“Force Projection” honors the past while pushing The Expanse forward

We’re back for another weekly review of the sixth and final season of The Expanse! This week’s episode, “Force Projection,” gives us just enough time to catch our collective breath before slamming on the gas in its climactic sequence. There’s a lot to unwrap here, so we’re going to get right into it.

As always, there will be SPOILERS for this episode as well as preceding episodes in this review. So go watch!

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Things get real on Laconia

We get our third cold open on Laconia for the season. At this point, I basically expect it every episode, and it’s a nice way to ease back into The Expanse before returning to the solar system war.

Or at least, it’s usually a nice easy start. This week certainly begins that way, with another glimpse of whatever structure is floating in orbit over the planet and Cara (Emma Ho) sitting through a class down on the planet’s surface. But after she ditches her brother and heads back out into the woods, things start to get interesting. That drone she wrecked last week has been miraculously repaired, and is just sitting out there waiting for her. The dog-like creatures that have been watching her pop out, making more facial expressions than we’ve seen from them so far…but the biggest reveal is that the bird that Cara accidentally killed has been resurrected; it’s wobbling a little awkwardly, but walking and squawking and leading its babies. So that’s disconcerting.

When Cara rushes home to tell her parents about this miracle, she discovers that her younger brother was hit by a car while playing soccer after school. Points to the dialogue here for swiftly conveying this information in a way that rewards close viewing while still keeping everything firmly fixed on Cara’s perspective.

I can’t help but feel a pit in my stomach at the fact that Cara’s brother died in the same episode as the dog-creature brought that bird back to life. Surely, not a coincidence, and probably something we’ll find out more about next week.

Ceres abandoned

Back in the Belt, things get more intense as Avasarala’s joint fleet lands on Ceres Station…only to find that Marco Inaros has totally abandoned it. It quickly becomes apparent that the whole thing was a set up, with the Free Navy stripping Ceres of all its resource as a way to force the Inner fleet to make an awful choice: use their own resources to help Ceres’ residents or leave them to die from running out of oxygen, food and water.

We’ve gotten plenty of glimpses at Marco’s true nature, but this feels different. He was just on Ceres telling everyone it was going to be the capital of a new Belter nation. Now he’s willing to abandon everyone there. Avasarala (Shohreh Aghdashloo) finds herself once more at the confluence of all these different forces, convincing her fleet to help while trying to convince the Belters their help can be trusted. As always, Aghdashloo does a great job and is pretty much impossible to look away from. Jo Vannicola finally gets a chance to shine more as Sanjrani this episode as well; they have some screen time opposite the imposing Agdashloo that perfectly sets up the complexities of the Ceres situation.

Monica Stuart (Anna Hopkins) also gets a fair amount of screen time this week, and the actor makes the best of it. Last week Stuart was convinced by Avasarala to do some news pieces that showed the devastating human toll the war was taking, and in “Force Projection” we see those plans start to bear fruit.

The point is driven home when seconds after Monica starts talking to an old, poor Belter on Ceres, a series of explosions rock the station, jettisoning all its precious water out into space. It’s not clear what happened to Stuart during these events and we don’t know for sure who was responsible for the explosion…but after everything else Inaros did to Ceres this episode, it’s hard to imagine it being anyone else.

UNIVERSAL CITY, CALIFORNIA – NOVEMBER 26: Actress Elizabeth Mitchell visits Hallmark Channel’s “Home & Family” at Universal Studios Hollywood on November 26, 2019 in Universal City, California. (Photo by Paul Archuleta/Getty Images)

Cameos and callbacks galore

The other way that Monica Stuart’s reporting has an impact this episode is that she organized a news report cameo by none other than Anna Volovodov (Elizabeth Mitchell), who we haven’t seen since season 3. She’s a skilled orator and pastor, and her sense of compassion is on full display as she tries to remind people of common human goodness and how it will be needed to ultimately end the conflict.

We get to see the effects of her speech through an unlikely point of view: Michio (Vanessa Smythe), one of Camina Drummer’s crewmates who clearly agrees with Anna’s words. Not a lot of time is spent with Drummer and her family this week, but what we do get is solid set up for what’s to come, as more disillusioned Belter ships join her forces for a raid on Marco Inaros’ supply depots.

Seeing Elizabeth Mitchell as Anna again after all these years was a great surprise, and really made the show feel like it was coming full circle. “Force Projection” was littered with these kinds of callbacks — from talk of Ceres’ history and Anderson Dawes to various conversations among the Rocinante crew to the cameo by Mitchell and another one by Terry Chen as Praxidike Meng, aka Prax. Prax and Anna’s plotlines are something that the writers revealed they had to cut down due to the final season’s constrained timeline. Originally, full stories were planned for both characters, until it became clear The Expanse would only be getting six episodes this year. We get to see the end point of each of their arcs: Anna is getting involved in swaying people toward peace and Prax puts his life at risk to get a formula for growing food on the now declining Earth to the Roci crew.

Personally, I think this worked really well. As much as I would have loved to see more of Anna and Prax, it didn’t feel like anything was really missing here. Season 6 of The Expanse is lean and sharply written, and there just isn’t time for anything that isn’t absolutely necessary to the endgame plot arcs.

Showdown in space

All that said, this episode really shines when we spend time with the crews of the Pella and Rocinante. Aboard Marco Inaros’ ship, we get a feel for how the Free Navy’s abandonment of Ceres is sowing discontent across the Belt. Keon Alexander always does a great job as Inaros, but man did he bring his A game this week. Marco has never been my favorite character on The Expanse, but Alexander has really killed it with his portrayal of this revolutionary whose forces are fraying at the seams. It all comes to a head when he forces a totally unnecessary engagement with the Rocinante against the advice of his second, Rosenfeld (Kathleen Robertson).

The Roci crew has a pretty easy episode as they recover from their assault on the Azure Dragon and reminisce about the past. It was great to get a call-back and reminder to why Clarissa Mao got her implants in the first place: to kill Holden out of misguided vengeance for how he ruined her father. Mentions of the Canterbury Ice Hauler and the Donnager — the ship where the original Roci crew members worked in season 1 and the Martian warship where they found the Rocinante, respectively — also helped cement just how far everyone has come, and I was all for it.

But the peace couldn’t last, as everyone scrambles into action when Inaros comes at the Roci with three much larger ships. The space battle, while not quite as exhilarating as the Azure Dragon chase last week, is still top notch and really well written. The fact that the Roci overcomes the odds not because of some fluke or plot armor but because they are an expert crew who knows their ship and its capabilities so well, is awesome. I loved seeing Bobbie Draper (Frankie Adams) back in the gunner’s chair of the ship. It’s not something that’s mentioned much in the show, but Bobbie’s rank in the Martian army meant that she was specifically trained to operate the weapons on ships like the Rocinante. So it all made sense, and that made it easier to get immersed.

What I didn’t love so much was the fact that Holden deactivated their torpedo at the last moment, effectively sparing Marco and his crew. Oh, I get the reasoning. Holden saw his girlfriend Naomi’s son on the screen when he tried to convince Marco to surrender, and couldn’t bring himself to kill him. It’s totally fair. But it’s also one of those throw-your-hands-in-the-air moments, which I suppose means the show did a good job. The war could have been ended right then and there. Instead we find out that some ominous stuff is coming through the Ring Gate from Laconia, and Marco’s pretty happy about it even if his crew is starting to lose faith in him.

As frustrating as Holden’s actions are, they do make for some pretty damn good drama. Things are getting juicy, because you know that it’ll cause all sorts of friction if (when) anyone else finds out that he purposely spared Marco’s ship. And since Inaros is still alive, the war carries on and he has yet more chances to sow chaos on the solar system.

Conclusion

“Force Projection” was another fantastic episode in a season that is shaping up to be one of the strongest in The Expanse’s whole run. It had crazy good action scenes and had plenty of time for the characters to breathe and develop. The writing was top notch. And best of all, it was filled with callbacks to prior seasons, which is so necessary in the final season of a long-running series, both to remind viewers of how far everyone has come and to give emotional weight to the journey. I had been hoping for stuff like this from The Expanse, and this week it really delivered. Add to that the crisis on Ceres, Holden’s damning new secret, and Marco seemingly getting a new ace-in-the-hole, and “Force Projection” does a fantastic job of honoring the show’s past while setting up its final leg.

Grade: A+

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