Well Played, James S.A. Corey

I once read an article in The Atlantic about this guy who decided to leave the Roman Catholic Church. He pointed out that no one cared he was leaving the Church – for real this time. No one cares. Similarly, I know that no one cares that I’m (probably) leaving the Roman Catholic Church later today – for good this time.

I’m going to talk about something else. I would rather talk about something that speaks to the intersection between faith, life, and art. Something that will last long after this or that church or social group or club is a distant memory. I want to talk about a perfect piece of cinematic perfection.

Specifically, the latest episode of The Expanse. As someone who has read the book, I know they made a pretty serious change to the plot. One of the main characters, Alex Kamal, dies suddenly and unexpectedly, by stroking out after high-G maneuvers. It’s a different main character from the one who died of the same cause at a slightly different point in the series. The death carries the same essential meaning though: sometimes people die. It happens every day. That healthy person has a brain aneurysm and dies in seconds. Nothing you can do but watch and mourn.

I can still remember when I read Fred Johnson’s death. I can remember screaming at the book, putting it down for a couple days, glaring at it from time to time. Fred Johnson did not deserve to die like that. He was a hero who gave up a comfortable life to help save a people not his own, in response to grave moral injustice and guilt. You expect he will die of a gun battle or on the point of a sword. Then, that man dies of a freaking stroke??? Why James S.A. Corey? Why???

For those of us who know the story behind the story, we have a whole other layer of wow. We know that the Cas Anvar, the actor behind Alex, has been accused of sexual harassment by multiple woman. We’ve been waiting for word if this guy will be fired from his role, if The Expanse might die along with this actor’s career, and so on. Then, bam, we get an answer: Alex is not coming back to the show. Not ever. Because the character is dead. Cas Anvar is off the show, like that.

We still don’t know if the real-world accusations were real. We don’t have an omniscient narrator reporting what Really Happened. But that’s okay. Does it matter if Cas Anvar is guilty to me personally? Nope, it really doesn’t. Frankly, it is none of my business. But, the drama. But, the pathos.

The brevity and suddenness of the death speak volumes here. It’s one shocking moment in a masterfully written episode that leaves you breathless through its hour-long length. There are so many notable moments in it, it’s hard to pick just one.

First, there’s Naomi, who has escaped death or imprisonment by a sociopathic murderer who lured her to his ship with the aid of the son she once had with him. He was her boyfriend slash emotional torturer, back in her younger and more naive days. At the risk of what little time she has left, she risks her life to let her crewmates know that they will die if they get any closer, because the ship she’s in is about to explode. She uses her remaining energy to save her crewmates’, and they in turn save hers.

Meanwhile, Clarissa aka Peaches, a recovering mass murderer, turns her own corner. She goes from being an entitled killer to someone with a heart for others. She risks her life and well-being to protect a number of unimportant people and to stand up to her scary friends. Given excellent character development over the season, this change is entirely believable. She really has become a better person.

Meanwhile, Camina Drummer – another character – turns traitor on yet another killer in order to save innocent lives, knowing that doing so will mean the death of one of her family members. The subsequent execution of her family member, on camera for her to watch and despair, is another moment of cinematic perfection. The killer shares the video with her to torture her, to let her and others know what will happen to anyone who betrays him. The execution leads to the heart-rending death of Camina’s family, at least some of whom (unfairly but understandably) blame her for their beloved family member’s death. They leave her spaceship in fury, and you know they are never coming back.

So much happens in this narrative that it takes my breath away. The whole episode is yet another prime example of why The Expanse reigns unopposed at the top of the list of my favorite sci-fi TV shows.

We watch art because art elevates reality, right? It’s the real world but extra. For victims like me, the death of Alex Kamal, is a moment of visceral release. It doesn’t matter to me what the actor did or did not do. Who cares? People who do the kinds of things people accused him of doing, and they will die one day. So will perfectly innocent people who were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. People die. It happens.

If fiction accomplishes anything at all, though, it is drama, a sense that the death or marriage or adultery or heroism happens at the right moment, in the right order. Part of being an author often means getting to kill of a pretend guy at the perfect moment for pure, undiluted catharsis. That’s how great art gets made.

Well-played, James S.A. Corey. Well played. I salute you from afar.

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