The Expanse: "The Big Empty," 'Remember the Cant," and "CQB" (Season 1, Episodes 2-4)


Four episodes in this is a good show. (Confession: I watched episodes 3 and 4 online in advance). It's well written, decently paced, solidly acted and has some impressive special effects for cable TV. It's not only doing world building--it looks like it might have a world worth building.

There's still a lot of scene juggling going on, though. That could yet drag the whole enterprise down. Fortunately, it's handled well to date, at least for the most part. The fourth episode did lose the bubble a little, largely because it was trying to depict a space battle building toward a climax; the sense of distraction from too many cutaways elsewhere became noticeable as the narrative tension ebbed. So the jury is still out. "The Expanse" could become excellent, but it could also wind up settling for competent. I've got my fingers crossed for simply good.

Episode 2: "The Big Empty"

This is a puzzle box episode, as in "how do we survive?" Last episode, Jim Holden and four of his shipmates were left adrift in a shuttle with limited power and air when their mother ship, Canterbury, was destroyed by a silent attacker. As you would imagine, everyone is losing it. Holden wants to track their mysterious assailant: "They just dusted 50 of our friends!" Charismatic engineer Naomi Nagata has a killer reply: "Well, let's not make it 55."

Let's see. They took a beating from the Canterbury's debris field. There's not enough power or oxygen left to make it anywhere safe. The broadcast system is down and the airlock is dead, it's outer doors blown away. The best of the bad options left is to waste a good chunk of what air remains getting outside to have a go at the broadcast antenna. Holden and a bruiser named Amos take on that task while Naomi tries working in a spacesuit inside to reroute power to that antenna, if it can be fixed. As bad luck would have it, navigator Alex's suit also loses air forcing the medic to hook up with him and alternate breaths. There's not enough air left to fill the interior and then flush it again for antenna work, which means Holden and Amos are racing against two men's imminent suffocation. I'd have kicked that ****ing antenna when  it resisted alignment, too.

Naomi is a killer all episode long. My favorite line? After laying out a plan and watching the slow response of her fellows, she let's fly with this little gem: "I'm sorry. Did anyone need a backup first?" Woe betide the man daring enough to answer yes.

Back on Ceres station, cynical cop Joe Miller gives the plethora of ongoing shortages visceral impact for the viewer--he loses water in the shower with a head full of soapy hair. They follow  up on that later. When he breaks into Julie Mao's empty apartment, he sticks his hair under the sink nozzle to take advantage of her unused reserves. Miller spends the episode investigating water thefts and hunting for Julie, rewarded at the end with confirmation that she left Ceres on the good ship Scopuli.

Back on Earth, the Indian UN Lady questions her OBA terrorist some more. His answers are vague and threatening before he commits suicide. Something odd is going on in the galaxy.

Holden and company succeed in getting off a distress call. Their reward? They're approached by the flagship of the Martian navy, coming in to finish the job as far as Holden is concerned, since he believes Mars lured them in to the Scopuli in the first episode. With no cards left to play in a  dead shuttle, Holden transmits a message in the clear. It identifies Mars as the culprit behind the Canterbury's destruction, concluding that  he and the surviving crew are about to be murdered. Maybe Mars will need them alive for a little while after an intergalactic faux pas like that.

The episode ends with armed borders cutting their way in. Holden is informed that he is a prisoner of the Mars Congressional Republic.

Episodes 3 and 4: "Remember the Cant" and "CQB"

These episodes tell one story for Holden and company. They're prisoners being interrogated on the Martian flagship, MCRN Donnager. It's standard interrogation stuff, telling each of the five  little tidbits about their fellows that may or may not be true in order to turn them against one another. Navigator Alex served in the Martian navy before, so how can you trust him? Naomi may be OBA. After all, how could anyone on a crap water mining barge like the Canterbury be as good as she is? Holden was kicked out of the Earth navy, so what's up with him?

While this goes on, Holden's message at the end of last episode is received by Earth. It's playing all over Ceres station. The people there are pissed about even more water reductions with the loss of a big water supply ship. They hate Mars almost as much as they hate Earth. Social unrest builds.

Earth wants to know if it's cold war with Mars is heating up. The Indian UN Lady (her name is actually Chrisjen Avasarala--I'll try to use it from here on) betrays an old friend to find out. He's the ambassador to Mars. She gives him false information that he lets leak to friends in the Martian government, having gone native himself. The Martian response to this information indicates a lack of culpability. They're trying to find out what happened as well.

Perhaps the galaxy has a new player. One trying to ignite war between Earth and Mars.

Riots break out on Ceres. Holden is brought to talk with the Donnager's captain, who wants him to recant his broadcast. Just then, an unidentified vessel starts pacing Donnager. End of episode.

Episode 4 finds Miller dealing with riots on Ceres while he continues to pursue the Julie Mao investigation even after being called off by his superiors. The Donnager is attacked by six smaller ships that are much more heavily armed than they should be. That leads to our title, aka Close Quarter Battle. As I noted previously, this is where the scene cuts become a distraction. We're building up to the Donnager being beaten by this mystery force, which demands the viewers primary attention. That sequence, however, gets diluted with Miller on Ceres, more Avasarala stuff, and even digressions on board the Donnager itself.

It's good to check in with Naomi and Holden's four shipmates. It's good to give them a life-threatening dilemma as well, namely how to seal small holes in their compartment before the air gets too thin (their number also drops to four after the medic gets decapitated by debris). But there's too much talking. And there's too much Holden wandering the corridors of the Donnager looking for them. Between that and all the cuts to Ceres and Earth, the battle's pulse drops dangerously low at the midpoint.

Short version. The Donnager ultimately loses and is boarded. Its captain sends an officer to get Holden off in a shuttle, after extracting a promise from our protagonist he will tell the truth about what happened. Holden gets separated from his officer, which leads to those pointless wandering scenes. Ultimately, Holden, his shipmates and the Mars officer race through heavy fire from a boarding party to make the shuttle Hitachi. That's a good sequence, thrilling in its own right as they race the final thirty yards or so.

The Hitachi launches. Navigator Alex punches it. Once they're clear, the Donnager self destructs, scuttled by its own captain. End of episode.

Not bad overall. Excellent, good, or simply competent? Time will tell.

Oh, and for the nerd in you, there are good little technical details sprinkled throughout. In that final race to the Hitachi, they lose artificial gravity; Naomi and Holden start to helplessly float away. He snaps his tether line to her and kicks her up. which sends him... down. He then switches on his mag boots at the platform to haul her back in.