The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living

No one suspected that the shark had put himself in the box. Not only chosen the box, not only swum into it in careful, back-and-forth motions like a car squeezing into a too-tight parking space, but constructed the box itself, designing the enclosure with its supposedly primitive mind meant only to think about the sweetness of thrashing fish meat; somehow–with gesticulation of fin and careful clenching of jaw muscles, it riveted the iron beams holding the plexiglass.

And now, it holds still not through the effects of any formaldehyde emulsion, but through its own discipline, through commitment to its art.

Biography

Self portrait of my
middle
perhaps end years

This is what I have seen.

This is what I will be.

There
just there
a plain of rippled mockery
–lambasting my white privilege

And everywhere
everywhere the aging pull of gravity

You will think you
see my blood
–and it is there–
but not where you imagine

You can see the rolling hills
I have never lain upon

Behold the artifice/artifact that
constrained me

And if you pick just the right detail:
my soul itself

Atlas

A pebble that needed no support

no ligatures between firmament
and
firm ground

Are we reaching
or digging

Is this some new titan
holding up the heavens

How long until the bough breaks
And
down
we tumble
down

Brown bones
of the world
Bronzed but brittle

Did He merely dream
Was he only hoping
that there was some weight upon his shoulders

Because what if not?
What if it was only
open hands
and an indifferent sky

Arete

The idea came to him while reading Ovid.

Suddenly, he thought the poet had not been ambitious enough. 

Yes, Ovid had written a history of the world beginning with the deepest lore of Greek mythology up to the deification of Caesar—but so much felt glossed over. There were so many corners cut. 

So this would be his answer to Ovid: a new translation from the Latin, but interspersed with his own translations of Homer. But he would introduce his own verse as well. When Ovid got to the Trojan War and glossed over nine years worth of battles, he would layer in new stories of the heroes, then connect wholesale to the Iliad, then keep going. An entire verse history of the Western world, calling on all the great poets. Link up and hold hands with Virgil. Then compose a whole new epic based on Gibbon for the fall of Rome. Thousands of new lines to cover the Dark Ages. Meet up with Beowulf, sure. Why not? The poetry would come alive again with the Renaissance. There would be cantos for each great artist, each great thinker. Traipse from Michelangelo all the way to Shakespeare and then Newton—Locke, Descartes, Roseau. A whole epic for the Age of Reason. Who should be the heroes for the conquest of the Americas? Surely a war poem for Washington, but he’d need others in between. No matter, he could shift focus as liberally as Ovid himself did. Eventually, he’d reach the apex of human conflict—an epic beyond all previous epics for World War II. Then treat the Cold War with the same sort of muted meter he had the Dark Ages. Weave that into the doldrums of the early twenty-first century, through plague and corruption.

And then…then go further. Beyond his own era, the whole poem would become science fiction. Convert Kim Stanley Robinson to iambic hexameter. He salivated at the prospect of a space battle modeled on Hector’s flight from Achilles. And beyond. Reembrace myth. Follow Superman to the doom of the sun, finally weakening when its rays turn red. 

As he considered the scope of it, he thought constantly of Chaucer and the unfinished Canterbury Tales, but tried to encourage himself. He was a young man, after all. If he could live to ninety, then he had a chance of finishing. There was time. He mapped out a schedule on the wall of his apartment. There would be no room in his life for something so mundane as a job now. He’d have to rely on some kind of public assistance. And Carol and the kids would have to go. Unneeded distractions. 

But he would really have to learn Ancient Greek to get started. 

In praise of alternate versions…

Writing about Justice League last night made me think about other movies with alternate versions. Usually these are extended cuts and often they come into being because a film suffered some kind of excessive meddling from the studio late in production.

I think my favorite example of the latter is I Am Legend. The theatrical release had a different ending than was originally scripted that has Will Smith’s character blow himself up to save the “cure.” The real ending (yeah, it’s the real one) sees Smith’s Dr. Neville acknowledge the monsters’ right to exist by freeing the subject he’d been studying so she can return to her mate. It’s much more interesting and it preserves the central theme from the novel the movie was based on–that Neville, in trying to restore his world is the monster, the legend, to the others, to the vampires.

For extended cuts, another great example is Ridley Scott’s Kingdom of Heaven. It’s an often overlooked movie, but one I really enjoy. As a presentation of the actual history of the crusades, it’s utter poppycock, of course, but Scott isn’t doing history. It works as an allegory for our own religious divisions and has some great speeches from the main character played by Orlando Bloom. Of course, that’s all that’s great about Bloom’s, um, shall we say stoically restrained performance, but that’s why the extended edition is so much better as it rightly hands much more of the movie over to Eva Green. Because if you have Eva Green, you give the movie to Eva Green, by God.

But my favorite alternate version has to go to my #2 movie of all time, the Best Action Movie of All TimeTM: Aliens. The extended cut doesn’t change the outcome of the movie like I Am Legend, nor does it transform any characters’ motivations like Kingdom, but it does add such a richer subtext to Ripley’s journey. Really, it’s the only version worth talking about.

Those are the ones that spring immediately to my mind, but maybe I’ll amend this post as I think of others.

Snyder v Whedon: Eclipse of Egos

 

Well, it’s here.

The long journey from fanboy wetdream to actually finished film-type thing is complete and we now live in a world where Zack Snyder’s Justice League is a reality. I won’t bother recounting its journey to the not-so-silver screen beyond the broad strokes since so much has been written in the broader geek-o-verse about the fabled “Snyder Cut” and how it came to not-be and then sorta be:

After the stratospheric success of The Dark Knight, Warner Brothers seemed to hope that director Christopher Nolan would be a central architect in their attempt to match the sprawling narrative and unimaginable financial success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Nolan was a producer and writer on the first ship commissioned for that would-be cinematic fleet: Man of Steel. But Nolan really wanted to just go on to make increasingly inscrutable puzzle boxes out of celluloid, so the reigns of the DC’s new “universe” of movies were placed instead in the hands of Man of Steel director Zack Snyder. Snyder moved forward to advance his vision of a DC film series with his own singular style.

What came next was, um, not good.

But Batman v Superman: Insert Title Absurdity Here did make money, so the ball kept rolling. The reception to what some coined the DC Murderverse, though, was increasingly making Warner Brothers nervous about that “vision” of Snyder’s (at one point, he wanted to make Superman the bad guy). They scaled back his planned two part Justice League movie and kept a wary eye on the production. Then, when Snyder suffered a terrible personal loss and had to step back, they swooped in. They hired Joss Whedon, director of the first two Marvel’s Avengers movies to rebuild and reshoot a Frankenstein version of Justice League. It didn’t work. Between awful CGI to erase Henry Cavil’s Mission Impossible mustache (which Paramount, in a feat of legendary pettiness, would not allow him to shave for the Justice League reshoots) and the tonal clashes, Justice League was a mess. Its box office returns showed it, too.

But from the bowels of the Internets, came a revelation: There was a Snyder cut of the movie! The movie he intended existed out there somewhere. It had only be let loose into the light of day.

Well, no there wasn’t. Snyder may have had a rough cut using tons of his original footage (and there were tons of it, apparently) but it was nothing ready for release–and not just for lack of post-production work. In fact, now that Warner Brothers is desperate to convince people they should continue paying for HBO Max, they’ve bankrolled Snyder’s version of Justice League. Most of the footage did exist, but there were reshoots to finish his vision of the film and that vision has shifted since he’s added new scenes never imagined when he was doing principal photography. All this supposedly cost $70 million.

And what have we reaped?

Honestly, it’s mostly the same movie, but with any lighter touches Whedon added erased. All of Snyder’s brutality and his signature aesthetic now permeate every frame. And there are a lot of frames. The movie is four hours long–more proof that what we’re looking at now would never, ever have released in theaters.

The obvious question is: well, which one’s better? Snyder’s or Whedon’s? At this point, after watching the new version, I’d have a hard time calling a winner. The simplest answer is that neither is very good. Both are arguably better than Batman v Superman. Since it has room to actually provide context for the characters and villains who were shoehorned into the first version and since it maintains a singular, if nihilistic tone, I suppose many will argue that Snyder’s version is “better,” for whatever that’s worth. But it seems like a narrow set of criteria. Yes, some characters get much more development in this version–Cyborg and the villain Steppenwolf in particular, but many on the Internet have also pointed out how Wonder Woman is no longer “den mother” to the League, so that’s an improvement–but the new Snyder Cut mostly replaces an overstuffed, rushed film for a plodding, lumbering one. For every cheesy moment from the Whedon version that is cut, Snyder seems to offer up his own (usually just really dull, stinker lines of dialogue). And on top of those shortcomings, he piles on his signature wanton brutality, making the DC heroes overly violent, even murderous. (Spoiler: Superman’s resurrection scene now makes it clear the Man of Steel is perfectly willing to slaughter Batman before he gets his senses back.) But the greatest excess of all comes in Snyder’s half-hour epilogue which continues the Batman-is-somehow-clairvoyant-now bit from Batman v Superman but throws in a long, tedious exchange with Jared Leto’s regrettable Joker to boot. Whedon’s Justice League was a hot mess, but at least that was obviously the product of excessive studio meddling and a clear hatchet job. This turkey is all Snyder’s own.

What interests me more than the films themselves, though, is the story of these two men whose names have gone on the respective versions. It’s a story we can only see the vaguest outlines of. Ferreting it out requires subtlety and inference–so Snyder and his fans probably aren’t interested.

I became aware of Snyder and his oeuvre quite gradually. I’d seen and mostly liked his Dawn of the Dead remake. It was a solid entry in a genre that I thought really deserved to die already, pun intended. But I really, really enjoyed his 300 when it came out. I remember extolling it as the “ultimate guy movie.” In fact, when I got my first Blu-Ray player, that was one of the first discs I bought.

I was disappointed when I realized that not only was it a poor showcase of the HD movie format (because Snyder had stylized the digital product to emulate grainy film stock), but more so because one of my favorite pastimes is to enjoy bonus features on films I enjoy, like commentary tracks. But in Snyder’s commentary on 300, I really didn’t hear any insight into the choices in the production or discussion of the film’s characters or themes. It seemed like he spent all of the track that I bothered to listen to commenting on which rocks were real and which were CGI. I might be being unfair in retrospect, but I’d never listened to a director who seemed so superficial and showed so little insight about his or her creation.

Then someone, somewhere pointed out to me that really, the whole movie was just war porn and then I felt more than a little ashamed of how fond of it I’d been.

Man of Steel was certainly a serviceable Superman movie and I thought it boded well for what Warner Brothers was doing. Those hopes were dashed by Batman v Superman: Wait, Is This a Court Case? But to understand Snyder as a filmmaker, I don’t think that’s the movie to focus on. If you really want to understand where he’s really coming from, watch Sucker Punch.

In that 2011 film, a young woman played by Emily Browning is locked away in an asylum–a gritty asylum, of course, because this is Zack Snyder. Oh, did Snyder make a claustrophobic film about the psychological consequences of confinement or about characters overcoming adversity through camaraderie or something like that? A sort of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest for young girls?

Of course not.

You see, Browning’s character, who is only ever identified as, get this, “Baby Doll,” deals with her excessive and gratuitous trauma by escaping into a fantasy world. But it’s apparently not her fantasy world; instead, it seems like this fantasy world was concocted by a 13 year old boy.

Or, you know, Zack Snyder.

In this alt-reality layer of the film, Browning and her co-inmates (all of them played by actresses who are just way too good for this–even Vanessa Hudgens deserves better, for Pete’s sake!), are bad-ass action babes. Scantily clad, but skilled and tooled up for mayhem. They fight samurai, steam punk mech things, and, oh god, I just don’t remember. I never finished the thing. If there’s ever been a $200 million movie that’s more self-indulgent than this one, then I can’t think of it. After studying Snyder’s excesses in his filmography, it’s just impossible to see these sexualized young woman kicking ass as anything other than a pure manifestation of the man’s id on screen.

Obviously it’s dangerous to think you know a celebrity from their work and from their public statements. But in Snyder’s cheerleading over the years for his version of Justice League and in his petty, sniping tweets since his version was greenlit, it’s also hard not to see that same image: a 13 year old boy getting to make rad movies. A little bundle of toxic masculine id run amok…with a budget. His Superman and Batman and Wonder Woman kill people because he likes bloody action. Anything else seems juvenile to him (when the opposite seems more true to me).

But what of Joss Whedon?

My familiarity and appreciation of his work goes back further. I arrived late to both the Buffy and Firefly trains, but came to appreciate both stories deeply, introducing my kids to them in turn. His first film, Serenity, as the culmination of the Firefly story has always been one of my favorite films (and my model for quit-while-you’re-ahead storytelling). He established a reputation as a fantastic serial storyteller, particularly with ensemble casts. His fictional universes, each distinct, crackled with their own energy. Buffy characters spoke in a pop dialect too clever and too cool to be real. Firefly characters drawled in a surreal blend of Old West hokeyness and badly translated Chinese curse words. His shows wove humor, action, and real heart together in unexpected, no, in seemingly impossible ways. Buffy’s the perfect emblem. A pro-feminist take on navigating adolescence where the horrors of growing up become literal horrors. It was smart. It was unconventional. It was Joss Whedon. When Avengers was a huge success, we fans were elated on his behalf and looked forward to what he could create with all limitations thrown off now that he’d knocked it out of the park so well for Marvel.

The funny thing, though, is that nothing really came. There was that neat, intimate version of Much Ado About Nothing, but no new series. No new films. He did one more big paycheck for Marvel. Then accepted the Justice League hatchet job. Finally this past year came word that he would be creating a new series called the Nevers. (Victorian female super heroes…it sounded very Joss Whedon, but I’m so sick of superpowers, I can hardly stand it.) Now, though, he has walked away from that production for “personal” reasons.

Of course, those reasons might have a lot to do with the swirl of stories around his personal conduct. The uproar started when Ray Fisher, who played Cyborg in both versions of Justice League, started noisily complaining about both Whedon and higher-ups at Warner Brothers. He characterized Whedon as “abusive” on set. Of course, it was easy to dismiss Fisher as acting like a prima donna. He’d come largely from theater and maybe he just didn’t get the demands of making a big budget movie. Whedon was great with his actors. We all knew it. He had a stable of personalities–Tudyk, Acker, Denisof–who he worked with again and again. They loved him as much as we loved him! Fisher seemed like an outlier, probably influenced by what had to be a difficult shoot to rebuild a theatrical product from Snyder’s excesses. The Whedon version of the film had, after all, cut a lot of his story arc to make the film fit in a two hour format. Fisher was probably just crying about sour grapes…

Yeah, so, about that.

In the intervening weeks and months, the bloom has continued to come off the Whedon rose. Several members of his past casts, most notably Charisma Carpenter and Michelle Trachtenberg, have come forward to support Fisher with their own stories of feeling “abused” by Whedon. It cast in new light some of the accusations from his ex-wife about conversations where Whedon tried to justify his infidelity in ways that, well, sounded like something a Joss Whedon character would say. I feel like the nail in the coffin of the old image of Whedon that fans believed in came from Buffy herself, Sarah Michelle Geller, who briefly chimed in on the controversy to say that she had little to say, but that she supported those speaking out and did not want to forever be associated with Whedon’s name.

So here we have two directors with undeniably distinctive styles and visions in cinema who both also look to be separate portraits of the megalomania that sitting behind the camera seems to breed–or attract?

One, a man-boy with a camera and the other, a “casually cruel” auteur too in love with his own sense of himself to really see himself.

Or so it appears from the outside. Like I said, I know it’s a fool’s errand to try to psychoanalyze anyone from their work. Though he seems to lack self-awareness, Snyder’s bombast may only be one side of his personality. I don’t know him.

I thought I knew Whedon. That may sound like a naive thing to say, but Firefly was my favorite show (before a certain other series came out). I’ve watched and rewatched it dozens of times. My daughter and I have marathoned all of Buffy more than once. Angel was interesting at times, if uneven. Dollhouse had some great ideas that clearly never had room to develop.

Through his lens as a writer and director, we saw a vision of the world that was fascinating and enlightening.

(Now we all have to ask, what do we make of art made by a jerk? I mean, Hemingway was kind of an asshole, right? But still a genius.)

So even though I should know better by now, I still find myself wondering about the real Joss Whedon. His stories often have characters who rise and fall. Flawed heroes who lose their heroism, sometimes their humanity. He’s good as crafting tragic arcs, even tragic downfalls. Maybe, in the end, he became one of them, felled by his own harmartia.

If so, then at least he is aware, as anagnorisis–recognition of the fault–is a prerequisite for the true tragic hero to fall from grace. And when it comes in real life, not in a movie, then who knows what comes after…

On Looking into Riley’s Ovid

Much have I read in this kinda too-long tome
and really, what I keep thinking is:
Damn, these ancient gods
they really liked turning people into birds
…and trees
so I wonder
What Jungian race-lust does this reflect?
What does it say that we want so badly to fly
…and be still?

Uncountry

Like something off a stupid cat poster
Ugh, Mondays
I’m possessed by this kind of
Certainty
A sort of existential dread
Shaped like Lego bricks piled atop each other
Floor to ceiling
A certainty that I simply cannot
Do
This
Much longer

No, any longer
This chair begins to feel iron maiden-esque
The rotting, peeling faux-leather vinyl surface prickly as spikes being twisted in
The meaninglessness
Purposeless anchor drag
A day lived in service of acid-reflux career and Dust Bowl bank account

And in this bargain-rate despair
I think on the inevitability of death
The simple fact that all this must end
Will end
Someday
I recoil in horror
Feel it
Bone deep
Lost in an aching spiral of
Dear God, not this
And
Dear God, all of this
Anything
Forever please

Americanah and Behold the Dreamers: What Will Become of Their Dreams?

After finishing Imbolo Mbue’s Behold the Dreamers earlier this week, I did not immediately think back to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah. I’ve read several books from African ex-pats over the last few years, so the connection didn’t spring immediately to mind. But as I reflected, the two books became more and more entwined in my thinking.

Some of the comparisons are obvious, if superficial. Both novels portray immigrants from African countries who work their way through similar layers of the American immigrant experience, including protagonists who find jobs in service that bring them into the orbits of privileged white Americans. Behold the Dreamers follows Jende and Neni, a Cameroonian couple trying to make their way in Harlem just before the 2008 financial crisis. Their lives change dramatically when Jende snags a job as a chauffeur to the wealthy Edwards family–whose patriarch is an executive at Lehman Brothers. Americanah’s chief protagonist is Ifemelu, a Nigerian student separated from her original love interest by post-9/11 visa restrictions. Though she also does a tour as a nanny for a white family, her real exposure to white privilege is through a romantic relationship that opens her up to travel, fine dining, and ultimately to being fundamentally misunderstood. The contrasts between the worlds of black immigrants being exposed to America’s endemic racism and the lives of the white people they interact with inform both authors’ visions of America and, to varying degrees, act as the engines driving their characters’ evolutions.

And much separates the two novels as well. Adichie’s Americanah is undeniably a more sophisticated work. One of the highlights is the way that the first half of the novel is structured around an extended flashback while Ifemelu has her hair braided (a conceit that, sadly, has no parallel in the second half of the novel) and Adichie’s prose is on the whole richer, more sophisticated. Mbue’s prose on the other hand is unadorned, even pedestrian, but it steers well clear of any pat moralizing or judgments—even when the characters or their backstories swing toward melodrama. (She also insulates her white characters from too harsh a lens: Clark Edwards tries to warn his colleagues that the ship is sinking, but is dismissed; his wife is spared from being portrayed as simply a pampered wife of privilege through a painful and tragic backstory that earns her more sympathy that most people would earn while fretting over the horrific prospect of having to give up a summer home because of the national economic meltdown.)

It would be easy to read either novel simply as an indictment of the American Dream, which fails to deliver its promise in both. But Mcue’s impartial, plain-voiced narration and  Adichie’s carefully interwoven storylines seem to fall short of offering an outright evisceration of that American Dream on the order of something like Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man or Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle from past eras. Perhaps that’s because other great novels that have analyzed these themes were surgery, diagnostics–but both Americanah and Behold the Dreamers feel more like postmortems.

Both feature characters choosing to abandon the American Dream instead of being crushed by it. Through those perspectives of erstwhile American immigrants returning to their home countries and using the experience and resources gleamed from their temporary immigration to build better lives back home, I wonder if something fundamentally new isn’t being documented. Much has been written in the wake of the Trump era about the decline of American, its loss of prestige, the likely end of the “American Century” before it quite hit the 100 year mark. These novels reckon to some extent with the catastrophes of 9/11 and 2008, and looking back, I wonder if historians won’t look at these as a chain of routs like those that befell Rome before its collapse: barbarians at the gates and mad rulers fiddling while the city burned.

But if we are living through the death throes of the American Dream, Mbue and Adichie’s novels suggest something else may be happening alongside this contraction. I’m fond of telling my high school students that they need to know this sequence: Socrates taught Plato, Plato taught Aristotle, and Aristotle taught Alexander the Great, who conquered much of the known world–and that’s why Greek culture was so influential.

It’s an oversimplification, of course, but cultural myths always are. The American Dream is, or was. But as I think about the way that dream captivated characters like Mbue’s Neni and the way that American media has transmitted the underlying ethos of that dream throughout the world, I wonder if even when it is no longer a lure to others, it might mutate into something America exported, something unconscious the myth disseminated into the hearts and minds of millions of others around the world.

Perhaps that’s what novels like these, so clearly American in their structure and ambitions, offer us: a window into a post-America American Century.

The Expanse, S5E10: The Beginning of the End

Stage 1: No Spoilers

The finale of The Expanse’s pivotal fifth season has arrived.

After a season on the ropes and separated across the vastness of space, the Roci crew—and Drummer—are set for a collision around Naomi’s booby-trapped ship. Online I’ve seen complaints about the pacing of this season because apparently a ship-to-ship hard vacuum jump, multiple asteroid impacts on Earth, a 1917-style continuous take gun fight, and a death blossom PDC battle aren’t enough action for some people. Well, if you were one of those people—first of all, get a grip—then hold on, because this week’s episode title is “Nemesis Games” and if that doesn’t scream action, then you need to get a dictionary. Almost every story line from the whole season is about to collide, with almost every member of the Roci extended family prepared to sacrifice themselves to save the others…

Stage 2: Episode Spoilers

And one of them will do exactly that.

After a season of moving separately through the darkness, most of the principal cast meet up in this week’s episode, quite violently, and almost all of them make a bid to lay down their lives for their friends. 

After getting his big action scene on Earth last episode, Amos unfortunately has to sit this one out. But Holden and the Roci are between a rock and a hard place. Marco’s assembled assault fleet is bearing down on them and they don’t have enough fuel to burn hard enough to escape. So Holden being Holden comes up with the most Holden plan ever: Turn and face them. Charge into the Free Navy flotilla’s superior numbers full-bore and hope to survive long enough to make them turn around and destroy them—thus saving Naomi, Alex, and Bobbie. 

Knowing what Holden’s plan means, Alex sends off one last message to his captain, promising to bring Naomi in safe, a pledge he means to keep even after Naomi’s tinkering on the Cheztawhatever means that it’s in a dangerous spiral, which Bobbie notes makes it incredibly dangerous to link up with. She reminds him that the G’s involved in such a maneuver would risk stroking them out, but he is undeterred. 

Though she hasn’t stepped foot on the ship since its first long dry-dock at Tycho, Drummer is still intimately bound to the Rocinante’s crew through her kinship with Naomi. She also knows all too well that Holden and his crew have literally saved the human race in the past, so being asked to “eat shit” and do Marco’s dirty work by destroying the ship—and presumably killing Naomi shortly thereafter—has not been sitting well with her, to say the least. Cara Gee has absolutely been knocking it out of the park with her anguished performance as her inner and outer conflicts were brought to a boil throughout the season. In the end, though, she is resolute and almost seems at peace when she asserts that “there was no other way.” Not just, there was no other way to save the Rocinante, but there was no other choice for her to make. She’s made the calculated choice before. When voting not to space him in season four, she gambled that Marco Inaros could be contained while maintaining the truce between the various factions. She did the necessary, politically-minded, arguably “smart” thing, but not the right thing. She knew in her gut that Marco needed to be spaced back then, and she knows in her gut that she cannot become one of his assassins now. It is only when she pays the price, part of which she knew she would face and part of which she only hoped she wouldn’t, that we see that tortured expression return to Gee’s face. As a character previously defined principally by her anger, this season has opened up and broadened Drummer, creating one of the most satisfying improvements over the source material. 

The back and forth in the shoot out as the Free Navy eats itself is heart-pounding—even if we never believed for a second that the Roci was going to get blown to bits. In the end, Drummer has announced herself and Marco has lost two of his prized Martian warships, leaving Holden free to turn back and try to save Naomi.

But all does not go well with the Razorback’s (sorry, still not calling it Screaming Firehawk) rescue of Naomi. Last week, she noted on her ad-hoc heads-up display that the Razorback was still closing on her. To warn them off, she forces a valve open on a thruster and sends the ship into a spin, but not just any spin. She makes sure that the rotation will create a centripetal pull toward the airlock door. When the time comes and Alex is almost on top of her and the Chimichanga, she lets the drag pull her out the airlock and away from the ship, hoping against hope that they will see her. She knows she’s too close for rescue, but if they can just see her and she can just stay conscious with her limited air supply long enough to signal them away, then her sacrifice will be worth it.

Of course, it turns out not to be her sacrifice. Because Bobbie is a badass with power armor (which we know has its own thrusters) she is able to save Naomi after spotting her hand signals. That’s a tremendous risk, though, as she must exit the Razorback after it’s been maneuvering at high-G to try to link up with the Chitty-chitty-bang-bang, but unbeknownst to everyone, the real risk and the real sacrifice comes from Alex. 

A lot of people will react to this major character death in light of the controversy surrounding the actor (more on that in a minute) but this death makes perfect narrative sense. The whole episode was structured around sacrifice: Drummer sacrificing her family, Holden being willing to sacrifice the ship to save the others, Alex and Bobbie risking themselves to save Naomi, Naomi flinging herself into space—again!—to try to save her friends. The whole theme of self-sacrifice becomes a Chekhov’s gun that must be fired by the end. 

Alex’s role in the Roci family was always as the glue. He was the first to argue that they had become a family. He was the one intent on holding them together. Really, from a narrative stance, he had served his purpose. By season four, the Roci crew was solid. No more revelations to shake their foundations. No more internal conflict. It’s notable that Alex had very little to do last season beyond inspire Lucia by musing about his own wrecked relationships. This season, we’ve hardly seen him out of that chair in the Razorback. Not only was he the most expendable of the core-four, but his departure opens up new possibilities. With Bull at the helm, for now, and Clarissa on board (and maybe Monica?), there are new dynamics and new possibilities for interpersonal interactions, none of which would be enhanced by Alex’s presence. 

By way of send off, we have a glum reunion between the remaining survivors of the Canterbury in the airlock of the Rocinante, right beside the plaque bearing their names…with one of them now missing. His loss serves as one more emotional weight for Naomi to bear since she blames herself, but the crew is back together and, for now, far from the danger at the edge of the solar system. We know they’ll be going back out there, but for now, they’ve earned a brief respite.

The episode and the season doesn’t end with the Roci gang, though. Instead, our gaze is pulled to the edge of the system, where Marco launches one more bold attack. In a dramatic battle against the ships guarding the ring gate, he disables the battleships from Earth and Mars with another barrage of, this time micro, asteroids coated in stealth composites and then, with help from his moles on Medina, blasts at the ships from all angles. There is one brilliant moment where we see the remaining Donnager-class battleship stripped of its armor but still valiantly firing its remaining weapons at the Free Navy fleet. 

But their cause is lost. 

Marco sails into the ring, seizing control of the ring space.

The very admiral from Mars who warned us that controlling the ring space was an asymmetrical chokepoint back in episode two finally reappears after his long trek across the solar system. And fans of the show finally know what the book folks have known all along, there was more to the Martian conspiracy than just selling out. Sauveterre and Babbage are heading to a ring-gate world, Laconia, to join one Admiral Duarte—the true mastermind behind the entire Inaros campaign and now sole-possessor of active protomolecule. We don’t get to meet Duarte yet, but we do get to see Cortazar’s excitement about whatever the protomolecule is doing to those giant structures in orbit of Laconia. Things are afoot and Marco’s whole war has been, for Duarte and his followers, a distraction to buy them space and time. 

But whatever that grand plan is, Sauveterre and Babbage will never get to see it come to fruition. As they transit the ring gate, the beings that Holden warned Fred about finally reveal themselves, gobbling up the ship as it disappears into oblivion. 

Stage 3: Season 6 and Beyond (Book Spoilers)

Despite the looming end of the series on Amazon next season, the show is unapologetically setting the foundations for the storylines of books seven through nine. It’s obvious that season six will end faithfully as well, meaning that while the solar system will settle into post-Free Navy peace with the Guild running interstellar transit through the rings (and presumably Drummer at its head), the Laconian Empire will be left to gestate behind that mine field of theirs. 

What does that mean for us, devoted fans? Yes, season six is, as the authors have pointed out, a “natural pause.” If The Expanse ends there and we never see anything else, it will still likely be one of the greatest (well, the greatest in my book) science fiction series of all time, but dare I hope that there is more already planned? The writers have seemed so coy about the decision to end the show after season six. We’ve heard from Shankar that “there is definitely more story to tell” and Frank himself used the “pause” word. I wouldn’t be surprised (and would be utterly delighted) if after season six finally airs sometime in 2022, a trilogy of films is immediately announced to conclude the story. I only hope that Alcon is that committed to the project. I can personally promise to buy the living hell out of Blu-Rays and 4K versions (I don’t even have a 4K player or TV) the same way all the Browncoats have bought multiple releases of Serenity (I own two DVD versions and the Blu-Ray…and the iTunes download). 

Stage 4: Elephant in the Room Commentary (Full Spoilers)

Obviously, Alex’s sudden and unexpected death is a huge moment for the show. It marks a tremendous departure from the source material as in the books Alex survives all the way until at least book eight, so the knee-jerk assumption is that this was written into the show to dispense with actor Cas Anvar whose deplorable conduct off screen surfaced this summer and led to his termination. But, admittedly without having crunched all the numbers, I don’t know if the math on that adds up. Principle photography for the show was concluded months before the allegations surfaced and production company Alcon’s subsequent investigation. It would be easy to simply plug in Alex’s death scene from a manipulated still frame, but several scenes afterward would have had to be reshot, especially Naomi and Holden’s interactions in sick bay. Now, it looks like Avasarala’s “sorry for your loss” could have been added with ADR after the shoot, but if Alex was meant to be in the finale, wouldn’t he have been all over the lounge scene on Luna? What makes me wonder if this wasn’t always meant to be a twist is the fact that, as with so many moments in the show before, this was actually heavily foreshadowed. Way back in season three, in this very same ship, Bobbie worried about killing Avasarala with a high-G burn. Then, in this episode, Bobbie warns Alex about stroking out in the maneuver to rescue Naomi—which, if a reshoot, would have actually required Anvar’s participation (actually, looking again, that could’ve been ADR also, but when Alex comes out of the hard burn, he definitely makes a point of shaking his head out like something’s wrong). What’s more, a death like this was originally in the cards for Fred Johnson. Could it be that in pulling Fred’s death forward, the show runners planned to use his fate, repurposed for Alex, as a dramatic conclusion to the season? I’m sure more information about why and how this played out will sneak out in the days to come, but I wouldn’t be surprised if this was all part of the plan. 

Assorted Musings (Full Spoilers)

-I missed the line about Hutch the first time through. I’d wondered because she was inert in the airlock with Amos, but I thought she’d passed out from the G’s like Clarissa. Amos was tending to her wounds as if she was still alive, but some folks I know suggested he was just sealing her up so she didn’t bleed all over the airlock in zero G. Glad that bad-ass Aliens-style reverse retreat thing wasn’t in vain. 

-Okay, so (curse my terrible memory) I finally looked up the name of Naomi’s ship: Chetzemoka. Like so many of the ship names in the series, it is fraught with meaning. The ship itself is similarly heavy as a symbol for Naomi. From peace offering to the site of her exile and ordeal—blasting it must have felt like sealing the door to her past and Filip for the last time. 

-Filip is hard to read in his scenes here. He seems detached from what’s happening around him, going through the routines of his life on the ship. But what’s he thinking? Our only real clue is a little hint of…something as the crew chants Marco’s name. Is it all starting to ring a little hollow now?

-Amos called her “boss!” The healing is complete!

-There are not decibels enough to measure how hard I laughed as Amos was working Holden through the logic of accepting Clarissa without actually telling him that was what he was talking about, culminating in, “Thank you for being cool about this,” and then Nadine Nicole’s priceless, “Hi.” I never warmed to Peaches in the books, but dammit, she feels outright indispensable to me now.

-Please leave Monica on the Roci, too. I love her curiosity—she just keeps picking at that scab. Plus we know there’s one more big mystery for her to investigate next season. Also, gotta love her first scene with Frankie. Bobbie is supposed to be physically intimidating and the way it looks like Frankie Adams could pick up Anna Hopkins and put her in her pocket really sells that.

-I love that Drummer uses Ashford’s ship to take out some of Marco’s ships. The Ghost Knife’s revenge!

-Guys, like seriously, I thought I was going to stroke out during that opening battle.

-And finally, HOW THE HECK CAN I WAIT OVER A YEAR FOR THE NEXT SEASON!?!