In the latter half of The Expanse’s luminously serious second season, the deadly protomolecule scheming the United Nations’ Sadavir Errinwright (Shawn Doyle) has been tied up in since Season One is discovered by his fellow Undersecretary, the formidable Chrisjen Avasarala (Shohreh Aghdashloo). By this point, hundreds of thousands of people across the solar system have suffered brutal deaths, and the shaky concord between Earth, Mars, and the beaten-down citizens of the Belt has reached its brittlest point yet, all because of the shadowy propagation of the mysterious extra-solar protomolecule by Errinwright and the mercenary Earther capitalist, Jules-Pierre Mao (François Chau)
“You need to understand,” Errinwright starts when Avasarala glares him down, daring him to make his case for annihilation. “This started out as a conversation about peace.”
As The Expanse returns to SyFy—and with it, all the TV column headlines about the show’s incredible contemporary relevance/prescience/importance—the war between Earth and Mars that has been threatening for the past two years is finally here. And from the two episodes provided to critics for review, the devastating complexity of that war is going to resonate, both on and off screen, even more than the threat of it has in previous seasons.
But just because all-out war looks to be the third season’s central conflict, dedicated fans of the show will know better than to anticipate a straight path forward. While it’s impossible to pick out any one thing The Expanse does best, the series’ creative team has been aces since Season One at busting apart every expectation their audience might have, whether from having read the books before, or from being well-versed in the rhythms of televised storytelling. Matched with the ensemble cast’s expert performances, every shot’s vibrantly grand cinematography, and the lived-in intensity of the world The Expanse has had in place since the very first moment, all this expectation-busting is a storytelling trick that keeps the audience constantly on their back heel, and makes the experience of watching the show nearly as heart-pounding and vital as if we were living it out in real time.
To discuss this quiet storytelling coup, Paste got series co-creator Mark Fergus on the line, where he broke down some of the first two seasons’ biggest moments, and how they changed from page to screen.
The following conversation, which was conducted before Season Three began filming, has been edited for length and clarity. Obviously, spoilers for the first two seasons follow.
Paste: So! Two seasons behind you, Season Three ahead—how does it feel?
Mark Fergus: It feels good! I feel like [in Season Two] we got the rhythm we kind of wanted to follow up with from Season One. We wanted to be able to really move the story pieces along—we spent a whole year [in the first season] building a world, and you know, [in Season Two] we got to rock and roll, move the ball forward on characters, on stories, on all the concrete stuff. So it feels nice, like we’ve connected on that level, able to keep the show moving forward.
Paste: It does seem like The Expanse’s fans are the type who will stick around forever, so long as the show keeps treating the audience with respect.
Fergus: That’s what we’re hoping for, that they’ll come back and won’t have forgotten us, and will just be psyched to get new material. It’s all daunting [on this end], but I have to put myself back into their position, and remember that when your favorite show came back, you were psyched.
Paste: You’ve talked elsewhere about how the books work more as a foundation for the series. We’ve noticed, though, that it isn’t the framework of the overall story that you’re changing, but more the whens: When characters meet each other, when new pieces of information are revealed, and to whom, and why—the timing of those have been swapped around a lot. What was the development process behind that?
Fergus: I think with the plot thing, the books [are] really strong—they kind of take you through the whole history of sci-fi in some ways, and do a lot of things that are kind of built in to the genre of sci-fi: Can we overcome our nature with the discovery of new technologies, new realms? Where is humanity going? So we follow the plot structure, it’s a great build, a great flow, and I think they’re planning like twelve books or something like that.
But in between there, the material has a zillion opportunities for [adaptation]. It’s amazing how many times we find that what prose needs and what TV and film need is really quite different. You’ll see an opportunity in the books that isn’t really exploited for killer drama, and we’ll just grab those and make them big. For example, [the crew of the Roci] gets ahold of a protomolecule sample at the end of the [first] book and they don’t know what to do with it. And [on the show] what we ended up saying was, well, what if they don’t really know what to do with it, so they decide to destroy it? But Naomi [Dominique Tipper] decides not to destroy it because it’s too important to destroy, so she tells the others that she has destroyed it. So now we have a giant ticking time bomb between all the characters—possible betrayal, the fact that she’s a Belter and understands some things the others maybe don’t, all this amazing stuff—so you get like fifty great payoffs from this one great thing.
And that’s just one example. [co-creator] Hawk [Ostby] and I have built our resumes doing visual storytelling, thriller storytelling, where its all about what the audience knows versus what the characters know and vice versa—it’s all about playing with rhythm and playing with information and playing with expectations for the greatest payoff. We’re just taking what’s in the book that has the greatest opportunity for visual storytelling and saying, “Wow, we can really make this a thing. We can really make this a big moment.” And the material is very adaptable in that way, we can do that without breaking the big plot structure. So we do that as often as we can, whenever we see a great story element that can be pulled out over a whole season or create great drama for several episodes or a whole season or several seasons.
Paste: Speaking of “big moments”—we loved your interview with SyFy’s official “The Churn” podcast for the pivotal Miller (Thomas Jane) episode, “Home,” which was the end of the first book, but happened on the show in the middle of Season Two. Was there any talk in the writer’s room about embracing that kind of asymmetrical approach in order to keep fans of the books a little more on their toes?
Fergus: It started, I guess, from two things. The first is that the show lives on beyond broadcast—when the show is said and done, people will watch it in a linear, streamed kind of way, or they’ll binge it or whatever. It will be a straight line, so you can’t really worry about the season enders and the rhythm of the show, at least in terms of the big pauses in between. If you look at it as a big book, by the end of it, it’s five seasons—or seven seasons, or whatever we get—and it’s one big, long story, so don’t worry about where those moments happen, or that [Miller’s ending] feels like it’s in the middle of the season.
Also, all the TV veterans in the process said, “Don’t worry about that, no one is going to run screaming from the room. They realize you are going to finish it in a different rhythm, and also they will appreciate that you took the time not to cram an entire novel into ten episodes where it didn’t fit, and then you rushed through all the great stuff.” And so while it felt a little terrifying to not really finish [Miller’s] story in the first season, that last episode [when Miller dies] only has impact because we did the fourteen previous correctly.
Paste: As people who more or less watch TV for a living, we know how easy it is to fall into a false sense of security. You get used to the patterns, you get used to the rhythms, you sort of develop a sense of who the main characters of a show are, and how safe they are. And then when you have something like “Home” hit you in the middle of the season, accidental or not, that can throw an audience really off-kilter.
Fergus: I think it’s great it worked out kind of asymmetrical like that, because you’re right, one of the biggest tools for anyone telling a story—maybe even bigger than character and dialogue and plot—is rhythm, and how you’re releasing the story to the audience, how much, how fast. And now that we’ve got the kind of “Ned Stark moment” [trope], everyone is waiting for these kind of things. Ours was kind of accidental, just because the story needed that much space, but I do think it had a great added—any rhythm you can break, any expectation you can kind of play with to throw [the audience] off, that’s big in the rules of any thriller, you want to let them go there, let them feel smarter than the story. You kind of let them get out ahead of you before pulling them back.
Paste: That’s the rule for comedy and horror, and it’s hard to make it work for other genres, but it’s effective when it does.
Fergus: I think that’s a great observation. It was an accident, but then it taught us a lot about how these can be good accidents because they break patterns, and patterns, you know, that’s when people tune out. Or once they’re ahead of you, they get bored.
Paste: That brings us back to what you were saying before about withholding information, and how that can heighten dramatic tension. Of the two biggest story elements that changed from books to screen in Season Two—any footage, and therefore explicit knowledge, of the protomolecule monster not existing before Bobbie’s (Frankie Adams) testimony in front of the U.N./Martian tribunal, and Prax (Terry Chen) joining up and sharing secrets with the Roci crew long before starting the search for his missing daughter in the ruins of Ganymede—only one of them (Bobbie’s story) hinges on the withholding of information that wasn’t withheld from characters in the books. In Prax’s story, you guys took the exact opposite approach, and just spilled everything, immediately.
Fergus: With Bobbie, that’s one of those places where, if you have too much information… You know, you get drama when nobody really knows except the woman who went through the traumatic experience—or does she? Because she’s still processing what she went through, and isn’t sure herself. The Martians, Errinwright, Mao—[without the footage] everybody is a mystery, everybody is in question, the audience has these bits and scraps but not the whole picture. Once you show a video of all this, ahead of it, then the mystery is gone. In this situation, the video existing took too much story away.
With Prax, that’s one of those places where you could spend a huge chunk of [of time], and what we ended up deciding was, if you show the descent of Ganymede through Prax’s eyes, in a deserted station—well, first of all, you’re away from our main gang a long time, and that’s no problem, we don’t mind breaking away to another story, but when they go back to Ganymede, with him, then all the discovery, all the “fun” of Ganymede, as it descends into Hell, isn’t redundant. So we decided to start by getting him off Ganymede as a refugee and into our characters’ world so they could all go back and do that journey together. And I think we made the right choice, but again, you have to give up good things to get things that work for the larger picture.
Paste: In that case, giving up Prax’s harrowing book-time alone on Ganymede gave him the chance to have a different, but no less harrowing, experience as a refugee on the OPA cargo ship, watching the Belters maliciously space his colleague and the rest of the Ganymede Martians out of the airlock, which was a way to tie his story not just to the Rocinante, but to the show’s larger point of how all these decisions made at a great distances can, and do, affect innocent people.
Fergus: That journey on the Belter ship and the spacing of all the inner planet people, these refugees that needed saving, demonstrating this deep racial hatred of different factions towards each other, it just makes the point that Ganymede is basically a proxy war for the superpowers.
Paste: It might be nice for Washington to start watching your show.
Fergus: That’s one of the funny things. Everyone keeps saying, “Oh, this show is so prescient and timely, with everything that’s happening now.” And it’s like, I wish we were, but we’re just repeating the same old shit again. It’s not prescient at all. It’s just cycling around, again. And that’s what the whole show is kind of about: Are we destined to fail, or is there a way off that wheel? It’s almost inevitable that it kind of flexes back the other way, and now we’re all terrified of each other again because it’s the push and pull of everything. I think we’re just reflecting that.
Season Three of The Expanse premieres tonight at 9 p.m. on SyFy.
Alexis Gunderson is a TV critic whose writing has appeared on Forever Young Adult, Screener, and Birth.Movies.Death. She’ll go ten rounds fighting for teens and intelligently executed genre fare to be taken seriously by pop culture. She can be found @AlexisKG.