The Expanse: “Caliban’s War” reveals some things but resolves too little to be truly satisfying

I suspect I’m about to express an unpopular opinion, but here it is: I found “Caliban’s War” a little disappointing. It’s a solid enough episode, and it was enjoyable to watch, but not much actually happened or was resolved and after last week’s stellar penultimate episode it felt a bit anticlimactic. There’s still plenty to be excited about looking forward to season three, and I am excited and looking forward to it, but I was hoping to a more conclusive ending to this season or perhaps a bigger reveal. Instead, we got an hour that picks up right where “The Monster and the Rocket” left off and happens almost in real time before capping the season with a(n admittedly great, if grim) final montage. It’s fine, but it’s not as big or dramatic as it could or should have been. It just doesn’t feel like a season finale, which makes it even more sad that we’ve got to wait until 2018 for season three.

**Spoilers Below**

The biggest disappointment, for me, was the wrap-up of events on Jules-Pierre Mao’s yacht. Last week ended with guns drawn, and this episode starts with shots being fired. Cotyar is shot right away, and they’ve only got the one small gun against several of Mao’s security guys, so they’ve got to think their way out of the situation they’re in, which is hiding behind a table trying not to get murdered. There’s some excellent banter—I love the dynamic between Cotyar, Bobbie, and Avasarala—before Bobbie heads into the wall to go to their ship and retrieve her power armor, which Cotyar brought with them for, well, reasons, I guess. It’s not really explained, and, while it makes sense why the armor might have been brought, it doesn’t make a lick of sense why Bobbie wasn’t told about it before they found themselves pinned down in a room with only one door and no pre-planned strategy.

Bobbie’s journey to get the armor out of the ship is largely uneventful. She almost gets hit by an elevator, which it’s obvious is not going to hit her because if it did she’d be splattered all over. It’s an attempt at injecting some tension and drama into the situation, but the time could have been better spent elsewhere. Similarly, while Bobbie’s conversation with the electrician that blocks the final door to the ship touches on some season-long themes about loyalty and trust and choosing who and what to fight for and what hills to die on, it’s played for laughs in a way that undermines the message and cheapens Bobbie’s character growth. There’s a short scene with Cotyar and Avasarala that deals with some overlapping ideas about loyalty and obligation and indebtedness and honor in a more serious fashion, but the overall tone of about eighty percent of the Avasarala-Bobbie-Cotyar material this week is light enough to be at odds with, frankly, any serious message they’re trying to get across.

I can see the appeal of maintaining a degree of levity somewhere in such an overall dark episode, but this storyline could have been treated somewhat more seriously, especially since it’s the one storyline this week that ends on something of a positive note when Bobbie gets back to Cotyar and Avasarala just in time to rescue them from certain death. Unfortunately, this is where I started to resent the time that was spent in the elevator. We barely get to see any actual fighting, and it’s over very quickly. I’m starting to suspect that this is due to budgetary limitations; the armor is just a costume made to look cool, after all, and it’s possible that a long, well-shot close quarters combat action scene using it would be expensive, time-consuming or otherwise difficult from a production standpoint. Still, it’s too bad. We didn’t get to see the battle on Ganymede, which at least made narrative sense since they wanted to keep it vague so the event could be slowly revealed through Bobbie’s flashbacks, but I was certain that the fight on the Guanshiyin would be a major showpiece of the finale. Disappointing.

On the Rocinante, there’s a sweet reunion (though it’s a bit hand-wavy about where they are, how Naomi and Amos got back to the ship, and how long it’s been since they left Ganymede) that is broken up when they realize that the protomolecule hybrid is down in their cargo hold. Holden, predictably, wants to go down there and shoot it, which is exactly what he and Amos do and works out exactly as terribly as anyone who’s been watching this show for two seasons now could have predicted. Holden ends up magnet-ed to the wall with his leg crushed behind a huge metal box of stuff, and Amos retreats into the ship while the hybrid starts trying to dig its way through the metal bulkhead to get to the nuclear reactor that runs the ship. Some quick brainstorming by the crew doesn’t come up with any great solutions to the problem, but they do have a limited amount of time to figure it out and rescue Holden before he dies from his injuries.

They finally settle on a plan to seal off most of the Rocinante and then use pressure to vent the hybrid into space. The problem with this, however, is that it will almost certainly kill Holden as well. The crew spends half of the rest of the episode preparing to carry out this plan until Prax has a last-minute idea that allows them to get rid of the hybrid without killing the captain. Like Bobbie’s journey up the elevator shaft on the Guanshiyin, there are parts of this storyline that feel unnecessary, and Holden’s danger never feels quite real. The time spent preparing for the plan that is never actually used does offer some time for some excellent character work on the part of the crew. Though it might feel to the audience that Holden is going to be okay, the rest of the cast does a great job selling their anxiety and regret, and there are several truly excellent apology and goodbye speeches. It’s a bit of a State of the Crew recap to establish where all these relationships are at now at the end of the season, and if it’s a little heavy-handed and somewhat maudlin, it’s still entertaining.

The actual method by which they lure the hybrid out of the ship is fairly straightforward. Because the hybrid feeds on radiation, they can turn off the ship’s engines, take a nuke outside, open its casing and draw the hybrid out that way. When they throw the core of the nuke into space, the hybrid leaps after it, at which point Alex fires the Roci back up and points the ship’s afterburners at the hybrid to destroy it. If there’s anything perfect about this episode, this moment is it. It’s a clear (and beautifully executed) homage to the scene near the end of Peter Jackson’s The Return of the King, when Gollum wrests the Ring away from Frodo and falls into the lava of Mount Doom. Superficially akin to Gollum in shape, the protomolecule hybrid chases after the ball of radiation with similar intensity and the pose of the hybrid in its final moments, curled in an almost fetal position around the ball as the Rocinante’s engines turn on, is almost exactly the same as Gollum’s last pose as he falls to his death. I love it.

The episode ends with a longish montage in which three major things happen. Bobbie, having retrieved her armor, rescues Avasarala and Cotyar; Naomi confesses to Holden that she didn’t destroy their protomolecule sample, and, when she thought she might die on the Weeping Somnambulist, she gave the protomolecule to Fred Johnson; and, on Venus, the Arboghast, which had been descending to investigate the Eros crater, is spectacularly destroyed, broken down to its component parts, presumably by the protomolecule there. Of these, the fate of the Arboghast has a sense of momentousness that the rest of the episode’s events didn’t have, but it’s not entirely clear what has happened or why or how or what it means. Naomi’s revelation to Holden wasn’t the revelation I was hoping to see this season end with, but it’s also important. It would have been nice to get a little more of Holden’s reaction to this news, but we’ll have to wait until next season to find out how this changes things between him and Naomi. We’ll also have to wait to see what kind of hell Avasarala is going to rain down on Errinwright when she gets back to earth, though that wait was at least expected. I already have a feeling that season three is going to be epic.

Miscellaneous Thoughts:

  • I would love for more exterior shots or maybe a virtual tour of the Guanshiyin. The outside shots of it are gorgeous, as is the room everything happens in. It’s more than pretty enough that I can forgive the hallways for being somewhat generic and plain white, but it would be neat to see more of it even if they don’t put it all in the show.
  • Holy shit, shirtless Amos was fucking glorious.
  • I loved the evolution of Iturbi and Janus into science bros.
  • Amos seems to draw a distinction between “always trying to do the right thing” and “always trying to be a good man,” and this seems like the kind of thing that one could write whole essays on. It seems like a distinction without a difference to me, but it’s one of the few (maybe the only) specific comments the show has ever made on gender. I’m still mulling over it, though.
  • If we weren’t going to see Mei get rescued this episode, I could have done without that final scene of Strickland putting her into storage. I particularly disliked that smug little “sweet dreams” line, which practically broke the fourth wall.

One thought on “The Expanse: “Caliban’s War” reveals some things but resolves too little to be truly satisfying”

  1. “If we weren’t going to see Mei get rescued this episode, I could have done without that final scene of Strickland putting her into storage. I particularly disliked that smug little “sweet dreams” line, which practically broke the fourth wall.” This was apparently a last minute decision make by the studio who felt viewers needed to know if she was still alive or not. I wouldn’t knock the show itself for it.

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