The Expanse Season 5 Episode 5: A Twist of the Knife

Stage 1: No Spoilers
Amazon continues to drip-feed Expanse addicts their weekly dose as the pivotal and phenomenal fifth season continues. This week’s episode builds on the calamitous events last week, mostly visiting characters we didn’t see or barely touched base with during the Free Navy’s audacious attack on Earth. “Down and Out” continues to showcase the series’s masterful pacing and plotting while connecting events literally millions of miles apart.

Stage 2: Episode Spoilers
Last week was what show runner Naren Shankar and others have called “the 9/11 episode.” The Expanse’s capacity to serve as a political allegory is fluid and open, but with the tightened focus on this terrorist strike on Earth, it’s easy–though perhaps overly simplistic–to reduce the warring factions of the Expanse world to modern analogues. Earth is the decadent West. Mars is the technocratic East. And the Belters are the Middle East, facing an uncertain future.

It’s interesting, then, that this episode dwells mostly with the Belters, who have become the ostensible villains of this season. We have a few scenes on Earth as Amos and Clarissa climb their way out of the pit and a couple moments with Holden at Tycho, but those moments don’t really do anything more than push the plot forward–there are no revelations at either locale that the audience doesn’t already know and the characters are not pushed in any new directions.

Our belter characters, though, have the stage. The episode opens with Drummer and her crew/family grappling with the reality post-attack. Drummer’s reemergence after leaving the corridors of power at the end of last season has seen her become a minor faction leader in her own right, but one bent on reforming local Belter pirates. Knowing that her little clan of marauders are a kinder, gentler sort of scavenger, it’s no surprise that they react with horror to Marco’s strike. But even as they shake their heads and look grim, their inner thoughts betray them. Mirroring false allegations and conspiracy theories after 9/11, they discuss how there are reports of celebrations in the halls of Ceres. Even as they dismiss these, though, they note that the survivors on Earth will likely believe such reports and realize that Marco has at the very least made life difficult for them and, more likely, has forced all Belters onto the defensive in his war.

That certainly seems to be what Drummer is thinking as she accepts Marco’s invitation to meet. In Cara Gee’s always pitch-perfect portrayal, we don’t see the steely eyed rage she couldn’t contain after discovering Ashford’s ship two episodes ago. Instead, she realizes that Marco’s offer is no offer at all. He is calling for all Belters to fall in line…or else. Drummer now faces a pragmatic choice that she must dread: her little fleet will likely be targeted by Earth’s navy no matter what and there may be safety in numbers.

But if exploring the rock and a hard place moment for Drummer was an interesting follow up to the immediacy of last week’s attack, the moments we see from Marco’s followers are even more fascinating. Sakia continues to be the most love-to-hate character this season, saying that despite shooting him in the back last week that she “kind of liked Fred.” She gets to give voice to the Belt’s resentment when Holden challenges her. It’s a window into the frustration that widens when Naomi’s old OPA buddy chastises her that they “had to do it,” but Naomi’s answer flags the show’s moral: You can’t reach justice by sailing a river of blood.

Stage 3: Book Spoilers
This episode exploring Belter sentiments so much feels like a nod to Holden’s video blogs in the book (a character and plot moment that felt supremely silly at the very least, if not horrendously insensitive). Again, it’s significant how much less atrocious the Free Navy attack is in the world of the show vs. the novels. Casualties are still being measured in the show’s version of events in millions instead of billions and Holden’s little pet project would have been forgivable in this context–though a waste of precious narrative space. But it is important for the show to follow his example and try to see the world through the enemies’ eyes.

Assorted Musings: Full Spoilers
-So, did Filip know mommy dearest was going to gut daddy like a catfish or was that just fortuitous timing? It’s interesting that she escapes from her desperate, suicide mission with renewed purpose to save Jim and the Roci from her own code. It continues to–as Shankar noted in the after show–show that she is not the weak, lost figure that Marco has portrayed her as to Filip. But it’s interesting that she still won’t challenge the narrative that she abandoned him and the details of how she separated from Marco are murkier than ever.

-I’ve got to admit that my memory of how all this plays out in the books is a bit fuzzy. I remember something about the Martian prime minister being stuffed in the Razorback, but that clearly ain’t happening (seemed a bit ludicrous, really) as the Razorback is down and out. I’m assuming that once the Roci’s computer is scrubbed clean of the malicious code, Holden’s going to be too busy on rescue duty to do any hunting. That might make this season feel very cliff hangery as I don’t think we’ll get a direct confrontation between our heroes and the Free Navy until season six. I’ve still stuck on how that will go down. In the books, as far as I remember, Marco basically had a ship like the Roci, but now his Pella is clearly a bigger ship. Of course, the Roci might be more nimble and Alex may be able to autopilot the Free Navy crew. We have seen the ship take on bigger vessels and prevail–the stealth ship in season 2 was definitely a heavy hitter (and inspired the crew to get a railgun of their very own) and she is also credited for clipping the engines off a UN cruiser.

-So the Martian/Laconians just delivered Marco two more frigates in exchange for the protomolecule and then start burning away from the sun. I’m wondering if this is showing a bit too much trust in the Free Navy keeping their end of the bargain. After all, that supply ship would be a sitting duck if Marco decided to double cross them. Or, and I suspect this to be the case, maybe they were a little more careful in the level of access they give Marco’s crews than Lieutenant Lopez was when he handed over “full operational control” to the Tachi way back in S1, E4 “CQB.”

 

Woman Woman 1984 Forgets Itself

The first Wonder Woman movie was good. It wasn’t great. It wasn’t revelatory. It was a perfectly serviceable entry in a tired genre.

With the sequel out now in theaters and on HBO Max, Woman Woman’s sophomore slump makes that genre seem even more worn and spent of all creative energy.

The excesses of the Wonder Woman sequel bear most obvious comparison to the Spider Man movies.

First of all, the script and director make the same mistake that so many of those Sony Spider Man films made (and that Marvel’s entries avoided) by thinking that comic book movie characters have to be cartoon characters. Our two villains, both introduced as somewhat sympathetic characters, are drawn so two-dimensionally with such one-dimensional motivations worn on their sleeves that they are laughable. Kristin Wiig’s Barbara nee Cheetah is awkward and clumsy and nobody thinks much of her (until Diana, saintly Wonder Woman in no disguise at all, takes her out to lunch). Pedro Pascal’s Maxwell Lord is so hell-bent on power–kinda sorta to impress his young son–that to prop up his failing oil cooperative/pyramid scheme he researches and eventually locates an ancient artifact: the dream stone. It’s a Pandora’s box made by the God of Lies who has tossed it like a holy hand grenade into countless civilizations over the eons as a kind of “screw you” gift to topple their empires. Except now, it’s been unearthed in a global civilization with nuclear weapons.

Wiig’s performance as Barbara feels like she’s back to playing a type in an SNL skit, but she really does a great job as the transformation to Cheetah begins and she gets to bring out subsumed rage and intensity. It crackles on screen, but it’s completely unearned.

Pascal hams it up as Maxwell Lord, creating a character so plastic that we never really feel much sympathy for his shallow motivations nor much dread. His scheme is so dependent on his McGuffin and its powers so absurdly over-the-top that it all feels empty and ridiculous.

That just leaves our two heroes. From a casual brush with the magical stone, Gal Gadot’s Diana accidentally resurrects Chris Pine’s Steve Trevor–her love interest from the first film. (Damn, that’s carrying a torch. In the time line of the movies, it’s been almost 70 years since she lost him. I mean, Captain America pined for Peggy and all, but he was asleep/frozen for those 70 years.) This leads to some funny inversions of the fish-out-water bits from the first film as she has to acclimate him to the fashion and customs of late-twentieth century America, but it also raises some kind of unsettling ethical questions as Steve is not so much resurrected as ensouled in someone else’s body.

Once Lord’s scheme–which is never more sophisticated than “more!”–gets rolling, then the action scenes feel merely superfluous to a plot that stretches credulity and the suspension of disbelief like Diana’s ever-longer lasso of truth. (At some points it feels like she can snap the wings off a flay a football field away with this thing.) She gets inexplicable new powers that she will forget to ever use in the Batman v Superman or Justice League movies that technically take place a generation later. And, as in the first film, she saves the day with a cheese-ball speech, but this one goes on and on and on.

Are we hard up enough for entertainment these days to stomach this nonsense? After watching the film on HBO Max I want my two and a half hours back, so I’m certainly grateful I didn’t shell out a hundred bucks to take the clan to the theater (although at least then I could have had a quesadilla and a ginormous Dr. Pepper to go with this turkey). There’s been a lot of musing about this pandemic meaning the death of Hollywood as we know it and if we look at the uneven offerings on streaming platforms, it’s easy to worry that–like Maxwell Lord–the powers that be are only trying to crank out “more” content to stuff into the Netflix queues. But let’s all remember that this stinker was of the studio system and by the studio system before anyone knew what COVID 19 was and that there’s plenty of good stuff out there without superheroes in it.

 

 

Stolen

Like the wisdom filched from the bite of the fruit
All that I know, I’ve snatched from without
Vellum-thin sheets of tree pulp
splashed with words

I think about it
as I walk through the house in darkness
navigating familiar geometries
even though, with lights out and empty of voices
it seems alien
the space around all blues and quiet
save for the faint creaking of wood against wood
foundations and struts bending with shifting weight and time

I think of a conceit from Tomasz Różycki: evaporated time
and as I walk, I steal it
make it mine
imagine the sturdy frame of the house is sturdier still
carbon fiber shell
a capsule
hurled out into the abyss
to somewhere beyond the laws of physics
here, time bleeds off the thick rivers
into the air
you can breathe it in, savor the musk of it
Really know it, like a pheromone of being

Now, traipsing into biology, I will pilfer from Bruno K. Öijer
the notion of gigantic cells:
now, it is house as one cell and me an organelle
and the wife and the children, each turning, gyrating parts,
serving a function within the whole
I read somewhere that if the aliens watch us with powerful telescopes from other galaxies
they will see our cities as living things,
great sessile beings
with Fords and Hondas in their bloodstream
and we, mere mites

but what if I am
here in the blue-black
the last human being
what if the world has ended
like Aleppo or Homs
what if while I slept in the little room in front
that looks over the street
an unnoticed apocalypse struck
but with the sound turned down
a world of quiet rubble
out with a whimper, not a bang

and if I am about to meet God
what do I say to him
(he must be a him
to have built a world like this
a mother never could)

what are your questions, my son
nothing, I say
I have understood everything
and it has left me vacant
a house with no lights on

The Expanse: Season 5, Episode 4

 

After releasing the first three episodes of season 5 last week, Amazon has now unveiled episode four, “Gaugamela.”

And damn. Just damn.

Stage 1: No spoilers

Of course, the comparison everyone makes is that The Expanse is Game of Thrones in space. Or used to, back when that was a compliment. Now folks usually write about the show runners planning to dodge the Game of Thrones bullet and not ruin The Expanse’s ending like GoT did theirs. Now we know that that ending will be a bit more complicated. The series will end on Amazon with season six, leaving the story of the last three books, which takes place after what the authors call “a natural pause,” for some nebulous, future…maybe.

That fact means that the story arc that began with last season–humanity expanding into the galaxy even as Marco Inaros’s belter faction schemes (with some shady help from disgruntled Martians) to upend the hierarchy of the solar system–is the story that will carry the series to its conclusion.

This week’s episode brings all of that story’s conflict into the forefront and into the open. Game of Thrones was known for a lot of things during its heyday, but one of its biggest draws were the “holy shit” episodes like the Red Wedding or the Mountain vs. the Viper.

The Expanse has generally favored slower burns (pun intended) with big events unfolding in complex ways, but without the shock value of those kind of GoT type spectacles.

Until now, that is. “Gaugamela” is the most mind-blowing episode the Expanse has ever put to field. It is what book fans have been waiting for since the first episodes. It’s the sort of episode that takes an emotional toll. That takes time to process. Is it the best Expanse episode yet? Maybe. It’s honestly too fresh to say. But it announces one thing very clearly:

Forget Game of Thrones forever. This show is the new king of genre TV.

Stage 2: Episode Spoilers!

The impact at the end of “Mother” last week foreshadowed the ways in which this episode would upend the established order of the Expanse’s world. But the way this episode chooses to open is so fascinating.

Instead of immediately picking up with the repercussions of the impact we saw last week, we begin instead with Alex and Bobbie cruising in the renamed Razorback, continuing their investigation of the Martian conspiracy.

Alex is bristling, unable to process the rot in Mars’s house, unable to accept how quickly his people’s disciplined culture has fallen apart. Bobbie, though, is further along that curve. Bobbie’s anger in the season opener seemed a little overblown, but now it makes sense. And now, she gets to finish her grieving process by trying to help Alex through the beginning of his.

Helping others through the damage the world does to them seems to be a theme running through this episode. From Amos comforting Clarissa to Holden lamenting that Fred deserved to finish what he started building, we see characters reckoning with the emotional weight of their beliefs and expectations being disrupted.

As with the previous episodes, no one carries this weight more (and no cast member gets to demonstrate it more beautifully) than Dominique Tipper’s Naomi. Though half the credit seems to go to the make up team, when we see Naomi, she is absolutely devastated. But when she goes from being her son and ex-lover’s prisoner to being witness to their monstrous crime against humanity, the anguish is horrifying and horrifyingly real on Tipper’s face. The way she slides from anger to regret to pleading is agonizing. How helpless she feels now is difficult to witness after seeing how she had finally put herself at peace last season.

The other big arc here is Avasarala’s, of course. After the first rock hits and she realizes her worst fears are coming true, she pulls every last string she can–right down to a hilarious interaction with the UN-One chef–to finally get through to Gao…just before she gets blasted out of the sky. We haven’t really seen the destruction on the surface (but will likely get to witness it through Amos’s eyes next week), but this sequence where the secure, pristine cabin of the yacht-jet-spaceplane we first saw last season is suddenly anything but safe is vividly effective in conveying the enormity of the power unleashed against Earth.

So I wonder again, is this the single best Expanse episode yet? It’s hard to say. So much of what we love about the Expanse is missing. The crew is separate. We don’t get a lot of fun banter. But the stakes have never been higher and now the tension that’s been ratcheted up, often in the background, throughout the series has quite literally exploded. If not the best, this may be the most important episode.

Like I said, it announces that the show is ready to unveil the true epic scope of its narrative ambitions.

Stage 3: Book Spoilers!

This is the culmination of so much foreshadowing throughout the show’s life that it’s interesting how it also upends some expectations from fans of the novels. Even when Fred took three through the back, for example, I thought, “Ouch, that hurt.” But I assumed he would survive and meet his ultimate end on a high-G burn as the Roci fled Inaros later, as he did in the novels.

The biggest change, though, has got to be the scale of devastation on Earth. Naomi is rightly horrified that Marco has seduced her son into the murder of “millions,” but in the book, of course, it is “billions.” In the books, Earth isn’t bloodied, but broken. It elevates Marco’s attack from unjustified warfare to mass genocide. For me, it always made it much harder to accept that any decent Belters would continue to support the Free Navy (and that Holden would think this was a good time for feel-good YouTube video essays about Belter life). It made it especially hard to accept Pa’s place in the future of the system, given that in the books she was a willing accomplice to it all. Now it is obviously Drummer who is taking her arc from the books and we’ve already seen in trailers that she will come face to face with Inaros before–presumably somewhat reluctantly–being brought in to the Free Navy along with her crew/family.

I can see some Belters saying “It’s war and people die in war” to excuse the attack on Earth now that it is three rocks and millions of deaths vs. several larger asteroids that killed, if I remember correctly, 10 billion people and ruined the planet’s environment for years.

Obviously, we’ll have to wait and see how all these changes from the book play out. (Marco’s ship looks a lot fancier and bigger than expected.) But I think for many of us who’ve read the books, the biggest question is how much the show will reveal about the puppet master behind everything that’s happening. We know the production team is thinking about it because you can spot a gate identified as “Laconia” flagged in the title sequence. At this point, Holden and our heroes think they know who the enemy is, but we know Marco is just a patsy and a pawn in a bigger game–one that may only end up being hinted at when the Amazon run ends.

Assorted Musings (Full Spoilers):

-Tried writing this review last night, but only got as far as “wow.”

-I love Monica now. I also love that she got to reverse her damsel-in-distress schtick from last week and pull Holden to safety after beating little what’s-her-face-traitor-pants up. She was a character who really bothered me when we first met her–not because of anything Anna Hopkins did, mind you–but because I felt like her whole “sleep with you for the story” bit was playing into the worst stereotypes of female journalists. I like to tell myself she was just toying with Amos to throw him off his game and wouldn’t have ever gone through with it.

-Interesting that we get some triumph in the midst of the crisis. I think it’s going to be important that the three rocks that were shot down were only caught because of Avasarala’s intervention. I assume that will be important in why fleet command turns to her.

-That speech. THAT SPEECH. Keon Alexander is absolutely nailing it as Marco Inaros. A cult leader who believes his own propaganda. Never mind that the Belt was free and poised to profit enormously from the opening of the ring gates, but I’ll be damned if at the end of the speech we as an audience weren’t kind of, “well, yeah, they do deserve to be free…right?” That seductive mother f’er! Just. Perfect.

Field Guides to Immortality

How many does it take to constitute a trend?

Like, remember how for several years it seemed like Hollywood kept making the same movie twice? There was the year we had two comets-are-going-to-destroy-the-world movies. Then there was the year of two animated penguin adventures. We even had a year with two different Truman Capote biopics–as if the world needed any.

So is this a trend? Is it just some weird fluke of my eclectic and unstructured reading habits? It just strikes me as odd that I can remember reading three books in the last few years with immortal protagonists of one stripe or another, but all of them kind of skirting any pigeonholed genre associations and flirting with mainstream or literary fiction. (Really, it’s remarkable simply because I remember them since I’m kind of bad at actually consolidating reads in long term memory.)

The most recent I read was The Invisible Life of Addie Larue by V.E. Schwab. In it, the titular character has been walking the earth for about three hundred years. She’s got kind of a mixed bag of a curse hanging over her–courtesy of a dark god she kinda accidentally prayed to in the nighttime forest of seventeenth century France. She gets to be eternally young, but no one remembers her. Literally. It’s a total out of sight out of mind scenario. So it makes it easy to shoplift, but hard to make friends.

But it seems like just a little while before that I’d read The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August. No curse here. In fact, folks like this titular character think of themselves as somewhat superior to regular, Joe Schmo human beings. You see, when they die, they just start over at the beginning of their lives, ad infinitum. (They usually spend their second lives in mental institutions since it’s quite unsettling to go through your childhood knowing you were previously a full-grown adult.)

Larue actually name checks the older, and I think, better-regarded Life after Life by Kate Atkinson, even though it’s August that seems to share the basic premise. In that novel, which really smacks of more literary aspirations, the not-titular character of Ursula Todd goes through a similar cycle of death and then do-over–like a cosmic video game, but one that lacks the potential for that analogy since she’s always born in 1910.

Atkinson’s novel seems intent on interrogating how choices define our identities. The others seem mostly intent on selling books. Harry has some adventures hunting another immortal who’s trying to redirect future history to his liking. Addie finally meets a boy who can remember her, but finds out it’s all a trick from the night god who cursed her in the first place…and who also wants to marry her.

I’m not sure how these books found their way into my path. Somehow I actually have a hard copy of Atkinson’s book, although I can’t recall how. But the others were Kindle books and how I work through those is simply to download previews from wherever and if the preview keeps my interest then the empire of that smiley logo gets ten bucks from me. I suppose it says something about either my existential dread or the machinations of Amazon’s algorithms that these books ended up in my library.

For what it’s worth, these last two are just so-so. Addie Larue in particular spiraled down on me and I was left pretty dissatisfied by the ending. Schwab doesn’t seem to have really spent much time really thinking about what that bizarre kind of isolation might do to a person psychologically and instead seems intent on setting up a really far fetched love triangle: a girl, a boy, and the god who cursed them both?

What I’m wondering is: Am I missing some larger trend? I mean, I think I would have noticed if this had reached Twilight-level fandom where suddenly Barnes & Noble had to have a “Teen Paranormal Romance” section to hold all the imitators. But are there other books like this out there these days? Is this, as they say, a thing?

I’m sure that’s what Schwab is hoping for. Maybe a sequel where Addie meets her boy toy once he’s grown to manhood and has to weigh (again) the prospects of life with a mortal? Or maybe it’s already happening and there’s a reddit somewhere debating Team Henry vs. Team Luc (Yes, that stands for what you think).

 

The Expanse is Back!

Gee…I wonder why there’s no character poster for Alex.

My posts on pop culture are strange and erratic, I know. Since the Summer of Sci-Fi®, it’s sort of just every-once-in-a-while-whenever-I-happen-to-watch-something. In that time, though, I doubt I’ve posted more on any one intellectual property than I have on The Expanse.

I could go back and count to check, I suppose, but who’s got time for that–because The Expanse Season 5 premiered tonight!

So, I’m going to do this write-up in stages of increasing spoilerdom. Be warned! No, really, you will be warned.

Stage 1: No spoilers

Ever since its premiere, fans of the novels have been anxiously awaiting this season. I always tell people when proselytizing about the show that they have to watch the first four episodes. If they’re not hooked by the fourth episode “CQB,” then I don’t know what’s wrong with them and they’re beyond all hope.

Just kidding. But what I really have always wanted to say is, “Just wait for season 5!” You know, a season that hadn’t happened. Such was my faith in the show runners and this phenomenal cast who have consistently elevated the source material at every turn. And the writers and producers seem to have known that fans of the books upon which the show are based were salivating for this season as it has been foreshadowed from the first season in ways that the books never did.

Likewise, many fans of the books cautioned viewers to be patient through season four. The novel that much of the fourth season’s storylines were taken from centered entirely on the new colony world of Ilus. Wisely, the show widened the scope, in part to lay the groundwork for what was to come in season five but also in part to keep other fan-favorite characters like Bobbie Draper, Camina Drummer, and Chrisjen Avasarala involved in the action.

The first three episodes of season five that premiered tonight follow that same formula, though this time it’s more in keeping with the scope of the original novel. And what a scope it is. The show runners seem to be flashing money at the viewers with lavish, indulgent tracking shots through the various settings, painting the true expanse of the story’s worlds in ways the show rarely has before. Compared to the sometimes claustrophobic atmosphere of the first season, The Expanse on Amazon is able to really stretch its limbs and give its epic story the vistas it deserves.

The first three episodes of season five pick up the key threads from the end of season four and pull the crew of the Rocinante and the other central players toward the apex of the monumental conflict that will dominate this season…

If you haven’t already watched them, then like I said, I don’t know what’s wrong with you. Go binge!

Stage 2: Spoilers for Season 5 So Far

Throughout these three episodes, the ongoing menace of Marco Inaros’s grand plan looms. We open the first episode as Felip plays clean-up, tidying a loose end caused by the unexpected break up of one of the asteroids Marco has covered with stealth composites and hurled on collision courses with Earth itself. Later, we see him studying his holographic display of the rocks making their progress toward their target again and again, like a slowly tightening noose.

The tension as the heroes fail to connect the dots–with most dealing with only incomplete views of the whole puzzle–is offset with the personal missions the key characters are on as the season opens.

The core four of the Rocinante crew have gone their separate ways while the ship is refit. Amos is heading off to tend to personal matters on Earth, visiting his homeward for the first time in decades (and, we learn, for the last time). Alex is on Mars (in the Razorback, which we learn is Bobbie’s “legitimate salvage” now, presumably parked on Tycho, racking up dock fees) to see if he can salvage a relationship with his ex-wife (nope) and son (maybe).

As the whole solar system comes to know Marco’s name and the bounty on his head grows larger, Naomi decides to chase after her son before his father gets him killed, leaving a dejected Holden behind to investigate the latest attempt to seize control of the last remaining protomolecule sample in the solar system.

It’s a shame to see the Roci gang split up, but it’s narratively necessary at this point. The series showed the four characters in a different starting position than the books ever did. Throughout season one, there was more distrust and tension among them. With Naomi’s betrayal in season two, the group was rent apart. But in season four, we saw them comfortable with each other and fused as a family after all their exploits.

That means that the conflicts our heroes face must come from without now. On their separate expeditions, we see each character being distinctly themselves. Naomi wrestles with her past by seeking out her long-lost son. Holden charges off self-righteously. Bobbie works the problem with the single-minded focus of a human weapon system.  Amos gets to demonstrate that he is an unquestionable bad-ass.

It’s hard to say who gets the best moment here. Amos’s confrontation with shake-down enforcers on his transit ship to Earth seems like a stand out, though. As he heads to the showers, knowing the local muscle will use his isolation as an opportunity to attack, he turns and intones without irony, “I hate waiting.”

But it’s Dominique Tipper as Naomi who wrenches the most emotion out of her arc (with Cara Gee’s Drummer as a close second). Her face and the subtle vibrato of her voice at key moments illustrate the conflict and the cracks in the veneer that she has built over the years. Naomi’s arc on the show is arguably the most complex and Tipper has been crafting this portrayal intricately, in small reactions and half-swallowed lines, for four years of TV.

By the end of these three episodes, the conflicts are laid bare. Bobbie and Alex are hot on the trail of the Martian conspiracy. Chrisjen has failed to convince Earth’s power structure about the attack she is convinced is coming. Holden and Johnson now know that someone is after the protomolecule. (Only Drummer is left out, deciding at this point that it is “not [her] fight.”)

And then in the end, we see the first of Marco’s rocks fall to Earth.

The attack is underway and as the season continues, the question is: Can our heroes rally in time to stop the rest and save millions, maybe billions of lives?

Stage 3: Full Book Spoilers Ahead! Turn back now if you don’t want to know what we novel readers know!

And the answer to that question is: Nope. It does seem, though, that the severity of Marco’s attack has been lessened dramatically. In the novels, the attack on Earth is debilitating, ultimately killing billions. But now the size of the rocks involved for the show seems to have been downgraded a bit. This makes the surprise attack a bit more believable and perhaps lessens the severity of Marco’s war crime–making it more plausible that ordinary belters might still rally behind him. In the books, I always thought his attack was so brutal that it crushed all sympathy for any characters that supported him–especially Michio Pa.

As many predicted, Drummer has inherited Pa’s story line from the books. I’m surprised how much of it she has inherited, though. It’s an interesting turn to see her character involved in the polyamorous relationship aboard ship like Pa was, but it seems jarring that she’s so comfortable leading her little pirate flotilla. Her motivation at the end of season four was to escape the sway of powerful leaders, to chart her own course. But for the disciplined figure we met as Tycho’s XO to now be comfortable with a life so far outside the law and so far from the better way forward for the belt that she and Fred envisioned seems to stretch credulity a bit. It was one thing for the principled former Marine Bobbie Draper to be tricked and blackmailed into a life of crime in season four, but that transition was painted clearly in terms of her alienation from the dying dream of Mars. Drummer’s shift seems…abrupt.

We know that Pa becomes a willing lieutenant in the Free Navy and only later breaks away from Marco when he ignores the humanitarian concerns of belters during his personal war. How Drummer will factor into that story arc remains to be seen–as do a number of other questions about where the adaptation will go from here. Naomi is in Marco’s hands, right on schedule. Amos is heading to visit Peaches. Bobbie and Alex are on the hunt together. But we also have further foreshadowing setting the stage for Laconia and the story of books seven through nine. How, though, the show will resolve those arcs in the “satisfying” way that the showrunners have now promised for the end of season six–now the last season on Amazon–is a mystery that can keep book readers in just as much suspense as fans who’re only watching the show.

Assorted Musings (Full Spoilers):

-Isn’t it cute how Amos tries to be a “real boy” with Lydia’s widower Charles. You can see him thinking, “Oh, he’s sad. What should a person do to comfort someone like this?” and coming up with that “there, there” arm squeeze.

-At first I was like, “Oh, shit, Monica’s gonna die!” when Holden went looking for her room. The TV tropes were totally telegraphing her being a goner. But then when she was gasping for air in the container after the soil fake out, I was like, “Nah, this ain’t Game of Thrones, Holden’s gonna get there all nick-of-time-big-damn-heroes style.”

-Ah, ain’t that cute! Look at all those little Laconians in training at the Mars war college. Who’s a cute little benevolent dictator? You’re a cute little benevolent dictator, that’s who! 

-I do not appreciate how they upped the stakes for Avasarala by letting us meet her daughter like that! Poor Chrisjen! On the other hand, I am totally okay if we never see second-Arjun again.

-Chrisjen’s investigation changes something significant from the books. The suddenness and lack of foreshadowing of the asteroid attack always struck me as bold, but the show started setting it up much, much earlier in season four. I think the show runners are smart, counting on a conventional TV audience to assume the heroes will prevent a disaster that’s been mounting for so long. I would think that an audience who doesn’t know what’s coming would be surprised by the devastation we’re about to see. I’ll get to test that when I watch with my daughter later. But this also puts an interesting spin on Avasarala’s character arc from last season. She swears now she’s “learned to listen,” and whereas she spent all of season four being in the wrong, now she is–at least factually–100% right. Book Avasarala was blindsided twice: once by Erinright and again by Inaros. When she returns to power after being unseated by Gao, show Avasarala is going to have a much more impressive resume, having received much of the credit for saving Earth from Eros, having ended the war, and now by having been the one person who tried to warn Earth about the attack.

-I’m a little disappointed that we haven’t seen a thriving Medina yet. Last time we were inside the drum was still just metal plates. I’d like to see that gift shop Drummer mentioned.   😉

-Dude, they had Thomas Jane direct episode three!

-Stupid Alex getting played. Don’t trust this moron, Bobbie.

-Poor Drummer having to listen to Ashford sing that song! She’s gotta drink that bottle finally in season six after Marco is finished, right?

-Oh, shit, those fish know something’s up!

 

The Buck Stops Here

This is the latest and last in my series on “ungrading.” Here are the other entries: I, II, III.  and IV.

I think I’ve been avoiding writing this.

I am not a scientist. I have participated in scientific studies as both subject and assistant. I believe in the ethos of science deeply. But very little classroom research qualifies as actual science and my efforts to “experiment” with ungrading in my classroom this semester are worthy of the name only metaphorically. This dalliance with trying to subvert the overbearing nature of the hundred point grading scale in our classrooms today had far too many variables and relied far too much on my subjective experience to qualify as a real experiment.

Still, within the confines of the metaphor, I think it’s safe to say: The experiment failed.

In terms of energy and time, the demands of trying to negotiate grades with students were a source of constant frustration for me over the last several weeks. Student reflections were often too shallow and frequently far too generous to be meaningful. And every time a student gave themselves a 95 for an essay that, I thought, the rubric dictated something more in the 80 range, it meant following up, swapping e-mails, meeting in sidebar chat rooms…

Toward the end of the semester, as time became more and more of a precious commodity, I told the students that I would have to cut through some of the process to tell them more directly what I thought their work would score in response to their reflections. I told them this was “in the interest of time” and in my messages to them, I still kept the grade an open discussion, asking “what do you think?” in my replies about why I would score it lower.

But that was pretty much a farce. The older version of BlackBoard that we’re using this semester doesn’t allow them to directly respond. To answer my counter questions, students would have to go out to their e-mail and reply. Some did, but most took the real meaning of my messages: This is what you really get.

As I reflect now, I think that is a really damning statement on my grading–not just this semester, but for years and years. In student reflections, I can see a window into how students think their grades should work.

In their final feedback to me (from our closing session in the BlackBoard forums and through their final exam essay which was a literacy narrative about their time in class), I see that lesson hammered home. One said, “I also didn’t like how Helmling graded under the guise of removing that ‘toxic gradescale.’ You seem to be still using the same grade scale that all English teachers do, the ‘arbitrarily’ grades given by the teacher’s opinion. But I commend your efforts.” While others echoed a more common lament, “I was pretty disappointed with the grade because I put a lot of effort into the essay and didn’t get the grade I deserved but then again, they don’t grade you on the amount of time you worked on it rather they grade you on how good the essay turned out to be.”

I’ve had a reputation for being a “tough” grader for years. But maybe I’ve never thought enough about how students really see that. Some tell me that these tough standards help them grow. But in their heart of hearts, would most of them have preferred a push-over English class with an easy A? Would most of them prefer to get 100s for “working hard” regardless of how well their compositions take shape?

Is there even a way to measure effort? What would that look like? Time? Calories burned? What is effort? Some students can produce beautiful, complicated writing without much effort. Some could labor from sun up to sun down for a week and still not really get what they need to do in an essay. I often work hard on some home improvement project. Making three to four trips to Lowe’s for parts. Cursing and sweating away an afternoon with some pipe or some damned thing. Only to eventually accomplish little more than a crappy stop-gap fix that some professional is going to laugh at when I pay a hundred dollars an hour to really fix it down the road.

And yet, even as I sneer dismissively at the idea of awarding credit merely for effort, I know that I am always trying to encourage students to take risks in their writing, to push themselves. Yet if I’m grading the final product harshly, how safe are they going to feel taking those risks? I’ve tried to build in revision windows and other exercises to foster this behavior. I use Google Docs which makes all revisions completely reversible if students don’t think they worked out. But none of these have ever been much more successful than this grading experiment at changing students’ expectations or perceptions of the writing process and how it’s evaluated.

I still feel like almost every single student would like to just be able to breeze through the class without having to sweat much over how good their writing is.

That feels like a very cynical conclusion and maybe the bottom line is that, like Danny Glover’s Murtaugh in the Lethal Weapon movies, I’m just getting too old for this…

Maybe teachers should be put out to pasture after twenty years or so. Even those revision windows, where I read through students’ first efforts (which they are not allowed to call “rough drafts”) are starting to feel exhausting. The Herculean efforts I make to read and provide feedback on two hundred or so essays inside of three days so that they can use that feedback to revise before the final is due for official scoring are feeling so draining that when I next create my syllabus for this semester’s class I’m seriously tempted to just go to a one-and-done grading schedule–especially when so many kids don’t even bother to fix the specific issues I point out in their writing, much less use the feedback as a foundation for really deep reflection on the work as a whole.

Obviously, if I was going to continue with “ungrading,” then there are things I could do better. More models and more training with the rubric–a rookie error that I tried to correct midcourse–would be smart. but I’d also need to build in more conference time. Much, much more. So much so that it would require changing the basic ebb and flow of instruction in my class. I think for something like this to really work in a writing class, I’d need to make class time much more of an excuse to sidebar with students. Scheduled class time would be largely dedicated to workshop and work time during which I could pull students aside to look at their writing. I plan for a lot of that now, but to really do self-evaluation well, I’d need to flip it completely. My gut recoils at the scale of the change to my practice this would require. It would mean less time with me modeling how to break down texts. Less time in back-and-forth group activities.

Grading their own writing would eat my class.

I don’t know if it would be worth it. Of course, not all the feedback about the grading system was negative. Many students said they “liked” it, but their reflections on why were as limited as some of their other reflections had been. Still, some gave me pause. One said, “Although the whole concept of giving ourselves a grade on our essays was difficult at first, I actually found that it motivated me to write a better esssay. In previous years I would just write and submit letting the fate of my grade fall in someone elses hands, but this time around it was cool to get some of my own opinions of my writing out there. It also helped me personally see my own mistakes as I graded my own essay.” That was certainly one of the outcomes I hoped for, but was it enough? The main goal of this experiment was for students (and me) to think and worry less about grades and focus more on craftsmanship. Considering how much grading continued to loom over us as we worked together this semester, that is the objective that was the most abysmal failure.

These numbers are just baked into the system too deeply. Especially with the compressed time table of this semester (our nine week grading periods were stripped down to seven weeks), the required three and six week progress reports felt like the students and I were constantly negotiating grades.

Even if they weren’t, if I had been able to say, “No numbers!” until the end of the semester, wouldn’t they have felt even worse about my final judgements coming all at once? If they’d come to the end in December and said, “I get a 95” and I’d laughed in their faces (figuratively). Wouldn’t my “tough” grading have seemed all the much more subjective? Even more arbitrary?

It’s probably obvious from the tone of the paragraphs above that I don’t intend on continuing this experiment. Since next semester is technically a different course for them, I’ve already started hinting that it will work differently. But I told them the other day that even in classes (like their upcoming semester) where students don’t directly participate in their grading, I am always open to discussing and negotiating grades since grading writing is inherently subjective.

Maybe the change I should make is try to reduce some of that subjectivity. For the last several years I have leaned primarily on one writing rubric, a modified version of the old AP 1-9 grading scale. I tweaked it a bit, but felt that at its core, it was a good holistic rubric.

But maybe what I should try next is a more detailed and less holistic rubric. Instead of broad, sweeping characterization of their writing overall, provide points for specific behaviors in the writing–with less detailed in-text feedback and a system where they have to go back and account for what in their writing earns them the points in each domain on the rubric.

Yes, yes…I think that will be my next experiment.

The Future of The Expanse

Recently fans of the best sci-fi show on TV (wait, are we still calling it TV anymore?) had some bittersweet news to digest.

One bit of news was that series regular Cas Anvar would not be returning to the show after season five–scheduled to begin airing on December 16th.

Anvar played Alex Kamal, the spunky pilot who ferried around some of the show’s principle characters in the converted gunship Rocinante. Anvar was pivotal to rallying the show’s fans–who he dubbed the “screaming fire hawks” after a throw-away line from his character in the first season–to help save the Expanse when the show was canceled by the SyFy network after season three.

But he was also apparently kind of a scumbag? This summer reports–and screenshots, lots and lots of screenshots–emerged painting a picture of Anvar as a serial sexual harasser who had few compunctions about hitting on underage girls.

It’s disappointing for fans of the show. Last season a side character was recast and the change was not only noticeable but for many, quite unwelcome. Still, perhaps the recasting could work out like Daario Naharis in Game of Thrones. That was a god-send. If we’d had to watch Ed Skrein’s sleazy take on the character for three more years then I think that awful ending of the series would’ve been the least of our worries.

But the bigger news for fans of the show was that the series was instantly renewed for a sixth season…which would be its last.

Some fans became histrionic, calling this a “cancellation.”

Folks, when they cancel your show, it just goes away. It doesn’t get a pledge to sink millions of dollars into another season. (Just ask the Browncoats.)

Still, even though I am a huge, huge proponent for ending TV series gracefully (I suffered greatly from what I call X-files Disenfranchisement Syndrome in the 90s) I found it disappointing news as well.

You see, I’ve been telling people for years to strap in for nine seasons of the Expanse. We are a few months away from the ninth and final book in the novel series that the show is based on. Its authors have been adamant that they, too, like stories with clear endings, but most of us hardcore fans were expecting the show to follow the arc of the books. In the wake of the news that Amazon planned to only produce the show through the sixth season, fan communities erupted with questions: “What about books seven through nine?!?”

It seems that show runner Naren Shankar has already given us an answer. In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, he indicated that the upcoming season five is drawn mostly from the fifth novel, so there seems to have been no effort to condense the story arc of the 5th and 6th books. That likely means there’s just no time to cram in the stories from books seven through nine.

Without going too far into spoiler territory, it’s common knowledge that the 7th book took place after a significant time jump. It seems now that the show will conclude prior to that time jump. Since the novel series is basically a trio of trilogies, ending after book six will be a natural place to, if not stop, then at least pause. The story told in that last trilogy, while obviously connected to the previous arcs, is pretty distinct. There is going to be at least one, and maybe two, large open doors in terms of big story arcs that have already been foreshadowed, but it certainly won’t feel like a giant cliffhanger. It’s not like ending Game of Thrones as Dani was heading to Westeros or before they got to Winterfell in Season 8–which we all just really wish they had done now.

And will that be it? Will the show just leave a few mysteries dangling?

Maybe, maybe not. Shankar had previously said when asked about the time jump in the novels that he thought they knew how they could handle it. Could it be that this was his plan? Is maybe the series over…but just for now? Maybe Alcon and Amazon and all the cast and production team are just going to let some of that time jump happen naturally. Then in a few years, perhaps the gang will get back together–with, um, the recast Alex–and finish the story.

After all, series revivals are all the rage right now. Maybe The Expanse will be the first one to do it deliberately.

The State of Destiny

Yeah, that’s my girl.

The first-person shooter is a staple of the gaming landscape and I’ve been along for the whole ride. I remember punching the arrow keys in the original Wolfenstein way back when. These days, various first and third person shooter games see their respective stars rise and fall with games like Fortnite, Apex, and Overwatch featuring player bases that surge and wane depending on seasonal content and shifting metas.

But amidst that crowded field, there is also a stalwart community of Destiny players–a game that its fans don’t so much come back to as never leave.

Though it doesn’t put the kind of numbers on the board that, say, Fortnite has at its peak, the Destiny community is committed and they play a lot–like a lot. It’s an attractive prospect for a developer and myriad titles have tried to replicate or improve upon the formula. The Division and its sequel, Anthem, and even the big, flashy Marvel’s Avengers game have all tried to establish a persistent community around the logic of loot shooters: Play to get gear so you can play to get more gear.  And all of these have, to varying degrees, failed.

I’ve written before about the strange brain-washing appeal of Destiny and games like it. That was years ago, though. And I’m still playing.

Like many players, Destiny has become my hobby. During the homebody routine of pandemic/lock-down life, it’s just a staple part of my day. Wake up. Check e-mail. Teach online classes. Take the dog to the park. Eat. Watch something with the wifey. Play Destiny with the clan. Read. Sleep.

I’m part of the very much-larger Destiny community, but I also have a core group of friends–and I don’t even feel tempted to put that word in quotations anymore because I’ve played with these people for years now–who spend time almost every evening shooting a few space monsters together and helping each other out with whatever we “need to do.”

That feeling of “needing” to do work on characters or quests is obviously part of Destiny’s addictive feedback loop. But there are plenty of games that have matched the loot cycle or even improved upon it. So what makes Destiny special and allows it to keep on grinding where other games have gone through more traditional flash-in-the-pan-and-on-to-what’s-next cycles?

One obvious answer is that its shooting mechanics–the raw feel of what this game offers–are second-to-none. Bungie, Destiny’s developer, were the original developers behind the venerable Halo series and you see its DNA in Destiny. But Destiny has opened up the formula to truly bizarre and wonderfully weird variations on the old Wolfenstein shooter mechanic. I now routinely run around with a chainsaw sword in Destiny. Last month, I really enjoyed playing with this particle cannon thing that dropped a purple orb of space magic that I could pick up and then dunk on enemies to disintegrate them.

So it’s just fun, sure. But again, there are lots and lots of fun games. Why does this one keep fans like me so hooked?

It’s not the story. There is a story. The story is weird. The story was a problem for a long time in the game’s early days. But it has blossomed of late, with rich characters and even elements of its world–or, er, solar system–that change because of developments in the story. The recent expansion to the game, Beyond Light, was one of the best in terms of story, probably second only to the peak of all Destiny-dome, the Forsaken expansion from two years ago.

But you don’t play the game for the story. It’s just one of the many little facets that may or may not appeal to players. No one thing can explain its lasting appeal. And I think that’s a big part of it, actually, because Destiny is no one thing. It has different stripes and flavors of PvE–Player vs. computer-controlled enemies–content. From mindless little patrols in places like the expansive and very, very white new planetary zone on Jupiter’s moon of Europa or elaborate raids that require extensive coordination between six different people with the patience of saints. It also has a vibrant, and constantly out of balance PvP sandbox where players use those bizarre guns and super powers against each other as, um, a training exercise.

And somewhere in that interplay, somewhere in that inventory of sometimes garish weaponry and armor and that endless to-do list of stuff to do to level-up or simply to get your character looking smoking, something kind of ineffable happens.

Everything in Destiny’s story that doesn’t make any sense–and there’s a lot of it–gets explained away as space magic. And what is magic but a word we use to describe something we can’t quite explain, can’t quite pin down.

Whatever it is that makes Destiny the stand-out from all the wanna-be loot shooters that have failed to sink their roots into players’ brains and free time in the same way must be just that: something kind of magical.