“Why didn’t you ever run for office?”
“I like getting sh*t done … And I like to keep my head attached to my neck.”
— Sec-Gen Gillis and Chrisjen Avasarala (Jonathan Whittaker & Shohreh Aghdashloo)
Two weeks ago (Feb. 22), Earth ceded control of 150 nuclear warheads to the OPA movement: A joint attempt to stop the rogue protomolecule-infested Eros asteroid in its tracks. During that operation Drummer (Cara Gee) remarked to the OPA’s de facto leader Fred Johnson (Chad L. Coleman), “I believe that makes you the most powerful man in the system…”
Last week (Mar. 1), the Rocinante crew convened at the behest of their captain, to determine the fate of the last remaining protogen sample — which, secretly, made Captain Holden (Steven Strait) the actual most powerful man in the system — and over Naomi’s (Dominique Tipper) Belter-loyal protestations, Amos and Alex (Wes Chatham & Cas Anvar) agreed to Holder’s plan: To shoot the sample into the Sun, and save everyone. (A purpose, you’ll remember, for which Holden was literally bred, by his loving colony of Montana polygamist parents: Save everybody, be a hero, be a good dude. Get us a tax break.)
In this week’s “The Seventh Man” (Mar. 8), the show shifts its focus: To the (mostly) quiet women in its midst — devoting itself, in the truest sense of the word, to the examination not just of what “great power” truly means or implies, but how people with wildly divergent existential philosophies must navigate individual and moral responsibility, once the humanity-uniting threat of an alien apocalypse has apparently passed.
On Earth, of course, Chrisjen Avasarala has been mounting a quiet coup since day one, but launched her glorious first direct strike against capitalist Errinwright (Shawn Doyle) last week — accusing him point-blank of colluding with Mao Industries to destabilize the system for profit, then threatening the lives of his entire family if he doesn’t help her drag Mao (François Chau) out of the shadows.
Chrisjen returns to her subtler diplomatic and philosophical manipulations this week, as a warmongering Errinwright goes hard on the plan to attack a Martian target, as proportional response for the attack on the Ganymede colony — the one that left Gunnery Sergeant Bobbie Draper (Frankie Adams) and her team of Martians utterly destroyed… And admittedly, for which there is no logical reason not to blame Mars. In contrast, Chrisjen moves hard as usual to avert this toxic greed by recommending instead that they invite Mars (and the OPA) to an Earthside peace summit.
“A peace summit here, on Earth, on our terms? Mars will read it as a warning. Which it is.”
Say what you will, but Avasarala’s ability, noted up top, to get her needs met while making every side happy is not just inspiring but aspirational. Like Holden, her first and only impulse is to get everybody out alive — but, like Holden is learning, she’s ever mindful that not everybody will — and that sacrifices are a regrettable symptom of an imperfect universe. Holden’s probably still kind of ticked about Miller (Thomas Jane) killing that mad scientist, thouogh he’s getting closer to understanding it; Chrisjen would have pulled the trigger, if she thought it was a good idea.
Lord help us if she ever changes her mind about the war — she’d be taking down entire moons over her morning coffee.
Meanwhile, Fred Johnson’s possession of Earth’s nukes is less the bargaining chip he assumed, and more a wedge by which the factions of the OPA may render him out of the equation. As Naomi explains — with a tired exasperation that it needs to be explained at all, which frankly we share — Fred and Holden aren’t Belters but Earther sympathizers, so even if they give the best advice in the whole world, it’s still analogous to mansplaining: They won’t hear it, they’ll see it correctly as privilege issuing its own directives via allyship, and naturally react.
The show does such a great job with this, by demonstrating the societal actions of the above without ever having to use shorthand concepts like “privilege” and “mansplaining” and “allyship” that might drive its audience away — much easier to describe these things, which we see every day in our politics and lives online, in terms of Belters and Earthers, easy-livin’ Inners and OPA revolutionaries.
And of course, once Johnson and Holden float Chrisjen’s three-party, Earth-based peace treaty as the best path to legitimizing the OPA as its own sovereign state, with charismatic gang leader Anderson Dawes (Jared Harris, distinctive Belter accent intact) as their official representative, Dawes sees the opening for a rhetorical end-run that plays into Johnson’s self-image perfectly:
“I fear war between Earth and Mars… But I fear peace between Earth and Mars more,” he begins, and as the shouts rise and his power coalesces, he insults and undercuts Johnson in unfurling synecdoche: Earth “can’t look upon a thing without needing to know who it belongs to,” Earth is accustomed to treating Belters as test subjects and animals for their own purposes, Earth can’t see the Belt with an advantage without wanting to use it for their own power, and so on.
For Dawes, the Belt’s unity as a sovereign state and national identity is, like over Mars’ much older history, first built upon differentiating itself from the homeworld: Earth will always and ever seek to make the Belters its possessions and experiments, because that’s the status quo — and therefore, the fight is solely against that concept. And how? Well, for starters, Belt-loving Fred should hand over his warheads, for the Belt colonies to share amongst themselves.
Although he’s loudly disagreed with Fred over keeping the warheads since finding out he’d done so, Holden helpfully jumps in to explain the Belters to themselves in even more detail: Now that the Eros protomolecule threat is truly past, any show of good faith to Earth and Mars can only work in the OPA’s favor. Just do what I say, he’s saying, and that’s to do what they say. As if there’s any reason to trust them, just objectively speaking — but Montana farmboy Holden can’t very well look Earth in the mirror and truly understand how deep the shame and oppression of the Belt, or Mars’ fierce need for self-identity and a home, any more than he can look in mad Paolo Cortázar’s (Carlos Gonzalez-Vio) eyes and understand what it’s actually like to be a medically enhanced genius, or gay (or a total sociopath).
In the end, of course, this is only the beginning of the backfire: Thanks to Naomi’s Belter-receptive quick thinking, Holden and Fred are of course wrong about the protomolecule. Stealing the last sample and stashing it somewhere safe is a feedback loop of identity issues: Her tiny mutiny was born of simmering Belter loyalty — and as her twitchiness over hiding it from Holden meets his Earther idealism and general tendency to uh, Holdensplain, Naomi’s boiling over. Reminding Holden that idealism isn’t a right or even a virtue — just a luxury not everyone can afford — she doubles down on hiding the sample… And at this point, probably less averse to sharing it with the OPA than she’d ever have believed possible.
Not that the OPA is the socialist utopia Naomi’s frustration at Holden’s idealism is making it out to be, either. That’s the nature of purity tests, hardline politics and nationalism, after all. Drummer, Fred’s intense second-in-command, has some sort of secret history with Dawes, and ultimately works with impressionable Diogo (Andrew Rotilio) to hand over Fred’s truly biggest asset: Not the missiles, but Cortazar himself, who’s still in contact with the protomolecule sample and closer than ever to finding it.
Whether Drummer told the OPA opposition anything about Cortázar or his mission, whether Dawes has figured out all or none of it on his own, we still don’t know: Just that he was a valued asset to Johnson, which meant he’s useful either as a hostage or a tool in this sudden grinning war for control of the OPA and the Belt.
Like Naomi, Drummer is shown deep in thought about all this, but leaves the question on our lips. “The Expanse” doesn’t force its way into these women’s heads, which is both a good way to keep their agency in play — but also runs a little too close to Miller’s cardboard Manic Julie Dream Mao obsession for us. It’s funny to see — in a show we absolutely love, don’t get it twisted — an episode that’s literally about the dangers and evil of explaining people’s lives to them… That still skins its knees on the Bechdel Test. On International Women’s Day.
But that’s a minor quibble at best, and mostly just Julie Mao (Florence Faivre) hangover, most likely: The show takes damn careful care to leave Amos’ thoughts opaque, as a triggering confrontation with a child in the Ganymede rescue bay sends him reeling episode-long, before seeking answers about surgical empathy blockers from the very enthusiastic evangelist Cortázar, who finally talks about his “treatment” just before starting on the protomolecule project. In particular, how much he loves the result.
What question is Amos looking to have answered? What answer does he find? We don’t know. We don’t need to know, yet. “The Expanse” knows well enough to give the characters time to show us everything when they are ready…
Which brings us to Gunny Draper, who’s being given just as much time, it seems, to get to the truth about her own story. While the rest of the characters deal in philosophy this week, Bobbie — over her long recovery from the attack on Ganymede — deals with actual religion, when a kindly military chaplain encourages her to open herself to searching her memory unflinchingly for what she saw on Ganymede… And, it seems likely, working with the high-level government team interrogating her — who apparently know damn well that she ran into some aliens, and just wants to confirm whether she knows that. There’s a very “Ender’s Game” vibe to the Powers That Be here, speaking of Mormons, as the show is wont to do.
As the show has decided to say the monster we saw in last week’s kicker a monster that no tech can corroborate, and Bobbie never saw in detail. In the books, she knows that the “seventh man” of this week’s episode title was the monster, and harangues the Martian IT team until they get the feed of it off her busted suit; here, she knows no such thing — which doesn’t exactly strain belief. Why would you believe it, even if you did see it? Even if you remembered it perfectly, even without the fog of war, why would you necessarily accept it? The brain doesn’t work that way — which makes it ironic that the ultimate confirmation for us, and hopefully Bobbie, is that her supervising officer instructs her to lie and say Mars shot first… At the Earthside peace summit.
Yep! Bobbie is finally joining at least one of the other storylines! And, hilariously, something she was begging the fates for moments ago: The chance to put boots on the ground in Earth’s gravity. She just assumed and hoped it would be in pursuit of war, and not — at least nominally — its opposite. We can only hope that Chrisjen sees in her what we see — and what she saw in Johnson, and Holden, and Holden’s family — because the idea of Bobbie getting lady-backup from the system’s biggest bad*ss would erase our Julie Mao fears permanently.
“The Expanse” airs Wednesdays at 10 p.m. ET/PT on Syfy.