It would be an understatement to say SYFY’s cancellation of The Expanse caused an uproar among fans. Fortunately, the frothing rage fits many experienced didn’t last long. Not two weeks later, Amazon potentially saved the show from network purgatory by eyeing it for an anticipated fourth season. Regardless of how the move will affect the series, The Expanse is a thoroughly engrossing show that, impossibly, improves with each episode and cements itself as exemplary television.
Sci-fi epics set in our solar system are difficult to write and even more difficult to adapt because it’s impossible to bullshit around all we know about the planets we see and study. The Expanse needs to present its characters in ways that render the inclusion of exciting locales and exotic-looking aliens unnecessary and unwanted. Somewhat surprisingly, it does that as a bare minimum.
Based on the bestselling book series by James S.A. Corey, The Expanse is vividly realized and thematically sophisticated, its characters and concepts made more memorable by solid performances and a layered script. These strengths are bolstered further by dazzling visuals and a firm grasp on what it is and what it wants to be. That’s unusual (but never unwelcome) for network television.
Unlike other mid-season episodes, “Delta-V” doesn’t feel like filler. This is mostly due to the integrity of Corey’s narrative, but a sizable chunk of the credit must go to the passion in its direction. Ideally, a director of any kind wants each episode/film they make to count towards something. That ‘something’ could be a payoff. It could be a major character death. It could deepen the drama between two characters with such subtlety that it won’t make a lick of sense until two episodes later. Whatever this ‘something’ does, it needs to do it clearly and intentionally. The Expanse as a whole accomplishes this with verve and skill, and “Delta V” proves a worthy piece of that whole.
The show isn’t simply chronicling the conflict between Mars, Earth, and the Belt. It’s painting a wrenching portrait of humans contending with everything from racism and sexism to war, drugs, and uncomfortable truths about what it takes to survive. These struggles are communicated through the trials and tribulations of James Holden (Steven Strait), Alex Kamal (Cas Anvar), and their crew. A particularly illuminating scene sees tough, no-nonsense Naomi (Dominique Tipper) reprimanding a skiff pilot aboard the Behemoth. It’s a quick moment, but an important one. She’d caught the man selling drugs but couldn’t get far with her argument before he maintained that drugs were how he stayed stable and worked long hours. Two unhappy men who use substances to simulate happiness are not outliers by any stretch, but the show’s casual depiction of the habit speaks to how commonplace misery is in Corey’s universe.
The plot is a busy one with plenty of threads to weave together, and it would’ve benefitted from letting certain moments sit. This has been a problem for as long as the series has aired and may not be fixable with the approach the show is currently taking. Still, if the writers didn’t have such a knack for transitions, this would be more of an issue. The only scene that works well as a “blink twice and you’ll miss it” moment is the Naomi scene mentioned above. It seems more atmospheric touch than actual plot point until the episode circles back to her encounter with the pilot. That’s good writing, making the inconsequential consequential. It’s difficult writing, but good.
The Expanse isn’t heady sci-fi by any stretch, but it is involved sci-fi. It’s no Blade Runner and it’s no Star Wars, and that’s not meant as a jab. It exists happily between the two and is all the more enjoyable for it.