The Expanse: “The Seventh Man” is a perfect balance of personal and political

This week, The Expanse shifted gears again in “The Seventh Man.” After last week’s fast-paced mix of exposition and set-up, capped off with a decided feeling of consequence by the Ganymede incident, this episode takes the time to do a couple of hugely important things. On a Martian ship, Bobbie Draper is recovering from her injuries and trying to make sense of her jumbled memories, while on Tycho station there’s a struggle for control as Anderson Dawes and Fred Johnson compete with each other for the opportunity to determine the future of the Belt. It’s an episode that’s light on action but heavy on talking and politics and full of some of the show’s best writing to date.

Spoilers ahead!

There’s only one scene on Earth this week, but it’s a good one. When the news comes in about Ganymede, Avasarala and Errinwright are watching with the Secretary-General and they have to make a quick decision about what to do about it. Errinwright pushes for attacking a Martian target, but Chrisjen advises caution and calls for a peace conference on Earth, where she argues that Earth would have the advantage. The Secretary-General is convinced, so that’s happening, probably next week. It’s interesting to see how the balance of power has shifted in Chrisjen’s favor since Eros, but it’s also obvious that she’s still wary of Errinwright, with whom she’s increasingly at odds.

At Tycho Station, refugees from Ganymede are flowing in, and the Rocinante crew is helping to get people settled on the station. Meanwhile, Anderson Dawes has also arrived on the station, where he’s inviting refugees to Ceres as well as rallying Belters on Tycho. We soon find out why: Having wrangled Ceres, Dawes is on Tycho to make a decisive play to wrest control from Fred Johnson. We get to see Dawes publicly debate Johnson over what the OPA’s next steps should be, and it’s riveting stuff. The real ideological differences that have previously been implied or inferred are made explicit when the two men have to stand in front of a parliament-esque gathering of OPA faction leaders and make their cases. Later, as Dawes schmoozes his way around the station trying to ingratiate himself with Holden and Naomi, then Drummer, then Diogo, pumping them for information, we get a real sense both of how deep the divisions go and how different Dawes and Johnson’s tactics are.

The Tycho sequences are (except for a weird Amos segment) by far the strongest parts of “The Seventh Man,” and they’ve got several things going for them. The dialogue is smartly written. The speeches are entertaining to watch and effectively communicate complex arguments. The increasing tension between Holden and Naomi is well-conveyed as their relationship frays at the edges. Dawes’s connection with Drummer is clearly depicted, with enough on-screen information to intrigue the viewer but without telling us the whole story all at once. Dawes’s encounter with Diogo is pitch perfect and a great/chilling example of the ease with which young people can be manipulated by those they admire. The final short action sequence as Dawes abducts Cortazar is a much-needed break from talking scenes and gives Fred Johnson a clear goal going into the next few episodes. In short, it’s a balanced, cleverly plotted, and well-thought-out storyline that admirably holds up its half of the episode.

If there’s any major criticism I have of the Tycho story this week it’s that Holden’s “character development” doesn’t feel particularly earned. The foreshadowing of having Dawes compare Holden directly to Miller didn’t quite work because there’s not any actual evidence before this episode that Holden has evolved into anything at all, much less into a new Miller. To be fair, I suppose Holden has become more circumspect this season about shouting sensitive and inflammatory information to the whole solar system willy-nilly, but he’s still pretty much the same old frustratingly naïve and self-righteous Holden we’ve come to barely tolerate over a season and a half of the show. His late-night attempted attempt on Cortazar’s life was genuinely unexpected, and not in a good way. That said, his decision to shout over Belters to support Fred Johnson (and his dipshit defense of his actions to Naomi) was exactly what I would expect of him.

The part of the episode I was most excited to see was the Bobbie Draper stuff, which was both just what I predicted it would be and much better than I thought it would be, primarily due to Frankie Adams’ strong acting as she works through Bobbie’s trauma and confusion after the Ganymede incident. After being rescued from her damaged exo suit, Bobbie is taken to the Scirocco for treatment for her injuries and multiple rounds of questioning about what happened on Ganymede. It’s during this questioning that we get some of the blanks from last week filled in, which is pretty much how I suspected things were going to go. I thought we’d see more flashes of the seventh “man” that gives the episode its title, but the Ganymede monster is kept deliberately mysterious and Bobbie is told to not speak of it when she finds out at the end of the episode that she’ll be going to Earth to testify at the UN.

“The Seventh Man” (and The Expanse in general, if we’re honest) is, ultimately, a story about storytelling, but it’s also a story about the personal nature of politics. Powerful people vie to shape narratives to their own purposes, both selfishly and not. Avasarala has an almost preternatural ability to read situations and come up with creatively constructive sources of action to prevent all-out war. We see that she has counterparts among the Martians as well, people with cooler heads than the common soldiery who are working hard to keep the peace as well, even if that means making up a plausible story to cover up an implausible event. Fred Johnson and Anderson Dawes both have stories to tell this week, and both of them are true in their ways—humanity is stronger if they can live peacefully together, and the Belt and Outer Planets need to be self-governing and united against those who don’t have their best interests at heart.

Identity figures largely into all these storylines this week. Avasarala is still working to assert herself in her stronger position following the destruction of Eros; she sees herself as an iconoclastic champion of Earth, and perhaps her greatest pressures come from her own expectations of what she should be achieving. Bobbie Draper has lost her unit in a tragedy that she doesn’t yet understand, which has left her unmoored, and now she’s being sent to Earth, but not as a conqueror or even as a warrior; her navigation of this unfamiliar territory is going to be fascinating in weeks to come. Anderson Dawes sees himself as the true leader capable of uniting the OPA under his control, and his work for the Belt and Outer Planets is confirmed to be real and sincere. However, he also seems burdened with something like self-hatred—a sort of archetypal man-willing-to-do-bad-things-for-good-reasons who knows how to fight, but not how to achieve and maintain peace. Fred Johnson, on the other hand, dreams of real and lasting peace, but his history and status as an Earther makes him an eternal outsider in the Belt. They may respect and appreciate him, but they won’t follow him like they’ll follow Anderson Dawes.

All these various takes on identity are at work with Naomi and Holden. We saw last week that Naomi is identifying more and more strongly with her Belter roots, and this episode continues that trend. She is fully invested in the suffering of those she sees as her people, and she’s deeply admiring of and moved by Anderson Dawes. She’s definitely struggling with some feelings of guilt over deceiving Holden about the hidden protomolecule sample, but her feelings of resentment towards him for his lack of understanding of her are even stronger than guilt. In some ways, Holden’s motivations mirror Fred Johnson’s—he wants to do what he can to help people in the Belt, but he also wants peace in the solar system—but Holden has heroic aspirations as well and is (we learn) at least open to the idea of modelling himself more after his friend Miller. Holden’s arc here isn’t as well-defined as Naomi’s, and it’s certainly not as relatable or likeable, but it does fit within the general thematic neighborhood of what’s going on with everyone else.

The Expanse is always good, but this episode and last week’s “Paradigm Shift” have been truly superb. The show’s characteristically high production values, powerful writing, excellent casting choices and solid acting have worked together to create a deeply affecting new direction for things now that we’re past the relatively weak Leviathan Wakes source material. The deeper we delve into Caliban’s War territory, the better things are getting, and that’s an awesome achievement for a show that was already the best thing on television.

Miscellaneous Thoughts:

  • The blood snowflakes in the opening scene were beautifully gruesome and make for a great image, but that is not how blood works.
  • I didn’t really “get” the Amos stuff. This wasn’t quite a flashback, there wasn’t enough information given about Amos’s past to make sense of his actions, and things are left basically unresolved after he has the conversation with Cortazar about the “procedure.”
  • Jared Harris is perfectly cast as Anderson Dawes. Absolutely magnetic and probably my favorite character to watch aside from Shohreh Aghdashloo as Avasarala.
  • Not enough Alex this week, and I did not like how he talked to Naomi.
  • I feel like Naomi and Holden’s relationship is quickly headed for Greek tragedy territory, but they were still going strong at the end of Caliban’s War, so I’m very interested to see how that shapes up over the rest of this season.

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