Will the Real Evil Genius Please Stand Up

by Lorenzo Baehne

I'm a bit of a freak for the former Syfy show, The Expanse. To the blanching horror of the show's fandom, however, the network cancelled the program last summer after airing season 3. Lucky for us all the romping space opera was picked up by Amazon and season 4 is now slated for release by the summer of 2019.

But you know what I want to talk about? Evil.

I love a good villain, and villains, conventional wisdom tells us, are evil. Otherwise they would not be villains. In fact, I like villains far more than heroes, because heroes tend to be snoozefesty. And even when they're not walking siestas, they're frequently predictable. Which is just as bad. It's the villain, on the other hand, who is often the story's center of gravity. Usually it's because he's done some seriously evil shit that others are trying to undo or mitigate. But as I sift through The Expanse's dramatis personae I see a dearth of evil characters. The show has its usual suspects, to be sure. Or at least characters we're supposed to think of as bad guys. But I question whether these crafty creatures are what they're cracked up to be.

Chuck Klosterman in his essay “What You Say About His Company is What You Say About Society,” lays out an interesting argument for his definition of evil. To make his point, Klosterman prods Niccolo Machiavelli onto the stage and proceeds to wax thoughtful about Machiavelli's infamous book, The Prince and the influence it's had down the centuries. Klosterman suggests an evil person is “one who knows the most but cares the least.” Which is precisely the pigeonhole he jams Machiavelli into, who, in truth, did nothing evil. Machiavelli simply wrote a book that was published posthumously. But okay, one thinks, that's not a bad definition. Klosterman then spends the rest of the piece arguing for his thesis, by whose conclusion the reader is fairly convinced of his proposition. So, I got to wondering: in the context of The Expanse, do any of its characters rise to Klosterman's definition? All right, I thought, let me take a look.

So I did. And here's what I came up with.

ANDERSON DAWES is a strong man for the Outer Planets Alliance (OPA). He's devilishly clever, charismatic, and no stranger to murder. But contrary to self-respecting villains everywhere, he seems wholly motivated by the welfare of his fellow Belters, those who live and work among the asteroid belt. Everything Dawes does appears geared towards that goal. Conclusion: not evil.

SADAVIR ERRINWRIGHT is the Undersecretary General of the United Nations and second in command after the Secretary General. Errinwright, not unlike Dawes, is presented to the audience as a bad guy. Not because he engages in maniacal antics (he doesn't), but apparently because he uses questionable back channels and shady characters in pursuing an agenda which is ultimately—if not immediately recognizable as—beneficial to Earth and her people. It's true, some of his actions had near-catastrophic consequences. Like, nearly wiping out the Earth via the asteroid Eros, infected as it was with a funky alien technology designed to hijack biological life wherever it was encountered. Granted, this was an unmitigated pooch-screw, as was his attempt to blame Deputy Undersecretary Avasarala for it. His motives, however, were honorable, if misguided. Conclusion: not evil. (Just a dick).

ESTEBAN SORRENTO-GILLIS is the Secretary General of the United Nations. He is the big cheese, the head honcho, “The Man.” However, Sorrento-Gillis is a self-interested, wishy-washy statesman, and an ambulatory cliché in a thousand dollar suit. He embodies the very reason people throughout the galaxy hate politicians. As such, Sorrento-Gillis is too stupid to be evil. Conclusion: not evil. (Merely a dipshit).

JULES-PIERRE MAO is an uber successful businessman. A wealthier person does not exist in the system. Mao has his hands in so many pies he is the envy of octopuses everywhere. But following the fiasco of the Eros incident Mao went on the lam. It was with Mao that Errinwright—and others—was working on the aforementioned funky alien technology, dubbed the protomolecule. Although he's from Earth, Mao doesn't care which side (Earth or Mars) lays hold of the ET tech, because the more buyers there are, the fatter his gangster roll. He clearly wipes his ass with patriotism and is without question a bad guy.

After some initial human experiments with the protomolecule intended to create super soldiers turned up nada (experiments on children) he decided the trials should come to an end. Okay, one thinks, maybe this guy has a heart after all. But on hearing there was a single resounding success (on a child, of course), he does an about face and orders more such experiments. Um, yeah. That's kind of evil, dude. Lucky for the other children of the system, our heroes James Holden and the crew of the warship Rocinante chanced upon Mao at a defunct Helium-3 refinery where the experiments were being conducted. The good news is, Mao is now cooling his kind-of-evil heels in a prison cell.

CLARISSA MAO is the surviving daughter of Jules-Pierre Mao; his eldest daughter, Juliet Andromeda Mao, was among the first human victims of the protomolecule. But Clarissa is out for revenge. Her target is hero James Holden whom she holds personally responsible for her father's downfall. In pursuit of Holden, Clarissa destroys a ship and its crew laying the blame at Holden's doorstep, because character assassination is naturally the first salvo in any personal vendetta. (Duh). Conclusion: a bad chica. (But not evil).

For the most part the bad guys in the Expanse are nuanced. There are few black and white characters in the show. Nearly everything they do, even when they resort to murder, is understandable when considered from their perspective (except for blowing up a ship full of people—total dick move), whether it's Errinwright and his skewed loyalty to Earth, or Dawes and his to the Belt, or Clarissa Mao's campaign of vengeance. There are no cardboard cutouts here. A feat for which the writers of the Expanse, both of the novels upon which the series is based, and the show itself, should be applauded for their multifaceted writing and complex character development.

There is, however, one person who stands out, a character I've yet to mention who curiously plays only a minor role in seasons 1 and 2.

ANTONY DRESDEN is a mysterious figure whom the audience, and everyone else it seems, knows very little about. What we do know is he was the lead scientist for Protogen, a security firm with a bio research division owned by Jules-Pierre Mao. Dresden was in charge at Phoebe station where the protomolecule was first discovered. Evidently the ET technology got quickly out of hand and killed many people on Phoebe, and the station was subsequently evacuated. It was decided at this point, presumably by Dresden, that the protomolecule required a larger biomass to feed upon so that Dresden and his team could better study it. Dresden then fed the 1.5 million human residents of Eros station to the protomolecule.

When the audience finally catches up to Dresden at his secret lair on Thoth station, which was hijacked in an OPA black ops strike, what we learn from him is enough to stoke our collective outrage.

Apprehended and standing before Tycho station's Chief of Operations (and OPA ally) Fred Johnson, James Holden, and former Ceres cop, Josephus Miller, Dresden spills practically every bean in the bag. Among the justifications he slings at his captors is, if humans can harness the protomolecule this may allow our kind to become far more than evolution has decreed. Imagine, he says, working in space without a vac-suit, or hibernating long enough to reach the stars. Humankind could become gods, and this groundbreaking inquiry into the protomolecule is the first step. What Dresden finds unacceptable, he tells them, is having restrictions of any kind placed on his research.

What also becomes apparent is that Dresden's research program has hitherto been secretly funded and protected by some very powerful people in the system, likely with the knowledge and cooperation of governments (Earth and Mars). But Joe Miller by this time has heard quite enough. At which point he whips out a pistol and shoots Dresden in the head. Miller later tells us he didn't kill the scientist because he was crazy. He killed him because he was making sense. What we're given to understand is another Eros incident was inevitable should this man get his way, and the next banquet for the protomolecule could very well be the citizens of the Belt or the population of an inner planet, like Earth.

When Chuck Klosterman suggested that an evil person is one who knows the most but cares the least, he envisioned a diabolical figure lacking empathy and with no damns to give about consequences. Although he points out that Niccolo Machiavelli was himself responsible for no evil deeds, Klosterman noticeably takes issue with the fact the Florentine was capable of conceiving of such thoughts in the first place. When we then apply Klosterman's definition to the characters of The Expanse, it's the infernal Protogen scientist who stands out as a man who knows far more about the protomolecule than those around him and harbors no concerns about the ethical considerations of his research. 

Dr. Antony Dresden very clearly fits the bill.