Warning: spoilers ahead for episode ten of season five of “The Expanse.”
With its finale in the books, season five of “The Expanse” proved the show is still the most intelligent and captivating science-fiction entertainment on television.
“Nemesis Games,” the concluding installment of the ten-episode season, gives faithful fans of the show everything they have come to love and expect from “The Expanse”: political intrigue, realistic physics, smart writing, and yes, space battles.
It’s almost as if the showrunners suspected well in advance that some fans have been pining for more action, lamenting the number of “quiet character moments” in season five. Well, if action and excitement are what viewers were wishing for, they get what they paid for and then some as the Rocinante launches itself into a desperate battle against a numerically superior fleet under the control of OPA terrorist Marco Inaros.
The gripping space combat is combined with the conclusion of a revenge arc that’s been a long time coming. Of the many satisfying moments of the season finale, near the top of the list is witnessing Drummer finally enact retribution against Marco.
The pain Inaros has caused Drummer reached a point many episodes ago where it wasn’t possible to conceive of any outcome where Drummer wouldn’t at least get her chance at justice. Well, in “Nemesis Games,” she takes her shot.
Before the OPA Free Navy ships can engage the Roci, Drummer turns on Karal and springs her trap. To the shock of Bull, Holden, and Monica, the OPA ships begin firing on one another. Mayhem ensues. Missiles launch, point defense cannons (PDCs) fire, and entire ships are destroyed.
When it’s all said and done, Drummer’s loyalists and the Roci are left standing. Karal is killed by the tiny, unsuspecting Michio, and Holden hails the remaining OPA ships: “Belter hostiles…this is Rocinante. Shut down your reactors and stand down immediately or we will engage. Acknowledge.”
“Holden,” a breathless Carmina responds, “This is Drummer.”
It’s a great moment and a fitting end to a thrilling sequence. The CG work has improved vastly since the first few seasons of the series, and, just as with the season opener, the showrunners clearly chose the finale to be a perfect opportunity to show off the increased budget and strut their stuff. Tying it all together and ratcheting up the intensity a notch further is the exceptional scoring done by composer Clinton Shorter, whose work has been exemplary this season.
It turns out Oksana didn’t seek to “prove her loyalty” to Drummer and wasn’t taking Drummer’s gun to kill Karal, but just to prevent trouble from starting. Hypocritically, while she withheld information about the status of Naomi and other affairs, she cries indignantly about not being told of Drummer’s turn on Marcos.
Perhaps she was simply jealous of the relationship between Naomi and Drummer, but something about Oksana’s character feels “off” and inconsistent. As she leaves Drummer’s ship, abandoning the little rebellion against Marcos, it certainly feels like there’s a chance we won’t see her again (fine by me).
Of the many strengths of the season finale is that major characters that had thus far been given short shrift by the writers of the season finally get their chance to shine — Holden, Alex, and Bobbie most of all.
Unable to tell the Razorback that her ship is rigged to blow upon close proximity, Naomi proves once again that she’s the bravest gal in space. After a final deep breath of self-assurance, she takes a running leap out of her doomed ship into the black void.
She has a suit this time, but Naomi’s drifting in space is somehow more terrifying than her “hard vacuum” jump episodes earlier. The close-up framing; the sound design of her breathing and panting; it all adds up to a claustrophobic, hold-your-breath moment even though Naomi is surrounded by the endless vastness of space.
Just as it looks like she’s a goner, she’s rescued by Bobbie, whose calm demeanor and reassuring words remind us again why she’s such a fan favorite.
The rescue celebration, however, is short-lived. As it turns out, in the finale, we find out how the show will handle the departure of veteran Martian navy pilot Alex Kamal, whose actor, Cas Anvar, faces numerous allegations of sexual misconduct.
After speeding as fast as possible to Naomi’s positions, then finally coordinating a daring rescue in outer space, Alex suffers a shocking, fatal stroke. Seen in view on Alex’s left, a screen graphic displays the image of his brain with several red dots on it — hauntingly, it’s likely one of the last things Alex saw before his death.
As explained by Holden in a follow-up scene, engaging in so many “high g” maneuvers as Alex had been doing runs a large risk of causing strokes. Nonetheless, Alex’s death is sudden, cold, and yet all too realistic — a testament to the fragility of life many of us are sadly familiar with on Earth, let alone the reality of living the dangerous life of a space pilot of the future.
It’s unfortunate and disappointing that Anvar’s conduct forced the premature end of such a likable and interesting character. Yet the show’s writer handled his departure with class and dignity. The surviving members of the Roci reminisce on his life; we get a shot of Bull — who’s now clearly replaced Alex as the Roci’s pilot — sheepishly realizing he’s been drinking out of Alex’s coffee mug; and, most poignantly, we linger on the founding plaque created when our crew took over the Roci and made it their own.
In hindsight, the prose of the ”farewell” message Naomi sent to Holden in case she didn’t make it also suits the parting of Alex:
What we had together, our odd little family on the Roci, it was good, truly good. People come into our lives and they go out, families change, it can be hard and sad but we bear it as long as we don’t shut ourselves off from the new wonderful things that come.
All in all, for a messy situation, “The Expanse” handled it as well as could be reasonably expected and gave proper honor to a character who’s been an integral part of the show for the past five seasons. Viewers couldn’t have asked for much more.
Back on Luna, we see our heroes reunited at last. As he rejoins his true family, Amos says goodbye to Erich. Avasarala is confirmed to be the newly installed secretary-general of the United Nations and is at the center of a “happy hour” of sorts sporting Martian red in contrast to the Earther blue worn by Bobbie, who is re-upped as a senior advisor and newest liaison.
She motions to the Roci’s crew and gestures, “This is what Marco Inaros hates. This is what he is afraid of…All we have to do now is turn every Martian, Earther, and Belter into this.” It’s a touching speech with a noble sentiment. Yet, just as Naomi’s rescue was blunted by tragedy, Avasarala and Holden’s team are pulled away from the party and given the bad news.
The Earth fleet helping guard the Ring Gate network is attacked by a stealth-coated meteor shower, Medina station, Inaros’s new MCRN fleet, and a separatist force of MCRN warships from behind. Three battleships are lost, and they sit stunned at the realization of the maneuver Inaros has just performed to devastating effect.
As MCRN Admiral Sauveterre speaks with Marco, then rogue scientist Cortazar, then Lt. Babbage, it becomes clear. Inaros traded the protomolecule and the ownership rights of a new system to rogue Martians in return for his new fleet of MCRN ships.
Sauveterre tells Babbage the new nation they seek to form will be “purer” than Mars ever was. Fittingly, it will be called “Laconia,” named after the ancient Greek territory of which Sparta was the capital. The undeniable fascist connotations combined with what we know about the ultra-militaristic and rigid society of the Spartans means this new nation will likely not be on the side of our Earther heroes and their allies.
What also remains to be seen is if Sauveterre and Babbage will even make it to the new world they essentially sold their souls to help obtain. Just as they’re about to gain passage through the gate, mystical orange and black torrents invade and flow through the ship — it’s the “Unknown Aggressors” Holden showed to Fred earlier in the season and a suspect malevolent force of indeterminate origin and power. It’s hard to tell if Sauveterre and Babbage are destroyed or just being “scanned” by the Aggressors, but either way, it isn’t good.
One more season of “The Expanse” remains to be explored on Amazon. After that, unless the show’s production company (Alcon) changes its mind, the series will suspend its story until something changes. It is worth noting, however, that it was always the plan of the showrunners to conclude the series after six seasons, so perhaps there is some cause of optimism in order, and some faith owed to Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck that they can conclude this major arc of the books to everyone’s satisfaction.
Still, with Marco Inaros at large and sporting new weapons of war, and with a new MCRN enterprise interacting with both the protomolecule and the nefarious entity that Holden believes wiped out “The Builders,” there’s a lot of ground to cover. The countdown to the “final” season of “The Expanse” starts now.