So much happened in last night’s season two finale of The Expanse—not all of it clear—we had no choice but to get some answers. We talked to executive producer Naren Shankar about how the second season of the acclaimed scifi series was planned, how it was made, and where it’s going in season three. Oh, and also, why humanity might not be quite as horrible as Naomi’s big speech implies.
If you missed the season finale, “Caliban’s War”—named for the second book in James S.A. Corey’s book series—here’s what you need to know: Avasarala, Cotyar, and Bobbie are pinned down by Mao’s forces. Meanwhile, a Protomolecule hybrid, in classic zombie fashion, has invaded the Roci and is trying to get to the ship’s power source.
While Bobbie manages to escape in an attempt to get her power armor and come back for Avasarala and Cotyar, the Roci crew fails to repel the hybrid, leaving Holden trapped in the hold with it. Prax figures out that they can use a nuke—and its radiation—to lure the hybrid off the ship and into the Roci’s engines to be burned up. Prax hesitates for a bit before throwing the nuke, but he does and they’re saved.
Avasarala decides to give herself up, and just as Mao’s men prepare to execute her, Bobbie arrives in her suit to save them. Meanwhile, back on the Roci, Naomi tells Holden that no matter how technology changes, humans don’t. They took tribalism to the stars and found new ways to hate and fight each other. So instead of destroying the Protomolecule sample like Holden told her to, she gave it to Fred Johnson. At the same time, the Arboghast moves towards the Eros crater, when it is surrounded by the Protomolecule and torn apart.
Ready? Let’s begin.
io9: Let’s start by talking about this season as a whole. Because while I really loved the first season, but you guys seemed much more sure of yourself this season.
Naren Shankar: I think that’s a very accurate characterization. Yeah, this is part of the advantage of having great source material—and I think that what happened was, once we were free of the conspiracy theory aspect of this, it really allowed us to dive into the characters— and also to keep the plot in forward motion. You don’t have to do this Kabuki theater of, like, “Oh, it’s not this guy—or, it’s not the guy behind the curtain, it’s the guy behind the guy behind the curtain!” You don’t have to do that stuff anymore. And so when you get into action and reaction and consequence and put the characters front-and-center, it really allows you to deepen the storytelling.
That was the plan from the outset, because Leviathan Wakes is the only story that’s told that way. So once we were into the second season, and [began] pulling threads from the second book—I think it enabled us to tell the story in a, honestly, kind of a better way. So, I think we’re happy how everything turned out, and the plan is to continue moving in that direction, which is great.
This season explored xenophobia and even featured a politician whose platform was “Earth first.” I know you wrote the season a long time ago. Was it weird to realize how timely it ended up being?
Shankar: Yeah. It’s a little weird, actually. Because you see the parallels. Sort of like, more and more every day? And so you kind of go, “Wow!” I think I got a call sometime from somebody, “Were you guys thinking about this when you wrote that?” “Well, they wrote that like five years ago.”
But then, the immediate thing that you realize, is—and this is a scene in the show—human beings tend to do this sort of thing a lot. We tend to repeat cycles of our own existence in history. And it’s like, technology just took us where we’re doing it. It’s the same current—the same precedents, the same issues that arise over and over again in slightly different form. And so, while you’re writing from that perspective, I think it becomes inevitable at a certain point that you’re going to see some connection to the present day.
I will say there are some strong parallels there. Stronger than I suspected or ever dreamed would happen when we started this.
Naomi’s speech at the end of the finale is basically a summation of the thesis of the whole season. The Expanse rarely indulges in the big speech tradition of space opera, so it really felt striking and important to have a character sit there and tell you something so directly and emphatically.
Shankar: You’re right. We rarely go to that kind of style. And that’s a very conscious thing. We try to keep it as real and grounded as we possibly can. But given the nature of the specific events and the emotional reasons for why they happen—we’re telling a love story, too, about these two people who become close to each other, who admit that they care about each other, they love each other, and one of the lies about something profoundly important to the other. And continues to lie! Over and over again. And to her crewmates.
And so, it was an opportunity—with events in the season as all these plot threads come together—the hybrid battle in the cargo bay, the Arboghast disassembly, Bobbie and Avasarala and Cotyar on the Guanshiyin. It’s like all these elements are connected, and then obviously, what happened to the Protomolecule sample, and that is done in the context of an apology. it’s someone telling someone that they care about why they lied to them. And justifying the action.
When you combine all those elements together, it does become operatic. And it does become kind of a mission statement about what we’ve been doing in season two. It’s the first time, I think, when we’ve had a sort of natural form for it. I guess you could argue that the Fred Johnson speech from episode nine of season one, where he says, “If Belters hadn’t commandeered all this stuff...” It has sort of similar tones. But we rarely go there. And when we do, hopefully, it’s for a good enough reason.
If you look at Star Trek as like, the progenitor of this kind of science fiction, all those speeches are always, “Humans are great. We can get over anything!” But Naomi’s was, “No, I’m sorry... we are all awful.” It’s a big difference.
Shankar: Well, science fiction tends not to live in irony very well, which I think is a real essential element to the human condition. But even the things that Naomi is talking about, which are justifying her actions, she’s talking about “nothing’s ever going to change,” right? But that part of the speech is [played] over [scenes of] a Martian fighting to save what was just a brief moment ago her worst enemy. Right? So, to some extent what Naomi is saying is not always the case, this is not the way it has to be.
And one of the things that Daniel (Abraham) and Ty (Franck, who wrote the books) always talk about that we’ve tried to capture in the show, is that, yes, we repeat the cycle of history. Yes, we do terrible things to each other over and over again in much the same way. And yet, we still manage to stumble forward into the light, and that requires individual acts of goodness and kindness and empathy towards one another. That’s the only way that it can actually take place: on a small scale that becomes larger. And that idea is inherent in that last scene.
Naomi is expressing an opinion. It’s an opinion that is, in many ways, quite cynical. And Holden’s the opposite of that. When you see it, it’s like... you pick. You pick which side of humanity you’re on. You know? The optimistic or the pessimistic side. We do that over and over again in the show. It’s one of those things we keep diving into and trying to illuminate and this was one of those times.
Let’s talk about the Protomolecule on the Roci for a second, which is basically an action sequence where the action is based entirely on math and science. How hard was it to film?
Shankar: When I first read Caliban’s War (the second book in the series) and we were talking about this season, on day one that we sat down together, I [said] “The only way to do this sequence is motion-capture.” We just have to commit to that. So we knew that, because once we had the physical situation, if we were going to get close to what was in the book, it had to be shot a certain way. So we were prepared for it—and we were planning for it—for you know, like, the bulk of the season.
One of the nice things about this series is, just by looking at how actual physics works and objects in space and how things move, it creates really unique story possibilities and action possibilities. Like with the hybrid in the cargo bay, the mid-zero g and radiation aspects of it. And the battles with ships.
If you really think about stuff and the reality of it, it enables you to show things that people haven’t really seen before. And that’s fantastic! That’s a great position to be in. So, wherever possible, we just try to make those scenes. I mean, the scene in episode four of season one, where Shed’s head gets blown off in like a compartment in zero G. You know, holding Naomi on the running towards the apache, on the Donnager. All that stuff’s in the book. And pretty much the way it’s described in the book. So, the trick is understanding the scenes you can really make an impact with, and then just committing the production to make them happen. So, That’s the plan going forward. I like the results that we’re getting.
Can you explain what’s going through Prax’s head when he hesitates in getting rid of the hybrid?
Shankar: Yeah, so my interpretation of it is, he wants to get close enough and see, because he’s hoping it’s not his daughter. When they’re in that lab on Ganymede where the hybrid breaks out from, a few episodes ago, before that scientist dies, she goes, “We made the Protomolecule do what we wanted. We made it in our own image. And there’s lots more where she came from.” She’s implying that the creature that’s escaped is a she, and Prax is there listening to it and he’s haunted by the fact that this may be his daughter they’re about to destroy.
He keeps asking, even in episode 12 and 13, “Let me talk to her, I want to see her.” He’s desperately trying to convince himself that there’s still something human about it and he wants to reach it. Because if that’s correct, then he hasn’t lost her yet. And so, he’s trying to convince himself that he hasn’t lost his daughter. Now, that may be true, but it could also get him killed if he’s wrong, and get everybody else killed, too. So, that’s the struggle. That’s what we were trying to play with in there, it’s that he just doesn’t know.
Seeing it, I kept remembering the death of Julie earlier in season two, and thinking about how she became part of the Protomolecule, but there was still something of her in there. By setting the stage, it made this scene in the finale resonate a lot more for me.
Shankar: Oh, that’s interesting. I hadn’t even thought about that, but yeah. I agree with what you’re saying. That’s exactly right. Because once you’ve seen the Protomolecule do that, kind of absorb somebody, you’re thinking, “Ohh, can he reach the way that Miller reached Julie?” I hadn’t thought about that. That’s what we call, “a happy accident.”
When they were debating whether the Protomolecule was a thing or a person, I was thinking, “We know from Julie they can be reached, so maybe they are people.”
Shankar: Right. And one of the things that we’re going to dig into a little further in season three is the precise nature of the different branches of the Protomolecule project. Because the Eros Experiment is one thing, and the Hybrid is actually a different phase of the project. They’re trying to make the Protomolecule do something that it’s not intended to do, which is create these soldiers as an inducement to get Earth to work with them on the larger Protomolecule project, in an attempt to understand what it wants to make.
So this is a more fraught process in some ways, because you’re trying to force this alien thing into doing something that it’s not quite intended to do, and having all these sort of weird consequences with it. So, that’s something we’re going to get into more in season three.
When adapting a book series, how do you choose what becomes the season finale?
Shankar: I just get a sense of it. As you read the book and talk about it, sometimes it’s just very clear—like, with season one, first day in the room, “I think we should end with them leaving Eros and see something weird happening behind them.” Similarly, in season two, it seemed that when the Arboghast gets disassembled, it was such a gigantic thing, and such a striking image... and it felt like something new was happening.
Now, if you’ve read the books, you know that something even bigger is about to happen so, obviously we’re going to get there. But given the amount of story that we had to cover in 13 episodes, all of the plot threads, where everything was going—it just felt like a great moment that you can connect all these things together. And also, it implies this really interesting phenomenon that all of the little pieces of the Protomolecule are talking to each other all the time. That’s why it’s put together the way it is. All those moments are juxtaposed. You go from the Protomolecule hybrid burning up in the engine to the Arboghast stopping it in space.
From a rhythmic and editorial space, the episode is a little different from our other ones because we keep cutting back from continuous action. Cinematically, all these events are moving together simultaneously, and that’s not how we usually do things on the show. It’s a bit of a departure, but it’s really dictated by the point we’re trying to make with the Protomolecule and all these things coming together at the end.
You added a fair number of new, important characters this season. How do you introduce them all without having them just tell us their whole backstory?
Shankar: Talk about one thing that unites our writer’s room! Everybody hates that kind of writing. Nobody [in real life] ever does that. And yet, in television, it’s like, “here’s the backstory that made me what I am today...”, or, “the one event from my life that defined who I am at this moment.”
It’s such baloney. And it’s better just to introduce people by seeing who they are and what they do in a natural way. Pulling Bobbie and her fire team forward from Caliban’s War and to the latter half of Leviathan Wakes, meant that when we got to the beginning of Caliban’s War in episode six, you actually cared about those people when they were killed. So, it’s shocking in that respect. And if we had started this season with a few people that you don’t know, I don’t think the impact would have been as strong. Because you’re just meeting four people and then your relationship would change, because what the scene would have then been, “oh this isn’t survival of the battle.” Instead what you get what the responsibility of the Gunnery Sergeant [is] for her people. And her feeling of personal culpability and guilt over their death. It just wouldn’t have translated in the same way.
Also, it allowed us to bring in a new perspective, the Martian perspective, which we didn’t really have strongly in season one except for the two episodes set on the Donnager. And so, that to me was a really interesting way to do it. And in a similar way we did it with Prax. We introduce him after the disaster on Ganymede, which is a departure from the books. In the book, he’s there during the disaster and he kind of runs into Holden and Naomi. And then they go back. Then we’re back in the Ganymede. So, to keep us from doing it twice, we picked him up as a refugee. He’d been badly injured and he ends up on Tycho. So, those are the big shifts but it actually allowed us to go in a slightly different way, and from a television perspective, it had a lot of positives to it.
What are you happiest with in season two and where you’re headed going forward?
Shankar: What I’m happiest with in season two is the fact that we were really able to drill into the characters more than we did in season one. We’re really going to continue that path in season three. It’s a complex story.
What is nice about it, though, is much the way that Miller and Holden’s story came together in season one, the same thing is happening now with Bobbie, Avasarala, Holden, Naomi, Prax—the whole gang. So we’re all in the kind of the same place now. So what you’re going to see are these storylines connect. So, once again, we’re taking something that’s kind of sprawling in a lot of different places, and now it’s coming together in concentrated action and relationships because they’re happening now in fewer places. That was part of what was fun about the beginning of season two. I think you’re going to see the same kind of effect in season three.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.