The following contains spoilers for The Expanse S5E5 “Down and Out” and assumes knowledge of all preceding episodes and seasons of The Expanse, but contains no book spoilers.
I ended my write-up last week by noting the way in which James Holden can tend to be a bit myopic. As much as I love him, he at times seems to fail to see what is right in front of his eyes, or to ask the right questions. What I didn’t realize at the time was the extent to which The Expanse had sucked me into his perspective over the course of Season 5, such that Holden’s surprise in S5E5 was mirrored by my own.
Of course there has always been a way in which The Expanse has proceeded from Holden’s point of view, or at least I think it makes sense to consider the character as a kind of surrogate for the audience—he is an Earther, but a disaffected one who stands at a distance from interplanetary politics and just fundamentally wants people to be able to live their lives.
But what S5E5 brings home is the extent to which the position Holden stakes out is dependent upon his relative privilege. This isn’t new to The Expanse by any means—Naomi in particular has interrogated him and pushed him towards self-reflection on this issue throughout the entire run of the show, more or less—but it landed particularly hard for me in “Down and Out” once I realized, along with Holden, that the Rocinante had been sabotaged. I needed Naomi to figure it out for me, too, but really neither of us should have.
Back in S5E1 we were introduced to Sakai—a somewhat chipper and somewhat quirky Belter on Tycho, who was working on the Rocinante. While Bahia Watson’s performance has been consistently striking and I noticed Sakai for that reason, I must admit that I didn’t mark her down as a significant character in my mind. I didn’t make a note of her name, and if you look back at what I wrote on the first three episodes of the season, I am pretty sure I didn’t even mention her.
That was a mistake on my part, of course, and it would be easy (and perhaps fair) to blame my own position as a white man of relative privilege, but I have to think that there was something intentional in how The Expanse presented Sakai that fed into this. The show plays on not just real world prejudices but those ingrained in the history of film and television to place this character in the background even in scenes in which she features in the early episodes of the season. Or perhaps it is just the way that Holden is dismissive of her that led me to similarly not think much of her. That was a mistake on my part but I don’t exactly think the point of engaging with a story is to try to figure out what is going to happen before it happens, so I’m more concerned about what it might say about me as a person than as a thoughtful viewer. It was a much bigger mistake on Holden’s part, however. He almost died for it.
Throughout the investigation into what happened to Monica, Holden continued to view Sakai more as a tool than a person. He used her to help achieve his goals, but showed little respect for her. And insofar as it took me by complete surprise when she pulled out a gun and shot Fred Johnson, I have to admit that I had done similarly.
To be clear, I’m not claiming that Holden treated Sakai like a thing in some immoral way that involved a violation of her autonomy, nor am I saying that I would have denied her personhood in anything like a forthright fashion. Rather, I am suggesting something subtler and kinder, but potentially no less pernicious—if Holden viewed Sakai as a tool, I viewed her as a plot device.
What’s worse is that even after she killed Fred I didn’t put it together, and clearly Holden didn’t either. She had been working on the Rocinante. Now we know she was working with Marco Inaros and helped him steal the protomolecule. Of course she sabotaged the ship Holden would use to try to chase it down. In retrospect her cheery “see you when you get back” is chilling…
Too bad. So sad. […] You lose. You all lose.
Sakai has vaulted into the upper echelon of my favorite characters in The Expanse. A lot of that is down to Bahia Watson’s performance, but beyond that there is the way that Sakai now strikes me as representative of the unseen and the way that even Earthers with beautiful souls like James Holden fail to understand the people of the Belt and why they might do what they do. And we could easily draw any number of real world parallels to the way people don’t just look down at certain individuals because of their social standing or uneducated way of speaking, but fail to properly see them at all.
Sakai doesn’t want a benevolent master, she wants to be free, and the struggle of the Belters parallels that of the proletariat more generally. The goal is not to teach Ebenezer Scrooge to care about people, it is to seize control of the means of production. Fred Johnson was a compromise. Marco Inaros is a radical.
If Filip really did save Naomi’s life—on the presumption that she would have headed right back and been there on the Rocinante had he not abducted her—this means that Inaros was perfectly willing to kill the mother of his son. I suppose that’s no surprise.
I’m more surprised that Filip does seem to have brought Naomi along for such reasons. I had assumed his intent was more malicious. She is his mother, but he hardly knows her and believes that she abandoned him as a child. I guess that’s a far cry from being willing to see her dead. This all also puts into a starker light the scene in S5E5 where Marco tells Filip he’s disappointed in him—he’s disappointed not just that Filip wanted his mommy around, but that he felt such an attachment to her that he wasn’t willing to see her die, in contrast to their compatriot from S5E1.
Marco is cold in his willingness to sacrifice anyone in order to achieve his goals. I almost put caveats in that sentence, but I don’t think they’re warranted. I think he would sacrifice Filip, or even himself, for the cause. But it would need to be worth it. He would need to win.
And it does seem as though Marco is winning. With Holden calling off the pursuit by the Rocinante, the Zmeya seems likely to escape with the protomolecule. Meanwhile, Bobbie and Alex discover that Martians are selling whole ships to the Free Navy. The dream of Mars is dead, but that of Inaros is ascending.
We recognize the right of Earth and Mars to exist, but their sovereignty ends at their respective atmospheres. The vacuum, the Ring Gates, and the Ring Worlds belong to the Belt, to Belters. With the opening of the alien gates, we are at a crossroads in human history. Already, we are seeing how easy it would be to carry on legacies of exploitation, injustice, prejudice, and oppression into the new worlds, but there is a better path. Under the protection of the Free Navy, the society and culture of the Belt will begin again and remake humanity without the corruption, greed, and hatred that the inner planets could not transcend. We will take what is ours by right, yes, but more than that, we will lead the Belt to a new, better form, a more human form. Citizens of the Belt—beratnas—rise up now in joy and glorious resolve. This day is ours. Tomorrow is ours. The future of humanity is ours. Today and forevermore…we are free. – Marco Inaros, The Expanse S5E4, “Gaugamela”
I said last week that the question now is whether one should align with Inaros in spite of all he has done. To do so would not necessarily mean accepting the homicides he has perpetrated, or the other destruction. This is what Cyn (Brent Sexton) does when he points out to Naomi the way in which the Earthers have kept Belters struggling for water and air (literally)—he says this was necessary, and implies that it was justified.
The problem is he may be right about it being necessary to the cause of freedom even if Marco’s means have been heinous and cannot be justified from a moral point of view. We see some of Drummer’s faction come close to expressing this line of thinking at the beginning of S5E5, and I think this will continue to be a question The Expanse grapples with moving forward—what does it mean to be on the side of beltalowda now? And that’s a question for the Belters also themselves.
I don’t expect Drummer will be able to look past what Inaros has done to Ashford, or Fred Johnson. She certainly won’t be able to look past what he’s done to Naomi. And I feel that with her. But is going after Marco the right move from a tactical or strategic point of view? Is it even in the right move in terms of promoting equality and dignity for all human beings?
There are two traps we can easily fall into when it comes to considering such a question. One is to think that all sorts of atrocities are warranted in the pursuit of justice. This is the trap that Marco falls into, and many along with him in the world of The Expanse. On the other side, though, there is the trap of thinking that because the means were immoral the end achieved is tainted and must be rejected.
This is the trap I expect Drummer to fall into, and the one it would be all too easy to fall into myself. We are a species that holds grudges. We are motivated by schadenfreude, like to call it retribution and mold a notion of justice in its image. But if that would mean undoing what freedom the Belters have won through Marco; if it would mean reinforcing that subjugation they have suffered at the hands of the Inners for the entirety of their existence, would that be justice?
The Expanse S5E5 tells a somewhat parallel story when it comes to Clarissa and Amos and their escape from The Pit, insofar as Clarissa very much deserves to be there in light of what she has done in the past. But she has changed—arguably before she was even incarcerated—so do we view her through the lens of who she was before, who she is now, or who she could be?
I think it’s clear here that the answer The Expanse presents is the latter, and perhaps it is easier to take that path when it comes to the redemption of a person than it is when it comes to actions. What Clarissa did was wrong—she murdered some people, for example—but we want to forgive her even if we don’t excuse those wrongs. And that forgiveness opens a future of possibilities whereas retribution shut them down…quite literally…in an ultra-high security basement prison.
Down and Out
The Expanse S5E5 ends with a cliffhanger as Alex and Bobbie try to escape destruction in the Razorback Screaming Firehawk. I am fairly sure they will (because of plot armor), but much less sure of where their plotline might be going. I suppose if Amos and Clarissa are the entry point to a perspective on Earth, Bobbie and Alex are the same for a perspective on Mars, and maybe that is sufficient. But insofar as they have been trying to prove the arms sales to the Belt it’s hard to avoid the feeling that they are too late.
I wondered last week what it was that someone wanted with Monica. The only answer that “Down and Out” offers lies in Holden’s remark that her eye implant caught the Zmeya’s flight plan, but this wouldn’t explain why she was placed in a shipping container to begin with rather than being killed. Plus we actually saw her do this in S5E4 when Sakai was trying to take her along during her foiled escape. I think there is still something of a mystery here. I just hope that the writers of The Expanse plan to address it in the coming episodes of Season 5 (no book spoilers, please!).
Meanwhile my imagination is mostly caught up in playing with ideas of what Avasarala might get up to in a post-“Gaugamela” world (and whom she might gloriously cuss out in the process), and with what Camina is going to do when she meets with Marco.