Warning: spoilers ahead for episode eight of season five of “The Expanse.”
After last week’s episode featured only a few characters and primarily focused on two storylines, “Hard Vacuum,” the eighth episode of season five of “The Expanse,” takes the other extreme. There’s a lot packed in. No location is forgotten and every major character gets screentime. With two episodes remaining in the penultimate season of this critically acclaimed sci-fi space opera, everything is finally coming to a head.
The episode opens with a tribute to Cyn, giving us firm confirmation that Naomi’s one-time friend and mentor lost his life in a desperate attempt to stop her from exiting the airlock of the Pella into open space. Marco is simultaneously grief-stricken and furious. In his latest narcissistic display, he has the gall to lash out at his only son, blaming Cyn’s death on Filip.
Despite being told by his former childhood friend Erich — turned Baltimore crime boss — that he’d be killed upon returning to Charm City, Amos brings Clarissa back to his hometown. Baltimore and much of Earth is still reeling from the catastrophic after-effects of Marco Inaros’s three large asteroid strikes, and Amos is itching to get off the planet as soon as possible.
Clarissa mentions she knows the location of a private shuttle her family owns that can take them to Luna, and Erich is convinced it’s in his best long-term interest to pair his resources with the two and join their planetary escape.
It looks like we’ll get to see what more than two centuries has done to beautiful New England, more specifically Lake (now Island) Winnipesauke in New Hampshire. As they get set to leave, the comedic line of the episode goes, as often is the case, to Amos: “I saw a case of that tequila…maybe we should take some of that.”
The episode acts as a showcase for Naomi Nagata and her struggle to survive while finding a way to prevent her ship, the Chet Zemoka, from luring her well-meaning friends to their certain death. After withstanding the hard vacuum of space through a hyper-oxygenated blood injection, Naomi is worse for wear. Every moment is labored and painful.
The slightest tasks require agonizing effort. Her joints are swelling. She’s thirsty. She’s hungry. And she’s completely alone. The showrunners deserve credit for expertly following the tried-and-tested storytelling advice to “show” and not “tell.”
For the second episode in a row, Dominique Tipper brings her acting A-game. We feel her struggle, her sense of hopelessness, and still, her sense she must find a way to get in contact with her friends and warn them to stay away from her ship — transformed into a floating proximity bomb rigged to detonate upon approach. Complicating matters is a simulated distress call of Naomi’s “voice” the ship has been set to run as bait.
We follow Naomi’s quest to override the signal, create a new makeshift microphone from parts around the ship, and then settle on manipulating the signal itself. After hours of toil and nearly running out of oxygen countless times, Naomi manages to release a modified message: “This is Naomi Nagata…tell James Holden I am in control.”
Unfortunately, both the Rocinante and the Razorback already received the fake SOS and are heading Naomi’s way. Saving the day could fall to Carmina Drummer, who’s told by Karal that Naomi died trying to escape the Pella but is willing to investigate the signal source. The message Drummer gets, however, is the modified one. Karal knows somethings up but underestimates Naomi’s talents and abilities. Before this is all done, Karal just may find out how skilled and resilient Naomi truly is.
All season long, Cara Dee has turned in excellent scenes as Drummer continues to evolve and find her humanity while being forced to deal with repeated grief caused by the loss of those she loves. Watching her deal with Naomi’s “death” was heartbreaking and marks the third close confidant she’s lost to Marco, after Ashford and Fred.
Early in season five, Drummer eventually set aside Ashford’s victory Scotch. At the news of Naomi’s demise, however, she snaps, reaching into its holding shelf and drinks more than half of it straight. It’s a signal that she’s all-in on taking Marco down. Indeed, as she told Ashford at one of their final meetings together, she doesn’t drink when she’s sad, only when she’s angry.
Despite the impressive direction of Naomi’s scenes — sparse, minimalist, and very little dialogue — the most compelling storyline of the episode involves how Earth’s new leadership will respond to the greatest terrorist attack in history.
Thrust into the job after nearly all of Earth’s leadership is killed in the third asteroid strike, the new secretary-general of the U.N., David Paster, is slowly by surely finding his voice. As he gives a speech vowing revenge on Marco Inaros, his confidence grows, and it looks increasingly like he may be able to handle the job after all.
When the speech is done, however, the real work begins. Paster leads a meeting in the U.N. situation room on Luna, where he’s presented various ways he can strike back at the OPA terrorists who have killed millions.
It’s a great scene — one of the best of the season — and brings back fond memories of the third episode of “The West Wing” (“A Proportional Response”) as various military and political advisors weigh the pros and cons of various counterattacks. Admiral Delgado favors essentially wiping out Pallas Station, a hot-spot for Marco’s supporters, enablers, and sympathizers. It’s a move that would kill up to 13,000 Belter civilians.
Avasarala, on the other hand, disagrees with Delgado, arguing that as Pallas Station isn’t a military target, destroying it risks both radicalizing and unifying the entire belt against Earth, turning innocent, moderate Belters into full-blown terrorists.
Both have valid points. The Belters don’t have military targets for Earth to strike, and 13,000 dead Belters seems, if anything, a weak response to avenge millions of dead Earthers. Doing so, however, risks losing the little remaining sympathy Belters have towards Earth forever and turning a righteous cause into something quite the opposite.
The whole sequence brings back memories of American geopolitics immediately post-911; anger and anguish run high and justice must be done, but rushing to strike dubious targets has the potential to do far more harm than good.
It’s also a reminder that as glamorous as being the leader of the free world looks on television, decisions like those facing Paster are choices few can handle with prudence and a rational head during such times.
Odds are, compelled by a population clamoring to strike back, Paster will follow Delgado’s lead. Yet, as events play out, Avasarala may once again be faced with the awful windfall of having been right all along.