This post assumes you have seen up to series 2, episode 9: The Weeping Somnambulist of The Expanse.
The Expanse, it would seem, is a hit. Not having read James S. A. Corey’s books I realise there’s a huge fanbase out there, so that, combined with a few recommendations from friends – including one comparison to Babylon 5 – brought me in.
But something doesn’t quite sit right. It’s that comparison to Babylon 5. For all its faults – and as a dedicated fan, I am the first to say there are many… – Babylon 5 was all about the characters. From the moment they walked onto the station, they screamed their individuality with costume, mannerisms, dialogue and more. Their development was credible and led by their needs as well as the plot’s. The Expanse, instead, has a range of grizzled, cynical archetypes. Shades of morality dashed against an amoral universe.
Most familiar of these is the burnt out cop, Josephus Miller, who sees his salvation in rescuing Florence Faivre’s Julie Mao. Classic noir. Thomas Jane serves the role well, helping us understand what some see as class betrayal as he abandons his life in pursuit of her. His corruption and violence help define Steven Strait’s moralising James Holden, his sense of duty Wes Chatham’s brutal Amos Burton, and his flexible relationship with the law the Belt as a whole.
What Jane also does well, is lead us into his growing obsession with Mao, in part symbolised by the sparrow. It starts as an itch, a case he can’t solve, and the more he scratches it, revealing the weird secrets of the system, the more it takes over his life. That self-destructive aspect of his character latches on to Mao as an inevitable conclusion – he must find her or die trying.
His execution of Anthony Dresden in an attempt to destroy the protomolecule, and exact revenge for Mao’s death, reminds us he isn’t a paragon. That action leaves him ostracised by the rest of the main cast (for about half an episode) whilst they talk out their differences – and here, the small scale of the settings stretches our belief in the characters. On Babylon 5 people could avoid each other and differences were worked out on an individual basis over time. On tiny ships, it all has to happen immediately, or it derails the narrative. So, accepting that bug as a necessary compromise of writing, the forgiveness shown places him on the Rocinante for his final sacrifice on Eros.
And this is where the strange dynamic comes in.
Miller’s return to the hotel room, again led by the sparrow, to find a transformed Julie Mao, apparently the nexus of whatever new life is developing on Eros, makes perfect sense. His tenderness with her, his fundamental need to bring her peace when the rest of the system would destroy her, makes perfect sense. Hell, even his leaning down for a kiss makes perfect sense.
What doesn’t, is Mao’s reaction.
Because she has had no part in Miller’s obsession. She has no idea who he is, given she hardly seems to have any idea who she is. This is a terrified young woman being reborn into a symbiotic relationship with an alien species, and the first human face she sees, the first kindness she’s been shown, takes liberties.
What seems to happen, is expectation subsumes reality. The inescapable narrative singularity of doomed lovers has sucked an otherwise plausible arc in, and completely obliterated it. The only way that kiss makes sense is as a necessary part of a TV show required by the kind of people who think stories are about audiences. Because otherwise it’s a stranger walking up to you and telling you it’ll all be ok, before going for first base.
The kiss complete’s Mao’s objectification in a narrative that doesn’t seem that interested in her as a person. The opening seconds of the show tells us only a spark is needed to set events in motion, then puts Mao in position to scream purely as a setup. For two series, she’s a MacGuffin and, key stage movements aside, her character is realised through Miller’s investigations. So that kiss can only ever be problematic, unless she smacked him in the chops or otherwise reacted. Miller’s redemption fails, even as the show’s execution demands we agree it succeeded.
To be fair, this is a trope as old as narratives, and I’m not expecting The Expanse to carry the bag for everyone. But at the end of a major character’s arc we should be focused most of all on the truth of their experience. Mao’s return to the story as an avatar of the protomolecule’s evolution is inevitable, so she will get another pass.
But the show wants us to remember Miller as a flawed, romantic rogue come good. I’ll remember him as the obsessive, unable to escape his failings even at the end.