Given the title, one might think “Retrograde” is a rather static episode of The Expanse‘s fourth season. But the reference of regression isn’t geological – it’s biological, as the tenuous truce in every corner of the galaxy begin to dangerously fracture. In that vein, “Retrograde” is a rather moving hour, one that succeeds in spite of its construction, the first episode where The Expanse‘s rhythms begin to embody those of a streaming series, rather than adhering to the spirit of its broadcast roots.
Like “Subduction,” “Retrograde” is an inherently unsatisfying hour; it is the amuse-bouche between courses, serving its role as connective tissue and palette cleanser between larger, more dramatic moments with stylistic panache.
Part of that comes from being a middle chapter of a season of The Expanse; while always able to start and finish strong, The Expanse is always privy to having an episode or two buckle a bit under the strain of its narrative and thematic ambitions. But the unsatisfying feeling of “Retrograde” runs a bit deeper, a shift in The Expanse‘s known identity from a show airing weekly over a few months, to a series that will most likely be consumed in a few sittings. Scenes like Avasarala’s interview and Bobbie’s shift towards the dark side feel like placeholders for later episodes to follow, bits whose prominence in later episodes will give shape to the overall arc of the season.
But in “Retrograde,” they feel like half a thought, a way to connect two stories about women diving head first into the mud, in the hopes they’ll come out whole on the other side. But with but a few scenes to spare between them while the rest of the hour wanders around Ilus and The O.P.A.S. Tynan, where enigmatic terrorist (and ex-lover of Naomi) Marco Inaros meets his judgment (and undeniably the meatiest part of the hour… we’ll come back to that), “Retrograde” feels like it is adopting an approach more akin to its streaming brethren – while it is certainly not a step down in quality, the pacing of it all feels just off enough to be a bit concerning for the season to follow.
The brewing conflict on Ilus also has some pacing issues, but the thoroughline of identity is much more compelling and layered, as Murtry’s rampage of vengeance causes a ripple effect through the belter camp. Lucia realizes her streak of independence has put her family in danger, and the scientists on the RCE ship are starting to contend with the idea Murtry may have gone mad with power, locking down the camp, imprisoning Amos, and personally attempting to hunt down Lucia and Naomi as they rushed back to the Rocinante.
It culminates in the stream-iest moment of the series to date; Holden walking up to Murtry, casually punching him in the face, and walking off as the episode cuts to credits. It is a maddening end to the hour, a colon deployed where much more definitive punctuation would have an impact. It is a direct tease to the audience to ‘keep watching,’ a rare example of The Expanse titillating without any sense of direction, any hints where the story is heading. Sure, The Expanse has had cliffhangers and off-kilter endings before, but the cut to black is so dissonant with how the show usually approaches storytelling – and while it is evocative, it is a bit more hollow than I would’ve expected.
Thankfully, there are pockets of depth to be found in “Retrograde,” be it with Bobbie’s existential descent, or the fascinating dissemination of belter politics, fed through the twisted prism of a radical OPA terrorist (and again, the father of Naomi Nagata’s child). Arrested after being found responsible for the attack on the Sojourner, Marcos is handed to the coalition formed by the most prominent belter factions – plus Klaes and Camina, speaking for their respective home stations and the heads of the OPA organization.
As Marcos sits in flotation, at the mercy of the leaders adamant in their participation of the peace negotiated between belters and inners, he argues that the OPA has turned soft, capitulating to the people who’ve done nothing but repress them for centuries. As Earth and Mars both go through identity crises – thanks to rampant unemployment and political unrest – Marcos sees an opportunity for the OPA to thrive, to claim one of the 1800 habitable systems on the other side of The Rings as their own. “Their hearts haven’t changed,” he says to a group struggling with the same conflict: though Camina ultimately votes for him to be spared his life, she quickly comes to realize her compromise could have dear costs for their ambitions to be recognized, and respected.
As we see through Naomi and Lucia, thoughts of revolution can quickly be quelled by reality; Naomi gave up her life as a radical in order to try and help the galaxy heal, while Lucia’s strong held beliefs quickly fade away when the human cost of her activism become personal. Though the two conflicts are decidedly different – physiology versus psychology – the results are strikingly similar, uniting the two belters whose circumstances have dictated completely different lives, and views on the powers that be around them.
All of that weight can be felt in Camina, torn between her desire to see the OPA integrate peacefully into the new world – and people like Murtry, whose desperation to shape their circumstances make them explosively dangerous entities. And all the while, in the background, Ilus continues to pulse underground; as history continues to repeat itself, humanity’s horniness for mutually assured destruction are distracting them from the more telling signs of nature around them; Murtry’s bullets, Bobbie’s fists, and Holden’s warheads all appeared to solve problems during the course of “Subduction”; in “Retrograde,” they’re revealed to be nothing but short reprieves, the dramatic equivalent of the Flex-Seal meme played out in The Expanse‘s massive scale.
Like “Subduction,” “Retrograde” is an inherently unsatisfying hour; it is the amuse-bouche between courses, serving its role as connective tissue and palette cleanser between larger, more dramatic moments with stylistic panache. And though it is hard to argue its construction is a detriment, there is definitely something lost when the episode is clearly scripted to draw the viewers in to follow up with the next episode; while an undeniably nitpick-y element, it is something to watch as the season develops, and tries to turn all of the potential energy it’s built up in these first four hours into something truly kinetic and devastating, like we all know The Expanse is capable of doing.
Bad day for Bobbie Draper: admits to being blackmailed, propositioned for a corrupt team-up with her boss, quits her job, gets arrested, decides to join smuggling operation full-time. That’s a rough one.
“What does Mars have to do with it” is a fitting quote for the existential crisis the planet is experiencing.
I do wish “Retrograde” dug into Avasarala’s anxiety a bit more; her plan to smear her opponent feels short-sighted for her, and her anger at Holden’s silence is more than a little telling. Hopefully the short 10-episode order doesn’t leave her holding the short stick.
I’m sure Alex hitting on Lucia isn’t going to come up again while they’re stranded in space together!
Amos takes a beating so Naomi and Lucia can escape; if he’s not the most compelling character on The Expanse, he is damn near the top of the list.