The Three-Body Problem Ep. 20 Review: The End of The Game Is Murder
Episode 20 of The Three-Body Problem brings the story's VR game to a close, and a murder that changes everything. Everything is tragedy.
Episode twenty of The Three-Body Problem is where things start to move despite a slow start, but what it reveals is important, and major shifts happen where everything changes, including more tragedy. In fact, as the story progresses, it becomes clear that The Three-Body Problem saga is a series of tragedies, each getting bigger than the last.
The Hour of The Math Weirdo
Math savant Wen Cheng continues his origin story. Shen Yu Fei discovered him working on the Three-Body Problem all on his own and making breakthroughs. She was shocked, especially since even he knew that he would need supercomputers to make faster progress. He found her praying to Buddha to help her "lord" and asks the senior abbot at the temple what that meant. The abbot's insight was that this means her "lord" is real and not an ideal like Buddha. That means Wen Cheng should not leave with her as this spelled trouble. Shen Yu Fei has been trying to solve the Three-Body Problem herself and sees Wen Cheng as the key. He can't resist since that's his entire purpose in life, so they get married as a matter of convenience.
It's time we talk about how brilliant Zhao Jian's performance as Wen Cheng is. He plays him as a barely functional human who literally can't do anything in life except Math. He doesn't condescend or play him as a joke. His Wen Cheng is unique and specific, funny but also tragic. It's a deeper performance than you expect from a television show.
Anyway. Wen Cheng has come to Shi Qiang (Yu He Wei) requesting protection because he's in fear for his life. Not only did extremist Pan Han (Johnny Zhang) threaten to kill him if he doesn't stop his work on the Three-Body Problem, but Shen Yu Fei (Li Xiao Ran) held a knife to his throat, threatening to kill him if he stops working on it. And now he's finished in front of Wang Miao (Edward Zhang) and Shi Qiang. He gives his equation to Wang Miao because he thinks he's a good man and will know what to do with it and who to share it with.
The End of The Three-Body Problem – The Game, that is
Wang Miao logs into the game after arranging to meet Shen Yu Fei in it as their avatars. They find a new civilization that has reached the Information Age with skyscrapers and cars. At this point in the book, Shen Yu Fei has already died, but there's an important story and thematic reason for her to be here. They present Wen Cheng's equation to the other players to review, hoping that this at least is the solution to the Three-Body Problem.
Unfortunately, they conclude that even a genius evolutionary equation like this is ultimately futile – the Three-Body Problem can't be solved. The three suns create a chaotic orbit that's inescapable. Every planet and civilization in its system will eventually be consumed and destroyed. This is the 192nd planet and civilization that Wang Miao has encountered since he started the game. Wang Miao agrees to join the other players to witness the launch of a new pendulum that commemorates civilization getting this far. But eventually, this world and everyone living in it will be destroyed as well. The players have been living as the Trisolarians – beings of three suns – trying to save the world, but now the game's conclusion is there is no saving the world. The only solution for survival is to leave the system and find a new home on a more stable planet. This is effectively the end of the game: the conclusion is there is no way to solve the Three-Body Problem.
The Tragedy of Shen Yu Fei
In the book, Shen Yu Fei was killed in a shootout with Pan Han when he showed up to shoot up Wen Cheng's computer and kill him. The show turned out to have good reasons for keeping her alive till now. It's important to the story for her to be in the game and witness that Wen Cheng's calculations are ultimately futile. This effectively means her mission has failed. Her life has no more meaning. When Pan Han returns to confront her for the last time, she admits that she's lost. And he gets to gloat that their "lord" was always going to come because there is no solving the Three-Body Problem. That's what the game proves.
When Pan Han killed her in the book, it was just a matter of plot movement. Here, his killing her has more meaning. It's personal for him. It's dominance; it's his triumph. It also shows he's an extremist asshole since he doesn't need to kill her. The series is better at attaching emotional motivations to the characters. Li Xiao Ran gets to play Shen Yu Fei as more than a representation of one side of the argument but a person with an emotional stake in the Three-Body Problem, one who ultimately finds their faith is for naught. Li conveys the poignance and loneliness of the character that's barely hinted at in the book. Giving herself to death is admitting defeat. She finally understands why Yang Dong chose to die. Shen Yu Fei welcomes her own murder as a passive suicide. And Yang Dong's death is what kicks off the story and Shi Qiang and Wang Miao's investigation. Every death is a tragedy, and every murder is a devastating loss, as Shi Qiang and Wang Miao's stricken faces show when the brilliant woman they tussled with is no more.
The Three-Body Problem is a detective story that's more cerebral than action-driven, and any television adaptation has to find a way to get across its scientific ideas and philosophical quest without coming off as dry or too abstract. Series writer Tian Liang Liang has improved on the book by imbuing the characters with personality, emotion, and drive, so they're not just mouthpieces for questions and ideas, turning the series into a noir thriller. She makes them breathe as people, and the story feels more urgent as a result. The Netflix version faces the same dilemma and will make its own decisions on how to solve it.