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‘3 Body Problem’ Recap, Episode 5: ‘Judgment Day’
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‘3 Body Problem’ Recap, Episode 5: ‘Judgment Day’

Mar 31, 2024

3 Body Problem

Judgment Day

Season 1

Episode 5

Editor’s Rating

4 stars

Photo: Netflix

Well, see ya, Mike Evans. I’ve had a lot of complaints about 3 Body Problem’s style of characterization so far; it just feels like something is missing, maybe because each episode covers so much ground without actually delving too deeply into any one character (other than Ye Wenjie). If we’re talking about wasted potential, there’s a lot to quibble with in “Judgment Day,” which completely takes one of the show’s biggest antagonists (and biggest actors) off the chessboard, along with most of his disciples. Before we could really get a sense of these people’s lives and beliefs, they’re all dead, literally sliced in half and buried in the wreckage of an oil tanker. They’re all relegated to “anonymous cultists,” remembered by Auggie but otherwise insignificant in the grand scheme.

And yet I can’t argue too much with this style of storytelling when the results are this entertaining. “Judgment Day” is probably the fastest-paced episode of this season, with a simple focus: a violent, morally compromising action-movie heist to procure a MacGuffin, followed by the exciting aftermath where the heroes get some of the answers they’ve wanted so desperately. It’s disturbing, thought-provoking, and also just cool, even when there’s nothing especially romantic or badass about the level of undeserved bloodshed. And it leaves me pretty stumped about where this story could go next. That’s a good episode of 3 Body Problem.

The idea for the operation comes up pretty quickly following the raid at the summit. People aboard Judgment Day are restless, unable to set aside the personal pain of watching friends and family get arrested, though Evans keeps assuring everyone this is all part of the Lord’s plan. We know, of course, that he’s not on great footing with the San-Ti, having essentially branded his entire species as pathological liars. While tension grows thick on the boat and Auggie and Jin hole up at a heavily guarded safe house, Wade is up to his usual scheming. The way he figures it, there must be some sort of hard drive on the boat with a record of the communications between Evans and the San-Ti. If they ever have any hope of fighting back against the slowly approaching aliens, they’ll need information about what type of tech and weaponry the invaders are working with. If that means sacrificing over a thousand “traitors to humanity” in the process, so be it.

The perfect opportunity for this act of secret mass murder presents itself when Clarence reveals that Judgment Day is headed for the Panama Canal. Wade also has just the right tool up his sleeve to pull it off: one Augustina Salazar, whose nanofibers could prove a perfect weapon for this purpose. Yep, it’s Auggie’s turn to support the war effort after Jin’s spy turn at the summit in the last episode. Understandably, she’s pretty freaked out by the whole concept and freaked out that Jin’s boyfriend Raj (recruited by Wade to select engineers from the Royal Navy) isn’t freaked out by any of it. I’m not necessarily yearning for Jin to abandon Raj and get with Will as much as the show would prefer, but Raj really is quite the blind follower, isn’t he?

The episode gets to the big operation pretty fast, skipping over some of the prep time. In the centerpiece sequence, Auggie’s nanofibers are strung across the Panama Canal. When the boat finally passes through, they cut effortlessly through, so quietly that nothing seems off at first. Then a hose on deck gets inexplicably cut and the guy holding it gets chopped in half. He’s certainly not the last to face that fate in this episode; we see it happen again and again in the next few minutes.

Director Minkie Spiro pulls off some really nice touches here, like the paper doll chain falling away from the wall as the nanofiber advances. It’s gross and, well, fun to watch the massacre play out, no matter how objectively fucked up it is. Maybe there’s a strange dissonance to those two feelings: On the one hand, the B-movie joy of watching people get Final Destination 2’d while racing from one end of a collapsing boat to another, and on the other hand, the utter silence of the control room. Of course, the show tastefully limits the shots of dying children to one child’s detached foot, spotted by a nauseated Auggie.

All things considered, I’m not sure such a specific and bizarre attack was necessary; if the idea was to catch Evans unawares before he even had the opportunity to reach for his hard drive, they sort of failed. But he didn’t destroy the drive in his final moments, luckily. Two weeks later, Wade’s people have had no luck breaking into the encrypted drive, but the San-Ti are finally granting access. Wade needs Jin’s help again, so he hires her for her high-dimensional expertise.

Jin and Wade’s dip back into the “game” allows for yet another info dump from the woman known as Sophon, like she and Jack experienced in level four. But now we better understand the truth of what the name refers to. She explains that the San-Ti know human tech will easily surpass their own by the time they arrive to Earth; the chaotic eras in a three-body system make scientific progress take much, much longer. The only way the San-Ti can fight back is with Sophons: Protons turned into sentient computers by applying huge amounts of energy to unfold their higher dimensions. They made two pairs, one of which they sent to Earth at faster-than-light speed (the tiny size makes it easy) to listen, watch, and report everything back to their planet.

This sounds like a lot of kooky, made-up scientific mumbo-jumbo, and the tech is used to “explain” almost everything that remained ambiguous: the countdowns, the winking night sky, the nonsensical particle accelerator results, the instantaneous communication across incomprehensibly large distances, and all the surveillance we knew was happening somehow. But the clarity (if you can use that word) feels good. Besides, it makes sense that Sophon tech would feel too good to be true. It’s not literal magic, but super-advanced science feels like magic to those who are behind the times.

The Sophons are meant to disrupt science on Earth and “wrap the world in illusions.”The San-Ti demonstrate this with the episode-ending message: “YOU ARE BUGS,” displayed via Sophon on seemingly every screen on Earth. It’s a chilling moment, partly for the eye in the sky but especially for how it pays off the late Mike Evans’s lesson about considering their enemies “pests.”

The giant mirrorlike dome illusion that materializes over the Earth is a fitting image: This is an episode centered around a ridiculous R-rated heist that kills countless civilians, but it also revolves around how we see ourselves. Wenjie has utter confidence in the San-Ti to have humanity’s best interests at heart, or at least to improve humans via conquering, but that says as much about her as it does about them. She’s just as flawed and human as anyone outside her cult organization. She sounds completely genuine and self-assured when she tells Clarence, “I wish I could show you what the future looks like,” but he makes a good point: “Twenty quid it won’t be as glorious as you’re thinking.”

Listening to a recording of Evans’s final conversation with the Lord is enough to finally shake Wenjie’s confidence in the San-Ti. The horrified look on her face is telling: Not only does she realize that her species might truly be doomed, but she’s experiencing a sort of breakup. Her own personal relationship with the San-Ti stretches back decades. It’s one thing to admit that Wenjie’s own role in their grand mission is over; she did none of this for the glory, and she’s humble enough to accept a small role in a greater plan. But it’s another thing to find out that the unquestioned faith that guided over 40 years of her life might’ve amounted to nothing. Maybe that dream Mike Evans instilled in her — living in peace with other intelligent life, comparing notes about their respective planets and ways of life — was always just science fiction.

• This is probably my favorite Auggie episode yet. In addition to her deeply conflicted feelings about this mission, I like her early conversation with Jin about not wanting to be a puppet, and I really felt her overwhelming relief when the countdown fails to rematerialize after she starts up the nanotech lab again. (As Clarence says, “the Lord has stopped protecting his flock.”)

• Once again, there is one disconnected scene for Will and Saul, the former of whom is inheriting half of Jack’s 40-million-pound estate. Predictably, though, he refuses to use the money on high-end treatments, preferring to spend his final months (weeks?) just enjoying life.

• “What do you really look like?” “You wouldn’t like it.”

• Wade really is the type of guy to pull out some thousand-year-old metal stirrups from Genghis Khan’s army just to make a point about technology’s role in empire-making.

• Speaking of Wade, there are several pretty brutal quotes from him in this episode: His remark about the forgotten thousands who died building the Panama Canal, his congratulations to Auggie after the operation works, and his sarcastic “sorry for your loss” to Wenjie after the father of her dead child also dies.

• I’m not always totally sure who exactly is communicating from the San-Ti. It’s implied that some leader or leaders are the ones making decisions about what to communicate to the humans, right? Are some of their messages invented by the sentient Sophon itself, or is the Sophon just the means of communication (and illusion)? And is the game version of Sophon (as in “Sword Lady”) part of that AI, or a direct representative?

• For real, Jonathan Pryce’s time on this show added up to less than I expected. But I guess he wasn’t part of the Lord’s plan.

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