The Expanse: Tensions Rise On Both Sides Of The Ring – Review, Ep. 401-402

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Gotta admit that it was like welcoming the return of long lost friends and family. The Expanse returned for its fourth season with a nice little bang on Dec. 13 with a new 10 episode season on Amazon Prime. It has been a while, but the things we’ve always loved about this show are still solidly in place. And let the binge begin. However, be forewarned, there are SPOILERS ahead. So be wary if you haven’t jumped in yet.

In the aftermath of The Ring being opened, we get an up-close and personal look at the opportunities that Earth, Mars, and The Belt see in the ‘expanse’ beyond (see what I did there?) – and the measures they’ll go to get there. Episode 1 opens with some Belter refugees dashing through The Ring with hopes of starting a colony somewhere. Turns out, some get through and at least one group lands on a world they tab at Ilus (or New Terra).

Eight months later, they make contact via communication arrays in The Ring and that sets a bunch of things in motion. The planet is a mineral gold mine. So, there’s that little carrot out there. There’s a peace treaty between Earth, Mars and The Belt (OPA), however the dynamic is less then positive. There’s tension in the air from the outset of the opening episode, which sets an interesting tone in the early going of the show.

Look, one of the things we’ve always loved about The Expanse is that it’s a show that was a little darker, a little on the harder side of the sci-fi spectrum. I was delighted to see that from the very first episode, The Expanse was once again what we’d always enjoyed been passionate about. What’s also interesting to me, is that characters like Bobbie Draper, Holden, Naomi, Klaes Ashford, Chrisjen Avasarala, Camina Drummer are all in transition – and don’t appear to be fully enjoying their new situations. One other tidbit. The show feels a little more “mature” with its move to Amazon, which is an interesting piece of this slightly new puzzle.

Bobbie is a civilian working in the shipyards, Drummer is commanding Medina Station at The Ring, Chrisjen is worried about a “gold rush” mentality through the ring, and we can tell she’s really tense about that because she swears a lot (New drinking game. For every F-word, take a slug). The opening of The Ring had caused plenty of issues within all three groups. There are those who see it as a chance at a new life and freedom, others as a source of wealth and fame. The avarice, greed and desperation of people is on full display early on in this one and it permeates throughout. And our heroes are trying to keep a lid on a what is obviously a powder keg. Yeah, things are definitely tense from the jump in this season of The Expanse.

Bobbie sums it up when talking with another former solder, telling him to stay in shape, there are more wars to come in the future. Yes, The Expanse opens with plenty of tension and uncertainty, something that sets an interesting tone throughout the show. And that’s just the people. There’s something else here, something that our guys on the Rocinante are all too well aware of.

Avasarala calls Holden to New York to let him know that the planet The Belters have homesteaded has something he might recognize. Towering columns that have protomolecule written all over them. And with that discovery, the Rocinante is sent through The Ring, through the blockade, to see what gives on New Terra. Chrisjen is fearful of what they don’t know about what, or who, is on the other side. She is trying to hold off calls for immigration through the gate for now, but unrest is growing. Holden, Naomi, Alex and Amos are being sent to investigate and, if need be, evacuate the people.

You know immediately none of that is going to go smoothly, right? A company-backed science group, with security team in tow, is headed to the planet. It’s here we meet Security Chief Adolphus Murtry, played wonderfully by Burn Gorman, and some of the science grew. As their ship is about to land, things start blasting through the ship, killing some and causing a crash. Who or what caused the crash will be an ignition point early in the show.

Many are killed, but the survivors are cared for by The Belters when Holden and crew arrive. It’s funny, because Avasarala explicitly tells Holden not to be drawn in (in a very colorful way), because she knows, as we do, that he tends to tilt at windmills. Sure enough, Amos, Alex, Naomi and Holden arrive at the camp and almost immediately weapons are drawn as the Belter settles want the science and security team to leave. Did I mention tension on all fronts? Yup, New Terra is falling in line nicely with the tension issue. Murtry is going to be a problem. You can sense he has another agenda in his back pocket. Love the character, hate what I suspect he’s going to be like.

The tense standoff is just a taste of what’s to come. The planet is rich in minerals and The Belters feel they got their first, so it’s there. The company has a UN charter to the planet. Well, you can see where this is headed, right? With Murtry feeling like the flame, a fire can’t be far away. With that hint…wait for it.

And with that, we get our first hint that the protomolecule is active on that planet. Was the science vessel attacked? If so, by whom or what? In the aftermath of a swarm of “something” rolling through the camp, leaving cuts and blood in its wake, Holden gets his hand on one of the “items” and understands immediately they are dealing with protomolecule tech. And with that, the inevitable push and pull of the settlement, the company and our Rocinante crew begins in earnest.

One of my favorite parts of the opener is that Miller is dialed in immediately. He shows up early for a chat with Holden and hammers the same theme, “Gotta talk about the ride, kid. Next clue to the case.” It’s a cryptic message, one he repeats several times, but it seems to foretell that the story of Holden, The Ring and Protomolecule have much more to say. It’s tantalizing to think where it might go, though. Good to see Thomas Jane back on the screen in this role.

EPISODE 402

Look, Murtry is a guy that screams “problem” from the word go. He’s just got that vibe. And in Episode 402, we find out why. He’s definitely someone who enjoys pressing the thumb to people, so it was only a matter of time before he did something horrific. Amos’ inspection of the wreckage turned up a blasting cap and scorch marks, which were enough for Murtry to start tossing ultimatums around and, eventually, the discontented Belters felt obliged to call him on it in that middle school kind of taunting way – with just a dash of threat mixed in. Ooops, mistake time. Murtry calmly shoots one – right through the head. And we are off.

So the battle lines have, at last, been drawn. And it didn’t take long. And Murtry’s true nature, his enjoyment of the oppressive moment, has fully bloomed. If you’ve seen the previews of this season’s show, you know that he and Amos may have a magic moment in the future. Nothing happened between them in this episode, but Amos witnessed the killing and you can see he may not be a fan of Murtry. I suspect he recognizes Murtry for what he is – a killer with little empathy. Job to do, so he does it.

On a good note for Amos, he’s found some pleasant diversion with Murtry’s No. 2, Chandra Wei. Should be interesting to see the dynamic between these two as Murtry hurtles down the inevitable violent rabbit hole he seems destined to travel. Right now, it’s sex for Amos and Wei. Soon, however, she may be required to pick a side. However, as I said, good for Amos. As an aside, I’m a big fan of Jess Salgueiro, who plays Wei. Came across her in Letterkenny and just find her to be a wonderful talent. I can tell there’s already chemistry between her and Wes Chatham. It’s a good pairing and the future for both should be interesting.

Another pair that have chemistry on this show, and two characters I love watching every time they are on the screen, are Klaes Ashford and Camina Drummer, played wonderfully by and David Straitharn and Cara Gee. They are trying to help keep the peace around The Ring, a role the new treaty has given them. Unfortunately, it’s clear the OPA no longer speaks for all belters. These two characters are smart, intuitive, and see the whole board at nearly every turn. They come at problems differently, but often find the solution that’s needed. There’s also a nice amount of respect between the two. Their history is an interesting one – but that respect has been earned by both.

Unfortunately, as ships await permission to go through the ring and begin colonizing the new worlds, they are tempting targets for pirates and raiders. They are fat with supplies with poor defensive capabilities, so they are ripe for the picking. An act of piracy on the ship Sojourner, along with the spacing of the entire ship’s compliment, bring Drummer and Ashford into a testy exchange with their U.N. overlords, as well as the prospect of trying to track down a legendary rogue called Marco.

It’s an interesting conundrum for both as it wasn’t too long ago that they would have considered the Sojourner episode a victory for The Belt. But now, tasked with keeping the peace and things in order, they are in conflict with their own people. All the while the eyes of Mars and Earth are on them to see if they can do the job. It’s a tricky tightrope to walk, one that requires all that guile and foresight. You can tell that they see the big picture of how The Belt can earn a place at the table, a legitimate place, by making this work. But the old hates are still strong and not all like the treaty.

Ashford and Drummer have to be having some conflict inside as they try to rein in their own people, sometimes killing them. It’s a bit unnatural for them and you can see and feel it. Straitharn and Gee do a great job of conveying the sense of struggle they both have. But I love how smart and big-picture focused they are, even when those around them are not. They have a great synergy with each other and it brings these two characters alive. Honestly, I could watch these two constantly. So good, so talented…it’s delightful.

One of my favorite characters on The Expanse is Bobbie Draper. The ex-Martian Marine has been on quite the journey and in the early episodes we see that she’s kind of fallen on hard time. Dishonorably discharged because she wouldn’t lie for her superiors, she’s working in the shipyards tearing down Martian war equipment. She’s living with her brother and his family, is essentially ostracized from Martian society, and wondering, most likely, where it all went south.

Unfortunately, Mars is a changed planet and the black market seems to be a big part of that. Sadly, her nephew drags her into another unfortunate plotline. The young man has a girlfriend that’s essentially using him to cook drugs for some high-powered people. A late night sojourn by David includes Bobby tailing him and discovering his little secret, and that his girlfriend is one of the main cogs.

Ah, family. You love’em, but sometimes they make stupid, asinine choices. David, obviously not thinking with his brain, makes a really bad one. Fortunately, Bobbie Draper isn’t really one to try and talk her way out when she confronts David and what ensues is a nice bit of 1-on-3 ass-kicking. Bobbie still has mad warrior skills and dispatches the baddies with a nice series of punches, holds and kicks (cue the taser). It’s marvelous. She tells his girlfriend, who’s lying semi-conscious on the floor, that David is out. But let’s be honest, do we really think it ends there? I don’t. David’s dalliance with this woman and the drugs, as well as Bobbie’s intervention, is likely to spill over into more issues. I can feel it.

I just feel for Bobbie. Chrisjen Avasarala makes a visit to Mars to celebrate the treaty and Bobbie gets an invite. At the dinner, she’s snubbed by the other Martians, but finds a friend in Chrisjen’s husband, who wants to thank her personally for saving his wife’s life. It’s a nice moment, a tender moment and one that I’m sure Bobbie needed. But the level of her frustration with her life on Mars boils over when she tries to leave before Chrisjen can say hello. It’s here that we see her mental state and how she perceives that other Martians perceive her.

I have no doubt that Chrisjen invited Bobbie out of a sense of gratitude and no small measure of respect for the Martian Marine. Bobbie’s take on her being “brought to heel” in front of the other Martians is off-base to me. Luckily, their exchange led to one of the best lines I’ve heard so far. Chrisjen listens to the desperation in Bobbie’s voice and after a moment of pause, tells Bobbie she should come work for her. “If they don’t see how glorious you are, they don’t deserve you,” Chrisjen tells Bobbie.

Geez, what a great line. Who ever gets told they are “glorious.” What a great word in that situation and one that I heartily agree with. Bobbie wasn’t having it, but I thought it was a wonderful moment and one that demonstrated just how much respect Chrisjen has for Bobbie. Sadly, Bobbie is a little too far gone emotionally to really dial into what a compliment it was, but let’s hope things improve for her. A good moment and, I feel, an opportunity lost for Bobbie. But she wants to make it work on Mars. She wants to be a contributing Martian. Unfortunately, all that she’s done has been for a Mars that really doesn’t exist anymore. Kind of sad. Oh, Bobbie…how I ache for you.

Meanwhile, back on New Terra, Holden gets a visit from Miller at last. What’s interesting to me is that Miller seems to be having another discussion with someone or something before he drops in on Holden. Is there a power struggle between the essence of Miller and the protomolecule? So we’ve got Naomi struggling with gravity pills that aren’t helping her as they should (and keeping it from Holden. Stop with the secret, Naomi. Did you learn nothing from you previous secrets?), and Miller dragging Holden off to one of the protomolecule spires that dot the continent.

I’m still not sure I understand what Miller’s purpose is here. It appears he’s trying to solve the mystery of who killed the creators of the protomolecule, something that probably is a good thing for Earth, Mars and The Belt. But in this instance, I’m not sure what good is coming of his ask of Holden. They return to the structure they’d been at before, which now has an opening that he and Alex can traverse.

Turns out, Miller wants Holden to cut away a root that has “jammed the machine.” Miller notes that he’s flipping switches and this is a switch he can’t flip. So Holden burns away the root to free the machinery and all hell breaks loose. The door that was opened rapidly closes as Holden scrambles up the rope and out. And once top-side, lightning bolts start falling down. Did you notice they seemed to be in a straight line and at regular intervals? Mark that, I think it’s not a coincidence.

It feels like two episodes into this thing and the board has essentially been set. There’s unrest all over the place and tensions so thick they are palpable to the viewers. There are lines being drawn in the sand and some people who have no hesitancy in stepping over them to provoke a fight. Season 4 of The Expanse is off and running and I think it’s really good. So much going on that it would be easy to lose track of things, but I think the pacing has been good and keeping track of the many elements that are involved doesn’t seem to be burdensome.

No, with each episode of The Expanse I watch, the desire to get to the next is only enhanced. I think that’s a good sign. There’s a grit, an edge to season 4 of The Expanse that harkens back to previous seasons, but with a tad more bite, it feels. I like that. I’m ready for more. Next review we’ll look at episodes 3-4.

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John Baker