The Expanse: “Critical Mass/Leviathan Wakes” deliver exactly the payoff we deserve

Well, that was a wild ride. Which I’m sure I’ve said more than once already this season, but I really, really mean it this time. The Expanse has been a captivating show from day one, but “Critical Mass/Leviathan Wakes” was an exhilarating experience. While I have at times felt that the show spent too much time on set-up and world building, it definitely paid off this week with several big reveals and a major ratcheting up of the stakes in preparation for the show’s second season—in 2017, a long wait which was probably the most devastating revelation of the day. Considering all that happened in the finale, that’s saying a lot.

“Critical Mass” opens with an extended flashback that tells Julie Mao’s story from Julie’s point of view. It’s a great way to elevate her from being essentially an object in a narrative that revolves around the stories of men—Holden and Miller in particular, but to a lesser extent Dawes and Johnson—to being a real character who we can empathize with and care about. By dedicating nearly a full half episode to showing us who Julie was, the show forces us to think of her as an active agent in her own right, driving her own narrative, which only intersects with Holden’s and Miller’s. What I most appreciated about the time we spend with Julie this week is how much of that is dedicated to showing us who she was as a person, not just what she did. At the same time, this material gives us a much better understanding of what Miller and Holden have gotten themselves into—even as it highlights that there is still a ton of stuff that they (and we) don’t know.

And can we all stop to appreciate that Julie Mao’s death isn’t sexualized? Her body isn’t posed in any kind of titillating fashion, and her illness is filmed in a way that invites the viewer to identify with her rather than simply observing her. It’s done in a way that is almost viscerally affecting, as we’re able to almost experience her increasing sickness, her rising desperation as her attempts to contact Anderson Dawes go unanswered, her panic as she realizes what is happening to her, and her final despair as she succumbs to whatever the blue space goo is. Still, she’s given a sort of sad dignity through all of it, and I was happy to see that her death is framed as tragic for her sake more than for Miller’s like it was in the book.

The second half of “Critical Mass” and all of “Leviathan Wakes” are dedicated to the present day, where things are getting very scary extremely quickly. Miller and the Rocinante crew manage to escape from the motel, only to find the whole station on lockdown due to a supposed emergency. As Eros residents are herded into radiation shelters, Miller, Holden, and the rest try to get their bearings. Eventually, they split up—Miller and Holden to find out what’s going on and Naomi leading the rest back to the Rocinante. What follows is a fast-moving series of tense, high stakes sequences as the two groups try to find their way off the doomed space station. It’s definitely the best work of this type that the show has delivered so far, and the danger they’re in, especially Holden and Miller, feels very real.

All of the events on Eros this week made me a little regretful that I read Leviathan Wakes before the show aired. The show is a pretty faithful adaptation of the book, and I think it would have been cool to see it with fresh eyes. Even knowing how things would turn out, I felt real worry for Holden and Miller, so I can only imagine how harrowing their scenes must have been for non-readers.

One thing that wasn’t in the books, though? Naomi’s journey back to the Rocinante, which I loved. It’s nice to see her get a chance to really be in a leadership position, even if she does decide before the end of the episode that she doesn’t really want that responsibility after all. I haven’t always been completely happy with the way the show dealt with the situation between Naomi and Holden as they jockeyed for primacy on the Roci, but I liked the way it ended here. Her struggle to lead felt real and human; her decision to defer to Holden felt honest; and the final tender moment they share together hints at a possible romance that feels genuine and earned. It’s a brief moment of sweetness in an overall extremely dark episode.

Meanwhile, back on Earth, Chrisjen is going to pay her respects to her old friend, Franklin DeGraaf. She finds his husband very angry with her, but he lets her in regardless. It’s impressive how much convincing feeling Shohreh Aghdashloo can produce in this role, and this is a standout episode for her character. She’s definitely grieving for her friend, but she’s also trying to piece together more pieces of a mystery—in this case, a proper conspiracy. When Fred Johnson makes an announcement regarding the destruction of the Donnager and broadcasts some of the same information that Chrisjen found in her dead friend’s desk, things start to become clearer. When she reconnects with Errinwright, Chrisjen immediately sees that he’s in on it, whatever it is, and she smiles and plays her part. Then she goes home and takes steps to keep her family safe from whatever storm is about to hit.

Avasarala’s story line this season has been perhaps the show’s most consistently weak link, but it finally starts to pay off in “Leviathan Wakes.” As an enormous Chrisjen fan, I can’t wait to see how this develops next season. Most of the season, her role seemed largely to function as a way to further understand the events in the Belt, but her uncovering of a conspiracy, combined with her introduction to Jules-Pierre Mao, finally gives her a proper story of her own. She’s still stuck on Earth, where most of the action isn’t, but now she’s in some real peril that she’ll have to face next year.

The Expanse is hands-down SyFy’s best production since Battlestar Galactica, and this finale only continues to prove the series’ strengths. It’s a perfect mix of personal stories and epic scale plots, and it ends with an iconic and ominous shot that promises that shit is going to get very real in season two.

Miscellaneous thoughts:

  • “Everyone’s a winner on Eros!” Indeed.
  • I feel like people would have been rioting in the streets if we’d had to wait a week between the end of “Critical Mass” and the beginning of “Leviathan Wakes.”
  • Those pencil-shaped data sticks are awesome.
  • “Half the system thinks you’re some kind of outlaw hero, but you’re really kind of clueless, aren’t you?”
  • I’m not entirely sure why Sematimba had to die. I suppose he’s just a loose end or perhaps this is going to lead to conflict between Miller and the Roci crew next season, but I didn’t love the way this went down. I’d have preferred it if he just disappeared in the chaos on Eros.
  • “You guys look like shit.”
  • One could almost feel bad for Kenzo. Only almost, though.

 

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