The Expanse, based on the book series by James S A Corey, is an intelligent look at a nearish future when humanity has advanced enough to move into space, but not quite so much that we don’t all still hate each other. The sharpest feelings of anger and envy come from the Belters, the working class who live their entire lives on space stations, never seeing a real sky or breathing natural air. Their frustration is bubbling throughout the first season of the show, as they crowd their narrow streets and angrily demand equal rights. It’s easy to sympathize with the Belters’ desires, if not their methods, but their deep hatred for Earthers is a little harder to fathom until a moment late in the season when a tired, beaten Belter named Miller asks, “What does rain taste like?”
Miller, played by Thomas Jane, a mediocre cop who’s considered “well wala,” a traitor to his kind for being obsessed with Earth, is with Holden, a young pilot who was desperate to get the hell away from his home planet. They both started the season with pretty simple goals - Miller had a missing person case to solve, and Holden was just doing his job hauling ice when he answered a distress call - but their goal by this point in the show is even more simple: don’t die. A lot’s happened, they’re exhausted, don’t know who to trust and are just waiting for the next awful thing in a string of awful things. And in that moment, they let down their guards. They’re just two tired guys, sitting on the floor, feeling the weight of the universe on their shoulders.
The stations where Belters live do what they can to mimic Earth, with animatronic animals and a videoscreen sky, at no time do they ever feel like anything other than what they are: cramped tin cans where the oxygen supply comes with an off switch. Earth is crowded, too, but Holden comes from one of the last undeveloped wildernesses in Montana; his house is surrounded by miles and miles of glorious nothing. On Miller’s home of Ceres Station you have to work to find a place you can extend both your arms without hitting anything; in Miller’s home you have to work to find other people to talk to.
Miller (as a Belter) asks, “What does rain taste like?” Holden (as an Earther) replies that he never really thought about it, and Miller, mystified, asks why anyone would ever leave a place like Earth. From Holden’s perspective, he had really good reasons to get as far away from Earth as he could, but for the first time, perhaps, he’s realizing that his perspective is not the only one. It’s a perfect moment between two men who want the simplicity of what each other has, preparing to return to the fight that’s larger than both of them and is far from simple.
It’s also a brilliantly subversive moment for the show itself; odds are good that if you’re watching The Expanse, you’d jump at the chance to travel to space yourself, and Miller wants to know why the hell you would. Why would you leave snow and trees and birds and the smell of the ocean and the taste of rain. Why? It’s a question that runs deep through The Expanse, a question that makes Miller more than just a cliche cop; the show more than the typical science fiction.
There’s loads of action in The Expanse; political intrigue, class warfare, conspiracy, betrayal, loads of danger - it’s a good ol’ space opera with an outstanding cast of very good looking people and the mystery at the center of the first season resolves in a very satisfying and creepy way. All of that is marvelous, of course, but a quiet question about rain is the absolute best bit of season 1.
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