The Expanse: In “CQB” shit gets REAL

While Avasarala gets a bit of a break this week and Miller’s investigation is moving along at a glacial pace, shit gets real for the Cant survivors in “CQB.” We’re also introduced to a new character, Fred Johnson, who is busy building a generation ship for Mormons but is also involved with the OPA. It’s an eventful episode, and the show is starting to move away from its (necessarily) heavy focus on world building in favor of more and better storytelling.

Once again, I have to compliment the decision to avoid any attempt to squeeze this story into an episodic narrative. In “CQB” the strengths of the “one long movie split into ten parts” approach start to become even more apparent, although it ends with another near-cliffhanger that might be frustrating—especially now that we’re stuck waiting a full week to find out what happens next. That said, I can’t wait to watch the whole series in one sitting eventually.

Perhaps the greatest positive of this storytelling style is that it allows for a flexible approach to including characters and switching between storylines. This week, we’re only given a couple of short scenes with Avasarala after the previous episode was dominated by her presence. By giving her a short break, the episode makes time for Fred Johnson, whose story as introduced in this episode both clarifies and complicates things. It’s good to see the show taking advantage of the freedom they have to slowly introduce characters and concepts without having to try and give every character equal time in each episode. It allows for the building of a lot of suspense, and as the mystery gets thicker each week I look forward to seeing more pieces of the puzzle revealed like this.

The big event of “CQB,” of course, is the close quarters battle referred to by the title, which takes place on the Donnager when it’s attacked and boarded by the same mysterious ships that destroyed the Canterbury. There were a couple of moments where this little saga started to get a little tiresome, most notably during the scenes where Holden is trying to rescue the rest of the Cant survivors, but there was some great stuff here, too.

I know this is a high-budget prestige show, but it’s still pretty impressive the things that the production team is able to accomplish. The battle scenes on the Donnager are a perfect example of smart decision making behind the scenes, and the show has managed to craft an important battle scene that has a good sense of scale and feels action-packed in spite of most of the scale and action being only implied. The exemplary instance of this is when Lopez, Holden and company are trying to escape across a bridge (an interesting callback to Star Wars, which seems to influence a good deal of the aesthetic of The Expanse) while being shot at from all sides. It’s nicely done, but it a way that seems calculated to not break the bank. I feel like the show is more interested in spending their budget on costumes and extras to build up the world rather than in blowing their wad on two minutes of combat in episode four.

Overall, “CQB” is a great achievement. It moves all of the stories along, thickening the plot and introducing new strands even as it lets the viewer untangle some of its web. On the emotional front, I do think the show is still struggling a little to make us really care deeply about its characters, but they definitely succeeded in pulling heartstrings with the destruction of the Donnager and the deaths of Shed and Captain Yao this week. At the same time, the revelation that Havelock is (at least for the moment) still alive couldn’t have come at a better time to cheer me up, and Avasarala’s contemplativeness was an excellent way to balance out some of the episode’s more stimulating parts.

Miscellaneous thoughts:

  • Avasarala might not get a lot of screen time this week, but the scene with her talking with her grandson on the rooftop is one of my favorite scenes on the show so far. I love how well they’re doing at letting her exist as a complex and sometimes contradictory character without being judged or punished by the narrative. Too often, women characters only get to be clever, ambitious and ruthless at great cost to themselves, but Avasarala has a pretty good life.
  • “Slingshotting” is such a wildly irresponsible and stupid idea, of course people are going to do it.
  • Octavia Muss’s face when Miller was digging around in that dude’s leg for the thing was exactly what I was feeling.
  • Speaking of Muss, I want more of her, please.
  • When the episode didn’t open with Havelock’s dead body I was pretty sure he was going to make it, but I was still happy when that fact was confirmed.
  • Shed’s death was exactly like it was in Leviathan Wakes, but I’m not sure the show really communicated how traumatic that was for everyone who witnessed it. I think this is because they just didn’t have red enough blood, so the gruesomeness of it kind of got lost in the dark palette of the Donnager scenes.

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