Last night’s episode of The Expanse was a huge one. Fans of the books the Syfy show is based on finally got to see the climax of the first book realized onscreen. And people who are just fans of the show saw an end for a character they probably didn’t expect.
When we last left The Expanse, Miller and a giant bomb were alone on Eros. And somehow, the space station had managed to move itself out of the way of an attack. It’s on a collision course with Earth, and it’s packed full of the protomolecule. Miller makes his way to the epicenter of Eros, to find that the protomolecule’s center of power is a semi-resurrected Julie Mao.
Meanwhile, Earth has launched nukes to try to destroy Eros, but it loses contact. The Roci, however, can see it. And so Earth has to turn over control of its arsenal to them so they can chase down Eros, which is picking up speed. Avasarala, despite a message from her husband, decides to stay on Earth, no matter what happens.
Miller, meanwhile, speaks with Julie. He convinces her to steer Eros somewhere “safe,” and, in each other’s arms, they plummet into Venus.
It’s a big moment, the end of Miller’s story in The Expanse, so we talked to executive producer Hawk Ostby about everything that lead into that climax, the decision to have it happen now, and what it means for the show going forward.
io9: I am so glad this episode finally aired, everyone kept saying to just wait for episode five.
Hawk Ostby: I think just for me and Mark [Fergus, co-creator], when we first read the books, the culmination of that love story between Julie and Miller was such a huge thing. It was so unusual and great and we’re big suckers for self-sacrificial characters.
This is in the first book, so we knew it was coming. How did you make sure that Miller’s arc felt complete?
One of the things that really weighed on us is how do you get the right feel to that ending. First of all in the writing and second of all in the filming. And the post-production and the visual effects. To make it really feel earned and to capture all those great emotions that were in the book. So that has always been an issue. But I think in terms of arc, it feels so fitting and I don’t think you could string it out any more. It would feel odd if it were episode eight or nine. It’s a fitting end, finally meeting Julie.
It was nice that he acknowledged that they technically hadn’t met. That he was obsessed, and that this was a love story that was in an unusual and science-fiction-y way.
It was. It sort of cuts into the mystical. It was such a lovely unusual sort of thing that really captured us when we first read the books that was such a large part of this whole of end book one, so to speak. That was a huge thing for us.
And of course a huge thing done by our VFX. Bob Monroe, who runs that department, he’s been so great for that. Especially in getting that right. Not being too sappy but not backing off so much that you didn’t feel it. I was very happy when I watched the rough cut a while ago with my wife and she was crying on the couch and I was jumping up and down, grinning like a jackal.
It was an interesting choice to have this big moment happen so early in the season, because it feels like season finale moment.
Yeah, I think instinctively Mark and I thought that might be like three episodes and not five. But we’re sort of feature guys and tend to try to move things along quickly. But it feels just about right.
When we start the big thing for us was trying to finish book one in one season, and if we’d had 13 episodes, I think we would have certainly tried to get here. But you know Naren [Shankar, one of the show’s other executive producers], who’s done this many times, he’s lived his entire life in TV and is very smart about these things, he said, “Hey, you can split the books, it’s okay. We’ll just bring other parts in.”
So it feels like it’s the right spot.
You mentioned bringing stuff in. Because you did that, we got to see Avasarala on Earth reacting to this event, how did you come up with that, which isn’t in the book?
It would have been very strange, looking back, to sort of be in space and not have any idea what was going on back on Earth. In the books they reference it a little bit, but that’s in someone’s head and it would be very difficult to bring out. The great part was to allow you to see the drama unfolding on Earth and the terror of this giant thing that’s going to come down and evaporate the planet. And that was nice because we got to play that nice emotional moment with Avasarala and her husband.
It seems so natural now to have brought those other pieces of the story in. And that allows us to dimensionalize now and to cut and experience Earth.
Can you talk about Avasarala’s decision not to leave Earth, even though she can?
It’s such a great moment for her that she’s going to go down with the ship. You know, a great captain is always the last person to leave the ship and everybody else is kind of running and she’s still there. And that was a great character moment for her. You know one thing that was so great to write was this conversation that she has with Arjan.
The time delay part—I’m sure I’m older than you, but in the old days when you were talking intercontinental, you’d have that delay. It was so frustrating because you’d say something and the other person would be talking. You could never get a proper conversation going because of the delay. So it was very hard to play this emotional moment in the midst of this time delay and all the pressure of what’s coming. It was a cool thing to write.
How much does stuff like that realistic science play into the writing?
You know, the past episodes too, where things are happening deep in space where ships are about to attack each other and it takes 15 minutes for the signal to get there, so you’re sort of giving instructions and orders that are sort of old by the time they arrive there. So that adds to the drama because you don’t even know if the ships you are trying to talk to are destroyed or not and the situation may have changed completely by the time they get there.
But I think that really adds to the drama of the series. That gravity matters. If you’re going to go fast, it hurts. It might even kill you. All those things about the impossibility of living in space and having to contend of all those things really helps us ramp up the drama and push the stakes.
That really showed in the attempt to get to Miller in time. There was only so fast they can go. In other science fiction, the ships can just get there.
Yeah, we got rid of the hyperspeed button. If you go fast, your veins rupture. The ship might keep going, but you’re not going to be with it. The gravity has always been a great thing for us to explore and play with. It’s also been a pain in the ass—at least the microgravity—because you’re on set and somebody takes their seatbelt off and instead of it floating up, it clunks against the chair and you’re like, “Oh, we’ve got to get a fishing line in here.” You’re always looking for little things like that so you don’t screw up. There’s so many of millions of little intricacies that you have to think of that if you were shooting a cop show, for example, you wouldn’t. It’s this whole added layer. It does make it fun and we’ve got some incredibly smart technical people, and Naren as well is a PhD, and Ty [Franck, one of the writers of the Expanse books] is incredibly well-schooled in this stuff.
The decision for Earth hand over control of its nukes to Holden and the OPA was great, and I felt like another show would have drawn out that debate more.
Time is ticking, you can’t sit forever. And there’s the problem of the time delay for the signal. But that was always a great one, where you have to give your enemy your arsenal of nukes on faith, that you’re in such a compromised position that what are you going to do? You’re between a rock and a hard place. And that’s where Avasarala excels, I guess her faith in people runs deeper than her cohorts’.
It’s interesting to see her act that way, when she’s also usually the most grounded and compromising of characters in season one. Is this character growth for her?
To us, this feels like a better season. We’re able to focus more on those kind of things, and not so much on the world-building, and who’s where, and trying to explain things. That’s always a drag.
But Avasarala’s lovely that way. When we first meet her, I always love this, from episode one of the first season, where she’s playing with a kid and the next moment she’s torturing a guy on a wall. And you realize that woah, this lady’s got many faces. And now, she’s definitely realizing that there are a lot of snakes in her wing of things and maybe the snakes on the other side aren’t quite as bad as she imagined. But I do like this idea that she seems very stern but has this human side of her that you kind of glimpse.
I want to get back to Miller for a bit. Can you talk about Holden’s break with Miller and why he’s still desperate to save him?
There’s always been this sort of philosophical chasm between the two of them. Miller’s a guy that’s been chewed up by the streets a little bit. He’s much darker and sort of a realist. And Holden is much more idealistic. And on Eros, through the journey of season one, they sort of begin to flip-flop a little bit where Holden begins to realize after Eros that there are really bad people in the world and you may have to do some dark things to do good things.
In this season, it’s the shooting of Dresden that really sends Holden over the edge a bit. Deep down, he understands it, but he also is realizing that Miller has a really dark outlook on things but that he’s screwed up their ability to bring the bigger players to justice. And that becomes a really a hot topic between them. But I think underneath that is that sense that Holden realizes that there are parts of him that are like parts of Miller. And on a certain level, he has grown fond of this guy. He did save his life. If it wasn’t for Miller, he wouldn’t have made it off Eros. So he’s given Holden certain things that he will now use going forward. So I think it’s a very complicated emotional relationship. There’s this tremendous dislike and soft spot for him. And now realizing that he’s gone, that’s a big deal.
You’ll see in later episodes, little bits of Miller will creep back in. Little shades of Miller that live in Holden now.
In a character you know is going to die, it’s so tempting to overplay the doomed aspect. How did you overcome that temptation?
You know it’s interesting you say that, because I did want to speak to that. We went back and forth many times on this shot of Naomi shedding a tear. We went back and forth and Mark was especially heated with the studio on should that be there, is it telegraphing? Let’s not telegraph this, let’s not get sappy and earnest so everyone knows he’s going to go. To make it feel like it’s not going to happen, that it’s going to be another episode. Especially for people who haven’t read the books, they should never feel it’s coming, that Miller’s an eight-season character.
Any time we felt that we were starting to prelap any of that, we would remove it. And it was about being very vigilant about stripping out anything that would telegraph it. I think that tear did end up back in there and Syfy had a very good reason why they wanted. And they were right.
I want to mention the stripping out thing, because this show does do a lot of subtracting so that no one’s info-dumping their backstory. The viewers have to make the connections themselves, and it’s one of the strongest parts of the show. How do you do that?
Those are our favorite kinds of stories, where you’re not told everything. We keep going back to this idea of being a tourist somewhere, you know, you fly somewhere and you don’t understand the language, and you can’t read the signs. And you go to a cafe and sit down and you have to observe and figure out what things mean. Those are the kind of shows we really love, where you’re reading into someone’s actions and going “Oh, he’s doing this because of that.”
It so much more powerful to have someone do something than to look into a camera and earnestly say, “I was abused” or something like that. Show don’t tell, I guess is the operating rule.
Can you explain the callback with the protomolecule bird at the end of Miller’s life? It’s a callback to the bird we saw flying around the first time we saw this character, right?
There was something in the books about the gravity being weird on Ceres, so we thought it would be interesting to see that with a bird. It was also a little pet the dog—or pet the bird—moment for Miller, when he tosses the beans. But then we figured the symbol of the bird—freedom, the messenger, there are all these meanings—but that there should be this bird.
When Miller goes to Julie’s apartment in season one, and he doesn’t know what to do, and it’s right before he leaves Ceres, he turns around and the bird is outside and when he turns back, it’s gone. And he’s not sure if it’s there or not. But he takes it as a sign. And it becomes Julie or a message from Julie to him. So it comes back here at the end as a closer. We’re saying that “perhaps” that message he got in her apartment was real.
It feels like everyone is finally sharing knowledge and inhabiting the same story, will we see more of that going forward?
In season one, we had the Miller story, we had the Avasarala story, and the Holden story and they felt very separate. And they started to head into the same nexus. And I guess it’s a little bit similar this season, with Bobbi being on the outside. The handoff is to her.
All these stories will start to catch up to each other, like they did in season one. Weaving together and affecting each other.
Can you speak about how prescient the show has been? Things like “Earth first” and the Mars immigration debate all feel really on point even though I know the show was written a while ago and is pulling from books that are even older.
You know that is scifi’s skill: showing us our world in disguise. We’re really channeling the books and Ty and Daniel [Ty Franck and Daniel Abraham, the two writers that make up Expanse author James S.A. Corey] when they wrote those books, they’re so human. And human nature is very well-covered in those books. What people will do with power, what people will do with alien technology, all of those things.
One of the first things they told us was, “Look, humanity packed for the stars and brought along all their baggage.” And I think some of the things, like “Earth first,” it really struck me. When Trump said, “America first,” it was Avasarala’s line. So all of that hadn’t happened when we were doing season one and laying this stuff out. It was unthinkable that this would happen.
But I think in the books, there are things about human nature. I’m starting to see it now, at 50 years old, I’m starting to see that circle of life. There’s nothing new, everything comes back to where it started. And that’s really intriguing. And that’s something Ty and Daniel said, too, about their entire series of books. And I won’t get too specific about that because that’s their thing. But it’s this idea that we can’t get out of our own way, we keep repeating our mistakes. We learn nothing. Every 50 years we go right back into making the same mistakes. And in these books you really get that sense that some things we’ll overcome and we’ll move out into space, but we’ll bring the same flaws with us and start the whole thing over again.
Even the protomolecule we think about that in terms of nuclear power, how that came about. Yes, it could do amazing things. But it has a tremendous dark side too, and which are we going to explore? And it is the same sort of thing. What will we do to control that kind of power? That’s still playing out today, countries attempting to get nuclear weapons. It feels like it’s all very current and relevant, and even more so than we started. Which is wild.
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity