The Expanse just finished its first season—leaving us with ten episodes of a show which beat all our highest expectations and made Syfy a destination in a way that it hasn’t been since Battlestar Galactica. How?
Warning: Spoilers abound.
The Expanse had a doubly difficult job to do. It had to adapt a book to television—not always an easy task—and it was based around a mystery plot. Mystery plots can go very wrong, if things get drawn out to the point where it’s clear that the writers don’t know any more than the fans. In The Expanse’s case, they have a roadmap from the books. But any changes they make to the story also mean some changes to the mystery, which they could then lose a grip on.
It is to this show’s eternal credit that they managed to do both of these things in a compelling and brilliant fashion.
One of the biggest changes the show made to the book plot was to bring in Chrisjen Avasarala (Shohreh Aghdashloo) into things from the beginning. This character doesn’t show up in the first book, Leviathan Wakes, but her inclusion in the show is necessary, because the show sets up the three-way rivalry between Earth, Mars, and the Belt from the very beginning. The way each of those places feels about the others drives a lot of the action. And the politics on this show are a big deal.
The book can use narration to tell us background or keep us up-to-date on events in its bigger universe. Otherwise, the broader picture is defined by what Miller and the crew of the survivors of a doomed ice freighter, the Canterbury, know. And since they are very much low men on their respective totem poles, that’s not much.
Avasarala is a necessary addition because her role lets the show naturally bring in political intrigue, without forcing characters who aren’t involved with those kinds of talks to spout exposition at viewers. And it give the show some visual differences. We have three intertwined stories going on: one on ships, one on a station, and one planetside. Which is an excellent parallel to the three factions. It’s thematically nice—and also, a giant red herring.
And while each of these three groups is in a different location, they also cover different genres. Thomas Jane is playing noir to the hilt as Miller. For his plot, episode seven is the epitome of his genre: the cop who gets fired off a case that is too hot to handle, but keeps going anyway. Bogart could take Jane’s place in a minute, regardless of the fact that his storyline takes place on a space station.
Episode seven is also where Holden and company cement their important place in the history of space opera. It’s got revelations about Holden’s past, hacking into the ship to save them all, and an untrustworthy outsider on the ship. Having to decide whether or not to toss someone out the airlock, just in case they provide a threat to the rest of the crew, is straight out of the space opera playbook.
Meanwhile, Avasarala is firmly in the political intrigue and thriller category. I keep going back to her plot in the third episode, where she maneuvers a good friend into the position of accidentally revealing that Mars had nothing to do with the destruction of the Canterbury. You could remove all the “futuristic” parts of the dialogue, and it would hold up. She betrays a friend, but gets the information she needs to keep from starting a war.
The great thing about all of these stories is that they don’t need to be set in the “future” to be compelling. The setting enhances the show, but it’s not the point of the show.
Also brilliantly done by The Expanse is the way that the personal and the grand form concentric circles around each other. Holden and his crew start with the very personal story of the destruction of their ship, the Canterbury, and the fight to survive. Every other group they encounter has a personal tie to someone—Alex having once been in the Martian Navy, Naomi’s nebulous OPA-sympathies—but they keep getting drawn into the larger question of why the Cant was lured to the Scopuli in the first place. These stories started small, and ended up dealing with giant issues.
In much the same way, Miller circles in and out of the personal the whole time. The case has no tie to him, but he starts to care about Julie Mao and what happened to her. It should be just a job, but he can’t stop investigating. But what he uncovers ends up being less personal, and more world-endingly bad.
And Avasarala starts off not personal at all. Her concern is the safety of Earth and the prevention of war. But, of course, by the end of the season, a good friend is dead and she’s telling her husband he has to leave Earth for his own safety. She started off focusing on system-wide political issues, but ends up being personally invested.
The show is a nesting doll of issues, ranging from the very personal to the world-ending.
The show cleverly puts clues in everyone’s hands—each of the three groups winds up with different pieces of the puzzle. And by episode eight, we actually started to get answers that put all of them together. It’s a staggering achievement on the part of the writers that Holden and Miller can meet up in episode eight, and it works. Everyone’s been dealing with Earth, Mars, and the OPA. And each of them has managed to eliminate one of the others from culpability. So when Miller and Holden get their information together, it’s clear at last that a nongovernmental third party is at fault. And, back on Earth, Avasarala is coming face to face with the “advisor” behind it all.
The finale of The Expanse faced an incredible challenge: conveying all that information, and delivering the action sequence of Holden and Miller’s escape from Eros. The result was a thrilling finale, with everything finally coming together. We know what happened to Julie Mao, who was responsible, and even what the thing that killed her was called. But we don’t know what our characters can do about it.
It was really easy to feel as though this show wasn’t moving forward a lot in the early episodes, but the finale proved that the writers knew where they were going all along. The Expanse managed to faithfully adapt a book while make significant changes to it. It also managed to pay off a mystery without running out of enough plot for another season. And none of that includes how beautiful looking the show is. The Expanse is a sheer marvel of amazing production, acting, and writing.