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Space Opera ‘The Expanse’ Returns, As Enthralling And Explosive As Ever


Warning: spoilers ahead for episodes 1-3 of season five of “The Expanse”

“The Expanse” is a peculiar show, insofar as some level of initial trickery is usually required to convince people to give it a try. One demographic of friends typically get hit with, “It’s the only show to depict gravity and space physics correctly!”

Another generally more successful hook usually goes along the lines of, “It’s like ‘Game of Thrones’ in space!” Of course, given the general downward trajectory of “Thrones” after its fourth season, compounded by its divisive conclusion, it’s an angle now apt to do more harm than good.

And so, an amendment to the old reliable formula is in order: Take the best early seasons of “Game of Thrones,” remove most of the nudity, set it in the 23rd century, add space battles and competing primordial alien life forces, and viola: you have “The Expanse.”

Intrigued yet? If you want to get in on one of the still-slightly-secret gems of the streaming era, now’s the time to strap in before the ship leaves the spaceport.

The World of ‘The Expanse’

Based on James S. A. Corey’s series of science fiction novels by the same name, the TV version of the modern space opera is gritty, realistic, and nuanced. Its talented cast boasts complicated, compelling characters that rarely fit into neat and tidy “good” or “bad” archetypes.

Virtuous do-gooders are often critically flawed. Vice-laden scoundrels have authentic, even understandable, motivations. The show offers action, comedy, drama, and countless mysteries to be unlocked. It’s not just the best sci-fi show on television, it deserves to be in the conversation for the best show still in production.

Like with “Thrones,” first-time viewers are to be forgiven if they have a hard time keeping track of such a large ensemble of characters from across the show’s different competing factions. After being canceled on SyFy, “The Expanse” was rescued by the joint efforts of its cast, crew, and loyal fanbase and brought back to life by Amazon Prime. So now, unlike during “Thrones,” viewers can pause the stream at any time and figure out who’s onscreen via Amazon’s user-friendly “X-ray” feature.

“The Expanse” now enters its fifth and penultimate season following a bittersweet announcement that while the show was renewed for a sixth season, it would be its last (although series writers Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck maintain the show is more “on pause” than finished for good).

Hanging over the production, however, is the news that Cas Anvar, who played fan-favorite and Martian pilot Alex Kamal, will not appear in the final season following an extensive investigation into numerous serious accusations of sexual misconduct and inappropriate behavior. How the showrunners will deal with Anvar’s early departure remains to be seen, but enthusiasm for the show remains high, and as the official account of “The Expanse” tweeted upon news of the renewal, “You can’t stop the work.”

If the hubbub over the show’s return or the basic synopsis has sparked your interest, you owe it to yourself to watch the previous four seasons before jumping in. If you’re already a show-watcher but feel you need a quick review, Amazon UK has an excellent video — via YouTube sci-fi and fantasy star recapper “Alt Shift X” — to get you properly up to speed.

Unlike season four’s “everything at once” release schedule that essentially forced viewers to binge the show to avoid being accidentally exposed to spoilers, Amazon’s plan for season five mirrors the roll-out used for season two of “The Boys.” After the initial three-episode drop, new episodes of “The Expanse” will air each Wednesday.

‘The Expanse’ Has Never Looked Or Sounded Better

The increased budget as a result of moving from Syfy to Amazon was evident in season three but takes a noticeably larger jump with season five. Between the physical sets, costumes, and almost entirely seamless computer-generated imagery effects, higher production values have breathed further life into an already vibrant show.

Establishing shots of transportation systems, advanced elevators, and all of the work done to make the environments feel authentic has paid off. Of special note is the design of Luna, Earth’s first successful attempt at an off-world colony, now home to more than 1 billion inhabitants and governed, like Earth, by the United Nations.

Each subsequent overhead shot of the sprawling Lovell City is impressive in both its rendering and complexity. Indeed, there are several visuals that demand repeated 10-second rewinds just to properly take it all in.

Also worth mentioning is Clinton Shorter’s breathtaking musical score, which continues to provide invaluable immersion to the show. For my ear, Shorter’s work on “The Expanse” is rivaled only by Ludwig Göransson, whose scoring of season two of “The Mandalorian” has, like Shorter’s current output, truly come into its own.

Of course, none of the technical aspects of any show matter if the plot, writing, direction, and acting are lackluster. Unsurprisingly given the track record of “The Expanse,” anxious viewers fearing a drop-off in quality need not worry one bit.

Going Their Separate Ways

One of the hallmarks of the show is watching intricate interplanetary politics play out between Earth, Mars, and the Outer Planets Alliance, a loosely arranged organization dedicated — at least, in principle — to representing the interests of those living on the asteroid belt (known as “Belters”). It’s for this reason that season four is generally viewed as the “weakest” season of the show.

By spending the majority of the time on Ilus, “The Expanse” sacrificed much of the show’s well-developed political intrigues, and while the discovery of the ring gates and the potential for new habitable worlds should have given the show an even grander scope, the result was at times, pervading claustrophobia. Season five, however, rectifies that right from the start.

After the final events of season four leave the Rocinante in desperate need of repairs at Tycho Station, the Roci’s crew take advantage of the downtime and temporarily go their separate ways.

In a sense, this was a risky choice by the writers. Running so many different arcs and “side-quests” for different characters can sometimes slow the pace of a show, with viewers often losing interest in the less captivating plotlines. Thus far, however, “The Expanse” has crafted genuinely compelling story arcs for every member of the Roci, with each cut to the next update of another arc further ratcheting up the mounting tension.

By the end of episode three, when multiple storylines collide, the show’s vast universe becomes something perceivable, intimate, and ultimately, explosive. It’s no small feat.

All in the Family

Coincidentally, just as Disney’s “The Mandalorian” has used recent episodes to explore what “family” truly means, the first three episodes of “The Expanse” spend most of their time delving into similar questions. All of the members of the Roci as well as former Secretary-General of the United Nations Chrisjen Avasarala and brooding Belter Carmina Drummer struggle to find out how the concept of “family” fits with their careers and the wider conflict.

Alex decides to go back to Mars in an attempt to reconcile with a family who feel like they’ve been abandoned. Instead of a happy reunion, however, Alex’s wife has decidedly moved on. Also on Mars, Bobbie Draper, his friend and ex-Martian marine, deals with demons of her own. Once a promising soldier with a mission to believe in, Draper is now trying to find a way to contribute to a planet suffering from a crisis of meaning.

Terraforming Mars was the ultimate dream of the Martian Congressional Republic, the greatest engineering project in the history of mankind, and a source of pride and purpose to its inhabitants. With the opening of the ring gates providing the potential to colonize hundreds of planets already safe for human life, the ambition of living on an open-sky Mars devoid of domes no longer needs to be fulfilled.

In one of the best shots of the opening three episodes of season five, Alex looks around at the liquidated storefronts, the vacancy signs, and the decay. You can see it hit home: Mars has lost its reason for being, and everyone honest with themselves knows it.

Both active and retired MCR military personnel see the writing on the wall too, and Bobbie — who’s secretly working for Avasarala — recruits Alex to assist her effort to uncover a ring of black-market weapons smuggling. Their investigation leads them to one of the MCR’s top military officers (Admiral Sauveterre), and they begin to fear that deadly stealth technology has made its way into the hands of terrorists.

Avasarala and Amos

On Luna, Avasarala begins to realize she’s ostensibly lost her husband and daughter for caring more about her career and reputation than about maintaining meaningful relationships with her loved ones. Furthermore, following a tough reelection loss to Nancy Gaond, she’s also without the clout and influence that once defined her.

“What are you doin’ here? I thought you were, like, queen of earth.” Amos Burton asks Avasarala en route to a ship to Baltimore. It’s a remark that she brushes off with her usual flare, but it clearly stings. She’s gone from the most powerful woman of the known worlds to a “high-ranking” glorified paper-pusher.

Dissatisfied with her insulting position, and mocked by Gao, Avasarala makes it her mission to take the defense of Earth and its interests into her own hands. As she exclaims to U.N. Admiral Delgado, one of her last prominent allies left, “I have burned all the bridges in front of me and behind me, and I don’t give a f—.”

After a charming scene with Avasarala, Amos heads back to Baltimore to tie up loose ends with those that raised him. He navigates an impressive, yet believable, futuristic Baltimore (save, perhaps the multiple working public transportation options).

It’s a city noticeably denser and crowded with people than in 2020, a nod to the reality of Earth having a population approaching 27 billion by the timeline of “The Expanse.” There, Amos confronts some of the demons of his past, and we’re treated to several moving scenes and explanations for his traumatic, yet still mysterious childhood.

The opening episodes of season five remind us Amos is a man still largely in development, who has clearly changed a great deal since he was last in Baltimore. Wes Chatham’s excellent portrayal is still a captivating mix of icy-cold and incendiary, and every layer of Amos’s character that’s revealed for the viewer is as rewarding as the last.

Sins of our Elders

In arguably the most desperate familial situation of all, after being told his whereabouts by Tycho Station’s Chief of Operations and leading OPA advocate Fred Johnson, Roci engineer Naomi Nagata sets off in hopes to find her teenage son Filip — before his service to his now terrorist father, Marco Inaros, gets him killed.

Upon boarding Filip’s ship and meeting him face-to-face, her son emphatically denies Naomi’s offer of rescue. Filip appears to be firmly under the spell of his fanatical father and has bought the worse things Marco has told him about Naomi.

In most shows, this broken relationship would be set up for a satisfying reconciliation in the future. Yet, this is “The Expanse,” and without having read the source material and just going off of the show’s fairly consistent realism, it wouldn’t be wise to anticipate a happy ending.

James Holden, meanwhile, has to deal with the reality that the only family he has right now — his crew of the Roci — are scattered until his ship is fit to leave Tycho Station. Matters are made worse when Naomi rebuffs his offer to accompany her on the mission to rescue Filip.

Despite his fame and all the benefits that come with it, Holden finds himself alone and driftless. That is, until he runs into journalist and documentary filmmaker Monica Stuart, who was previously assigned to film the voyage of the Roci as it journeyed towards the Ring.

Through Stuart’s sources, Holden, Johnson, and Carlos “Bull” C de Baca (Tycho’s chief security officer) race to find out who knows about — and seeks to steal — the sample of protomolecule Johnson is running experiments on. Both Johnson and Holden’s actions routinely fit into a running theme within “The Expanse”: overconfident humans meddling in things they don’t understand.

For all the times Holden swoops into a situation uninvited and royally screws things up, there are the numerous other times his impulsive actions end up saving lives. Luckily for Monica in episode three, this particular occasion was of the latter sort.

The Rising Tide

While still on the pursuit of the ever-menacing Marco, Drummer seems to have formed a new “family” of her own, patrolling space as a futuristic freebooter. The skills she’s learned under Johnson and Ashford serve her and her crew well, yet even as they celebrate their successful hauls as more-or-less-ethical pirates, there’s an empty restlessness that prevents Drummer from experiencing anything other than fleeting enjoyment and temporary hits of passion.

Cara Gee turns in her best individual performance of the series so far in episode three (“Mother”). The emotion she displays upon finding Ashford’s ship is poignant, as is her scene reminiscing over the bottle of liquor she and Ashford were meant to share.

Gee’s portrayal of Drummer thus far in season five is a far more intricate and interesting one. As much as Drummer wants those around her to know she’s in control and knows what she wants, that’s just not the case. She’s torn between her Belter identity, her innate sense of right and wrong, and the affinity she feels for those who she believes truly want what’s best for humanity.

Drummer’s transmission of the recording of Ashford’s foreboding conversation with Marco shows she cares about something beyond her own interests and is willing to share glory — even to give it up entirely — if it means evil will be defeated.

The closing moments of episode three reveal a fragment of one of Marco’s numerous weaponized asteroids has struck Earth with the force of a nuclear bomb hundreds of times more powerful than those dropped on Japan in 1945. A translation of the sign on a beach hit by the blast shows the text to be Xhosa, a South African language, meaning Cape Town has likely seen better days.

Avasarala appears to be on the verge of having her worst suspicions vindicated once more; only this time, it doesn’t look like she’ll want to do much gloating about being right.