As expected, The Expanse’s first season has revealed itself to be a single serialized story broken into hour-long chapters. What is surprising is the fact that seven episodes in, we still have no idea where the show’s plot is ultimately going.
Limited and serialized television formats afford creators quite a bit of leeway in their storytelling. However, story expectations do not waver for audiences who have come to expect some manner of consistency in how a story typically unravels: a show introduces its characters and the core concerns at the start, its villain at some point in the first third of the series, peppers a few revelations and reversals throughout the middle, hits a climax in the ultimate or penultimate episode, reestablishes a semblance of status quo, and then does it all again next year and hopefully without being too derivative.
From proto-Golden Age shows like Buffy and Babylon 5 to the likes of The Sopranos and The Walking Dead, it is a structure that has worked. Shows that deviate too much from the model can get into trouble with increasingly incoherent mythologies (cough, The X-Files) or uneven storylines (Orphan Black).
And yet here is The Expanse. Now two-thirds of the way through its first season, and we still don’t know, well, much of anything. Who are the villains? Some unknown raiders with high-tech stealth ships. What are they after? Whatever Phoebe Station found, which we’ve narrowed down to “maybe a bio-weapon.” Is Julie Mao involved? It’s unclear, but yes, probably. Where is this all headed? …No earthly idea. Mercifully, this episode, “Windmills”, provides us with a physical endpoint for the season: Eros Station. Miller, an Earth black ops team, and theoretically the Rocinante as well, all appear to be converging to the same location.
So, despite its lack of narrative signposts, The Expanse is steadily advancing its story and answers to its open-ended questions at least appear to be on the horizon. The show also incorporates enough character conflict and carries enough mystery from scene to scene to remain engaging on a purely episodic basis. Between the Canterbury survivors’ issues, Amos losing his moral compass, and corporate spy Kenzo tossing a spanner into the works, there’s enough for lukewarm fans to hope for a satisfying resolution here.
What impresses most about The Expanse is its realistic tone and avoidance of gimmickry. The show maintains a mostly linear chronology (with the exception of Fred Johnson’s origin story a few episodes back). There are likewise no prophecies, no “36 Hours Earlier” flashbacks, and no cheap teases. The Expanse is a mature breed of science fiction that prioritizes human conflict above all else. And while that is indeed refreshing, the show nevertheless only has three episodes left to bring it all home. Tick tock.