expanse, Syfy’s big-budget space opera, represents the network’s attempts to return to producing high-quality genre television, the likes of which the network hasn’t really put much effort into making since the end of Battlestar Galactica. Whereas in recent years the typical Syfy drama was cheesy and made on a shoe-string budget, The Expanse is epic in its ambition and dazzling in its visuals. Looking at the show, it’s clear that an awful lot of money and time has gone into every shot.
I mentioned the show’s ambition, and that’s evident in its premise alone. Set in a relatively near future where humanity lives not just on Earth but also on Mars and in the Asteroid Belt, The Expanse is set in a time of great political tension, where the two superpowers of Earth and Mars are on the verge of war, and the people in the Belt, who have been oppressed by the two planetary superpowers for many decades, seem to be gearing up for revolution.
In many ways, The Expanse feels like Syfy trying to ape HBO’s success with Game of Thrones. Like Thrones, The Expanse is based off a widely popular and highly acclaimed series of books, known for their detailed world-building. But, much to the frustration of those who watched the show in its first season, which debuted late 2015, The Expanse didn’t take off like that other ambitious genre show did. The massive expense evident on screen (at least by basic cable standards) was not reflected in audience viewership.
And, looking back at that first season, it’s easy to see why. While the show was technically fantastic from the beginning, the story took an awful long time to get going, the pace slowing to a crawl too often. While sci-fi lovers like me were sucked in by the intricate world-building visible in every frame, more casual viewers were likely frustrated by the slow pace or the thin characterization, and the occasional large-scale action set-piece probably was not enough to keep them watching.
But the last few episodes of that first season saw the show’s pace pick up significantly. Much of that season up until then had followed the separate storylines of Detective Miller (Thomas Jane), a cop in the asteroid belt looking for a missing girl, and James Holden (Steven Strait), an ice-hauler caught in the middle of a brewing interplanetary war. But the season’s last few episodes saw those two arcs collide, resulting in a few very satisfying hours of TV, which saw the show’s plot, which was often shrouded in mystery, become much clearer, and more terrifying, to viewers.
The show’s second season, which premiered several weeks ago, has doubled down on what made the home stretch of the previous season so fun and engaging. No longer concerned with exposition, the show is only getting better with each passing episode. Now, it’s big ideas and intricate world-building are combined with a great narrative momentum, as well as a greater focus on the character drama that season 1 sometimes was in short supply of. Is the show perfect? No. The other major subplot from the first season, which followed Chrisjen Avasarala (Shohreh Aghdashloo), a high-ranking official in the United Nations, still too often feels a little too far removed from the series’ main action, though when it does occasionally intersect with other parts of the show it does result in some thrilling moments, as demonstrated by the most recent episode (which I’ll return to in a moment).
The increased narrative momentum has translated into pulpier, more traditional sci-fi storytelling. After all, this season thus far has mostly been about the show’s characters both coming to terms with the knowledge that alien life may exist, and figuring out ways to kill what has become known as “the protomolecule”, a possible virus-like alien life-form, which had taken over an entire asteroid, Eros, at the end of the first season. Their solution: to use a giant spaceship to ram Eros into the Sun.
But while such a plot sounds ridiculous, and absolutely is, not only is the show’s VFX budget able to do it justice, but the show’s determination to be somewhat grounded and its renewed attention to character makes the whole thing extremely engaging. One of the main ideas behind The Expanse is that no matter how far humanity advances, it still refuses to learn from its mistakes, and wherever it goes it carries with it the same flaws. And so the protomolecule has aptly served as a metaphor for humanity’s inherent greed and need for discovery. Like nuclear power, the protomolecule is something with which we can do extraordinary things, but as a species we simply aren’t capable of using such a material responsibly,and it’s bound to end in disaster.
But, casting aside the show’s real-world relevance, I’ve always insisted that the most important thing for any TV show to get right is its characters. In its first season, the characters on The Expanse were hardly unlikable, and the performances from the cast were mostly good, but the show didn’t really dedicate enough time to exploring them. Thankfully, that has changed in the second season, which has seen the characters deepen and the relationships between them grow. Much of the show so far has been spend with Holden and his small crew, and while their dynamic in the show’s early days felt under-cooked at times, now it feels fresh and vibrant, all four characters now far more fleshed out.
In the show’s latest episode, “Home”, an early contender for best episode of TV of 2017, all of what has made season 2 such an improvement came together for some of the best science fiction you’re ever likely to see on your TV screen. The plan to knock Eros into the Sun doesn’t quite work out when Eros itself seems to come to life, dodging the flight path of the Nauvoo (the giant Mormon ship sent to hit it) and begins to fly through space towards Earth. As the show’s characters react to this with a mixture of terror and awe, they desperately make attempts to co-operate with one another in order to prevent catastrophe. All the while, an increasingly sad and pathetic Miller is stranded on Eros, after a mission to plant nukes on it goes wrong, and decides to head into the belly of the beast in order to destroy it.
Backing away from the Miller stuff for a second, the rest of this episode was really gripping, as a tentative temporary peace was struck between the UN and the OPA (the Belter terrorist organization) in order to stop and destroy Eros. This material was thrilling not just for the various political implications of what was happening, but for seeing two of the series’ major plot threads, both that of Holden and the OPA and that of Avasarala, intersect, however briefly, thereby showing the potential narrative payoff for the series’ slow-burn approach.
But really, this episode belonged to Miller, and will be remembered for years to come because of his arc, in particular the episode’s final scene. While I’ve written at length about the first season’s issues with character development, perhaps the one character with whom The Expanse didn’t have that problem was Miller. Aided by a tremendous performance from Thomas Jane, the show managed to elevate that character above the archetype he at first appeared to be, lending his search for Julie Mao, a missing OPA member, a really tragic weight, as it became clear that despite never meeting her, Miller had, in his loneliness, fallen in love with her.
Since finding her body on Eros last season, Miller has had a bit of a death-wish, and so in this episode he makes a decision to venture deep into Eros, a place from which he knows he may not return, in order to destroy it. His journey deeper and deeper into the bowls of the station was haunting, and along the way he realized that he was being led back to the place where he had found Julie in the first place. Realizing that the protomolecule contained at least some of Julie’s consciousness, he discovered that it was her, or at least what was left of her, that was driving Eros towards Earth. While this may sound silly, The Expanse treated it in a way that was achingly human, which leads us to the aforementioned final scene, in which Miller finally got to speak to the woman he loved, before convincing her to drive Eros into Venus instead, thereby sacrificing himself for humanity.
It’s a beautiful, immensely powerful scene. A perfect combination of writing, acting, cinematography and score, Miller’s conversation with Julie felt both tragic and romantic. It’s unclear if what Miller was talking to really was Julie (though I lean towards thinking that it was, at least somewhat), but either way it doesn’t detract from the scene’s emotional heft. When we met Miller he was a cynic, but his investigation into Julie’s disappearance gave his life some meaning and hope, however temporary. And so it’s fitting that before he died he got to meet, in his mind at least, the source of that hope. It’s rare to see a fully realized character arc done well from beginning to end, and with Miller The Expanse did just that, bringing it to a conclusion in memorable and moving fashion.
If Miller’s death had come last year I would have been a little worried about the show losing its best character (and performance). But while Miller’s journey remained engaging in season 2, the rest of the show seemed to catch up with it in terms of quality, and while I’m sure the character’s absence will be felt in future episodes, I’m confident that The Expanse will continue the tremendous progress it has already made so far this year. Any show that is capable of producing an episode as good as “Home” is worthy of that confidence.