Episode Grade: B
This third episode of the season isn’t a bad outing for The Expanse, by any means. Honestly, it’s probably about as strong as the premiere in a lot of ways. But on the other hand, it didn’t impress me as much, perhaps because it didn’t have the heavy lifting that “Fight or Flight” did.
“Assured Destruction” continues from “IFF” in that we don’t check in on the OPA, but along with the political situation on Earth, and Holden’s crew on the Rocinante, (now with added Bobbie and Chrisjen!), we get a new storyline to take the place of the separate Avasarala plot, with Cotyar on board the UNN Agatha King. And I liked what we saw here. Cotyar’s murder of uh, I guess he’s named “Theo,” is a great character moment. It’s clear, even before Admiral Nguyễn predicts that the dead guy would’ve been cooperative that… well, that he had to go. His big mouth was going to result in Avasarala being hunted down and killed. Nick Tarabay does a good job with the conflicting emotions, because again, while the act may have been necessary… Chriiiiiiist. The guy may have needed to die, but he sure as hell didn’t deserve to. If there’s a wrong note here, it was that I found it a bit far-fetched to think that he could have murdered Theo and staged his death to look like he wasn’t strapped in during turbulence. I mean, you’d think they’d have a Medical Examiner somewhere on the King.
Speaking of the UNN ship, this seems as good a moment as any to stop and appreciate set design. This episode is the first time we’ve seen the inside of an Earth ship before, and I love how, even without the power grid shuttering (which might have been overselling it, but it helped the plot), you can see the difference between the sleek, well-made Martian ships and the aging Earth vessel. I personally didn’t really need the overly-obvious crew banter about how the King was showing its age: One look was enough to see it, and the details were everywhere, from the cables running overhead, which brought back visceral memories of some of the older buildings at my college to the rather 21st century-looking keyboards. So if anything, I’d have wished they’d cut some of that dialogue and trusted the visuals to tell the story. Oh well that they didn’t.
Meanwhile, the Pinus Contorta scenes were good; occasionally fine. It was nice seeing both Bobbie and Avasarala interact with the crew for the first time face-to-face. Probably the best scene of the lot was Draper bristling immediately and essentially threatening to hijack the ship, as it makes sense given everything we know about all these characters (and a nice call-back to both the ship’s original name, the Tachi, and Amos’ defacement of the Martian flag). Runner-up scene has to go to Amos’ knowledge of how to wear pumps, though.
On the other hand, it’s hard as hell for me to feel much besides impatience with Naomi Nagata. Everyone has told her that she was a fucking idiot to give the protomolecule to the OPA. And even though I get that she’s the only Belter on board, the others in her crew aren’t exactly raving racist Inners. So her continued excuse that, if Earth and Mars had the pm, the Belt deserved it too, had worn itself out before she ever threw it in Avasarala’s face. I nearly laughed when Naomi said she was sticking around the Roci to make sure Avasarala didn’t get the protomolecule. Because A) nice hypocrisy, and B) You’re positioning yourself against two women, one of whom could break every bone in your body without breaking a sweat, and that’s not even the scarier of the two to have as an enemy. You’re punching above your weight is what I’m saying, Naomi.
While the Earth/Anna scenes were a highlight of “IFF,” they’re more pedestrian here. Last week, Anna got to be more than just the conscience of Secretary-General Sorrento-Gillis (understandably usually rendered as “S-G Esteban”). Here, she’s pretty much just the angel on his shoulder to Errinwright’s devil. So the war’s escalating, and Earth endures a nuclear strike with casualties in the millions, while Anna sees her influence with Esteban insufficient to keep him from making a disastrous mistake, and Errinwright smugs. “Table setting” is a term often used as a pejorative when discussing television episodes, but that’s what’s happening in this plot-line. Last week it was done deftly and well, this week didn’t nail the landing quite so well. I suppose it was good character work for Mitchell’s Anna, but didn’t really tell us much that we didn’t know and weren’t able to guess before.
But wait, there is a fourth storyline now, isn’t there? The one in the header, with Jules-Pierre Mao at the research base on Io, with Mei Meng and Katoa. Poor Katoa, showing us that the protomolecule will not be controlled (at least not this time around). Poor Mei seeing her friend in distress like that. And poor… Jules-Pierre? I’m happy to say that he seems ready to take the correct lesson from the death of his daughter, and shut down this atrocity. (Though it seems more than a little insensitive that they just have a screenshot of his dead girl on a monitor there. Have some class, guys)
If there’s a character I find myself surprised to be empathizing with, it’s Mao. I mean, he’s a criminal and has spread untold suffering through his attempts to control the protomolecule. But when confronted with the costs of his actions, he accesses his humanity, unlike Errinwright who decides to double down because Earth rules, Mars drools, and F*** the Belters. I’m not confident at all that Dr. Strickland, who reminds me more than a little of Cortázar, will actually shut the project down. But in a show built on shades of grey and degrees of guilt, Mao at least has shown he’s got a touch of goodness inside of him.