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The Expanse S5E8: “Hard Vacuum” — Stay Away From the Future

The following contains spoilers for The Expanse S5E8 “Hard Vacuum” and assumes knowledge of all preceding episodes and seasons of The Expanse, but contains no book spoilers.


This is Naomi Ngata of the Rocinante. If you get this message please retransmit. Tell James Holden I am in distress. Comm is not responding. Have no Nav control. Please retransmit.

You can color me one of the people who found Naomi Ngata’s jump through space in last week’s “Oyedeng” to be a bit implausible, but I’ve read what James SA Corey has had to say about the matter on Twitter and OK. It’s at least clear that the writers of The Expanse have done their due diligence in terms of research on this. And even if it were impossible for her to be out in the vacuum of space for that long without protection, I’d be prone to forgive it, given that this leads to such a powerful arc for Naomi here in S5E8. “Hard Vacuum” immediately rivals Doctor Who’s “Heaven Sent” in my mind in how it presents a story of grit, determination and perseverance in the face of despair, and Dominique Tipper’s performance has immediately wired itself into the synapses of my brain as a point of reference, along with the refrain:

This is Naomi Ngata of the Rocinante. If you get this message please retransmit. Tell James Holden I am in distress. Comm is not responding. Have no Nav control. Please retransmit.

This is Naomi Ngata of the Rocinante

At the beginning of Season 5 of The Expanse, Naomi decided to pursue the lead that Fred Johnson had provided her to meet with her son Filip and offer him a chance to get away from his father, Marco Inaros. It was easy enough to predict that this wouldn’t go well, and you could almost fault James Holden for not insisting more stridently that he go with her, except that she was right that there was no place for him in this situation and he was right to know, on the basis of all of their history together, that insisting would only push Naomi further away from him.

That’s not to say that Naomi was in a position to be able to achieve her goal on her own either, though. Filip’s attachment to his father is clear and no one could rationally predict that the mother whom he had barely known before she disappeared from his life as a child would be able to make as stark a change to his disposition as would have been necessary. The thing is that Naomi did know this. The point wasn’t that she succeed with Filip, it was that she had to try, and this both tracks with what we know about her from the entire course of The Expanse and allows Season 5 to deepen the perspective it gives us into her character.

Filip rests his head against Naomi's shoulder as she has an arm around him

Naomi knew that she would fail with Filip, or if she didn’t know that for sure it was only the most tenuous uncertainty she could hang onto in order to attempt to reach out to him. It wasn’t that she thought this was going to work, but that she needed to do everything she could despite the likelihood of a bad outcome, in order to be able to live with herself.

She tried her hardest to find Filip when he was a child, but failed. She came to the brink of suicide due to her failure but didn’t carry it through because she realized that wouldn’t help Filip. Staying alive maybe didn’t either, or at least not right away, but it left open the slimmest possibility for the future, whereas death would foreclose that forever. She didn’t abandon Filip in her soul even if she did in body (from a certain point of view). She accepted that he was beyond her reach, but when the opportunity arose to reach out to him again, this was not something Naomi could pass up. This would have been to abandon him—to know that he was in the arms of his murderous father and shrug at the impossibility of doing anything about it.

Naomi won’t let the fact that something is impossible stop her from trying. In S5E8 she discovers that the Chetzemoka is rigged with explosives that she cannot disarm. She cannot take control of the ship, and there is not even oxygen for the suit that she ultimately adorns to carry out the mission she sets for herself. What there is, however, is a simulated distress call in her name (and voice) meant to lure the Rocinante in order to destroy it. Naomi has moved from the impossible attempt to save one family to the impossible attempt to save another.

Naomi looks battered and bruised

And it is impossible, or at least it is in the sense that one could not adequately imagine the scenario of success prior to her efforts. Indeed, I’m not entirely sure about the chances of success at the end of “Hard Vacuum,” though I suppose it depends in some regard on how we are defining success. Nevertheless, she persists. Naomi Ngata is not about to accept that she is powerless even when she is. And so she attempts to rig a comm in order to put out a new message that she has no idea if anyone will ever hear. Those hopes are pretty well dashed when she does hear from Alex, but with regard to the fake message she is unable to override. She can’t respond, but now her found family is on its way.

So Naomi Ngata sets about the impossible task of messing with that simulated message she can’t turn off. She puts on the suit with no oxygen tank to go into the corridor, repeating the lines of the message to herself to keep the timing, and begins altering its wiring. But of course she can only work for so long before she’s at risk of running out of oxygen, so it is one trip after another, each taking a greater toll on her body, until she is finally able to pull it off.

The structure of S5E8 is a thing of beauty here, as The Expanse withholds any exposition of what Naomi is doing—there being no one for her to tell or talk to about the project—leaving it to the viewer to figure out as she goes along. Her desperation is thus mirrored by our own. We don’t know if she is going to succeed or even what exactly she is trying to do until the end of “Hard Vacuum” when we hear the new altered message along with Oksana and Karal, and then it proceeds to repeat as the credits roll.

This repetition, in contrast to that of the simulated message we had been exposed to over the course of S5E8, brings with it relief. There is a release of tension created by the very rhythms of the episode and something musical about its form as a whole. It is striking because in terms of the narrative it is not at all clear that the risks to Naomi, the Rocinante or the Razorback Screaming Firehawk have been resolved, but we nonetheless feel like a corner has been turned. For a moment I thought that “Hard Vacuum” might end with Naomi sacrificing herself to save her friends, but no…not yet anyway. And if the situation she’s in continues to seem to be an impossible one I at least have faith that she will continue to fight, indefatigably, until the very end.

If You Get This Message Please Retransmit

Amos and Clarissa are still on Earth, as The Expanse gives us an entry into the aftermath of Marco’s attack on the planet through their story. In S5E8, they find that Baltimore is virtually destroyed. As they talk to The Greek Erich (Jacob Mundell), he tells them that at first he thought it was just the churn again, but it’s turning out this is more than that.

Erich stands on a roof with a building behind him

The Expanse didn’t give us overwhelming scenes of the destruction on Earth as it was occurring in “Gaugamela” but has instead approached the question more symbolically—through, for example, the downing of UN One or a news report about flooding in New York—and now through a portrait it has been slowly painting of what amounts to a post-apocalyptic world.

Perhaps it’s not quite, but if we think about even how interconnected everything is in 2021, it’s easy enough to imagine an even more interdependent Earth in the future. Supply chains can be easily disrupted, as we saw for ourselves in 2020. Maybe the worst we saw were empty toilet paper shelves, but if you think about what the effects would be of a couple of asteroids killing millions of people…perhaps nothing is starker than the scene in “Tribes” where Clarissa and Amos confront a man who was already something of a doomsday prepper. It’s not just the material reality but what happens to the psyches of people that is at play.

Call it the churn, or call it something worse, either way Amos is right that things are going to be like this for a while and even Erich has to recognize that his criminal empire in Baltimore is gone and the right move is to get off the planet if they can.

Tell James Holden I am in Distress

Holden is on the hunt for Naomi in S5E8 but we also get an update through his story on the aftermath of the explosion of the Zmeya in S5E7. Or, well no one on the Rocinante really has a better idea than you or I about what exactly happened to the protomolecule, but we at least get Bull, Monica and James talking about it.

Holden and Monica in gear on the Rocinante

Even though the most plausible scenario seems to be that the protomolecule was destroyed when the Zmeya blew its own reactor—Marco seemed mad about the whole thing and has given no indication himself that he was secretly succeeding, for example—I can’t help but think that something else must be going on, if for no other reason than plot logic.

It seems to me that the protomolecule simply must be a part of the endgame of The Expanse, and while it has largely been in the background of Season 5 I’m expecting that by the end of S5E10 it will have come more to the fore in some way, setting up the sixth and final season. We have seen Paolo Cortazar being taken, and can presume he’d gladly continue his work with the substance. And we have heard Marco use it as a threat against the Inners, even if it wasn’t actually fully in his control yet at that point. Monica, on the other hand, has suggested that perhaps Inaros had offered the protomolecule to the Martians as payment for their weapons and gunships, which would also make some sense. The problem is that none of these things go together. And then now we have the possibility that the protomolecule has been destroyed.

There is a realism to the existence of all of these possibilities and to the fact that as viewers of The Expanse we just don’t know the answers to these questions any more than James Holden does, but the questions here are dangling threads that I have to trust will get tied back into the narrative of The Expanse as it proceeds in one way or another.

Of course we also don’t know for sure what the protomolecule would do at this point if it were launched at a planet like Earth. What happened on Eros led to Venus, which led to the creation of the Ring, so if that was the goal of this substance it has already been achieved. Would it do the same sort of thing again, or is it smarter than that?

Fred looks aghast at the projections of weird goopy stuff Holden shows him

And we also had the intimation from Holden earlier in Season 5 that we might be dealing with some kind of interdimensional beings when it comes to the protomolecule and the other faction involved in the backstory that The Expanse hasn’t really engaged with since late Season 4 with that scene on Ilus where Miller’s identity was in question as he was seemingly being pulled in opposing directions by opposing forces.

Here in S5E8, Holden insists that the protomolecule has been destroyed through a reactor before, but now I’m led to wonder whether this is in fact the case. Maybe it cannot be destroyed, or cannot be destroyed in such a way, and has merely been broken apart or shifted to a dimension beyond human perception.

Frankly I don’t know how weird things might get when it comes to the protomolecule, but it wouldn’t make sense for it to just be gone from this story. Something unpredictable is bound to happen, and the question as to whether the Free Navy managed to hold onto the specific sample that was aboard the Zmeya is really subsidiary to that bigger mystery in the grand scheme of things.

Comm is Not Responding

Marco and his faction seem focused on the destruction of the Rocinante, think Naomi is dead, and it is hard to see what their next planned move is when it comes to the war they’ve provoked by attacking Earth (and Mars). The Earthers, on the other hand, now led by David Paster (Sugith Varughese)—though he is smart enough to have Avasarala and Delgado at hand—are looking for a response to Marco’s attack, and thus come up against that pesky question as to whether it is OK to kill civilians when you are fighting an enemy that has killed millions of civilians.

David Paster gives a speech

The moral question is not easy in such a situation. An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind on the one hand, but pacifism would allow monsters to run roughshod over humanity on the other. And as much as rules of war are well and good, the issue becomes much more difficult to resolve when the other side does not abide by them. This is, in fact, a general problem and not one limited to armed combat or situations of life and death.

But so the resolution of such a question almost must become strategic rather than moral in its thinking—in other words, morality has a way of being too abstract to be of service and can even lead to the most disgusting consequence of the beautiful soul who allows the worst to happen because they cannot bring themselves to “taint themselves” with the muck of hard decisions.

Everyone is in the churn now and the worst thing Paster could do would be to try to be above it. But would attacking Pallas be the right move? Certainly it is true that this would turn the entirety of the Belt against Earth, but isn’t it also true that they already, functionally speaking, are? Perhaps the right move truly is to do nothing for the moment but wait for what Inaros will do next, but it seems clear that Paster won’t be taking this option.

And it’s all too easy to see how Earthers devalue the lives of Belters, and to predict that they would cheer the destruction of Pallas or some other target. Marco’s message has not been heard and perhaps cannot be heard because of its delivery. He is indeed a terrorist and this is the strategic problem with terrorism—it can only propagate terror. Even if it is the voice of the oppressed it is nonetheless a scream that will only tend to cause people to cover their ears or try to impose silence.

Have No Nav Control

Drummer is unmoored in S5E8, as we first see her working to carry out a salvage mission with her #PolyAmBelterFam plus Karal (who really kind of brings the mood down all over the place) and then see her struggle with the news that Naomi is dead. She’d pieced together a life for herself after Ashford was killed, and decided to stay out of things, focusing instead on the tribe of people she loved—until Inaros attacked Earth, and killed Fred. Now she has been thrust into joining his faction, cut through with regret that she didn’t vote to have him tossed out an airlock when she had the chance, and is picking over the bones of those who did.

Drummer in despair as she holds a bottle of liquor in The Expanse S5E8 "Hard Vacuum"

Of course Naomi is not dead—at least not yet—but when Karal proclaimed her death with a certain glee in her voice I not only thought Drummer might be about to kill her but hoped that she would. And now that the news is being received on her ship, however indirectly, that Naomi is alive, I wonder what Drummer might do.

Camina has never been one to submit. She’s formed an uneasy alliance with Marco but not bent the knee to him. And as she tells Oksana in S5E8, she’s not sure she can. Surviving otherwise may be impossible, but I feel like we’re a click away from Drummer tossing aside calculations about the chances of living or dying and setting off to team up with the Rocinante et al to gear up for an ultimate confrontation with Inaros and take him out…come what may.

Please Retransmit

At the end of The Expanse S5E8 Naomi has succeeded in altering the distress call, but we don’t yet know what those on the Rocinante or Razorback will do when they (presumably) hear the updated version. It of course can’t be taken at face value and presents a dearth of information anyway. One way or another we have to imagine that our friends will figure out what the situation is with the Chetzemoka, but that doesn’t really help them, or Naomi, insofar as they cannot approach the ship without it blowing up. Can Naomi get off of the ship in some way without it blowing up? I suppose this might be the best we can hope for.

Karal looks at a comm in The Expanse S5E8 "Hard Vacuum"

Drummer may well shoot Karal in the head when she finds out Naomi is alive and push her crew to go along with her to save Naomi and fight Marco, but will the #PolyAmBelterFam be onboard with such a mission? We’ve already seen signs of dissension that have arisen in relation to the decision to align with Inaros in the first place, and the logic based on his power in the solar system continues to hold.

So even if “Hard Vacuum” ends on a hopeful note, with a change to its refrain, it’s worth noting that is also still ends with a distress call. And as much as we want to believe it, that is based solely on a faith established throughout The Expanse—and in S5E8 in particular—that our friend Naomi will continue to figure out how to deal with impossible circumstances and overcome impossible odds.

This is Naomi Ngata…tell James Holden I am in…control

Caemeron Crain

Written by Caemeron Crain

Caemeron Crain studies philosophy and is a writer and head of the TV department at 25YL. He is a party to a Twin Peaks podcast that then did a few episodes on Surrealism before entering an indefinite hiatus. He also has a cat.

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