In its first three seasons with the SyFy channel, “The Expanse” was some of the best science fiction television to be produced. The plot and characters were complex and interesting, the futuristic world was rich, gritty, and surprisingly human, and the themes were profound and consequential. Unlike most science fiction, it was not childish escapism or a computer-generated fireworks show, but rather a serious story intended for a serious audience.
So, of course, it was only natural that it would face cancellation. Fortunately, some executives at Amazon had the good sense to pick up “The Expanse” and let the show continue intact. Unfortunately, with the fourth and fifth seasons, the show lost many of the virtues that made it so good, as the pacing slowed down to a crawl, the vast rich setting contracted to something small and unimaginative, and the story and themes were simplified.
In its most recent season, all of these faults are on full display yet again: it is mostly uneventful, emotionally overwrought, and rather ugly.
The season picks up from the events of the last season, when Marco Inaros, a terrorist/rebel leader of the Astroid Belt colonies, takes control of a massive portal to other habitable star systems and launches thousands of meteors at Earth. Facing total annihilation, the leadership of Earth mobilizes for war against Inaros, and season six traces the progression of this war.
This brings up questions the viewer is eager to figure out. How is Earth coping with the meteor fallout? What does Mars, which waged an unsuccessful war against Earth in a previous season, do now? Whatever happened to the stray alien protomolecule that Martians acquired from Inaros? What is going on with the 1,000+ colonies beyond the portal that have apparently been established? And if there’re so many colonies on habitable planets, why are the Belters not fleeing to a better life (as they did in season four) but instead listening to a terrorist demagogue with a man bun?
But these questions are left unexplored, or they are addressed in a few random mutterings by a minor character. Instead, the great majority of the sixth season focuses on the drama of Marco and his son Filip. The crew of the Rocinante — Jim Holden, Naomi Nagata, Amos Burton, and Bobbie Draper — also appear, but act more like plot devices than characters with any kind of arc.
All this would’ve been fine if there was more to Marco and Filip’s relationship, or if they had more redeeming qualities, but they really don’t. Marco’s motivations are rather generic: inflict damage to the Earthers and Martians, rule over the other Belters, and get revenge on all the people who wronged him. He rarely shows much intelligence or cunning, continually making idiotic choices, and has little dimension in his demeanor; he mainly tends to alternate between bombastic and creepy.
That’s why his son Filip’s desire to win his approval and follow his example is something of a mystery. Filip has slightly more depth than his father, but his character also feels underwhelming. He’s a young man with great potential who, after idolizing his father, now starts to have doubts about him as Marco’s duplicity and brutality become more apparent, a twist on Odysseus’ son Telemachus from the “Odyssey.”
And while this would normally elicit sympathy and investment, Filip has already committed many murders, abused his authority and position plenty of times, and even tried to kill his own mother. Moreover, even with all this baggage, his personality is not all that interesting. In most scenes, he’s either angry or confused, shows little agency in the decisions he makes, and helplessly wrestles with internal conflicts without learning anything.
In many ways, season six repeats the same narrative patterns as season five. Much of the plot development is crammed into one or two episodes, the world-building is nonexistent (there are only a handful of actual sets being used), and much of the show hangs on the squabbles between a few Belter characters. In the last season, Naomi and Belter Camina Drummer were the focal points; this season, it’s Marco and Filip. Needless to say, this structure hampers the scope and complexity of the show.
It also makes for a visually unappealing experience — an important component in science fiction cinema. Because the Belters mainly live on freighters, impoverished space stations, and retooled warships, every scene they’re in is drab, monotone, and unremarkable. Added to this aesthetic are the Belters themselves, who wear dirty jumpsuits, cover themselves in tribal tattoos, and have punk hairstyles. Contrasted with the rich variety of settings and styles of the first three seasons, the sameness of seasons five and six is a big disappointment.
And yet, for all its faults, it must be said that “The Expanse” still retains much of its narrative integrity and easily qualifies as good television. It still towers above all comparable science fiction shows, and it continues to keep the viewer engaged. Although it has lost its original sense of urgency, it still has a compelling story that challenges audiences in the right way. It is still serious science fiction for a serious audience.
For that reason, the show is still a success. Although some have speculated on whether “The Expanse” will have additional seasons — there are still many loose ends to tie up — it will keep its place in the pantheon of great science fiction. Even if the show has started flagging in these last two seasons, it never compromised in its tone and execution. It demonstrated what is possible with the science fiction genre, and how good writing and great performances will ultimately trump cheap nostalgia and flashy special effects.