I have to admit this upfront: I originally didn’t like The Expanse. There, I said it. This isn’t news to long-time blog readers as I made no secret about how much I disliked the first season of the show. I “peaced out” after the first episode of the 2nd season. However, last January, when my car died and I was stuck in the apartment for the whole weekend (heh, a pandemic and quarantine gives a whole new meaning to being “stuck”), I watched the entire series of the show in a weekend and I was amazed that I dismissed it so thoroughly as it was really good.
I’ve watched it quite often since, trying to figure out how I could have gotten it so wrong. I think I understand what The Expanse does that makes it so compelling, but why it initially turned me off.
So, I believe that Tolkien would have loved this particular series as well. What the creators of the show (and I assume the book) do very well is focus on the history and then set the characters loose with events. History is paramount to the series and most of the first season sets up the interplay between Mars, Earth, and the Belt. Then (no spoilers), they throw a wrinkle in the midst and then go from there. Tolkien was a huge advocate for setting up the history of a place–that’s why Middle Earth feels like a lived in world. As I’m reading The Lord of the Rings again, I notice how Tolkien is discussing people, events, and places that aren’t really relevant to the story at hand, but give much more context for what is happening and why it is happening.
The second thing that the creators do is that they present story arcs in the form of mini-mysteries. Yes, that’s right, much of the “binge-watchability” (like the new formation of the word I created there?) of the show comes from the fact that they show you (Colombo-style) what happens at the end of the arc in the very beginning of the arc and then slowly the narrative unfolds until you have all the pieces. Once you reach the end, you see how that piece that they gave you at the very beginning then fits into the larger story. Colombo did this very well, but it gave away the entire ending as you knew who the murderer was and then it was just watching Colombo put together the lies, half-truths, and mistakes of the criminal and watching their ever increasing desperation as the detective got ever closer to the truth. In The Expanse, it is more like a puzzle, in which they give you a “glimpse” of a puzzle filled in and then before you can make complete sense of what you’re seeing, they scatter ALL the pieces and begin reforming the puzzle again. You still have your “clue,” but it isn’t relevant for 4-5 episodes until you have enough of the overall puzzle filled in again to start making connections to what you saw at the beginning.
Warm Up/Cool Down Third
And finally, well not finally, but it is the last one I want to talk about today, they do this interesting technique that I’ve not seen in other long form narrative shows (shows whose episodes follow a story arc and aren’t “episodic” in nature) in that it follows (for the most part) this scenerio: Warm-up episode, 1-3 action focused episodes, Cool down episode. Now, there are exceptions to this, but having watched the series well over 10 times now (and individual episodes to coincide with various reactors–I’m following 5 Expanse reactors at the moment), there is a pattern that you can see developing in those episodes. The Warm-up episode usually establishes some strange situation or occurrence or sets up a problem that needs to be solved/resolved. The Action episodes are usually ones that are “cooking” episodes where the action is happening and everything comes to a “boiling point” (which is usually some unexpected revelation–either plot or character, rarely both at the same time, but it has happened). The Cool-down episode is usually character focused and spends time relating how the characters have been changed or how they are relating to the new status quo.
The cycle usually repeats (although in Seasons 1 & 4, this is elongated and it makes it seem slow at times.) Season 2 and 3 are so hyper-focused on this pattern that it makes the show so intense.
To Watch The Expanse You Have to Embrace the Mystery
Although The Expanse is a science fiction show that features combat, space ship scenes, and a realistic depiction of a science fiction world, one must embrace the mystery genre in order to truly appreciate it. It isn’t so much a “puzzlebox” that is the hot buzzword term in the film industry right now as it is a throwback to a genre that has fallen out of favor. This show leans heavily on the mystery of what has happened/is happening in order to drive its narrative. By showing you a piece of the “endgame” and then going back and filling in those pieces one plot point and character moment at a time, it is inviting you to help construct the narrative along with it and entices you to come along with it to “enjoy the ride.”
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