Sunday 9 January 2022

The Expanse – Will you remember us?

The Expanse: 6x05 Why We Fight.

Drummer: When the last shot is fired, when Marco is dead, will you remember us? Will you remember the Belters who bled for your victory? 

In the strange wilderness of Laconia, Cara is waiting for her brother to wake up, for the strange dogs to fix him. She falls asleep and when she wakes up, hears voices in the distance calling for her, but Xan has disappeared – she goes looking for him and finds him, awake, alive, and surrounded by these unnamed creatures. He says that he feels weird, that everything looks different. 

When humanity took off beyond the gates, went further than it ever did before, I don’t think that many of them were ready for how weird it would get out there. One lesson learned from the failed attempt to make Mars habitable, the great, generation-spanning project of terraforming that died as soon as already habitable planets became available for colonisation, is that wherever humans go, they will attempt to turn what they find there into something familiar. Even if that means generation of Martians living in biodomes and underground – the hope of one day having green rolling hills, like on Earth, kept them going until it didn’t. The same was true for the settlers on Ilus – they built, and began mining, not realising how deadly the planet would be, how it would turn on them. On Laconia, the settlers can’t even eat any of the local plants – they are poisonous, and yet they stubbornly persist to make a home here. It is as silly and near-sighted as putting herds and herds of sheep on land that was never meant to support the pressure of hooves, soil that will erode into dust overtime. It is the same fantasy of terra nullius, the idea that the colonisers, regardless of what they find there, can imprint their own idea of civilization upon this planet and not find resistance. And these Laconians dream of more than that: they see the protomolecule technology in orbit, and instead of remembering what the protomolecule inherently does, which is figure out how things work, and then make it work differently (remember Julie Mao, the strange music coming from Eros station after the incident), they think they can control it, forge it into a human version of usefulness. It’s a mirage of control. Nobody asks what it would mean to truly accept the strangeness and weirdness of Laconia, to accept that colonisation isn’t a one-sided act in which the coloniser changes the land that he finds, but that in turn, he will be changed, and any resistance to that causes nothing but grief. Cara is curious about his new land rather than cautious, and whatever happened to Xan – giving his life back to him – has changed him irrevocably, into something new. It’s hard to see how the other settlers won’t follow suit soon. 

The same is true of the Belters. Going beyond Earth’s gravity, being born and living amongst the stars rather than down a gravity well, means irrevocable changes to Belter physiology. Naomi tried to go to land on Ilus and couldn’t. She will never be able to live on Earth with Holden. It is difficult to not see this as intended, a design by the Inners to keep the Belters were they want them, toiling away, controlled by limited resources. Chrisjen even reminds herself of what she did, all those years ago – she tortured a Belter with gravity to force a confession, and what more symbolic act of violence could there be. Conversely, the Belters have carved an identity out of this (remember Filip asking Tadeo if his brother even was a true Belter if his medical condition keeps him from being out in space), a position from which they negotiate and fight for rights, a share in the wealth that they mine out in the deep. Marco is the result of a century of violence against Belters, and as Drummer says here, weighing the arguments, if it hadn’t been Marco to create an army out there, to bring violence back to the Inners, it would have been someone else. 

More than one character in this episode asks what you are meant to do when you are no longer sure what the right side is, what the correct course of action entails. There is a war happening – and it will be costly, something that becomes obvious when the MCRN ships attempt to attack Medina station and find that it has been outfitted with protomolecule improved railguns. In addition to that, Holden and Naomi find more prove – from Dr Elvi Okoye – that the mysterious disappearances of ships through the ring gates means that entire galaxies are at risk of being wiped out whenever a ship travels through. Naomi reminds Holden of what he felt, that each time he goes through a gate, he can feel some kind of entity or power get angrier and angrier at the transgression. It is obvious to Holden that this is a greater issue than Marco, that this is in fact an issue that Chrisjen should share with him, because it threatens everyone: but of course, this boundless idealism is immediately shut down by the pragmatic Secretary General, who knows that long-term threats are much more difficult to address than the immediacy of a man who is throwing asteroids at Earth. First, they have to win this war that is probably not winnable, that will stretch for years and years and generations, and then they can begin thinking about what it means to face true extinction. Chrisjen calls Holden naïve for thinking that humanity could, for the first time in its history, comprehend that some threats require unity beyond the fractions of historical wounds, but if Holden’s understanding of what is happening in the rings is correct, it’s a moot question, and all of this will simply end. 

So what are you meant to do, faced with this? Amos poses the question to Bobbie, on their shore leave on Ceres station, his neck scratched and covered in lipstick marks, shining with glitter. He has no moral compass of his own, so he has borrowed Naomi’s, then Holden’s, but now he no longer trusts that Holden is making the right decisions. Bobbie – who has just found out that Holden didn’t detonate the torpedo, and takes it in her stride, more than you’d expect, like she kind of knew already – tells him that the one thing she learned as a soldier, as a mercenary, is that it doesn’t really matter all that much if the people you fight with are good, that you protect them and stick with them because you know they have your back. You make a family, out there in the dark, and then you do your absolute best not to lose them. Amos understands this, and asks Bobbie if she wants to come with him into the brothel (“with you or WITH you?” she asks, and either is fine by him). 

Nobody has taken that idea of making a family out in the dark more literally than Camina Drummer herself – as close as the crew of the Rocinante is, they are not a polycule like Camina’s, linked as family. It would be difficult to find a character in this story who has lost as much as she has – Drummer, who we first met as Fred Johnson’s second on Tycho, who controlled Medina station, who has seen almost every significant person in her life die, most of them with her own eyes. The war against Marco has chipped away at her family, and now Michio and Josep are the only two left – but Joseph’s arm won’t grow back properly, will have to be replaced with a prostheses, and he won’t be able to keep himself safe in this war anymore. Michio knows this, and she follows Bobbie’s advice, even if it means living under the yoke of the Inners on Ceres station. She knows that they can’t go back to the Tynan and help Drummer fight Marco. All of her losses have added up to being finally completely alone – at the head of a pirate fleet, courted by Chrisjen who needs a Belter ally against Marco, but with no family to ground her. 

Michio: Because I know you will never be able to give up the fight with Marco now. And we can’t help you in that fight anymore.

Drummer: I never loved you because you were fighter. I loved you because you were builders. I wanted us to build something, together.

She loses her whole family in the precise moment that she becomes an irreplaceable tactical asset to Chrisjen, who is stuck between Mars and the UN wanting to begin a (suicide) mission at Medina station, to beat Marco who is going there, and wanting to feed the Belters on Ceres station. She knows who she used to be – the person who tortured a Belter with the gravity of Earth – but she is also aware that this is no longer who she wants to be (she asks Bobbie if this is a weakness, and obviously doesn’t get a direct answer except confirmation that Bobbie hates waiting). And then Drummer arrives with the containers she stole from Marco’s cache, with more firepower than she’s ever had before, and it’s a solution to the complex problem in front of Chrisjen, a solution that fits in with Monica Stuart’s reporting on Ceres. Chrisjen knows that to beat Marco, she needs an ally who is a Belter, whose record is irreproachable. She grants Drummer access to Ceres, promises her that her ships will be trated as sovereign territory. 

Chrisjen: It’s nice to finally meet. Fred Johnson spoke well of you. 

Drummer: He spoke well of you. We didn’t agree on everything. 

Chrisjen: Then the gesture says even more about you, and the true OPA.

This penultimate episode of The Expanse is almost entirely about Drummer, and it speaks volumes for Cara Gee’s acting that she has made this extension of her character inevitable. For months, Drummer has fought this fight alone, with nothing but the remainders of her family and her ship. Now, the world has grown bigger again – she is beginning to assemble a fleet, she has attracted Chrisjen’s interest – but at the same time, her family is falling apart. She is in an intensely emotionally vulnerable position throughout her negotiations with Chrisjen, both because of her long history of mistrusting the Inners and because of her open wounds – and one of those wounds is Naomi Nagata. If you traced back when Drummer first began to lose her family, maybe you’d end up in the moment when she realised that Naomi would choose the Rocinante and James Holden over her, and it doesn’t even matter what their relationship was exactly when they both lived and worked on Ceres – how literally Naomi was her family – I don’t think that for a moment in those years, even when she had a whole ship full of family, that Drummer ever got over that first loss. So it is additionally scarring that she would get a message from Naomi after such a long time, at exactly the point in time where a reminder of that loss would hit deepest. The way her face reacts when she sees Naomi’s face (Anger? Surprise? Love?) on her screen, and hears her words – the promise of “see you soon”, and that immediate, visceral knowledge how much it will hurt. 

And I think that part of why this all hits so hard is because Drummer, who is always grasping for control, has no control over any of this. Naomi is the one who surprises her, who waits for her, who disregards that she knows what her silence and distance mean (“You know me well enough to know that silence meant I don’t want to be seen.”). “It’s good to see you”, but also maybe Drummer would rather gouge her own eyes out than have this conversation right now, with all the anger over Naomi’s decisions simmering in the background and the wounds of recent losses so new and painful. She allows Naomi on her ship – the ship where her family once lived – and then she says the words out loud, when Naomi asks to meet them. “They’re gone”. And then they have it out, an accounting of losses, of betrayals, the greatest of all that Naomi is mainly here because Holden sent her, as a messenger from Chrisjen. Finally, all those tightly wound controls break down, and Drummer rages – about her loss, about Naomi’s decision to live with their shared enemy, about being asked to wear the Inner’s collar. She says that the universe has no place for her, when all she ever wanted to do was build something that would grant freedom and dignity, something new and beautiful that didn’t require a compromise with a torturer. 

Naomi: Then all that we can do now is to stand by the people we love. What else is there?

Drummer: Fuck you, you self-righteous shit.

She breaks down in her arms – because isn’t that all Drummer has ever done, stood by the people she loved, while they left her, or were killed? And now this one person who was maybe the first one to leave is asking her to make a deal with the devil, to fight alongside Earth and Mars against Marco. “The system is filled with the graves of Belters who trusted Inners”, Drummer tells Chrisjen when they finally meet. Let’s hope that Drummer won’t be among the dead by the end of this, that will have another shot at building something free and beautiful with people she loves, that this is not her elegy. 

Random notes: 

I wonder what Filip is building up to. He uses his unrevoked privileges to find out the fate of Tadeo’s brother on Ceres, learns of his death, and then goes to comfort his friend in much the same way in which his mother once comforted him – maybe finally putting it all together, the fact that Tadeo was asked to install the explosives on Ceres that killed the only person he cared about, fed lies about how they would only kill Inners. At the same time as this happens – Filip, maybe seeing his own father for who he is – Rosenfeld is trying to fix the relationship between Marco and Filip because she knows that she needs Marco stable for this conflict, and he won’t be without his son (in their revealing exchange, Marco says his father wasn’t in his life and Rosenfeld, laconically, says that he’s done better than that then – but not as well as Marco would have liked). 

Clarissa and Holden discuss the UN’s plan to plate the Rocinante in new material that was developed based on protomolecule technology, and the weird position that puts Clarissa in, who knows that this is exactly what her father was working towards. 

Of course Chrisjen’s call-sign is Archangel, and of course she insisted on the pomp of a meeting in person (and I genuinely think she likes Drummer), in spite of the security implications. 


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