Warning: spoilers ahead for episode four of season five of “The Expanse”
The end of the previous episode of “The Expanse” left many viewers with their jaws agape, watching Earth struck by the first of many stealth-cloaked asteroids flung at the planet by rogue OPA terrorist Marco Inaros. Episode four of the fifth season will leave most viewers with mouths open and hearts racing for the entire runtime.
Marco’s sinister attack goes undetected by Earth’s Sentinel asteroid monitors and lands near Dakar, Senegal (not South Africa, as previously thought). Complicating matters is that former U.N. Secretary-General Chrisjen Avasarala suspected such an attack was possible, even imminent, but was rebuffed by Admiral Felix Delgado, the only high-ranking military officer on Earth with whom she still holds a small, remaining degree of influence.
Earth’s only answer to Martian stealth tech is its Watchtower defense system — a network of advanced spy satellites Avasarala argued, in episode three, should be turned away from Mars and used to thwart what she suspects of Marco. This insistent appeal to Admiral Delgado is shot down. Whether Delgado and Avasarala could have averted disaster had Delgado listened and they found sympathetic ears at U.N. high command is unknowable, which makes the catastrophes to come sting all the more.
Crippled By Old Fears
At fault is the simple fact that too many of Earth’s politicians are still fighting the last war. In reality, the dream — and threat — of Mars is almost completely dead. Yet even as citizens of Mars flee to new worlds beyond the ring gates at breakneck speed, Earth’s leadership remains intransigently embroiled in a crippling fear and hatred of the Martian Congressional Republic, their longtime arch-rival.
While it’s frustrating to watch such failures of those placed in positions of responsibility and authority over so many, it’s a pattern that has been repeated throughout our own timeline. Old inter-generational hatreds and grievances die hard, and far too frequently blind us to new emerging threats until, as in the case of Nancy Gao’s Earth, the hour is critically, irreversibly late.
In the open space between Mars and the Belt, Bobbie and Alex trail the Barkeith, an MCR supply ship Bobbie suspects of being a key to the black-market smuggling operation they’ve been investigating. To avoid raising any alarms from those who may recognize the famous racing ship, Alex changes the Razorback’s name to The Screaming Firehawk, fulfilling one of his longstanding ambitions to name a ship.
The duo discusses their situation and how it could be possible that so many ostensibly patriotic Martians may be involved in such a dastardly scheme. When Alex questions how Bobbie is so calm and collected instead of outraged, she tells Alex she’s essentially made her peace with the fact the Mars she used to love is likely gone forever.
“So we’re building a coffin for our dying planet?” Alex asks Bobbie. “I went through the exact same thing you’re going through right now,” she responds, “and when you come out the other side of this, you’re gonna wanna be doing something that matters.”
Moments later, an emergency flight restriction from the U.N. flashes on-screen, advising Alex to expect delays if attempting to land on Earth. Investigating further and turning to breaking news broadcasts, Alex and Bobbie learn of the first asteroid to hit Earth. And that’s not all — an explosion has apparently rocked the Martian Parliament as well.
A beautiful sweeping shot over the Chesapeake Conservation Zone in northern Virginia centers on a severe and foreboding U.N. penitentiary known as “The Pit.” Inside, Amos uses his V.I.P. status granted by Avasarala to gain access to the lower levels, where the prison’s most dangerous inmates are housed — men and women with cybernetic body modifications. He’s granted access to the cell of Clarissa Mao, serving a life sentence for blowing up a U.N. fleet support ship in season three.
Since season four, it’s been known Mao uses her single granted monthly video call to talk to Amos. Now, Amos has shown up in person. When Amos informs her that he’s here to help, Mao informs him that “not every stain comes out.”
Then, similar to how Alex and Bobbie had their heart-to-heart interrupted, alarms blare in The Pit, and a low rumbling sound rolls into a crescendo. The lights go out. A second asteroid has struck near their location. Buried multiple floors underground, they should be safe — that is, after they make it past the dozens of mod-enhanced murderers that have been so perfectly placed in their way. If there’s a video-game-style moment Amos Burton was made for, it’s this. Next week’s episode should be quite the horror-filled ride watching them escape.
On Luna, Avasarala frantically attempts to reach anyone at Fleet Command who will listen to her dire warning that the asteroid that struck Africa was an attack. She’s interrupted by Delgado, who brings her the news of the second asteroid strike, making impact 40 kilometers northwest of Philadelphia. “At least now,” he says mournfully, “they’ll know it was an attack.”
Blackballed by most of the U.N. senior administration officials, the two struggle to reach Secretary-General Gao aboard U.N. One, until Avasarala craftily uses her former chef (Casey) to bring a tray bearing an open window of her video feed. The plan works, and Gao listens to Avasarala.
In this grave moment, Gao puts aside her ego and her entire political history and wants to hear all the expertise she can get, immediately acting on Avasarala’s recommendation to link the Watchtower satellites to Earth’s orbital spotters. It’s a Sorkinesque moment of statesmanship and humility for a character who was hard to like and often came off smug and petulant.
Unfortunately, the moment doesn’t last long. A third asteroid hits South Asia, creating a massive shockwave in the atmosphere surrounding Gao’s plane, which is torn in two.
‘Something Is Wrong’
On Tycho Station, James Holden, Fred Johnson, and Chief Security Officer Carlos c de Baca (a.k.a. “Bull”) race to set up a trap for the still unknown entities who appear to be aware Johnson has another sample of protomolecule and want to steal it for their own purposes. Unfortunately, they’re about to fall into a trap of their own.
Noticing irregularities with the Zmeya, the ship expected to dock with Bull’s container, Holden exclaims, “something is wrong.” Then, all hell breaks loose on Tycho.
The Zmeya fires upon the container ship just as Holden tells Bull to get out of the area. Sakai, Tycho Station’s bubbly and sweet chief engineer, shoots Johnson three times in the back, flees, and spikes Tycho’s entire communications network.
OPA terrorists from Marco’s faction spring their trap. Gunfire erupts. A second rocket lands in Johnson’s private quarters, where Monica Stuart was being held for her safety. A scavenger robot has landed with one objective: find and retrieve Johnson’s sample of protomolecule for Marco Inaros.
Holden races to the scene and arrives just as Monica struggles with Sakai and the bot attempts to leave with the protomolecule. Faced with the choice between saving Monica and stopping the protomolecule sample from landing into the wrong hands — with the potential to kill billions — he chooses the latter, but fails.
As loyal Tycho security forces restore order on the station, it’s revealed that the great Fred Johnson has died from his wounds. “He deserved to finish what he was building,” Holden remarks as he stares at a wounded and distraught Bull. One can’t help thinking that when Drummer finds out that Marco is now responsible for the death of Johnson and Ashford, she will make it her life’s mission to bring him down.
Back on Luna, we find out tsunamis caused by the asteroid that struck the east coast has caused the failure of the seawalls protecting New York City, preventing contact with the U.N. Headquarters. No one is sure who is in charge on Earth according to the line of succession.
Yet, in one of the few signs of hope in the episode, we see a fourth asteroid disintegrated by Earth’s defenses before further harm can be caused. Gao’s order to reposition the Watchtowers went out in time, saving innumerable lives.
A Common Foe
The episode ends with Naomi being brought to Marco’s ship, where the OPA terrorist gives a victory speech, declaring his own version of the Monroe Doctrine and claiming the right to the ring gates and all that lies beyond for the Belt.
For a show with many excellent episodes of television to its name, episode four, “Gaugamela” ranks among its best — heart-pounding, gripping, emotional, and filled with great performances from top to bottom.
The title of the episode cleverly references Alexander the Great’s historic and decisive victory over the Persian Achaemenid Empire in 331 BC. The parallels here are striking and go far beyond the fact that Marco’s ship is named Pella (the capital of ancient Macedonia and the birthplace of Alexander).
Alexander’s Macedonia, like Marco’s OPA faction, is a power seemingly on the rise and commanded by a young, charismatic leader. Outnumbered, he manages to score a major victory over a waning, formerly great power through tactical cunning and the overconfidence of his opponents. Yet, like Alexander, Marco’s own arrogance and overextension may well have laid the seeds of his undoing. Earth and Mars now have a common foe.