The title of The Expanse refers to the vast gulf of space in a future where humanity has colonized much of our solar system. But for most of the Syfy drama’s first season, the more relevant expanse seemed to be the one that existed between the show’s three main plots: a hard-boiled crime drama where gumshoe Joe Miller (Thomas Jane) searches for a missing heiress on a station in the asteroid belt; a space adventure in which the four survivors of a destroyed mining ship face constant peril from the solar system’s many military factions; and a political thriller where United Nations executive Chrisjen Avasarala (Shohreh Aghdashloo) investigates what she thinks is a terrorist plot against Earth.
The stories unfolded in parallel, rarely seeming to have anything to do with one another, and because all three of them were mysteries on some level — What happened to the girl? Who blew up the ship and why? Who’s really the bad guy in the cold war between Earth, Mars, and the outer planets? — the series often felt like three separate shows of varying quality and interest levels that just happened to take place in the same shared universe. Jane was excellent in a role so archetypal, he even wore a fedora like a 1950s detective, the space adventures offered thrills but sketchier characters and performances, and the Earth scenes with Chrisjen tended to drag. The show was adapting a sprawling series of science fiction novels by James S.A. Corey (the pen name for writers Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck), and as we’ve seen at times even on the mega-budget Game of Thrones, it can be hard to make so many disparate storylines feel equally important and connected to one another. There was just enough momentum to the story to keep going as I binged the first season on Amazon last week, but not enough coherence that I might have kept trying to track the different mysteries over the course of its more traditional air schedule on Syfy.
But then, towards the end of season one, all the unconnected story threads began tying together in very satisfactory fashion. Miller left the space station and hooked up with James Holden (Steven Strait) and his three fellow survivors, now crewing a Martian gunship they’d picked up in their travels and dubbed the Rocinante (from the Spanish word for “workhorse,” and also the name of Don Quixote’s steed), while all three investigations began pointing to the same conspiracy to infect the 100,000 inhabitants of a remote station with a mutagen so an Earth company could study its effects.
And, with that, The Expanse got a whole lot better.
Those episodes from the end of season one, coupled with the first four episodes of season two (it premieres Wednesday night at 10), serve as a reminder not only that TV shows are usually more interesting when characters come together than when they’re kept apart, but that they’re usually more interesting when the characters (and the audience) actually know what’s happening and can do something about it than when they’re fumbling around in the dark, searching for clues to some vague mystery. It’s not suddenly a great drama — Miller, and maybe Chrisjen and Rocinante mechanic Amos (Wes Chatham), are still the only characters who feel fully three-dimensional, with the others suffering to varying degrees from thinner writing or acting — but it’s taking greater advantage of all these worlds and characters it has to play with.
As with Game of Thrones, the show is an example of the benefits and challenges of adapting a series of dense books set in alternate timelines with a huge cast of players. On the one hand, The Expanse creative team (which includes Children of Men screenwriters Mark Fergus and Hawk Ostby) have so much material and story already mapped out for them. On the other, they can be bound too tightly by material that may have worked better on the page (I haven’t read the novels) than it does in a television show. The season one mystery in particular took a problem that GoT has also dealt with and made it worse. Over on HBO, you may care a lot less about what’s happening in, say, Dorne or the Pyke, than what’s up in King’s Landing or Winterfell, but it’s almost always clear how what’s happening in those remote corners of the kingdom impacts everyone else, where season one of The Expanse took much too long to turn its cards over and reveal the conspiracy that connected Miller to Holden to what was happening on Earth.
Now, though, all the major players know at least part of what’s going on, and Miller has for the moment become part of the Rocinante crew, and The Expanse feels more energetic and involving than before. There’s even room to expand the roles of previously minor players like resistance leader Fred Johnson (The Wire alum Chad L. Coleman, in a performance so different from his usual work that you will quickly stop making “Cutty in space” jokes), as well as to introduce an entirely new set of characters, revolving around amazonian Martian Marine Bobbie Draper (Frankie Adams), without it feeling like more clutter. The series had to discard a few appealing traits along the way (now that he’s no longer a private cop, Miller has ditched his trademark hat, and in an upcoming episode also trades in his floppy emo haircut for a mohawk), but is much improved overall.
The Expanse is also Syfy’s most conventionally hard sci-fi(*) drama since Battlestar Galactica ended, and between the material from the books and the work of the show’s writers and production team, it presents a fully-realized universe that feels plausible, and plausibly terrifying. It’s thought through what the culture, and physiology, of the people (known as “belters”) who have lived their whole lives in the asteroid belt might become, and the action scenes always do an excellent job conveying the dangers and majesty of operating in zero gravity. It occasionally plays fast and loose with its own rules (a season-ending cliffhanger about Miller and Holden being exposed to lethal doses of radiation gets undone in a technobabble hurry), but for the most part never lets its characters or viewers forget that all this is happening in a literal vacuum.
(*) A phrase I can no longer hear or use without instantly thinking of Roman from Party Down.
On the whole, the series is one I’d mainly recommend with an “if you like this sort of thing” caveat (as opposed to BSG, whose appeal transcended space operatics). I happen to be someone who likes this sort of thing, but The Expanse season two is a much better version of that thing now that everyone knows what’s up and can take action accordingly.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org