3 Body Problem review: Episode 2, "Red Coast"

3 Body Problem crystalizes the moment when the destiny of humanity changes forever in its second episode, "Red Coast."
3 Body Problem. Zine Tseng as Young Ye Wenjie in episode 102 of 3 Body Problem. Cr. Ed Miller/Netflix © 2024
3 Body Problem. Zine Tseng as Young Ye Wenjie in episode 102 of 3 Body Problem. Cr. Ed Miller/Netflix © 2024 /

Warner: SPOILERS ahead!

At over an hour long, "Red Coast" is the longest episode from the first season of 3 Body Problem. It makes good use of the space. As in the first episode, this is a sprawling story with a lot of moving parts. We spend time in the past, seeing what a young Ye Wenjie is up to living and working in isolation at the Red Coast base. In the present, we get more familiar with our five intrepid scientists, a couple of whom enter the digital world of the 3 Body video game.

One of the things I like about David Benioff and Dan Weiss, who serve as showrunners on this series alongside Alexander Woo, is that they're drawn to complicated material. Game of Thrones had a ton going on. 3 Body Problem has a lot going on, so much so that you worry about it spinning out of control. But that's part of the fun of a big show like this. It feels like it's reaching for something. Even if it doesn't quite get there, it's effort well spent.

Happily, "Red Coast" succeeds at what it's trying to do. Let's get into the details.

Do not answer

As with the premiere, the best parts of "Red Coast" involve a young Ye Wenjie, who's working at a Chinese government research base in the 1970s, trying to contact extraterrestrial life. The string of bad fortune that's defined her life continues as one of her colleagues steals her idea for amplifying their signal. After being ground underfoot of the Cultural Revolution, Ye Wenjie is feeling pessimistic about the ability of humanity to take care of itself, and watching the parade of terrors that is her life, it's easy to sympathize.

There's a powerful scene where Ye Wenjie confronts the young Red Guard who years ago beat her father to death while a fanatical crowd looked on. The years have been very unkind to the young woman, who refuses to repent for what she did, further undergirding Ye Wenjie's conviction that humanity is beyond saving. "No one repents," she says.

It's important that we see Ye Wenjie suffering so we understand why she makes the choice she makes at the end of the episode. When Ye Wenjie finally does receive a communication from outer space, a reply to a signal she defied her superiors to send years earlier, it's from a pacifist member of an extraterrestrial species who implores her, "Do not answer." If she does, his species will be able to pinpoint the location of Earth, and her planet will be conquered.

This is the climax of the episode, which director Derek Tsang draws out with delicious tension. Ye Wenjie drafts a message inviting the aliens to come to Earth. We cannot take care of ourselves. Rule us. Having seen what Ye Wenjie has endured, we know why she would take this perspective, but can she really doom her own species to subjugation? The moments tick on, actor Zine Tseng's wonderfully expressive face bathed in golden late afternoon light. She stares into the distance. She sends the message, and the screen cuts to black.

It's an effectively spine-tingling moment, as the course of history is changed forever because of the decision of this one woman. In the book The Three-Body Problem by Liu Cixin, we don't find out these details about Ye Wenjie's story until much later. The show is front-loading it, I suppose because it doesn't want to prolong the mystery. So far this change is working for me, especially when there's so much mystery elsewhere.

3 Body Problem. John Bradley as Jack Rooney in episode 102 of 3 Body Problem. Cr. Courtesy of Netflix © 2024 /

We invite you to play

In the present, Jin Cheng continues to play the 3 Body video game, the same one that her old professor Vera was playing before she killed herself in the premiere, the event that brought Jin back into contact with her old Oxford classmates. The 3 Body game is an important part of the book series, and the show replicates it pretty faithfully. Jin Cheng explores a world imperiled by an unpredictable cycle of stable and chaotic eras. Sometimes the climate of this world is predictable, and sometimes it's dangerously erratic. The people who live here have the ability to "dehydrate" themselves, effectively putting themselves into stasis during the chaotic eras and reviving during the stable ones.

The problem is that no one can predict when a stable era is going to occur, or how long it will last when it does. The object of the game is to figure it out. The show has fun treating this as a video game; the appearance of the AI characters changes depending on who's playing, and sometimes they'll break character to advise you on the controls. Even the info dumps about the world's climate problems seem charming in this context; as anyone who's played a video game will tell you, sometimes the characters just blurt out the information the player needs to know.

And yet there's some moments of visual power, too. At the end of Jin Cheng's play session, she witnesses the decimation of the world's civilization due to an extreme period of cold. It's all fake, but it's still harrowing as the redyrated population screams and scrambles for survival. The special effects are energetic and creative if shy of picture perfect. There's some questionable digital crown work going on, but I liked how the people of this digital world looked when hydrating and rehydrating themselves; their bodies first fold in on themselves, becoming loose flabs of skin you can fold up and hold in your hands, and then expand and fill out. The imagination goes a long way towards making up for some low-res textures. And again, the show sort of has an out, since it's technically all happening inside a video game; sometimes video games look iffy.

In the book, we don't have much of an idea of the meaning of the 3 Body game until later in the story. Since the show is telling us much more up front, I suspect a lot of viewers will be able to guess what's going on here: the game is simulating the world where the extraterrestrials live, the same extraterrestrials Ye Wenjie has invited to take over our planet. Again, I think this is a good choice. The mood of morbid mystery remains, and there's more to pull audiences from episode to episode.

The Oxford Five

That leaves the segments in the present outside the game, where we get to know the Oxford Five better. Auggie follows the orders of the mysterious woman from the other night and shuts down her microfiber project. As promised, the strange countdown floating in front of her eyes disappears. It was creepy when it appeared in the premiere and it's creepy now. I also like the presence of all the high-tech science stuff. Book-fans can probably guess what use it going to be made of the microfiber later in the season.

Elsewhere, we fill out the characters of Saul, who's a bit of a hedonist, and Will, a high school teacher with an inferiority complex and pancreatic cancer. I've liked how the writers have developed these new characters, but Will might be one newbie too many. I enjoyed the scene where he confessed his diagnosis to Jack, mainly because it gives actor John Bradley an excuse to emote, but it feels like we've gone from "Who is Will" to "We know his innermost secrets and fears" a bit too fast.

But I can't get too mad at the show for trying too much. I'd rather a show overreach than underreach, and for the most part, 3 Body Problem's grasp matches its ambition.

3 Body Bullet Points

  • We get a quick check-in with Detective Da Shi, whose name is apparantly Clarence in this show, and his boss Thomas Wade, who know more about the extraterrestrial menace than the other characters do. Or us, for that matter.
  • During the flashback segments, Ye Wenjie meets a young Mike Evans, a trust fund conservationist living in China trying to save a speicies of rare bird. In the present, he's a rich old man spreading anti-science propaganda. Put a pin in that guy for now.
  • During the production of the sixth season of Game of Thrones, showrunners David Benioff and Dan Weiss played a trick on actor John Bradley (Samwell Tarly). They made him get a costume fitting for a ridiculous-looking ye ole timey English outfit that they never intended for him to actually wear on the show. The outfit that Jack Rooney — also played by Bradley — wears while playing the 3 Body game looks strikingly similar to that fake costume. Remember: Benioff and Weiss are are the showrunners on 3 Body Problem too, so I think this was them following through on their prank from years ago.

Episode Grade: A-

Next. 3bp 3. Review: 3 Body Problem gets epically prosaic in Episode 3, "Destroyer of Worlds". dark

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