The following contains spoilers for The Expanse S5E2 “Churn” and assumes knowledge of all preceding episodes and seasons of The Expanse, but contains no book spoilers.
Amos’s real name is Timothy. He was sexually abused as a child—prostituted feels like an apt word, given the reference to Johns—and basically raised by a woman named Lydia (Stacey Roca), who told him, “float to the top or sink to the bottom; everything in the middle is the churn.” It’s not a new nugget of wisdom from our friend Amos, and neither is the fact that Amos isn’t his real name a surprise if you’ve been paying attention to the backstory The Expanse has doled out, but S5E2 makes this all explicit in a way that fills out and deepens the character. Never is Amos as sympathetic as when he sits in Baltimore talking to Ervin Burrell Charles (Frankie Faison), or as he works to save the man’s home in the wake of Lydia’s death.
Everything in the middle is the churn, and if there is a theme to The Expanse S5E2 it is that we are all always in the middle. Holden is in the churn as he can’t resist Monica’s message about someone looking for the protomolecule, and Monica (Anna Hopkins) is certainly caught in the middle of things as she is taken and held in a shipping container. Perhaps her situation exemplifies it best: a prison that she could maybe escape, only to discover the cold death of the vacuum outside. Her attempt may help Holden and Bull (José Zúñiga) find her, to save her from death for now, but life is a churn shaking everything that seemed settled loose, and she’s in the thick of it now.
Nancy Gao thinks she’s floated to the top. You can see it in her condescending smile as she shuts Avasarala down during their conference call. Of course we know that she is wrong and Chrisjen is right, but even if we didn’t it would be hard not to see the hubris in the way Gao dismisses Avasarala’s concerns. After all, the latter doesn’t know that she is right either, she merely believes she is right to be worried.
Or maybe it’s a mistake to think that being at the top is a good thing. Perhaps Gao will be skimmed right off when push comes to shove, or the surface she relies on will be punctured, thrusting her back into the churn. It’s a never-ending process, after all—not the making of butter, but the churn of life.
No one knows this better than Drummer, who is back to piracy with a human touch. She’s grown tired of men with big dreams because she knows them to be fantasies, and S5E2 shows her rather enjoying life with the found family that forms the crew of her ship—until they get a read on the Tynan (Ashford’s ship), that is. She never thought she would find it, but now she’ll have to pursue it. Because as fractious as their relationship was at the beginning, Ashford became her brother.
This theme of found family forms the heart of The Expanse, from the crew of the Rocinante to Timothy and Lydia, Drummer and Ashford, etc. Relations by blood tend to be rather more problematic. This is coming to the fore in Season 5 as Naomi seeks out Filip. I don’t know what will happen exactly when they finally meet again after all of these years, but I am fairly certain it will be fraught.
Bull hits the mark when he tells Fred Johnson that his problem is that he thinks that if someone is the underdog that means they’re the good guy, and I wonder to what extent that applies to us as an audience as well, whether of The Expanse or something else. I know I, at least, like to root for the underdog, but what if the scrappy little guy is actually in the wrong? There is nothing to rule that possibility out, and this strikes me as a broader political question worth considering, not just in the world of The Expanse but in our own.
Though perhaps it’s more common for people to think that the powerful deserve their power—we do have thinkpieces about how the Empire were really the good guys in Star Wars after all—and clearly that would be a mistake as well. We’re all in the middle, whether we like it or not—we’re all in the churn, except perhaps the dead, who have sunk to the bottom like sediment coating the machine. At least they’ve escaped all the agitation?
Rather than end on such a pessimistic note, I prefer to find hope in those characters in The Expanse who embrace the churn, and even thrive in it. Amos is one of them. Bobbie is another. Indeed one could argue that this is a line that passes through all of our friends in this fictional world, from Holden to Naomi to Avasarala and Drummer. The goal is not to float to the top. It may be to avoid sinking to the bottom for the moment, but really it is to work through the muck, as gut-wrenching as that might be. And these are the ones we root for. They aren’t underdogs so much as they know one can never really win. There is, at least, always another game. The important thing is to play well.