‘3 Body Problem’ Episode 3 Recap: Coming Soon to a Planet Near You

Anyone else feel like a deer in the headlights? Anyone agree that this is a great way for an alien-invasion story to make us feel?

With its subtly stunning third episode, “3 Body Problem” reveals the double meaning of its title. On one level, it refers to the physical impossibility of consistently and accurately predicting the movement of three bodies in relation to one another in space. This is the dilemma facing not just the characters in the advanced virtual-reality video game Jin and Jack have been playing, but the very real alien civilization upon which the game is based. Its three suns move and align in such a way as to create regular but random apocalyptic events, from infernal heat to sudden ice ages to gravitational vortexes, that destroy the civilization again and again.

But sometimes there are stable eras that can last a long time. The aliens, known as the San Ti or Three-Body, have lived in a stable era long enough to develop interstellar communication and travel. They know their eventual fate will be the same as that of all the fallen civilizations before them, so they’re seeking a new home. Thanks to Ye Wenjie’s invitation back in 1977, they’ve found one. And a secret society of human quislings led by Wenjie’s friend Mike Evans is preparing the way, using the mysterious video game headsets to either recruit prominent scientists to the cause, or root out those who can’t be trusted.

So why does the San Ti’s arrival feel both ominous and inevitable? The former feeling is easy enough to explain: The alien Lord, represented as a female voice in a loudspeaker in conversation with Evans, has decreed that humanity must be taught to fear again lest it destroy itself. (She is voices by Sea Shimooka, who also plays the formidable recurring character in the game.)

But the feeling that the San Ti’s decision to take our world for their own is so irrevocable comes courtesy of that video game. Jin solves the final level and “wins” the game when she determines the real three-body problem isn’t how to save the planet torn between the three stars — that’s scientifically impossible — but how to save the people who live on it. Jin’s own logic and ethics alike point to the only solution: The people must flee, and find a new home. Through the skillful writing of the series co-creator Alexander Woo, the revelation hits the characters and the audience alike with the ironclad certainty of a mathematical equation.

Humanity’s reign over Earth is not alone in having received a terminal diagnosis. Will, the humblest member of our group of five heroes, learned last episode that he is dying of Stage 4 pancreatic cancer. He has only months left to live, but though he’s talked to his guy friends about this, he can’t bring himself to tell Jin, the object of his unrequited affection for years. Not even when he reveals he’s quitting his beloved job as a teacher to travel and invites her along with him does he explain his rationale. When she tells him she might be up for it some other time, just not now, he doesn’t tell her now is the only time he has.

These days, Jin is busy enduring awkward dinners with the family of her boyfriend, Raj (Saamer Usmani), listening to the gruesome war stories of his father, Ranjit (Nitin Ganatra). At least, that’s what she’s doing when she can tear herself away from her headset. The game is consuming the lives of both her and Jack, who find they can collaborate in the game if they play simultaneously.

They do this against the wishes of their friend Auggie. She is at her wits’ end after the self-destruction of her career and in grave danger if her project’s backers start it up again without her. With the most skin in the game, as it were, she speaks for Saul and Will as well when she points out the lunacy of using a gizmo of incredibly advanced technology and unknown provenance already connected with the suicide of their mentor.

But Jin and Jack play on and arrive at that inevitable conclusion: The San Ti are coming, and people like them and that mystery woman who keeps popping up have been invited to help. Indeed, the mystery woman knows all about Jin, including about the flood that killed her parents when she was a child. Jin hears her out and accepts an invitation to a summit for like-minded individuals.

Jack, however, is having none of it. He may be a big superhero and sci-fi nerd, as evidenced by his bedroom decor, but real life aliens are a bridge too far. Unfortunately, the aliens’ servants have a different definition of “you’re free to go” than Jack does; when he storms out, the mystery woman beats him home, then murders him in full view of multiple surveillance cameras and Clarence, who’s been staking the place out. It’s hard to stop an invisible enemy.

If all this sounds heavy, well, it is. The grim details are piled one atop the other. A “Time Machine”–esque sequence shows alien civilizations rising and crumbling in fast motion, destroyed time and again by catastrophes. Jin learns that Follower (Eve Ridley), the adorable little girl who is the players’ primary computerized interlocutor within the game, remembers all the deaths she has been subjected to thanks to their failure. The episode’s final shot is of Jack — played by John Bradley, best known as the beloved Samwell Tarly on “Game of Thrones” — lying dead in a pool of his own blood while Thom Yorke groans “This is what you get when you mess with us” on the soundtrack. (From Radiohead’s “Karma Police.”)

But that’s not to say there are no light moments. Certainly the cameos — “Game of Thrones” vet Conleth Hill as the Pope, “The League of Gentlemen” stars Mark Gatiss (who also appeared in “Thrones”) and Reece Shearsmith as a pair of players who get slashed in half by an enraged Mongol warrior when their calculations fail — are meant to lighten the mood. (A weird thing to say about people getting cut in half, but “splatstick” horror-humor is a tried and true tradition.)

More important, though, while the coming invasion feels unstoppable and fear-inducing, it is also a lot of fun. Invasion and apocalypse stories are just stories about slashers or vampires writ large, in which the monster is multiplicitous and the victim all of humanity instead of just a bunch of foolish teenagers or wan Englishwomen and their suitors. Much as we dread seeing people get what’s coming, there’s an undeniable allure to watching the worst-case scenario play out — as long as it’s happening safely onscreen.

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