Sophomore seasons of hit TV shows often stumble hard in trying to replicate previous success while expanding on the show’s setting and characters. Heroes is a textbook example of that. And while I won’t say that The Expanse stumbled in its second season, exactly, there might have been some less-than-sure footwork involved in getting from the start to end. It’s still a really engaging show with incredibly accurate-feeling effects and a while lot of intrigue, it’s just that season 2 is very different in a lot of ways than season 1.
The core of the first season was, for all intents and purposes, a detective story set in outer space rather than 1930s Chicago. Season 2 lacks that kind of cohesive narrative drive, lurching around from crisis to crisis while trying to claim the title of “Game of Thrones in Space.” With Thomas Jane removed from the playing field due to the story, we kind of default to blandly nice Holden and his colorful crew aboard their stolen Martian gunship. They’re as “good” as this show is going to let any group get, but most of the time they come off as naive pawns being used by everyone they encounter.
With the protomolecule out in the solar system and terraforming Venus for who-knows-what, it’s a time of great uncertainty. Mars and Earth’s cold war starts heating up, and everyone wants to get their hands on this alien substance despite having no real idea what it can do.
The key cast addition in season 2 is Bobby Draper, a Martian marine who tries to come off as the toughest thing you’ve ever seen despite her being downright adorable. She’s not that interesting in the first few episodes, but gradually she becomes more watchable once she takes her destiny in her hands. Her loyalty to Mars is sorely tested, and only when her world is turned upside-down does she kick free to explore her destiny.
Again, the real problem with season 2 is that there is no central story that’s pulling everything along. There are stories, plural, which often intersect and develop, but any attempt on my part to quickly summarize the season would sound like I was just listing stuff that happened. “The spaceship went here and did this one thing and went back there and did another and a lot of people got blown out of airlocks because the show’s producers have a real fixation with that. The sickos.” As a result, I felt my attention wandering and my desire to jump into the next episode to see what happens wane.
That said, there are some excellent beats, and I am glad that this is shaping up to be a show about a crew of a small ship going on adventures together. I like Amos, Alex, and Naomi quite a lot, and even the new botanist guy they pick up has a glimmer of potential. These are all people who are so far in over their head that they often have no idea the implications of any decisions they’re making, but gee golly, they’re gonna try to make the best ones and help as man people as they can.
I especially liked the look at Ganymede, an outpost that gradually falls into disrepair over the course of the season. The Belt (and beyond) remains the coolest places that the series explores, and you really do get a feel for a more gritty existence that such places would bestow on anyone foolish enough to live there. Watching Ganymede cascade slowly into total systems failure while very few people realized what was happening ended up being nail-biting stuff.
It’s just that this ended up being a water-treading season with a few bursts of forward momentum here and there versus the non-stop dash that was the first season. Happily, there’s plenty of territory to explore from here — and a few more seasons to enjoy.