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The Expanse, Syfy's spacebound Game of Thrones, gets twistier — and better — in season 2

What other TV show would try to knock an asteroid into the sun with a giant Mormon spaceship?

The Expanse
Thomas Jane’s work as Miller is perfect, right down to his ridiculous haircut.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

Every Sunday, we pick a new episode of the week. It could be good. It could be bad. It will always be interesting. You can read the archives here. The episode of the week for February 12 through 18 is “Godspeed,” the fourth episode of the second season of Syfy’s The Expanse.

In its first season, The Expanse always felt like it was hiding what was really going on in an elaborate shell game. You’d think you knew where the answers were, lift the cup, then find yourself staring at a lengthy Shohreh Aghdashloo monologue that had nothing to do with anything.

The series was a rather transparent attempt to ape Game of Thrones as a sci-fi series, with a series of books to adapt, a large cast scattered across far-flung locations throughout the solar system (some on Earth, some on an asteroid, some in a spaceship out beyond Mars), and surprisingly epic action sequences done on a cable budget.

But it also failed to heed one of Game of Thrones’ key lessons: Start simple, then expand. Both series began with big mysteries that eventually blossomed into much larger stories — Game of Thrones featured a conspiracy surrounding the royal throne of the Seven Kingdoms, and The Expanse sent a few characters on the trail of a missing girl. But where Game of Thrones gave substantial hints as to what was really happening by the (memorable) end of its pilot, The Expanse only teased that something alien might be going on. Then it refused to explain anything until the end of season one.

But now, in season two, the audience more or less knows what’s happening. The show’s scope is contracting rather than expanding. And a series I liked with reservations has become one I enjoy more or less completely.

Previously, on The Expanse...

The Expanse
Miller and Fred Johnson (Chad Coleman) discuss Miller’s wacky plan.

Let’s quickly recount what we know about the master plot of The Expanse: Before the series began, scientists discovered a mysterious substance that’s come to be dubbed “the protomolecule.” Seemingly an alien disease, the protomolecule has a tendency to take control of organic material and rewrite it according to its own specifications. (That missing girl? She was a protomolecule victim.)

Our intrepid heroes learned that, at the center of many mysteries leading to a seemingly imminent war between Earth and Mars, there was a plot to unleash the protomolecule on the unsuspecting population of the Eros asteroid. The fallout from that event led to the disappearance of the girl, a series of diplomatic misunderstandings, and essentially everything that happened in season one.

Now, it's season two, and Eros is a ticking time bomb. Everybody there is dead from protomolecule, but anybody who stumbles upon the asteroid might themselves be infected, then spread it to the solar system at large. As such, in “Godspeed,” the characters decide to destroy Eros by ramming it with the Nauvoo, a gigantic spaceship meant to help the Mormon Church send a delegation to the stars, thereby knocking Eros into the sun. (I can safely say this is the first time “let’s hit an asteroid with a Mormon spaceship” has been a plot on television.)

Late in season one, The Expanse brought together its two most compelling storylines: the desperate maneuvers of the crew of the spaceship Rocinante, who discovered a derelict spaceship riddled with protomolecule and were nearly killed several times over for their troubles, and the investigations of private detective Joe Miller (the wonderful, slyly silly Thomas Jane) into the girl’s disappearance.

The simple act of condensing these two storylines into one has given the series a huge burst of momentum, which has only grown in season two. Not all of the Roci crew members are created equal in terms of acting ability or storyline intrigue, but simply having Miller and his tendency for puncturing self-seriousness among them gives every scene a buoyancy season one sometimes lacked.

“Godspeed” leaves us with the characters trying to ram Eros with the Nauvoo, Miller and a handful of others escaping onto the surface of Eros to plant explosives to make sure the job gets done, and the crew of the Rocinante hanging back to make sure nobody else visits Eros before the job is done.

It’s a good, exciting setup. And then there’s a twist.

“Godspeed” has a big twist that doesn’t feel like a twist

The Expanse
The crew of the Rocinante hang around, waiting for something to happen.

I haven’t read the books The Expanse is based on — which are written by James S.A. Corey and begin with the book Leviathan Wakes — but I know enough about how television and epic book series work that when Miller became stranded on Eros late in “Godspeed,” I really did think he might die, even though he’s basically the series’ lead character.

He became stranded through sheer dumb luck. An untimely accident meant the explosives Miller was to plant were damaged. The timer on them would begin on its own too early, without Miller there to apply pressure to the trigger. Therefore, he had to sit, waiting for his death, making his final radio calls of farewell to his friends on the Rocinante, expecting the worst.

I knew season one hadn’t adapted all of book one, so I figured this was how book one ended: with Miller sacrificing himself to stop the spread of the protomolecule. Like Game of Thrones’ Ned Stark, Miller would have exhausted his usefulness as a protagonist to introduce us to a wider universe full of more interesting characters. Jane is even a more famous actor than the others in the cast, similar to Sean Bean’s star treatment on Game of Thrones.

But at the last moment, something shifts: The Nauvoo misses Eros. And it’s not because the crew’s calculations were wrong — it’s because Eros itself moved. Whatever the protomolecule is, it’s more than just an alien disease. It has enough intelligence to perceive threats to its existence and then move entire asteroids in order to avoid those threats.

As a “do you want to see more?” turn at the end of “Godspeed,” it’s just about pitch-perfect. But what’s even better about it is the way it made me realize that, yeah, the characters were really growing on me, too. The connection between Miller and the Rocinante’s crew has improved all of the characters involved, and I really didn’t want to see Miller meet his end.

But this twist — which, I should note, doesn’t feel like a twist so much as the latest revelation in the story — also underlines how much better The Expanse is now that we know even the most basic information about the protomolecule. When the series was trying to hide the truth of it from the audience, well, you had to really like space-bound sci-fi to want to keep watching. Now that we still know very little about it, but do know it poses a huge threat to all of human life, I have a much easier time engaging in the characters’ often crazy machinations to rid the solar system of it.

This streamlining of storylines hasn’t necessarily made The Expanse its best possible self. It’s still primarily of interest for science fiction fans and those who love them. But “Godspeed” marked the first time I felt genuine excitement at one of The Expanse’s big, world-changing revelations since the end of its pilot (when the Rocinante crew watched many of their old friends perish in a seeming act of war).

The show is probably still a little too sprawling — I still don’t entirely engage with Aghdashloo’s storyline back on Earth — but it’s found a steady core, and that matters.

The Expanse airs Wednesdays at 10 pm Eastern on Syfy. Catch up with season one on Amazon Prime. Season two’s previous episodes are on Syfy’s website.

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