The Expanse S01E09 / S01E10: "Critical Mass" / "Leviathan Wakes"

We haven't checked in with The Expanse here at TV.com for a proper review since the pilot, and you can blame Syfy's decision to start it just before winter break, the glut of television shows out there, or me. (Just blame me.) But I'm here to fix that with a review that will touch on the final two episodes that served as the Season 1 finale, but serve more as a review for the first season overall. 

And I think that's fitting considering a few things. First, The Expanse played out more like a televised novel—because hey, it was a novel—that wasn't in a rush to go anywhere. We talk a lot about shows playing out more like a long movie (Marvel's Jessica Jones is the most recent example of that), but though The Expanse was similar to that in its heavy serialization, it was even more patient than that and needed that time to establish its universe. The Expanse's first season almost served like a 10-hour pilot that slowly dealt out information, asking viewers to give the show their trust and settle in slowly. The world The Expanse was building continued to grow even through the last seconds of the first season, as if it wanted to tell us that there's still so much to explore. Looking at the season as a whole, instead of its hourlong individual parts, better tells us what the series accomplished (which was a lot).

Second, the two-hour finale made up of "Critical Mass" and "Leviathan Wakes" wasn't exactly full of fireworks or big moments, but continued The Expanse's deliberate pace of the hardest of hardcore science-fiction interspersed with blips of suspenseful paranoia, political unrest, and the rare but incredibly effective action sequence. But both hours were incredibly satisfying, as all of Season 1 was. "Critical Mass" tied up the question of where Julie Mao was by flashing back to her actions and showing things from her perspective after Miller gathered up enough clues and found her corpse in a crappy hotel room covered hair to toe with the strange bio-weapon or alien disease whose discovery by Holden and Nagata highlighted "Salvage." "Leviathan Wakes" was more of a straight-forward escape episode as Miller and Holden (as well as Holden's crew)—finally together after converging in "Salvage"—bounced off Eros while its citizens were systematically murdered with overdoses of radiation and that mystery blue sludge that eats people. Was it genocide? Was it an act of war? Was it an experiment on people who couldn't defend themselves as a test for something bigger? The final hour was the close of a chapter instead of an all-out television finale.


The thing about The Expanse is that it got away with episodes that largely amounted to one small thing—there was an episode mostly about finding a password—because it's never claimed to be anything different and because it executes its patience in outstanding fashion. When I reviewed the pilot, I mentioned that all the hallmarks of a great space opera were there. The show looks amazing, there's a clear sense of what the show is, and there's a unique universe that's obviously in the grasp of the producers. The biggest challenge The Expanse faced was the same problem most grand-novel-to-television adaptations that want to be big hits have: it had to find momentum that would hook viewers. But the pilot didn't have much of that at all, instead choosing to tell three distinct plots (stories surrounding Holden, Miller, and Chrisjen) that never converged. And as I continued to watch further episodes, the stories stayed far apart, only putting Holden and Miller in the same room at the very end of Episode 8. That's an eternity in TV land! Even Game of Thrones smashed its characters together in the first episode and defenestrated a kid. I suspect that the structure of the series pushed some viewers away who were looking for more action, aliens, and anything, which were things The Expanse was not interested in putting out there. 

But those who let themselves get pushed away ought to think about coming back. The Expanse isn't for everyone, but it's rewarding for those who like challenging television. I mean, I know I overloaded myself by binging much of Season 1 over a half-week period, but even those who seemed on top of the happenings were confused by the series' intricate story. And that confusion is necessary to the show: The Expanse's overall conspiracy remains hidden under layers of complicated politics and the unknown, something we're experiencing right alongside the characters. 


What The Expanse did oh-so well to avoid slack was find ways to make its "dull" moments exciting. The aforementioned episode ("Windmills") that featured Holden's crew searching for a password should have been a shotgun-in-the-mouth hour that had to be slogged through, but it pieced out plot developments in a manner that used the situation to its advantage. The cat-and-mouse game between Kenzo the spy and the crew (and the cat-and-mouse game between Kenzo and the viewer) created thick tension while Holden's crew looked for a way to avoid Martian patrols. There's a fundamental understanding of how to write suspense that The Expanse's writers have that can make any situation exciting. Also take for example the pre-fight sequence in the hotel lobby of "Salvage." Holy shit that was so good! Amos knew something was up and eyed the room while Kenzo the spy tried to act cool about signaling some muscle to come over and take care of everyone. Similar nail-biting fun came in "Leviathan Wakes" as Miller and Holden hid in the pachinko arcade, a friendly conversation that turned into a deadly game of hide and seek, culminating in a coin waterfall of a jackpot falling on a man as he was choked to death. The Expanse knows how to set the mood, something that captures the noir-ish, brooding heart of the series. 

Most notably, what the two-hour finale and the season in general did was deliver consistent pacing—remember, pacing doesn't always mean moving as fast as one can—and crack open a story at just the right speed to make viewers eager for more. It felt like the story just got started in the final three episodes, and I'll reiterate my feelings that Season 1 was almost a prologue of sorts. 


What that deliberate pacing did was develop The Expanse's characters in a way that felt natural. Many of Holden's questionable actions were explained the more we spent time with him and really got to know him, and not through exposition or other cheats. Ditto for Miller, and especially true for secondary characters like Amos and Naomi. While it's not too common for characters on Syfy to have much depth, Holden and Miller have become incredibly rich characters that are fascinating to watch, and part of that is because The Expanse has given them room to breathe instead of focusing everything on plot. 

And while we're here, I should say something about Thomas Jane's performance, which has exceeded expectations. The man has created someone beyond a goofy hat and a goofier haircut who feels like a living, breathing character ripped from the pages. And really, there wasn't a weak link in the cast that I could see. 

All of it—the cast, the mood, the visuals—added up to one incredibly impressive first season of hard science-fiction. The Expanse may not have ended with big answers or big spaceship battles, but it exited one step closer to exposing the grand conspiracy without detailing too much. And that just makes me more excited for Season 2. Even if I don't know exactly what's going on. 

What did you think of Season 1 of The Expanse?