The Expanse: “Paradigm Shift” is great start to a new chapter in the show’s story

I’m sure I’ve said it before, but season two of The Expanse is goddamned fantastic. After last week’s wrap-up of the last of the Leviathan Wakes storyline, I expected this week’s episode to be something of a bridge between two distinct parts of the season. “Paradigm Shift” is that, to some degree, but it feels even more like a whole new season premiere in structure and tone, with some humor (welcome, after a largely serious couple of weeks), some thematically relevant exposition, some set-up for future plots, great character work and a flashy (if slightly confusing) cliffhanger to leave us wanting more. In a season already full of great episodes, this one might be my favorite yet.

Spoilers below, natch.

There’s no pre-credits scene this week, and the first scene of the episode starts with a look at Mars from space that segues into a flashback to the Mars of 137 years ago, where we meet Solomon Epstein (guest star Sam Huntington), inventor of the Epstein drives that power the ships used in the solar system of The Expanse. Apparently, Epstein was simply trying to get a minor increase to fuel efficiency when he accidentally built the drive that was fast enough and fuel efficiency enough to change the course of human history in the solar system. The Epstein drive is the technology that allowed Mars to gain independence from Earth and enabled the colonization of the Belt and the Outer Planets, but this has also led to the complicated political and military situation between Earth, Mars, and the OPA that fuels the show. It’s an interesting bit of worldbuilding exposition that is spooled out in short pieces over the course of the episode, but it also serves as a thesis statement for the episode and, perhaps, for the rest of this season: the benefits of technological advancement never come without costs. If the protomolecule is, as Colonel Janus tells Avasarala in the U.N. situation room, “the greatest technological leap since the Epstein drive,” what will it mean for humanity?

Things on Earth are relatively quiet this week starting with the abovementioned situation room scene, which primarily works to establish that the Earth government doesn’t know what’s going on yet. They don’t know what happened on Eros, they’re no longer in contact with James Holden or Fred Johnson, and they’re missing some thirty nuclear missiles. They are going to mount a mission to Venus, however, to find out what they can about Eros. Because what could possibly go wrong? Avasarala is even going to send her ex-boyfriend, one Dr. Michael Iturbi (played by the very handsome Ted Whittall), to be her eyes and ears on Venus.

The standout Earth scene of the episode, however, doesn’t come until late in the episode when Chrisjen approaches Errinwright to talk about Jules-Pierre Mao. In short, Avasarala advises Errinwright to use whatever influence he has with the Mao family to get Jules-Pierre to turn himself in, and she gives a compelling speech about what the consequences will be if he doesn’t. Chrisjen Avasarala has been an iconic character since day one, but her rage-filled speech to Errinwright here is certainly her most iconic moment yet. Shohreh Aghdashloo is always glorious in this role, but she’s in rare form throughout the scene, full of arch looks and knowing smirks that shift to barely restrained fury as she makes clear to Errinwright both that she knows about him and Mao and that she has the power and will to destroy them both. Her small hair toss as she walks out the door at the end is a nice little visual punctuation for what just happened.

The Rocinante makes it back to Tycho Station, where they’re greeted as heroes, something that they aren’t all comfortable with. Amos and Alex head off into the station, while Holden and Naomi head straight to Fred Johnson to make their report, where they find out that Fred Johnson has the missing missiles from Earth. Holden is self-righteously pissed off about this, because of course he is, but not everyone on the Roci agrees with him. There’s a pretty obviously impending break between Holden and Fred Johnson, but we also see the seeds of a significant potential break between Holden and Naomi as well. While Holden might believe there shouldn’t be any “sides” he doesn’t seem to be at all aware of the ways in which his own indecision and lack of conviction are pushing Naomi to choose one on her own.

Identity is at the core of the dynamic between the members of the Roci crew. Holden imagines them as a family, and he might think that they’re above the factions and infighting in the solar system, but he is also still very much shaped by his birth and upbringing on Earth. Alex, even as a Martian expat, still retains some of the Martian nationalism that he was raised with, which we see when he suggests that they turn their hidden protomolecule specimen over to Martian scientists. Amos is practical and has a tendency to be a bit of a follower, and it seems that he’s at least partly transferred his loyalties to Holden, leaving Naomi as the only Belter on the Rocinante now that Miller’s gone. Her Belter identity is important to her, as evidenced by her easy connection and bonding with other Belter characters, and we can already see her chafing at being outvoted by the others on the Roci. She craves the company and camaraderie that comes from shared experience, especially when faced with a situation where she disagrees with Holden so profoundly, and it’s easy to see why she pursues a friendship with Samara and aligns herself with the OPA. What’s less easy to see is how this is going to work out; the current state of affairs is definitely not sustainable for either Holden and Naomi’s relationship or for the Roci crew as a whole. Something’s got to give.

The episode ends on Ganymede, where Bobbie Draper and her unit of Martian marines are stationed and complaining loudly of being stuck guarding farms. Things get interesting pretty quickly, though, when they’re attacked by unknown forces that destroy the Martian ship in the sky and leave Bobbie seemingly the only survivor on the ground. The problem is, it’s difficult to understand exactly what’s happening in the final few shots of the episode. The battle in the sky is visible to the marines down on the surface of Ganymede, and we know that the Martian ship is destroyed and Sutton is killed, but it’s not clear who’s firing on who in the air (though I think we’re meant to understand that it’s Mao’s stealth ships doing most of the shooting). Down on the ground, we see more of what Bobbie sees, so we can see that the U.N. soldiers that she thinks are charging her group are in fact being chased by a seventh figure behind them. It’s also clear enough at the end that the other three members of Bobbie’s team are dead, with their suits slashed open and helmets smashed. The final shot of the episode as well is clear enough, as Bobbie looks up to see a glowing protomolecule blue figure looming over her.

However, while it’s easy enough to understand what has happened if you think about it—or if you just rewatch it several times like I did—I think they could have shown a bit more of the actual action without giving it away entirely. Having read Caliban’s War, I expect that more of this stuff is going to be metered out through flashbacks in future episodes as Bobbie tries to get to the bottom of what happened, but I think that without that outside knowledge I might have been totally lost as to what I’d just watched. Not to mention even more frustrated than I already am at having to wait another full week for resolution to the cliffhanger ending.

Miscellaneous Thoughts:

  • I loved the Epstein scenes, but I didn’t love the choice to have him narrate it himself if he dies like that. That said, I don’t know how else the show could have communicated the information we get from Epstein’s narration, there’s no other character who would have been an appropriate narrator, and what we see on screen wouldn’t have made a lick of sense without narration. So. I guess they kind of had to do it like this.
  • That said, I expect the Epstein scenes are going to be divisive among show watchers. I really liked them and felt they were a smart way of giving us some history of the world while working up to an explicit statement of a thematic thesis. My partner, however, hated the Epstein stuff with a passion and found it unnecessary and jarring. I’m sure he isn’t the only one with that opinion, even if it is totally incorrect.
  • Avasarala’s costumes this week were stunning, as usual, but I loved that soft, flowy black gown she wore to talk with Errinwright best. It’s perfectly, artfully chosen to be restrained and unthreatening, very comfortable-looking and with relatively plain make-up and no jewels. It’s about as laid-back as we’ve ever seen Chrisjen looking, and then she pounces.
  • Holden’s message home was cute, but I think Naomi shouldn’t have to work so hard at managing Holden’s feelings. Yeah, he’s the captain of the ship, but why if he doesn’t want to be and there are at least a couple more people on the Roci who are almost certainly more capable?
  • The martyrdom of Miller and his elevation as a folk hero is predictable, as is Diogo’s almost religious fervor about spreading the news. I like this small detail, though, and it will be interesting to see how that movement develops over the next few weeks.
  • I ship Naomi and Samara so hard.
  • I wish that Bobbie’s exo suit was bigger and tougher looking, but I love the heads up display on it, which was used really smartly in this episode.

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