The Expanse: “Pyre” isn’t that hot, but it gets the job done

After the major climax of Eros crashing on Venus (ending the Leviathan Wakes part of the show) and the last couple weeks of gear-shifting as we move completely into Caliban’s War territory, “Pyre” is a somewhat strange episode. Last week’s “The Seventh Man” is probably my favorite episode of the show to date, but “Pyre” is possibly the worst episode of season two so far. Appearing in just a single short scene in “The Seventh Man,” Avasarala is completely absent from “Pyre,” as is Bobbie, who is presumably en route to Earth. “Pyre” introduces a new character, Praxidike Meng (Terry Chen), and then spends most of the episode working to connect him to the Rocinante crew. Meanwhile, Fred Johnson faces a major challenge to his authority that threatens to undo his work for the Belt and jeopardizes the safety of Tycho Station itself. At times, The Expanse has done well with these sorts of more focused episodes, but this one just doesn’t quite work the way it ought. It accomplishes what it needs to do, but without the show’s characteristic deftness and panache and not without some frankly awkward moments.

**Spoilers below!**

The episode starts with a flashback/dream sequence that introduces Praxidike Meng and his daughter, Mei, and this is the first weird moment of the hour. First, we see Prax (as yet unnamed) doing something with plants. Then we see overhead shots of the greenhouses on Ganymede, which is a cool (if belated) way of finally giving the viewers an idea of how Ganymede works. Finally, we see Mei as the figure waving her arms at the marines outside on the surface of Ganymede (as seen very briefly and indistinctly in “Paradigm Shift”) just before the orbiting mirror shatters and comes crashing down through the glass roof.

Cut to Prax waking up on a freight ship that has been commandeered for moving refugees from Ganymede to other stations. He’s found there by his friend, Doris, who breaks the news of his daughter’s death—although it, confusingly, turns out that Mei wasn’t in the greenhouse dome with Prax, but at a doctor’s appointment—and offers to take him with her to Mars, where she still has family and suggests they’ll be able to find work in the terraforming project. The grieving Prax rebuffs her but then changes his mind as the Belter crew of the ship prepare, supposedly, to shift any refugees from Earth and Mars to another ship to be taken back to their planets of origin. As the Inners are being herded to an airlock, Prax isn’t allowed on, because obviously the Inners are going to be spaced, which is exactly what happens. Seriously, this is so heavily telegraphed from the moment Doris first says “Mars” that it’s almost comical. It’s also a significant change from the source material, as nothing like this happens in the books (at least in the first two that I’ve read). More importantly, it’s upsetting and problematic on several levels.

First, it’s a monstrous act of hatred on the part of the ship’s Belter crew. Yes, the man who actually does it tells Prax that “Inners wrecked Ganymede,” but that’s a very thin excuse for capriciously and incredibly cruelly murdering an airlock full of people who not only had nothing to do with the destruction of Ganymede but were themselves displaced victims of the attack. This demonizing of Belters has been something of a theme this season, but this is definitely the worst example of the trend so far and it’s not helped by the other events of this episode. It’s genuinely starting to feel like the show’s writers hate Belters as they depict them over and over again committing increasingly senseless acts of destruction and violence. Anderson Dawes and Fred Johnson’s nuanced rivalry makes sense and is deeply compelling, but most of the rest of the Belters we see aren’t complex, just wantonly, cartoonishly evil and stupid.

Second, the way this event is shown on screen is not far short of sadistic. Because it’s so heavily telegraphed, the viewer knows what is coming early on—if not when Doris first mentions Mars than certainly by the time all the Earthers and Martians are being removed from the main group—and yet we’re still forced to watch it happen in excruciating real time as they’re marched to the airlock, shift to zero-g, Prax and Doris touch fingers through the glass, and then the airlock opens. Even after this bit of lovingly crafted torture, we’re not done yet because there’s still time for a long and unnecessarily gruesome shot of poor Doris gasping for breath in space as she slowly asphyxiates and freezes at the same time. It’s deeply unpleasant to watch and only serves to highlight how terrible the practice of “spacing” really is while pointing to the apparent hypocrisy of Belters who fear that fate themselves but are willing to inflict it on others.

Finally, it’s a pretty textbook fridging of a newly introduced female character in service of Prax’s storyline. Or it would be if Doris’s death was treated as truly impactful and important. Instead, while Prax does try to report the crime when he arrives at Tycho, he doesn’t know the name of the ship he was on or the names of the perpetrators, and although he was on a ship full of other refugees I guess none of them are willing to corroborate his story. When the station doctor on Tycho says she can’t help him, this is the last we hear of it, as the show seems to be pivoting straight into the rest of Prax’s Caliban’s War story instead of dealing appropriately with the tragedy that they invented to fill some time in the episode while other things are happening on Tycho before Prax gets there.

On Tycho, we kick off the episode with Alex and Naomi returning on the Rocinante with Diogo in tow. They’re met at the dock by Holden and Fred Johnson, but when Diogo refuses to tell them anything about where Anderson Dawes has taken Cortazar he’s shuffled off quickly to Tycho station jail and not seen or heard from again from the rest of the episode. This is slightly anti-climactic because it happens so quickly, but we quickly move on to Fred, Drummer, Holden, and Naomi working to figure out how Dawes could get away from them without help (he couldn’t, obv). Fortunately, they don’t have long to wait before Dawes calls them up to officially break up with Fred. Dawes accuses Fred of withholding secrets from the rest of the Belt, which is accurate, and confirms that he has Cortazar. This is also when it comes out that Cortazar wasn’t just puttering around in his cell aimlessly; he’d found evidence of more protomolecule, and it was chattering like it had on Eros. There’s more of this stuff out there, but they aren’t sure yet where it is.

Naomi and Drummer head out to physically go to the antenna Cortazar was using for data collection to find out what he’d learned. I suppose there’s some unspoken concern that Cortazar could have been in contact with the sample that Naomi keeps failing to fire off into the sun, but it rather predictably turns out not to be that. Instead, there’s protomolecule on Ganymede. This sends Holden and Naomi to definitely-not-just-space-google former Protogen employees who may have been working on Ganymede at the time of the attack. In about thirty seconds, they discover Dr. Strickland, a suspiciously overqualified pediatrician who has conveniently been recently photographed with Praxidike Meng who is conveniently on Tycho right this instant. It’s the most egregious example of plot convenience theatre I’ve seen in ages, and I literally laughed out loud when Holden was like, “It can’t really be this easy.” No shit, it can’t, but it is, because this is what the show’s writers decided to go with instead of any number of more organic and less profoundly silly ways of getting Prax onto the Rocinante and all of them on the quest to find Mei.

The other major plot this week isn’t much less absurd than this, and it continues the aforementioned trend of mass Belter character assassination. After it’s pretty well confirmed that Drummer is not the traitor on Fred Johnson’s team, we learn that it’s been one of the other people working on the Tycho control room all along, a man named Edin, who has an unspecified technical job that gives him access to a lot of controls on the station. He’s in league with the OPA faction leader, Staz, and they’ve got a genius plan to take over the station, steal all Fred Johnson’s nukes, and fire them at Earth because what could possibly go wrong? They manage to take over the station’s control room, kill a couple of hostages, and shoot Drummer while trying to get the launch codes for the nukes, but they’re easily defeated when Holden finds out and sends Amos outside the station to cut off the air supply to the control room. Once everyone has passed out, Holden, Naomi and Alex show up and rescue Fred and Drummer.

None of this would be even remotely acceptable—because it’s a hilariously badly conceived plot from start to finish—if it wasn’t for a couple of saving graces. First, I love that when Staz shoots the first hostage Fred basically just shrugs and is like “I’ve seen plenty of death in my time.” Fred Johnson is a consistently well-drawn character, and this coolness under pressure is exactly what I’d expect from him. Second, after the rescue, when Alex is trying to help Drummer stand so she can go get medical attention, she grab’s Alex’s gun and puts bullets in the heads of both Edin and Staz before she limps off on her own. After an episode full of Belter’s being wantonly evil and/or stupid, it’s nice to see a Belter get the chance to do the sensible (albeit brutal) thing, and it further proves that Drummer is a badass.

The episode ends with the Rocinante crew leaving Tycho to investigate Ganymede and search for the protomolecule and Mei Meng, but not without one last fraught exchange between Holden and Fred. In the book it was much more clear that Fred Johnson wanted the Roci crew to stay in his exclusive employ to protect and advance his interests in the Belt, but here the reason for this little break-up is somewhat muddled. Fred and Holden had seemed to be of one mind on most issues over the last couple of episodes, and this week they worked well together and seemed as friendly as they’ve ever been, so Holden’s antipathy towards Fred feels sudden and unearned. On a second, closer, viewing of the episode, this feeling wasn’t as pronounced, but their dynamic still doesn’t quite make sense either.

In the end, I’m not sure it really matters, though. This episode felt oddly cobbled together from disparate parts, as if the writers were working with a checklist of things that needed to happen rather than telling a harmoniously balanced and truly well-conceived story. At the same time, much of the episode felt like filler used to flesh out material that is much less meaty on screen than it seemed in the novel. It’s probably the farthest from the source material the show has ever strayed, and though it remains mostly true to it in spirit, it’s still not an encouraging example of what happens when the writers have to solve adaptational problems. Here, my guess is that they didn’t want the Bobbie and Avasarala plots to get ahead of this one, or perhaps they thought the episode might be overstuffed if they tried to give each plot some time. Either way, coming up with some nonsensical melodrama to fill space and time was the wrong answer and speaks to an unfortunate laziness that I hope we don’t see more of in the future.

On the bright side, next week Bobbie and Chrisjen are back and hopefully in a major way. Thank goodness.

Miscellaneous Thoughts:

  • Love Mei’s backpack. It’s a nice touch with the hologram characters, though I’m now wildly curious about the economics of that kind of disposable consumer good being sent to someplace as far as Ganymede.
  • Holden accusing Drummer of being a traitor made me want to punch him right in the throat more than I usually want to punch Holden in the throat. Peak asshole Holden, for sure.
  • I’m still not loving this Amos subplot, though I felt this week like I had a better idea of where the show is going with it (something something tragic backstory, probably). The whole thing feels almost like an afterthought and understanding what the point of it is requires a pretty significant attention to detail.

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