Tuesday, February 2, 2016

REVIEW: 'The Expanse' - Miller and Holder Face Life and Death in Getting Back to the Ship in 'Critical Mass' & 'Leviathan Wakes'

Syfy's The Expanse - Episode 1.09 "Critical Mass" & 1.10 "Leviathan Wakes"

A flashback to Julie's origin story reveals her trajectory. Holden and Miller finally meet and team up to get to the bottom of the strange emergency situation happening on Eros. But they must overcome incredible odds if they hope to live to fight another day.

Miller and Holden are kindred spirits. They are both on the same mission in this world. They are desperately trying to make sense out of his grand conspiracy that has sucked them up. It's a journey that started with Julie Mao. Miller was assigned to look into her disappearance while Holden logged the distress signal coming from the Scopuli. It's a journey that ends with Julie too. Miller and Holden's paths have finally crossed. At the intersection point lies Julie's body with the key element that could destroy this entire universe. The conspiracy of the season has been such a defining characteristic of the narrative. These final two episodes needed to inform the audience how all of these various pieces fit together. It's an explanation that doesn't make the journey any less problematic. It still was a very bumpy ride with some truly awful decisions being made by the creative team. It largely just amounts to a finale that's one giant action set piece. But that's a mode this show does well. Even the answers Miller and Holden get in this hour aren't enough to end this journey. In fact, their lives only get more complicated simply by being an Eros station when this bioweapon is being unleashed.

It creates a tense conclusion to the season. But one that spends a little bit too much time focusing on the minor details. It's operating under the assumption that there will be a second season. Of course, there will be one. That has already been announced. And yet, these final two episodes of the season don't have as much payoff as the season was building up during its last stretch of episodes. It is thrilling to start "Critical Mass" off with seeing things from Julie's perspective this whole time. That's insight that Miller and Holden won't have moving forward. It's valuable information to have as well. She believed in her cause but got caught up in something very dangerous. It turns out the stealth technology isn't the most dangerous thing aboard the Anubis. Instead, it's the bioweapon that consumes the energy around it to grow stronger. She's the sole survivor from the ship because she was locked up. But she still fell victim to this weapon. In fact, her need to leave and be rescued by her OPA friends dooms everyone on Eros station during this finale. It's a tense situation for all involved. But it also treats answers and revelations as second fiddle to the action and excitement of seeing the whole crew fight their way back to their ship.

There really isn't a whole lot of payoff by the conclusion of these two episodes. It's very likely that Earth is responsible for all of this destruction in the universe. And yet, that seemed like an inevitable reveal - solely because it means Avasarala can have relevancy in the narrative. But it's still all just a tease for the second season. Fred Johnson calls out Earth for being responsible. The narrative even confirms that with Julie's father being one of the architects being this new bioweapon and what's being done on Eros. But these revelations feel very small in the scope of this episode. Avasarala investigates a little bit. She speculates that the Martian ambassador was killed instead of a suicide. But that's a plot thread that goes no where. It just signals just how dangerous her life will continue to be in the future. It shows just how foolish she has been all season long. All of these actions were going on behind her back. She was simply playing the part of a misinformed old woman. This knowledge could help her in the future. But what's the purpose? She was clearly left out of the loop for a reason. But how does she actually feel about what Earth has planned for the rest of the universe? It makes her character struggle in the end very hard to connect to. She is still just such a blank slate.

The action that is happening on Eros is at times very thrilling and at others very broadly informative and repetitive. The Rocinante crew is split up during this whole mess of a station-wide lockdown. The gangster police force is following their nefarious orders and injecting all of the citizens with the substance that Julie brought along for the ride from the Anubis. These episodes really do showcase just how much of a living thing this weapon really is. It's dangerous and unnatural. It's unlike anything any of these characters have dealt with before. And yet, Naomi, Amos and Alex spend the majority of the time trying to navigate through a maze just to get back to the ship. It's a very strange plot for the finale. It largely just feels like isolating those characters and giving them something to do. The show enjoyed the concept of Miller and Holden taking on the world together but also wanted to make things just as difficult for the rest of the Rocinante crew. However, that largely amounts to a bunch of meaningless drama with a kid who doesn't even make it back to the ship with the rest of them. It's exciting when Amos kills Miller's police friend just in order to support Naomi wanting to wait for Holden. But it's also a lot of meaningless tension because the characters aren't really that engaging.

Conversely, Holden and Miller have had a lot of time and focus this season. They were the two leads of their respective stories. Now that they've finally met, they get to see just how vast and complicated this conspiracy really is. They are still just getting to know each other. So a lot of these final two episodes is the two of them telling each other information that the audience already knows. That gets annoying very quickly. The audience always feels like it's one step ahead of the two of them too considering it's pretty clear to everyone except them what these bad guys are up to on the station. But there's still a lot of solid action and character beats in this part of the story because Miller and Holden are literally fighting death just to survive. Exposing them to high levels of radiation is a solid way to create meaningful stakes for this final episode of the season. Sure, it seemed highly unlikely that the show would kill off one of its leads now. It was still a possibility though which kept the tension high. The two needed to bond together just in order to survive. That's what made this journey a satisfying (though very unexpected) ending to the season. Again, it was a solid action set piece. But it was still rewarding once Miller and Holden finally made it back to the Rocinante. From there, the show just has to tease where the story can go next. Alex is able to pick up the other ship leaving the station which holds all the bad guys responsible for this genocide. It's an intriguing way to close the season. It says that things are only going to get worse in the future. Miller and Holden barely survived. But they will be able to fight for one more day.

Some more thoughts:
  • "Critical Mass" was written by Robin Veith, Dan Nowak & Naren Shankar and directed by Terry McDonough.
  • "Leviathan Wakes" was written by Mark Fergus & Hawk Ostby and directed by Terry McDonough.
  • Was it truly necessary to have the guy who almost killed Miller's partner be a part of the oppositional force on Eros? He shows up just so everything can feel connected - and so that Miller can finally just kill the guy. That story was important this season. But it also felt very out of place and completely unnecessary here.
  • Avasarala tells her husband to take the children and flee to their other house to avoid becoming collateral damage for what she's about to do. And yet, that action could tip off her colleagues to the fact that she no longer trusts them.
  • Lots of coughing up of liquids in these episodes. First, it's Julie as she falls victim to the energy that is slowly consuming her body. And then, both Miller and Holden are coughing up blood as the radiation destroys them.
  • It seems awfully convenient that spaceships just come with drugs that can heal the body from radiation. That seemed like a cop out from any lasting complications from such a massive exposure. It's something the show wanted for this episode but didn't want it to linger moving forward.
  • Naomi really does a poor job in convincing the people on this journey through the tunnels with her that their ship is the only safe space on the station. She gives up on that little girl very easily after seeing her whisked away.
  • Fred Johnson has still not been arrested by the Earth government. In fact, he is able to release a message to the entire universe broadcasting everything he has learned - though he conveniently leaves out the testimonies from Holden and the rest of his crew.
  • Miller seeing glimpses of Julie while succumbing to the radiation was another unnecessary plot detail. It didn't really add a whole lot. Yes, she meant something to him and it's devastating to find her dead. But it still didn't work all that well.
  • Again, the show will return for a second season. But it won't be back on the air until at least early 2017. Is this ending satisfying enough for all of you? To tide you over the long hiatus?