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Exploring the Expanse: Three ways of looking at empathy

The Expanse is a television show based on the novels by James S.A. Corey. Every week, I’ll be taking a look at one moment in each episode of the show’s second season, and chatting with the creators about how it was created and what it means for the larger story.

Spoilers ahead for the third episode of season 2, Static.

Last week, we dissected the battle scenes in the premiere episodes of The Expanse’s second season. The episode ended on a significant note. In an act of justice, Fred Johnson and James Holden raided a space station. The boarding party discovered a group of scientists onboard, who were working with data streaming off of Eros. When Holden, Johnson, and Detective Miller capture the lead scientist, a man named Dresden, he tries to make a deal for his freedom, on the basis that his work has the potential to transform humanity. The cost of a couple of Belters dying horribly on a station? Acceptable losses. Before anyone can do anything, Miller shoots the man in the head.

In this week’s episode, Static, Miller, and Holden are understandably on the outs. Johnson puts one of the remaining scientists, Cortazar, into a prison cell, where he injures several other prisoners.

That’s where they realize there’s something off about Cortazer and the others they captured. They’ve been altered. A station doctor conducts some brain scans and reveals to Johnson, Holden, and Amos that the man and his companions had a procedure that removed their empathy.

The moment seems to be inspired by the many historical examples of scientists experimenting on subjects without consent. “The idea that this is something normal human beings do to each other is so repulsive that, even with all that precedent, it seems over the top in fiction,” said Daniel Abraham, one of the book’s authors, in a joint email. “One of the things we’ve seen over and over in this project is that just being true doesn’t make something plausible.”

This moment in the episode particularly affects Amos, a victim of childhood trauma. Over the course of the series so far, we’ve seen that the character is emotionally damaged, and is willing to kill without hesitation.

“There is a novella in The Expanse book series called The Churn, and it’s about [Amos] and how he grew up,” said Wes Chatham, who portrays Amos. “It is incredible, and I used it as my manual to build Amos.” To prepare for the role, Chatham read up on the survivors of childhood trauma and dissociative disorders. “Ultimately, Amos is a survivor, and he is a product of the extreme conditions of his childhood.”

The lead scientist, Cortazar, helped unleash the alien pathogen on Eros, and to live with that choice, he willingly removed his empathy. While Amos can understand this man’s decision, there’s a key difference between the two: Cortazar altered his brain because he didn’t want to be distracted by the emotional weight of killing tens of thousands of people in an experiment. Amos, on the other hand, “did not chose to become the way he is,” Chatham says. “He knows he is walking a thin line. He could very easily fall into darkness, and be as evil as the worst of his childhood abusers. That is Amos’ worst fear.”

Another brief moment in the background of the episode serves as a crucial counterpoint. While everyone else is on Fred Johnson’s station, Alex is back on the Roci running simulations of the attack he was just involved in. He tries to figure out what went wrong and how he can improve, so next time, he can bring everyone home. While two characters embody the importance of empathy though its absence, another grows from it.

If The Expanse (both the novels and the TV series) seems to lay out any bigger picture, it’s that humanity isn’t really cut out for the depths of space. We see this in the physique of the Belters, who have adapted over the generations to live in zero gravity. But moreover, we (and the show’s characters) have trouble grasping cosmic-sized concepts, whether it’s the vast distances in space, or the ways an experiment could affect millions of people across the solar system.


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