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…

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!?!

The Expanse, S5E09: Rebuilding the Tribe

Stage 1: No Spoilers

After an explosive start to this season, the back half of the episodes all the way to this week’s episode nine have involved getting the new lay of the land and positioning characters for the redrawn battle lines in the solar system. Like last week’s episode, “Winnipesaukee” feels mostly transitional. After two Naomi-centric episodes, though, this week evolves other characters’ storylines–notably Amos/Clarissa and Avasarala, and not, somewhat remarkably, Holden. The supposed central protagonist and hero of the series continues to feel like he’s riding shotgun to his crew’s more interesting threads this season. It seems he, like Amos and all of us, can only look forward to getting his team back together again.

Stage 2: Episode Spoilers

A few episodes ago, “Tribes” was focused on that titular idea: how and why we form up in tribes. Now, with “Winnipesaukee,” we have a counterpoint to Amos’s observation that when the you-know-what hits the fan, tribes shrink down to focus on survival. This time, the theme is building back up those fractured tribes–a theme that Clarissa gets to make explicit instead of Amos.

The scene of Marco and Filip mourning Naomi’s abandoning them more than they had mourned her death highlights this. Filip had brought her to the Pella to reintegrate a fractured tribe–and Marco had implicitly wanted the same thing. But she instead wants to protect her chosen family over the family that betrayed her and she remains desperate to warn off Bobbie and Alex in the Razorback (Yeah, sorry, Alex. It’s just a better ship name) as the Roci tribe moves closer to reunion.

And along with the theme of rebuilding tribes comes the question of what each will stand for. Clarissa, quite literally, takes her stand and commits to trying harder to be that bad person pretending to be a good person. But so does Avasarala.

In the Amazon-official after-show, the cast and show runner noted that in Season 1, Avasarala would’ve been all too happy to blast Pallas station as Paster did. But her experiences, from being out of power and on the run with the Roci crew, to losing Arjun’s trust and then losing Arjun himself, have all chastened her, made her more aware of the need for empathy, for balance. That’s why, I’d say, she still chooses Delgado even though he broke from her about the military response.

So now she is back in power and Amos is heading her way. The rest of the Roci crew and Bobbie are about the come together. I think some fans of the show were hoping for a big showdown with Marco this season, but with only one episode left, I think it’s clear that this is an Empire Strikes Back season–our heroes get knocked down and have to regroup–and the resolution to the season we’re looking at is simply a reunion for the main crew and a new resolve to take on Marco and save the solar system in Season 6.

Assorted Musings (Full Spoilers):

-We get only rumors of wars in this episode, with Marco’s Golden Bough allies’ engagement being reported second-hand and the Earth’s strike on Pallas station only reported after-the-fact. I wonder if we’re going to get any action in episode 10? As I noted last week, I can’t really remember where book 5 ends and 6 begins, so I’m very fuzzy about what to expect next week.

-New contender for Avasarala’s best line ever: “Is he our role model now?”

-I initially expected Avasarala to have to lead a coup. Paster’s regime folded a lot faster and easier than I’d thought. It’s a little disappointing, but it makes sense for where her character is now vs. where she’s been. She can’t be the ruthless, power-hungry figure we knew. She’s learned too much after losing Arjun…

-Marco’s really pushing his luck assigning Drummer’s team to take on the Roci. Five to one doesn’t sound like enough against that ship. Yeah, I’m also gonna go on record with “F’ you, Oksana.” I can’t wait until Drummer breaks ranks and spaces Karal.

-Erich’s kind of fun. “That just means it could be one of anything that exists.” I wonder if–given that it’s Clarissa who asks about the fake ID–his forgery skills are going to be dusted off to give Peaches a new identity once they hit the moon. Also, “Not sure what your collection of scullery maids and butlers adds to the team.”

-I just knew they’d be weaponizing that Epstein drive. He he.

-There have been few disappoints in my life as big as the punchline to that Belter, Martian, Earther joke. I saw many better ones on Expanse fan boards. My favorite: The Earther says, “Give me Brandy, Earth Brandy…I’m my own worst enemy.”

-I’ve seen lots written about how well Cara Gee is doing as Drummer. Her “how much shit” speech is exhibit, um, Z for the case to give this woman an Emmy.

-“He calls you Peaches?” “Yeah.” “Why?” “I don’t know.” Nadine’s delivery of that “I don’t know” is frickin’ priceless. Also, great delivery on, “Serving a life sentence for multiple homicides.” In the books, I was never a big fan of Peaches joining the main crew, but damned am I glad Nadine Nicole is sticking around.

 

 

On Reading Hamnet: A Book About Shakespeare, Light on the Shakespeare

Hamnet, by Maggie O’Farrell

Maggie O’Farrell’s novel Hamnet reminds us in its first pages of the inconstancy of Elizabethan spelling. (Shakespeare himself is known to have signed his own name differently at different times.) The names Hamnet and Hamlet were, we’re told, interchangeable.

So begins the story of Hamnet, Shakespeare’s son who died at age eleven…except the novel isn’t especially Hamnet’s story. Nor is it about Shakespeare, who is never named (first or last) in its pages.

Instead, O’Farrell chooses Shakespeare’s wife Agnes Hawley, nee Anne Hathaway (I’m telling you, these Elizabethans were pretty flaky with spelling their own names), as her protagonist. Historical records of Shakespeare’s life are so scant that we know little about the man and his family. Property records tell part of the tale. Marriage and birth documentation some of the rest. Between these markers, O’Farrell casts Agnes as a bit of a mystic, a seer in tune with nature and able to read people’s destinies with a firm press to a pulse point in the palm. One of the best moments for Shakespeare fans is when she pulls this maneuver on her husband-to-be for the first time and senses something unreadable but expansive in his future. (Nice touch, Maggie.)

Drawn to this elusive something, it is Agnes who conspires to force their families to accept their union (Shakespeare’s father was at that point a disgraced former bailiff in Stratford, good only for a cheap pair of gloves) by letting him get her good and pregnant. Bill himself comes off as a bit flighty–that’s certainly what the townspeople think of him. Bullied by an abusive father, we never see much of him as a writer in O’Farrell’s rendering, just as a restless boy who gets mixed up in the theater while on assignment trying to extend his father’s business in London (a sojourn that Agnes arranges to satiate his wandering spirit).

With him away from Stratford, the story belongs soundly to Agnes and it is she who must grapple with Hamnet’s death. The boy is portrayed in O’Farrell’s narrative as devoted, almost saintlike, to his twin Judith. When she falls ill with the plague, he makes a kind of mystical bargain by pulling an old trick–he and his sister Judith fooling family and neighbors by switching clothes and pretending to be one another–on the grim reaper himself. By morning, Agnes finds that her frail youngest daughter is on the mend and her hearty son, dressed in the girl’s smock, is fading fast.

The novel dwells in Agnes’s grief, lives inside it, asks the reader to feel it in her disconnection from everything she has known, in her confusion continuing in a world that now lacks her child. Shakespeare and Shakespeare’s genius seems so far removed from this, that one wonders through the bulk of it why even use this as the backdrop for the story? Why not just write about loss with a fictional character unconnected to some famous Renaissance playwright?

But, just as many scholars and Shakespeare aficionados have, O’Farrell eventually gets around to connecting the death of Hamnet to the creation of the play Hamlet. By the time the novel reaches this pat conclusion, though, she has already rushed us over the hard years of Bill and Agnes repairing their marriage whilst living mostly apart (and dropped in an Easter egg of sorts to explain why Shakespeare’s will only bequeathed his “second best bed” to his widow).

Ultimately, O’Farrell’s meditation on grief seems a little ill at ease with the too-cute conceit of painting splashes of color in the bare outline of the Shakespeare family’s scant biography. But at least in Agnes, she finds an original character to insert into the over-crowded mythology of what-the-Bard-was-really-like.

The Expanse, S5E8: Rinse and Repeat

Another week, another step closer to the end of the fifth season of The Expanse…

Stage 1: No Spoilers

Why even have episodes anymore? What does an episode of television mean anymore? What, in the age of streaming and long-form storytelling, does an episode represent? This season has featured phenomenal moments in a myriad of storylines covering literally millions and millions of miles, but do they add up to great episodes of television?

The Expanse has featured some memorable episodes, with tight, coherent story telling that serves both a singular experience for the audience and a larger unfolding story. I think back to “Reload,” one of my favorites where Bobbie explores her new place in the world by defusing an insurrection on the Rocinante, or “Gaugamela” from earlier this season where Marco’s attack came to fruition and the rules of the system were upended.

But The Expanse’s lens can sometimes go so wide as to lose a real sense of coherence in an individual episode. That may be the case for this one, “Hard Vacuum,” that dips its toes in several of the ongoing stories across the system and even starts to stitch some threads between them, but mostly feels like middle game stuff–pawns and knights slinking around the center of the board, but without any pieces falling and no significant developments in the end game for the season.

Stage 2: Episode Spoilers

So, this is still Naomi’s show. But her experience this episode kind of accentuates the feeling of a holding pattern I was describing above. Her victory here is so small and so hard-bought, that it almost undercuts another fantastic performance by Domonique Tipper. She sells the physical anguish of yanking on a pulley with brittle, frost-bitten skin and of pushing through near-total systemic collapse. With the ship (overly conveniently) rigged so well to avoid tampering that not even “extraordinary improvisational skills” Nagata can crack the equipment and a good chunk of it depressurized, Naomi has to nearly asphyxiate herself just to alter the signal Marco left behind as bait for Holden, in the hopes that he will interpret the change and her (haunting) repeating message of “I’m…in…control” as a warning.

Pieces shuffle places on Luna as well. Avasarala is back near the heart of power, but her erstwhile ally Admiral Delgado wants to hit the belt back and she knows this will only broaden Marco’s support. Acting Secretary General Paster seems to be leaning toward Avasarala’s point of view, which makes me wonder who’s going to make what move. Obviously something big is coming there and the point is to test Avasarala. The Deimos strike from season two comes up in the war room, reminding her and us that once upon a time, she was willing to blow up eighteen Martians just to stay in the game and to keep from showing her hand to Erinwright. Now, though, she’s been chastened by loss, professional and personal. Earlier this season, she swore she had learned to listen. So will she be willing to hold fast to what she knows is the right way to fight Marco in the face of pressure from the military? Especially if it gives her a way to shove Paster aside and take over?

That question of how to change hovers over Amos’s storyline as well. He, of course, isn’t really capable of growth, so he’s escorting Clarissa who is and confronting once again his old friend and crime boss Erich. It’s Erich who needs to be convinced to let go of the past if they are all going to make it off Earth and avoid the next phase of the evolving humanitarian crisis. So Clarissa lets him know how it works with a cute story about facing death–not the literal kind, but the figurative death that comes with accepting change, especially the kind of change we didn’t welcome.

What does this lesson say for the rest of our characters? Drummer’s having trouble accepting that her old self is “dead,” and that she now must serve the Free Navy or risk extinction. Learning that Naomi was Marco’s prisoner tests her resolve. It seems there’s another answer to the dilemma that Avasarala and Erich face coming in Drummer’s story. We know that famous temper of hers and we know that she can’t keep this up much longer…Drummer’s going to move and when she does, I suspect it’ll be game changing.

The rest of the episode, such that it is, revolves around Naomi’s efforts to spring Marco’s trap without killing anyone, especially her friends. The tension is exhausting as she struggles like an animal with one foot snared. That desperation is palpable and the sequences walk a fine line trying to sustain tension without being very clear what it is she’s trying to do at any given point. We see her salvage components, rig up possible solutions–which fail–and then she spends Groundhog Day-esque scene after scene filling up her vac suit with air from the cabin and crawling into the bowels of the ship to the tune of CO2 warnings while trying to do something to the transmission.

We know by the end that her gambit has worked. The fact that the signal has been altered alarms Karal, so it seems like the Roci gang and Drummer will also appreciate the gist of Naomi’s message: “Something’s up here.” Who exactly will be rescuing her is still up in the air, as is the final trajectory of the season. It doesn’t seem like Marco and the Roci are going to meet any time soon, but there was a lot of talk about Medina station and the Ring in that military briefing…that can’t be an accident.

Assorted Musings–Full Spoilers:

-So Clarissa and Amos have reached that “peeing with each other in the open air” phase of their relationship.

-Okay, Holden is pissing me off. Does he really think that Marco would give up the sample–especially since he knows that it’s the price tag for his shiny new Martian warship?!? Count the torpedoes you shot down, moron! Isn’t the Roci itself smart enough to point something like this out? It sure seems like Monica thinks something’s still out there.

-Yet again my crappy memory is helping create some suspense for me this season. I remembered Naomi fiddled with the signal somehow in the book, but I couldn’t remember exactly how or exactly how it was meant to tip Holden off. The repeating altered message was a brilliant way to close the episode…I’m wondering if it connects somehow to the message we know he got but we still haven’t seen yet. I also don’t know where this season is going overall now. The death of Fred earlier in the season upsets some of the long arcs cutting into book six, so with my fuzzy recollection, I really don’t know where we’re going to draw the line at the end of this season.

-Um, holy crap. I just looked up Sandrine Holt who plays Oksana and found out she is 48?!? There are anti-aging drugs in the world of The Expanse, but somebody got an early sample.

-I’m curious about Admiral Delgado. He seems like a whole different character now. From sidelined milquetoast to angry hardliner. I wonder if this is convenience to move the Luna story wherever it’s going or if it’s calculated. “Gaugamela” was the 9/11 episode and 9/11 turned more than a few people into overnight hawks.

-Now that I know to look for it, I totally notice Cara Gee’s baby bump.

-Just watched through to the end again. That last “in control” sent a shiver through me.

The Expanse, S5E7: Naomi did the thing.

 

Stage 1: Spoiler-Free Goodness

Episode 7 has arrived. With the crew still split up all over the solar system, the show has to keep juggling screen time between our different arcs. So after spending time with Amos and Clarissa on Earth and with Drummer’s faction being folded into the Free Navy last week, this week we need to catch up more with Holden and the Roci. The main focus, though, remains in the enemy’s den on the Pella as Naomi reckons with her past.

Like every episode this season, the dramatic personal emotional drama contrasts with the broader events across the system, but “Oyedeng” spirals again and again around Naomi’s negotiations with Marco, Filip, and Cyn to try to come to terms with her personal history and try to “save” her son from his father. Though not as clearly (or tightly) thematic as last week’s episode, the notions of family and sacrifice loom large over this week. Ultimately, though, this week advances the overarching plot of the season, building us toward the season’s endgame–which, presumably, will see some kind of clash with the Free Navy.

Stage 2: Episode Spoilers

We get so see Holden, Bobbie, Alex, Bull, and Monica start connecting a lot of dots this episode. I think they need to relay this big insight that Marco is selling the protomolecule to the Martian renegades to Avasarala, who we know is back in the inner circle of power at the UN now.

But, obviously, the heart of this episode is Naomi’s story with her son. She makes so much progress, widening the gulf between Marco and Filip, only for Marco to swoop in to, knowing his son’s weak points, manipulate him back into compliance and seemingly shut the door to her hopes for him. The scene where he breaks Filip by criticizing his failures and then dangles the hope of being the leader of the movement in the future with his crew chanting around him was a wonderful study in interpersonal power. Filip slapping Naomi is an obvious rejection of her appeal to his humanity, but Owens still plays Filip’s confidence and projected strength as a facade hiding a broken boy. Though Naomi exits his life again quite dramatically this episode, she’s still wormed her way into his heart with doubt. She has to be hoping now that it’s enough because, to stop Marco from killing the Roci and everyone else she loves, she has to leave. I didn’t know what the title meant until after the episode, but now, of course, it makes perfect sense. “Oyedeng” is Belter for “goodbye,” and Naomi does leave her son behind. Though she doesn’t literally say the word, at least this time she has spoken her mind, given him the message he needs about his father and his future. Remember that way back in season one, when she thought she was going to die on the Donnager, she thought out loud that she “never got to say goodbye.” Yeah, that’s how long they’ve been building to these moments.

And what I think is most worth examining in this episode is The Expanse’s use of foreshadowing. So much of what makes season five so great has been the focus of harbingers in past seasons. We saw this with the rocks hitting Earth. From Avasarala and her grandson on the roof worrying about rocks like the one that killed the dinosaur to Diogo’s uncle listening to Belter propaganda and hurling rocks at the Scipio Africanus, even season one began laying the groundwork for the attack on Earth this season.

Naomi’s jump through the vacuum is another great example. In season one, we saw Diogo’s uncle fix a loose contact in his helmet by opening his face shield–being careful to slowly push air out of his lungs to prevent the low pressure from letting the gas in his lungs expand and rupture his soft tissues (do not hold your breath in space, folks). Yes, like so many little touches, this was a signal that The Expanse was committed to depicting life in space more realistically than so much other sci-fi–where exposure to space results in instant freezing or exploding eyeballs or the like. But it was also acclimating the audience to the ground rules of the series, rules the creators knew would lead to Naomi’s leap through the void, yet another moment for this pivotal season that fans of the books have been looking forward to.

And this season has built up to that moment in careful, interesting ways. The injection to oxygenate her blood that she shoves into her leg halfway through we learned about when Holden uses it to save Monica from the shipping container earlier in the season. Since being brought on the Pella, there have been multiple lines to the effect of “the only way you’re [she’s] getting out of here is through an airlock.” Book readers grinned at each one, I’m sure, knowing what was coming. We even know how adept Naomi is at moving through zero-G because of her leap to save Lucia last season. And suicide by airlock has been covered before as well. It’s a choice Amos offered Clarissa during their transit back to Earth. In space, if you don’t manage your air, you’re unconscious in seconds, dead in a minute. It’s not a bad way to go, and for a Belter, it’s a convenient way to opt out. We learn this episode the final piece of the puzzle leading toward Naomi’s great leap: that she considered it, approached that oblivion because she was so broken by Marco’s abduction of her son. Cyn is such an important part of this revelation, so it’s a narrative imperative that he is there at the end and that he–and since he lost his head and didn’t control his breathing, apparently he alone–knows that she is not committing suicide when she takes the leap. He could have spared her the pain of losing Filip back then on Palas by telling her the truth. He could have spared her the agony of watching Filip choose Marco again by standing up to his protege and general one more time on the bridge. But he doesn’t. Still, she tells him that she wishes he hadn’t followed her. Naomi doesn’t mean for him to die. He shouldn’t. He’s a good Belter. He knows what’s on the line when that airlock door opens. He should puff his air out like Naomi does and hang on to something in the back of the airlock.

But he can’t. He’s failed. He never meant to hurt Naomi. He wanted her with them, through it all. But she chose to walk away and he doesn’t know how to do the same. He can’t escape Marco’s grip, but nor could he (figuratively) live with failing Naomi one more time.

This is just another example of the intricate, patient, and smart storytelling that this show is engaged in. It’s like nothing else in sci-fi and probably unlike anything else in film and television right now. The bones of this show represent a master-class in structuring your story and respecting your audience. We have three episodes left before the long, painful wait for season six and a finale for the series…of sorts, we hope.

Assorted Musings: Full Spoilers (like books, too, people–you’ve been warned)

-I had a problem with Cyn’s death. It didn’t make sense to me at first. As a Belter, it would be second nature how to react to that open airlock. But, as I note above, this isn’t about the logic of being a Belter, but the logic of the story. Still, it’s going to not sit well with Filip. Surely Marco will blame Naomi, but I’m betting he also criticizes his old mentor’s “weakness,” too, making Filip wonder about Naomi’s statement that his father would not die for him. Naomi, too, was so determined and so steely, that of course she couldn’t look back. She has no way of knowing that Cyn let himself die chasing her to the edge of space.

-Well, if you’re not going to let me see Bobbie kicking any more ass this episode, then it’s a good thing you let me see the Roci fighting a death blossom of torpedoes.

-Boy, this is just Dominique Tipper’s show now. Apart from the way that Holden just feels on the sidelines in general, her portrayal of Naomi is absolutely stellar. She feels like the lead now more than Holden. It really sets the stage for Admiral Nagata, which I hope we get to see someday.

-Speaking of…there’s a lot of speculation that Bull will be added to the full-time cast and take Alex’s seat. I’m not sure how they would explain Alex’s absence. Very little would make sense for his character, given his commitment to the Roci family. If they’re smart, they’ll add a clip of Alex receiving a transmission from his wife at the end of this season. Easy to fabricate using stock footage and some compositing. “Alex, it’s about Melas…” But if that’s the route they go for season six, I still don’t see Bull being on the Roci after the time jump if we do ever get to see books 7-9 in some form. I’d vote for Clarissa since she thought she was a good enough pilot to take over the Razorback from Julie if I didn’t know she’s only making it through book seven.

 

Documenting an Unfolding Catastrophe: Migrations and The Overstory

By coincidence alone, the last two novels I read both dealt with conservation; both, in fact, grappled with the desecration of the natural world as a rolling crime against nature and against our own future.

In Migrations by Charlotte McConaghy, the desecration of the natural world is foregone. Set in the very near future, McConaghy’s protagonist Franny lives in a dying world. The wife of an ornithologist, Franny has dedicated her pathological wanderlust toward a goal: tracking the last migration of the remaining arctic terns. For this, she must ingratiate herself with the crew of a fishing boat–themselves seeking the last golden catch of a dying industry.

Richard Powers’ Overstory, on the other hand, is a much more sweeping novel. It follows a diverse cast of characters–meeting most early in life, some deep in their family histories–and following them until they become entangled in the conservation movement, either directly or tangentially. Powers swipes his narrative hand over these individual stories, stirring up thematic elements like pollen spores–everything from the excesses and corruption of late-stage capitalism to the potential transformative power of deep-learning artificial intelligence. The ambitions of his scope sometimes stretch the narrative thin, but the deep core of empathy, not just for his human characters but for the natural world, for the trees themselves, carries the work.

Compared to Overstory, McConaghy’s novel seems hokey and small. Franny’s life story is shellacked over with needless  melodrama and McConaghy wastes narrative fuel building toward an obvious twist late in the novel that seeps the whole story in cliche interior monologues that dwell on Franny’s own restless nature as much as they do the plight of the birds or fish.

Powers, though, demonstrates the height of his powers in the intricacies of the connections between his characters and themes. There is no central figure, but one character does work her way through and into all the others’ lives and stories. Dendrologist Patricia Westerford is initially ostracized and exiled from the academic community for her research suggesting that trees–aggregated in a forest–communicate and cooperate with each other through chemical signals through the air and their roots. As Powers pans his focus across the long arc of her life, though, Westerford is validated, redeemed, elevated to banner-bearer status for the disciplines of the conservation movement.

Powers uses this airborne chemical communication and the snaking interconnection of the roots as a metaphor for the ideology that binds his characters. Once touched–infected, even–by the awareness of the shrinking domain of natural, old-growth forests that can heal and sustain themselves, the myriad characters are drawn to sacrifices, both profound and symbolic, in service to a future where human beings can begin to restore their balance with nature.

Both these novels reach for some kind of optimism in the face of the bleak reality of accelerating damage to the environment, and though McConaghy’s ray of light seems forced, both Migrations and Overstory unsettle us, forcing us to consider our place in history, standing as we do in the sunset of the radiant myth of progress, on the penumbra line facing the long shadow of imminent collapse.

The Expanse, S5 E6: We Always Choose Our Tribes, One Way or Another

At first I thought maybe today wasn’t a good day to write about The Expanse. It’s just a TV show, right? Today feels like it should be a day of mourning, but then I thought differently and, really, this show speaks to some of the events that have landed our country in this troubled place in our history. After all, Marco Inaros is a charismatic leader who rallies an aggrieved people against those they believe have wronged them, those they believe threaten their way of life. A charismatic, manipulative, and deceitful leader who ultimately only cares about his own aggrandized image of himself.

And in this episode, Amos makes one of the central themes of The Expanse explicit: Humans are tribal. This episode explores how tribes realign, how they break, and how they endure.

Episode Spoilers:

That theme extends through all the scenes in this episode (except maybe Bobbie and Alex’s bad-ass come back from last week’s cliffhanger). Avasarala’s one scene shows us duty transcending the personal, how she works to control her grief to serve–especially now that she’s been given a path back into the inner circle of power.

More importantly, though, the cracks have formed in Marco’s bindings on Filip. By the end of the episode, Filip has seen the unthinkable–someone challenge his father openly–and has considered the very alien (to him) notion that his mother may be something other than what his father has told him. Now he must consider that she is not only not weak, but perhaps also the hero that Drummer sees her as.

Marco’s tribe is cracking in more ways than one, though, as Drummer’s arc shows. Cara Gee’s performance continues to be extraordinary. This time, Drummer’s emotions are back in check, but her near silence in her crew/family’s meeting speaks volumes. While she clearly relishes her encounter with Marco, unafraid to challenge him, she is still forced to do the unthinkable and pledge loyalty to a mass-murderer. With her in his midst, though, he’s opened up another potential fault line. The more tributes he exchanges, the more diluted his fanatical base is.

The strongest through-line of the episode, though, is Amos and Clarissa’s odyssey through the forest–a Jungian trek that leads them into conflict with a singular holdout, a tribe of one. Amos leads them toward the survivalist’s encampment, not because it’s the smart thing, but because it’s what Clarissa needs. And likewise, Clarissa is willing to activate her implants despite the risk to her deteriorating health, because Amos needs her help.

In the end, though, Amos realizes his limits. Clarissa, quite the chatterbox these days, points out that Amos led them to loot this survivalist’s stores before they knew he was a killer, before killing him was justified, and that that choice wasn’t what good people–or even people pretending to be good–would do.

Amos’s answer closes the circle he opened when he pointed out that tribes break down into smaller units when things are “unsettled,” and he realizes he must rejoin his crew to reconnect with that moral center he can’t fake.

That’s something we all want to see, Amos.

Assorted Musings (Full Spoilers):

-Candidate for best line: “I don’t want that either.”

-I was wondering if we’d find our way back to Erich and now it appears we are heading there since Amos wants to get to Baltimore. The references to Amos’s complicated backstory from the novella “The Churn” were a lot to shove into the show if we never met him again. I honestly can’t remember if this second reunion happens in the books. I didn’t think so since the world Amos and Clarissa were walking through in the book was way, way more devastated…I really need to reread the novels.

-I hated Monica in season three, but now I’m all, “Yay! Monica…you tell Bull what’s what!”

-Isn’t the Roci cute with her landing struts…

-Those Inaros boys really, really shouldn’t have tried to board the Razorback. We all saw that coming, right? I mean, you know the Chekhov principle: You can’t introduce Martian power armor into a season without letting Bobbie kick some ass in it. (Also love her pulling a Cap’n America holding those ships together.)

-Another potential best line of the episode, “No throne?”

-I love that we’re getting a better feel for how factions in the Belt work. I always thought that this aspect of Belter culture felt a little anachronistic, but watching Drummer’s little faction from the inside and getting a sense of how Marco’s faction works, the dynamic feels more believable.

-I’m very, very curious how this is going to play out now. Marco and his fleet of Martian ships are heading for the Roci…in the books, if I remember correctly, Marco’s Martian ship was basically on par with the Rocinante, but now he’s in a light cruiser with two other support ships. We’ve seen the ship box over its weight class before, but there’s no way she can survive a scuffle against those ships.

 

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.”