The Expanse: Season 1, Episode 5 - "Back to the Butcher"

Elena Zhang

While several key mysteries move forward, this episode is bogged down by an uninteresting protagonist.

The Expanse

Airtime: Mondays, 9pm
Cast: Thomas Jane, Stephen Strait, Cas Anvar, Dominique Tipper, Wes Chatham, Florence Faivre, Shohreh Aghdashloo
Subtitle: Season 1, Episode 5 - "Back to the Butcher"
Network: Syfy
Air date: 2016-01-05

In "Back to the Butcher", The Expanse gives us our first flashback episode as seemingly disparate storylines begin to converge.

Disappointingly, this was the weakest episode of the series since the premiere. Yes, the plot’s moving forward in terms of the mystery of Julie Mao (Florence Faivre), and we’re learning some vital information that ties her to the other storylines. Unfortunately, despite her importance and the interesting way she might relate to every single event that's happened so far, Mao is inextricably linked to the black hole of personality that is Detective Miller (Thomas Jane). An unfolding mystery is only so engaging as the person investigating it.

Forget about his lack of personality. How about his generic reasons for pursuing a case that his Captain told him to drop? As he explains to Octavia (Athena Karkanis), Miller is sure that the events of the Scopuli and the Canterbury are all happening because of her. So what? So far, Miller has shown no particular allegiance to either the Belters, the OPA, or the UN. His apathy makes it hard to believe that he'd go against orders and continue searching for Mao for such a tenuously simple reason. With no political affiliation or personal connection to Mao, Miller's got no motive, nothing driving him, nothing making him tick. This makes it extremely difficult to stay awake during his scenes, even as we're learning intriguing information about Julie.

And what does he learn? From the memory crypt Miller obtained last episode, we find out that a ship called Anubis left the Phoebe station and was heading for Eros. Miller believes that the Scopuli was sent to intercept the Anubis, implying that the ship was transporting something pretty darn important.

Miller continues to display his amazing detective skills by zooming in on a video of Mao beating up someone at the docks. This man, Neville Bosch (Rossif Sutherland), tells Miller that Mao had once stopped at the mines on Callisto in order to help the sick people suffering there, and that last he knew, Mao was hanging around hardcore OPA members like Anderson Dawes (Jared Harris). He tells Miller to check out Tech Noir, where the data broker used to work. After finding a robotic mouse in the sherpa's workshop, he remembers seeing one just like it in Mao's room. He goes back to retrieve a data chip from the mouse, whereupon he immediately gets kidnapped by unknown assailants.

The fact that Julie spent some time in the mines might seem like benign information, revealing only that Julie has a humanitarian streak. That is, until we're treated to a chilling flashback to 11 years earlier. Several miners took over an ore refinery called Anderson Station, protesting the inhumane treatment of the miners and their children, including low-oxygen working environments and sparse medical assistance.

When the miners realize that their demands will never be met, leader Marama Brown (Billy MacLellan) issues an unconditional surrender to the UN Marines. Nobody, however, is listening. While Marama transmits a message to document their peaceful protest, the UN mercilessly blows the ship to pieces. The image of Marama holding his child in his arms, both dead and floating in space with the debris, is haunting. Equally haunting is the colonel responsible for the destruction: the Butcher of Anderson Station, Fred Johnson (Chad Coleman). It's unclear if he’s actually a horrible monster, or was simply following orders. If it was the latter, it might explain why he left the UN Marines to become an OPA terrorist instead.

So who exactly is going "back to the butcher" in this episode? Why, that would be the surviving Canterbury crew members aboard the Tachi. Now these are a group of characters I actually care about, and that's because the show has put in the effort to reveal them as people, and not just plot devices. Each person has their own backstory, and with it comes personality and complicated feelings.

Alex (Cas Anvar) clearly loves piloting ships, but also has some deep-rooted Martian loyalty, along with a picture of his unmentioned family. We're constantly teased with Naomi's (Dominique Tipper) history, but we know that she’s capable and intelligent and has somehow earned the full trust of Amos (Wes Chatham). Holden's (Steven Strait) got the sob story of having his girlfriend die in the Canterbury, but thankfully he hasn't spent too much time moping. He's just trying to do the right thing by his crew, and if he scores a perfect cup of coffee along the way, even better.

When Johnson sends them a message offering his help, they realized that with nowhere else to go for fear of implication in the Donnager massacre, they must make their way towards Tycho Station. Only Naomi displays some hesitation, claiming that she knows guys like Fred Johnson, and that their belief in casues makes them dangerous.

As they draw ever nearer to Tycho, Johnson advises them to change their transponder code in order to remain anonymous. They decide to rename the ship to "Rocinante," in keeping with the Don Quixote theme. Supposedly meaning "work horse" in Spanish, Rocinante has broader implications in the Miguel de Cervantes classic, and is actually the name of Don Quixote's horse. Rocinante is painted as an extension of the knight, fruitlessly tilting at windmills. This is perhaps not such a great omen for the Rocinante crew, who are most likely way in over their heads as they become further entangled in the mysteries of The Expanse.

Other Thoughts:

Holden's expression when he learns that he's the face of the Belter revolution is the comedic highlight of the episode.

I was sorely missing an appearance by Chrisjen Avasarala (Shoreh Aghdashloo). Not only is she mesmerizing as a character, she also brings up the always interesting machinations of Earth politics.

Miller is thoroughly annoyed at Havelock's (Jay Hernandez) naivete, and Havelock has just about had enough of Miller's cynicism. Are we supposed to care about this?

Anderson Dawes reveals to Miller that Julie Mao is one of his OPA recruits, and he wants information about her in exchange for the location of Havelock's attacker. Miller apparently refuses his offer, so I guess we can cross off "OPA sympathizer" from the list of potential Miller motives.


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