The Expanse has demonstrated surprising flexibility when it comes to its storytelling. For a series that began with the tale of a burned-out detective and a ragtag group of blue-collar workers aboard a stolen military vessel, trying to make sense of an increasingly strange and unfathomable situation, the show has proven adept at focusing its narrative on the increasingly complex political machinations of a solar system scrambling to contain and capitalize on suddenly being thrust into extra-terrestrial arms race following the discovery and proliferation of the protomolecule across Earth, Mars, and now the Belt. And at the start of season 3, it all adds up to the continuation of one of the best sci-fi series on television.
The season 3 premiere, ‘Fight or Flight’ picks up right where season 2 left off. It’s not too surprising considering the events of ‘Caliban’s War’ worked to alter the scope of the series’ narrative, while also shifting its focus just enough so that the major players caught in the vacuum of space would inevitably come into contact with one another. To that point, the premiere delivers an exciting pay off to the sticky situation Chrisjen Avasarala (Shohreh Aghdashloo) finds herself in aboard Mao’s (François Chau) vessel, along with her favorite spy, Cotyar (Nick E. Tarabay), and former Martian Marine, Roberta “Bobbie” Draper (Frankie Adams). It also aims to establish what’s next for the crew of the Rocinante, after Naomi (Dominque Tipper) handed the protomolecule to Fred Johnson (Chad L. Coleman), essentially turning the Belters into the solar system’s third superpower, and one with a sizable grudge to boot.
‘Fight or Flight’ doesn’t waste any time resolving some cliffhangers from the previous season while leaving others hanging tantalizingly (and literally) in the background. As it has in the past, The Expanse demonstrates a character-first approach to its storytelling, leaving the larger questions of the protomolecule and, more specifically, why the ship on Venus was pulled apart to look like a life-sized schematic and left suspended in the toxic atmosphere to be answered later. The answers to — or, more likely, more questions about — the substance and what it’s doing on the second planet from the sun remains of interest, but the series’ writers are focused on the brinksmanship between Earth and Mars tipping into full-scale war, and what will happen to Holden and his crew once they’re caught in the inevitable crossfire of two planets duking it out across the solar system.
The path to war marks the biggest change for The Expanse in its third season, but it’s one that demonstrates why the series is consistently one of the best sci-fi stories being told on television at the moment. As the events in the solar system become bigger and bigger, and threaten to overwhelm the narrative and its relatively small cast of characters with expensive-looking space battles and an endless back-and-forth between warring planets, The Expanse shifts focus to the human cost of war, smartly putting the actual conflict in the background. That allows the story to show the conflict unfold but to do so on a much smaller, more intimate scale, as personal allegiances — like Naomi to the Belters and Alex to Mars — generate conflicts aboard the Rocinante. The catch is, of course, that the circumstances of ship’s crew forces them into an armistice of sorts, for the sake of their own survival.
But pulling a Game of Thrones season 2 and depicting the actual war largely off screen threatens to dilute its effects, which is why The Expanse offers more screen time to Secretary General Esteban Sorrento-Gillis (Jonathan Whittaker) and his (secretly) duplicitous right-hand man, Sadavir Errinwright (Shawn Doyle), who is desperately trying to ensure Chrishen’s assassination as a means of covering up his involvement with Mao, the protomolecule, and the general deterioration of relations across the solar system. While he’s always been up to no good, season 3 elevates Sadavir’s antagonism to a new level by having him actively engage in trying to take Chrisjen’s life, but also by putting proof of his villainy into the hands of his would-be victim.
The potential impact of Chrisjen’s evidence against Sadavir would be a game-changing move, which is what The Expanse has been building toward for two seasons now, as it would either take a major player off the board or, should it fail, keep him dangerously in play. But part of what makes The Expanse such a fulfilling watch is how the delineation between good and evil isn’t so clear everywhere else in the series. And in the first two episodes that were made available to critics, the series demonstrates the ways in which that complicates matters to a startling degree.
In season 3, that mainly has to to with Fred Johnson making the Belters a superpower just as war breaks out, but it also has to do with what the crew of the Rocinante sees as their role in all of this. In the aftermath of what he considers Naomi’s betrayal, Holden becomes committed to a more humanitarian approach, starting with helping Dr. Praxidike Meng (Terry Chen) track down his daughter, putting the Rocinante crew on a collision course with Mao and his rapidly advancing research into weaponizing the protomolecule.
In all, The Expanse season 3 begins by dramatically raising the immediate stakes of the story without drastically altering the dynamics of the show itself. Keeping the primary cast in place, especially now that personal and political allegiances threaten to tear them apart, staves off stagnation. Meanwhile, the ongoing escalation of the conflict between Earth and Mars makes for a captivating backdrop to the investigation into the still-mysterious protomolecule and the seemingly endless possibilities of what it can do. If The Expanse can keep this up through the remaining episodes this year, the series may well be on its way to delivering the most engaging season yet.
The Expanse continues next Wednesday with ‘IFF’ @9pm SYFY.