Sunday 16 January 2022

The Expanse – The universe never tells us if we did right or wrong.

The Expanse: 6x06 Babylon’s Ashes.

Above Laconia, the mysterious protomolecule station in orbit is waking up to the humans down the gravity well. Cara returns to her parents from the wilderness with Xan, but something about him is no longer entirely human, his eyes black, his behaviour off in an uncanny valley way, enough that his father is afraid of him and thinks he has to remove him to keep his remaining family safe. When he cuts Xan, his skin heals immediately. He attempts to trap him in the closet to alert the military, but Cara frees him and takes off into the woods with him. Things are beginning – and we will never see the next 20 years, how Duarte’s imperial motivation to radically change humanity combine with Cortazar’s insanity, with what has just happened to Xan. These are the early days of Laconia – one day, it will once again return through the ring gates, ready to overwhelm what is left of humanity. But for now, this is where we leave it. 

Everyone is racing towards Medina station, Marco with his many, but less powerful ships, the combined fleets of the UN, MCRN and Drummer’s captured fleet attempting to intercept him. If he reaches Medina station and takes control of the railguns, nobody will be able to get past him, and traffic through the ring gates will be determined by the Free Navy. The plan is to battle the ships while the Rocinante travels to Medina station with a freighter, disables the targeting and control systems of the station, while a ground strike force captures the railguns so that they can be turned on any remaining Free Navy ships if the assault fails. It’s an insane plan, one that Drummer calls brilliant, worthy of a Belter, while Chrisjen summarises all of James Holden in one sentence that she may consider eviscerating, but that actually opens the question of whether Holden is right to be optimistic, since he has survived every single time he’s pressed a button he wasn’t meant to. 

Chrisjen: You are such a fucking optimist. It’s a miracle you have lived this long. 

Before the battle, there is rest and togetherness. Lovingly prepping her suit, Bobbie remembers how frustrated Alex got every time someone claimed that the Roci was stolen and still belonged to Mars, how he would reply that “it was just smart, and went looking for people worthy enough to fly it”. She says that she sees herself telling that story a lot in the future, when “we’re done with this business”, and it shows who Bobbie is: probably well aware of the odds of this failing, of her dying, but never ready to discard her chances of survival entirely, since she knows her skills, and that she is fighting alongside people she can rely on. 

Clarissa is still trying to prove that she is useful and part of the crew – it’s her redemption, what Anna told her she had to earn through hard work. Naomi tells Amos how to help her – that he needs to delegate work to her, understand that when she calls him “boss”, it means that she has a place on the ship. But she is also physically struggling, constantly in pain, and a medscan reveals that she is suffering from Endocrine Collapse Syndrome – the unit gives her five years to live. But they are going into battle, and they might not all make it, so she cooks a final family meal for everyone (after a season of jokes about how bad their rations are) – and they eat it like a family, around a table, and Naomi is coming to realise that even though she couldn’t save Filip, she can give Clarissa Mao a second chance. She spent decades feeling guilt over the lives her bomb took when Marco forced her into violence, she knows what it means to live with that burden, and what it takes to remake yourself out of it. Later, Clarissa will save them all by finding an ingenious solution to fix the reactor in the middle of the battle – using her mechanic know-how rather than her implants, proving that is indispensable. 

Meanwhile, Drummer’s life is the opposite. Her cabin that she shared with her family is now empty apart from her, and none of the other people on her captured ships are family. She has lost it all, and now all that is left is stopping Marco Inaros. Chrisjen decides to stay on the frontline, in the battlegroup that is chasing what it believes to be the Pella, but in the end, it’s Drummer’s Belter fleet that has to face Marco’s ship – and it severely damages almost all of them. Drummer is ready to steer her own ship into Marco’s, but then, the Golden Bough Captain she has converted to her cause does it first – Marco survives, but the Pella is damaged, and his second-in-command Rosenfeld dead. 

Plan A has failed – Marco still has forces enough to make it to Medina – so now everything depends on the Rocinante’s plan to take over Medina station’s railguns. Bobbie and Amos join the assault team – camouflaged by cargo containers, Naomi has estimated that they will only lose 20%, but once they’re out there, it becomes obvious that the calculations aren’t quite right. They hurl through space while the railguns fire at them. They land on Medina Station in a 15G landing, everyone dizzy and confused until Bobbie tumbles in and absolutely smashes it, making an impossibly elegant landing (I chuckled), reminding everyone that she has been training for this her whole life. Once on the surface of the station, they are further decimated by enemy fire, until it becomes obvious that safe a miracle, none of them will make it out alive, and the mission will fail – the Rocinante can’t help until the railguns are disabled. So Bobbie does something that should be impossible, that should for sure end in her death – she blows up the railguns by herself, realising that they won’t be able to capture them, that all they can do now is survive. Her suit is riddled with bullets, and then Amos comes to protect her from more fire and he gets hit several times. It looks like they’ll end up like the Astronaut Stevens on For All Mankind, completing a seemingly impossible mission but dying in the process. But then, miraculously, they make it back on the Roci – the mission failed, because they won’t have the railguns to attack Marco’s ships, but both of them alive. 

On Marco’s ship, in the fallout from the attack, Filip regards his father’s reaction to Rosenfeld’s death and realises that he considers all the Belters on board as barely more than meat for the grinder. His path over the past few weeks, from his initial confrontation with his dad to returning to the bridge, has been about meeting the people his father commands, and learning to see them as individuals, with families and dreams. Marco doesn’t see them that way – he thinks that dying for the Belt is an honour, and makes up for the loss of life – but in the end, it is all about supporting his cause, all of these Belters are only there to support him. In spite of or the fact that Duarte, from Laconia, tells Marco that he won’t be receiving any more support, that the gate to Laconia is now closed – and it smashes any idea he may have had of technological superiority, admitting defeat never occurs to him, and as they fly towards Medina station, Filip realises that this is now very likely a suicide mission, because his megalomaniac father cannot take that hit to his ego. 

Without the railguns, the Rocinante has to come up with a different plan to stop Marco, and Naomi suggests that they trigger whatever entity has been eating up ships entering the ring space! They’ll use all of their remaining ammo and the freighter to get to the critical mass that will trigger a disappearance. I’ve been thinking about this a lot since watching the episode, and it’s the only thing that I can’t come around to: Naomi knows how dangerous these entities are. They have wiped out whole galaxies in the blink of an eye, they can change the laws of physics. Throughout the season, she and Holden have been aware of the fact that the fight against Marco is minor compared to what is happening at the ring gates. The idea that they would trigger something they can’t predict or control, press another button just because they can – I don’t buy it. I don’t think Naomi would potentially risk the lives of every single person alive just to kill Marco – Marco is dangerous, but the worst case scenario here is still just that he would control traffic through the ring gates, it’s not an end-of-the-world prospect like potentially angering these omni-potent sleeping giants. It may be necessary for the plot, because after blowing up the guns, they’ve cornered themselves without a way out – but I’m not convinced Naomi would be the one to suggest it. 

But regardless, her plan works. While she remembers holding Filip as a baby, grieves his death, the Pella simply blinks out of existence as it traverses the gate. Later – because this final is so gentle, so kind to everyone we have learned to love – we will see Filip, before all of this, after realising the truth about his father, get on a ship and leave the Pella, changing his name to Filip Nagata. At some point in the future, Naomi will have her son back, but for now she thinks she killed him with her own hands. 

A war doesn’t end on the battlefield, it ends at the negotiation table: after Marco’s death, Mars, the UN and Drummer’s faction debate who will control Medina Station. They want to establish a Transport Union, but as Drummer predicted, Chrisjen is offering crumbs – she wants to split this three-ways, with each of them getting one vote, ensuring that the Belt will always fall short against the Inners. It’s the kind of bad-faith negotiating that has kept the Inners in their position of power over the Belt for generations, where Drummer is mean to take Chrisjen by her word – that things will be different this time – but will have no guarantees that that’s the case – while the entire economic system is still built on Belters providing cheap labour without any influence over the politics that govern their lives. 

Drummer: I will not be reasoned back into my place. Belters are promised a future so long as it remains convenient. We are given a voice so long as Inners control the comm. We have a vote so long as we can always be voted down. […]The Belt will treat you with respect. You have my word. We will take our niche in the future and allow you yours, you have my word. Is that good enough?  Will you take that? Why is your word enough for me and mine not enough for you?

These negotiations are a reminder of who Chrisjen has always been, and what it means to live in a world where this combination of power and strategy usually wins (and violence – again, a moment to remember that Chrisjen has tortured Belters). She is trying to use Marco as a bargaining chip, arguing that Belters that sided with him should not be rewarded – and it takes Holden to point out to her that Marco wasn’t all wrong, that the only reason why Chrisjen could so successfully raise forces against him was his decision to target civilians on Earth. They are once again building a future in which the Belters have no place. And Chrisjen looks at Holden like a cat, because she’s seen a path open – all these years, she’s never quite taken him seriously, has repeatedly openly called him naïve, and optimistic. He is an ideal candidate for the Presidency of the Transport Union not just because she is impartial, and widely respected: Chrisjen thinks that because of Holden’s optimism, because of his predictable unwillingness to seek power for power’s sake or to be opportunistically pragmatic, she can somewhat control him. She says, “James, it’s time for you to make history, again” and I groaned inwardly, because this is what his whole life story has been, stumbling into historic relevance, when all that he wants at this point is to be with his family. 

And then the ending genuinely surprised me. Holden, in front of the press, the public, for the first time, steps up to the podium to deliver his speech as President of the Transport Union, reading out lines that were written for him, Chrisjen looking on happily and content. But then he veers off script – he has insisted that Drummer be made Vice President, and he is stepping back, which means that she is now President. It’s the kind of genius tactical move that nobody would have expected of him, and it is not an act where an Inner, an Earth-bound man, graciously hands power to a Belter – it’s an act of political solidarity, informed by his experience. We know who he and the crew of the Rocinante would trust in a pinch. He knows that there isn’t a better person to lead this Union that will determine the future of humanity than Drummer, who has spent her whole life fighting for the Belt. He knew that Chrisjen would chip away at it over time, because it is in her nature to consolidate power – but he also sees Drummer as the kind of person that is capable to meaningfully fight back because she has a legitimate claim to represent her people. 

It also takes a burden off his shoulders, finally. A moment of rest, before history catches him again. Finally, it’s just him and Naomi in their cabin, where they have built a life together, on this ship that holds their family. 

Holden: I hope I did the right thing. 

Naomi: You did. You followed your conscience in the hope that others would follow theirs. You didn’t do it for a reward, or a pat on the head. The universe never tells us if we did right or wrong. It’s more important to help people, and to know that you did. More important that someone else’s life gets better, and for you to feel good about yourself. You never know the effect you might have on someone, not really. Maybe one core thing you said haunts them forever, maybe one moment of kindness gives them comfort, or courage. Maybe you said the one thing they needed to hear. It doesn’t matter if you ever know, you just have to try.

Random notes: 

Clarissa, to Amos: “You know for someone who says he doesn’t wanna be a hero, you sure end up being one a lot.” I will miss Amos Burton. I will miss everyone. It was a pleasant surprise that everyone survived – the books cover a lot more years, and a lot more loss – but The Expanse has never been cynical or careless with lives, so it’s good that the show is ending on its own terms. 

The names on Bobbie and Amos’ strike team are a nice Easter egg for science fiction fans. 

The whole scene of the strike team hurling towards Medina Station, at one stage only in their chair – is utterly insane. 

Drummer’s family looks on as she assumes the Presidency of the Transport Union, and I hope for her that her cabin will never be empty again. 

Bobbie, taking over pilot duties on the Roci: “I wonder what this button does”. A beautiful summary of the entirety of The Expanse, really. 

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