Wednesday, April 11, 2018

REVIEW: 'The Expanse' - A Declaration of War Echoes Throughout the Entire System in 'Fight or Flight'

Syfy's The Expanse - Episode 3.01 "Fight or Flight"

The Rocinante crew deals with the fallout over Naomi's betrayal while caught in the middle of the war between Earth and Mars. Avasarala and Bobbie hatch an escape plan.

It's been almost a year since The Expanse aired its last episode. For its first two seasons, the drama was paired with The Magicians on Syfy's schedule which gave the channel a night of incredible programming that was really inventive with their approach to genre storytelling. And now, the network has opted to split them up in order to maintain a sense of broad identity and strength for a little while longer. The Magicians wrapped its third season last week. It was better than ever before. The Expanse saw a huge uptick in quality during its second season. There's every expectation that that upward trajectory will continue this year as the world prepares for war. These shows may not be the broad hits that Syfy would like to have on its schedule. Neither of them have pulled in the ratings that Krypton has - though that show is still really struggling with its story and identity. But these shows keep Syfy in the conversation about doing really important work in this specific form. The network was struggling with its identity for a little while. Then, the creation of shows like The Magicians and The Expanse helped them find their core identity once more and push for even more specific and surprising series. All of this basically makes "Fight or Flight" a very expositional premiere where the show has to put in a lot of work to remind the audience how things were left at the end of last season. It feels like the story just picks up so naturally - in a way that makes me wonder if the viewers binge watching the show later on will be able to tell that one episode was a finale and this one was a premiere. The transition is natural mostly because the show is still adapting the story from the second book in the series. There was just so much ground to cover that it couldn't do so in just 13 episodes last year. Yes, that did create some awkward stretches. But now, it seems like the intensity of the story is really ramping up in a very intriguing way.

The series opened with the suggestion that this fragile ecosystem was on the verge of war. That has defined so many of the characters' actions across three seasons now. The protomolecule promised to change everything. Holden tried everything he could to contain this new threat to the current balance of the world. And yet, there was just no way of eradicating this new technology. It's still completely alien and foreign to everyone in the system. No one truly understands it or can utilize it in a functional way. As such, experimentations have led to a number of disasters. Innocent people have been killed just so the various governments knew how to weaponize this technology. And now, the entire ecosystem of Venus is changing because the protomolecule drove headfirst into it. It's changing the world in ways that no one understands. It's certainly an ominous image to see that the ship ripped apart in Venus' atmosphere is still exactly as it was in that kind of limbo. There's no telling what could happen next. But that's not where the immediate threat is coming from either. Instead, Earth and Mars are targeting one another because they both believe the other side is finally ready for war. This war has been discussed so much by both sides. The main characters have been trying to prevent it for the entire run of the series. But now, all of their actions are for naught. Earth has declared war on Mars. It's all a careful manipulation of the system by Errinwright to place him into a position of power. He's the one who has the ear of the head of the United Nations. He can frame Avasarala for all of the shady dealings he was responsible for. He has picked his side in this war and is willing to fight hard to ensure he stays relevant.

Of course, Avasarala is still fighting for survival in space. The end of last season took her out of her comfort zone of politics on Earth. She had to go into space for the first time for a meeting with Jules-Pierre Mao to try to control and contain the situation. That meeting didn't go according to plan because of Errinwright's actions. He betrayed both of them which easily made them turn against each other knowing they had no real power anymore. And now, it's an intense situation because Cotyar is seriously hurt and Bobbie is trying to get to her exosuit back on the ship. It's a mission the audience already knows she succeeded in. But it's still a tenuous situation because Avasarala doesn't know if she can trust Bobbie. They are thrust together mostly by circumstance. The show continues to push for that connection as well. They are such wildly different people. Avasarala is a stateswoman from Earth and Bobbie is a soldier from Mars. Both have been betrayed by their governments. They are attempting to build lasting peace in the system. And now, they are being targeted by their respective governments. They don't face many threats on this specific ship. It's just ominous because they seemingly have no way of escaping with missiles heading straight towards them. It produces a very cool and effective shot of Bobbie running up the side of the space station just to open the doors to the escape pod. Sure, it seems counterproductive for that portion of the ship to be on lockdown when the ship detects a threat. That would be the time to make a hasty escape. But it produces a thrilling moment here. Plus, it also splits the group into two factions. Avasarala faces high speed space travel for the first time and is in agonizing pain because of the injections involved. Meanwhile, Cotyar barely makes his escape with a pilot who can't be trusted just yet. As such, it should be very interesting to see how quickly this group reunites and are able to broadcast their message to the rest of the system.

Avasarala doesn't even know that Earth has publicly declared war on Mars. She suspects that it's likely knowing everything she does about Errinwright and what he is currently doing. She knows that this is the precise thing that could ignite this conflict. She is desperate to get her message out in time to stop it from escalating any further. But it seems very unlikely because the world at large has already turned against one another. The Rocinante crew gets the breaking news update. They are still repairing the ship after their battle with the protomolecule creature at the end of last season. It left them with a limited amount of resources as well. It also created a new division amongst the crew. Holden continues to only see the dangers from the protomolecule and how people are manipulating it and ruining people's lives in the process. He sees the personal effect this loss has on Prax. He was so desperate to find his daughter in the remains of Ganymede station. He wanted to believe that this creature was her after she was injected with the protomolecule. But he still ultimately aided in killing it. He didn't know what to believe. And now, he has to find peace with that not knowing. He may never get clarity on the situation. The protomolecule is out for anyone and everyone to manipulate. The substance itself is interconnected. It has a bond that makes it feel and understand what's happening in every corner of this world. That's a connection that can be exploited. All it takes is Holden noticing where there was an uptick in action and energy readings while the Rocinante was facing off with the creature. That gives them a new destination to go explore in the hopes of finding some answers. No, Holden is no longer doing this to try to keep a lid on this conflict and keep the world as it is. It's too late for that. But he sees it as him finally doing the right thing by helping Prax get the answers he craves.

It also comes at a time when the Rocinante crew no longer trusts Naomi. She has always been so empathetic. She has cared about the citizens of the belt. For the entire series, the Rocinante has been operating without the support of any official entity. It was a Martian ship but they didn't fight for Mars. Holden is from Earth but he isn't loyal to them after learning they were responsible for the incident on Eros. They have a potential ally in Fred Johnson. But he represents the organization that controls the belt and wishes that collection of people to be united and seen as their own respective government. It's a noble ambition. But it's not a cause the Rocinante crew has had a stake in. And now, Naomi has made her choice. She believes it's only fair to gift the protomolecule to the belt to ensure that the belters aren't taken advantage of in this war by Earth and Mars like they have in the past. It's the substance that can finally bring some legitimacy to their claim for an independent government. Of course, Fred Johnson is still a shady individual who can't be trusted. Earth and Mars are still looking for him. He still has enemies amongst the belt. He is willing to forge a new alliance with Anderson Dawes despite his betrayal from last season that kidnapped the protomolecule scientist away from him. Now, that character is necessary to understand the protomolecule. Meanwhile, the Rocinante is reluctant to land on Tycho Station once more. They see Fred Johnson as owing them a favor for the gift they delivered. But Naomi did that by herself. She's now loyal to the belt while the rest of the crew is trying to figure out their place in this world. They are free agents in this conflict. They know so much. That makes them valuable. Everyone would be so envious to exploit that knowledge. But right now, they aren't fighting with any passion for one side in particular in this war. That's bound to change at some point. At the moment though, it's just important to note that there is this division amongst the crew that makes them doubt if they can truly trust each other moving forward.

Some more thoughts:
  • "Fight or Flight" was written by Mark Fergus & Hawk Ostby and directed by Breck Eisner.
  • Naomi was making it sound like the Rocinante needed to dock on Tycho Station because it didn't have the resources to make it very far anywhere else in the system. But now, that plan has completely changed and no one else is worried about restocking up on the essentials to keep this ship operational. They are still flying into unknown territory that could be quite lethal.
  • Alex records a message for his wife and son. Those characters have been mentioned before but never seen. As such, it's fascinating that the show chooses now to introduce them. It's also ominous that Alex is recording this message right now where he talks about enjoying this kind of work much more than being home with them - although he still loves them. That makes it seem incredibly unlikely that he'll ever return home to them. It seems like foreshadowing for his death this year.
  • Fred and Drummer are arguing over whether or not they can trust Anderson Dawes. Drummer doesn't forgive him for the assassination attempt on their lives. She is still recovering from her injuries. Fred is willing to forget all of that because he recognizes that the belt needs to be unified in the wake of this proclamation of war. But it's mostly because Dawes has something Fred needs right now.
  • Fred is also sending Drummer on a new mission. He inspired her with a vision for the future of the belt in the past. He's asking her to find that same inspiration now despite her anger at him. He wants her to lead a team that'll retrieve the Mormon ship that was used to knock Eros off course. It's a mission that didn't go according to plan. But now, Fred is hopeful of turning that vessel into a war ship.
  • Holden is very furious with Naomi right now. He takes out that frustration mostly on the coffee machine. He doesn't really lash out at her by screaming. But he does punish her by not taking anything she has to say seriously. He comes up with this new plan first to help Prax get answers about his daughter. But he also does it to piss Naomi off.