Like the geological process it draws its name from, “Subduction” is an hour intensely focused on small, but definitive shifts, with a bomb, a gunshot, a resignation, and a stolen password forming the tectonic epicenters of The Expanse‘s third episode. These moments, though thoroughly isolated from each other, coalesce around the idea of how single events can cause monumental shifts, changes everyone can feel, even if they aren’t necessarily able to see, grasp, or understand just yet.
Despite its dramatic weather effects and intermittent bursts of violence, “Subduction” is a rather quiet hour, an episode where it is easy to feel the shifts occurring under the surface, even if they aren’t quite visible yet.
The most explicit of these subduction zones is the Ilus settlement, which has quickly devolved from “innocuous research vessel” to “burgeoning dictatorship.” After shooting a belter dead in the closing moments of “Jetsam,” Murtry’s – and the RCE’s – position in the camp fundamentally shifts from a scientific mission, to an absolute power play. When the planet’s strange towers strike lightning through the camp, Murtry draws a line in the sand between his people and the belters, refusing to provide them any supplies or repair their downed electricity (thankfully, Amos and a weakened Naomi are there to provide some assistance).
Though we only experienced pre-crash Murtry for a few moments, the shift in his character is noticeable, part post-traumatic-stress and part unleashed sociopath, in what makes for a compelling new antagonist. He does have a right to be angry; watching 23 of his people die for something a quartet of disgruntled belters were responsible for is certainly reason to be seeking justice. But in the metal-crusted space Wild West, anything goes, and Murtry seizes on that idea, wreaking havoc by coldly executing his saboteurs in broad daylight.
Then again, what do we expect from people in positions of power who feel threatened: Murtry and Avasarala form a neat parallel in their shared defensiveness, though Avasarala’s current conflict involves a lot less blood than the scientist-turned-executioner. “Subduction” opens with Gao resigning, another event whose ripple effects are only slightly felt by the events of the hour to follow – but seeing how much it gnaws on Avasarala, pushing her immediately into defensive tactics against her new political opponent, is eye-raising, a telling sign she’s a much larger threat than presented in this particular episode.
Avasarala’s certainly fought off her political opponents before (though last time it nearly got her killed), but knowing the growing political movement around Earth’s unemployed population (and assumed manifest destiny) makes Gao an intriguing opponent for her to face this season. Though her decision to expose her nepotistic origins might appear iron-clad, things are never that easy on The Expanse – “Subduction” puts a neat pin in that story to focus on the dramas of Ilus and Mars, but it serves an interesting political sidebar amongst the other, more brazenly dramatic plots of the hour.
Bobbie’s moment of subduction – learning that her nephew’s black market dealer boss is also a police detective – feels even less impactful in “Subduction,” even as The Expanse bakes Bobbie’s fascinating journey of identity into the less engaging story of smugglers and corruption offered in season four’s opening hours. It’s not that Bobbie’s story is bad, it’s just frustrating to see her so isolated from the rest of The Expanse; as one of the most rewarding, layered character arcs of the series, Bobbie’s journey is essential to its emotional impact – keeping her on Mars allows the planet to stay relevant in the larger story, but it also dampens the effect of her story’s ability to resonate through the rest of the hour.
But trust in The Expanse I do; her ominous conversation about Mars’ role in the changing, newly expanded galaxy is an interesting marriage of character and setting. Without the military, Bobbie is struggling to figure out what she wants in life; on a galactic scale, Mars is experiencing the same existential crisis, a planet based on technological advances and wartime discipline, in a time when there are more interesting, new things to explore, and a tenuous peace has removed the economic and sociopolitical benefits of war. What does Mars – and more importantly, Bobbie – want to become in this new world? Neither has a coherent answer, but the search for one has proven dramatically potent in the early hours of this season.
Despite being the shortest episode of the season so far, “Subduction” is quietly jam-packed with small plot movements, Bobbie and Holden’s chief discoveries among them. The latter of these, which involve artificial atmospheric effects, earthquakes (on a planet without tectonic plates, which means subduction shouldn’t even be possible), and the overwhelming feeling that Holden’s Warhead Band-Aid approach might prove to be disastrous. The Expanse is smartly playing coy about what’s going on with the ancient machines of Ilus, letting each massive unnatural event serve as a poignant literary device for the dynamic shifts of the universe around this strange, unexplored rock on the other side of The Ring.
There are large chunks of The Expanse missing in this hour; we don’t spend much time around The Ring, delaying the inevitable reappearance of Fred Johnson into the narrative. But that omission gives “Subduction” more time to build around characters like Naomi, whose attempts to normalize her body to living in gravity is quickly becoming the show’s most moving arc. Of the many attempts to inhabit new identities on The Expanse‘s fourth season, Naomi trying to acclimate herself to being a planet dweller is undeniably the most powerful, a woman fighting against every warning, measurement, and thermodynamic limit placed upon her, doggedly trying to make Ilus an inhabitable home, even if it is only a temporary one. Naomi desperately wants a new beginning, and even as her body shuts down, she is grasping onto the hope Ilus represents – a hope that spreads across the galaxy, giving a very personal touch to the show’s grander ideas about exploration and identity.
Despite its dramatic weather effects and intermittent bursts of violence, “Subduction” is a rather quiet hour, an episode where it is easy to feel the shifts occurring under the surface, even if they aren’t quite visible yet (Holden pressing his hand against the ground on Ilus proves a fitting image here). The Expanse, as it is want to do, is playing the long game with all of its stories, from what happened to the OPA to what is happening on Ilus, to what is bound to happen when Earth, Mars, and the belters collide when the collective dam outside the rings inevitably bursts (which, in a ten-episode season, is bound to happen much sooner than later).
Murtry to Amos: “Someday, I think you and I are going to end up bloody.”
Speaking of Amos, the casual manner in which he beats the shit out of two RCE employees is magnificent.
One can interpret Holden’s decision to nuke the spinning object two different ways: one, he was exhibiting humanity’s tendencies to equate defense with violent reactions, or two, he was pissed at Miller for using him as a tool, and not responding when he tried to summon him. Something to watch in future episodes, methinks.