*****ASTEROID-SIZED SPOILERS AHEAD!!*****
I was a Johnny-come-lately to “The Expanse,” and I freely admit that I’ve not yet read the books (written by “James S. A. Corey”; pen name for writers Daniel Abraham & Ty Franck). In fact, I almost gave up on the show a few episodes into season one because it was so unremittingly bleak. But on a friend’s advice, I came back to it, got caught up, and I couldn’t be happier. If you’re a sci-fi fan and you are not watching “The Expanse”? You are missing one hell of a good show; quite possibly the best sci-fi series going at the moment. Yes, the the first season is a bit of a chore, but it gets better… much better, in fact.
“The Expanse” deftly combines complex, adult characters, nuanced, layered world-building and genuine high-stakes adventure; it’s an ambitious mix. After three seasons on the SyFy network, the show was cancelled, but has since found a new home at Amazon Prime, where the wonderfully salty-tongued UN Secretary Chrisjen Avasarala is now free to drop all the uncensored f-bombs she likes.
It’s been well over a year since I last visited the universe of “The Expanse”; season 4 was the first season of the series to offer new vistas beyond our solar system, with the discovery and exploitation of an alien ‘Ring’ which opens a gateway to new worlds beyond. The initial joint colony (of Earthers, Belters and Martians) on New Terra didn’t go so well (massive understatement), but humanity kept coming, establishing new outposts without breaking the series’ famed adherence to Einstein’s universal speed limit (with occasional dramatic cheats in physics such as sound in space, etc). While these new colonies on the other side of the Ring are mentioned in the current season, they are not seen, nor do we need to see them. This year’s focus is our own backyard.
Season 5 of “The Expanse” returns to the vast arena of our own solar system, with an even stronger focus on the core characters as well. In fact, this season sees the crew of the Rocinante each going off on individual missions (both professional and personal) which test them in ways we’ve not yet seen.
Season 5’s Impact on the Characters.
The skipper of the Rocinante is, of course, Jim Holden (Steven Strait), and arguably he goes through the least challenging arc of the main characters this season. In fact, Holden is largely sidelined for much of the year—remaining at Tycho Station in the Asteroid Belt, until the Rocinante finally launches into action in Episode 6 (“Tribes”). Even sidelined, Holden copes with his lover Naomi Nagata (Dominique Tipper) going off to a dangerous meeting with her son Filip (Jasai Chase Owens), whose father happens to be the greatest living danger to the solar system, Belter-terrorist Marco Inaros (Keon Alexander), who is the big bad of this season…and beyond.
Note: I don’t feel too badly for Holden getting somewhat less to do this year than his crew; Holden’s had more than his fair share in the preceding four seasons, including exclusive conversations with the consciousness behind the protomolecule, which was visible only to him in the avatar-form of late detective Joe Miller (Thomas Jane) as well as a cosmic voyage through the history of spacetime itself. He’s good.
With his crew scattered, we also see Holden at a loss of authority as well; this leaves the self-determining Holden acting largely under the thumb of others, such as untrustworthy Belter leader and Earth native Fred Johnson (Chad Coleman, of “The Orville” ) as well as the UN. Even when Holden does take the Rocinante out, it’s with an unfamiliar crew; like sharing one’s home with strangers. This year, all of the characters have to learn to function apart from the tight-knit unit they’ve become.
Note: While some critics I’ve read and seen often take aim at Strait’s seemingly limited acting skill set, I think past seasons have shown this not to be the case. He plays the written material as needed; it’s hardly his fault if his character’s arc isn’t the strongest sometimes. When Strait has been the focus, he’s acquitted himself well enough.
Holden’s lover and shipmate Naomi Nagata (Tipper) had a much stronger arc than most this year, as she follows a lead to reunite with her son Filip, which also puts her right back in the iron talons of her ex-lover Marco Inaros. Naomi puts herself out there in the slim hopes of reconnecting with Filip, knowing full well that he is under his father’s thumb, just as she was, years before. In the process, Naomi is put through the ringer; Filip has become a hostile stranger, Marcos nearly has her killed, and many of her old Belter mates are in too deep with Marcos to be turned, despite their history with and affection for her. In this season, we see the desperate means Naomi will attempt to reach her son. When that hope seems lost, she redirects her energies to escaping. Episode 7, “Hard Vacuum,” is arguably the most desperate hour for Naomi, as she briefly transits the void of space (sans spacesuit), only to be locked aboard her now-stripped, boobytrapped transport, which is set to detonate if anyone comes within rescue range.
Note: The scene where Naomi’s old mate Cys (Kenneth Welsh) tearfully admits that he was the one who hid Filip from her over the years is heartbreaking; the pain he’s caused her over the years almost makes his collateral death in an airlock later on feel oddly and terribly just.
The transport is also sending a faked distress call (using a simulation of Naomi’s voice) in the hopes of destroying the Rocinante with its proximity explosives. With no other working radio, Naomi has to make repeated attempts to go into a depressurized compartment of the ship, wearing an oxygen-depleted spacesuit (one breath of air per trip), in the hopes of altering the faked distress call to warn her shipmates away. When Alex and Bobbie fly within range aboard the Razorback, she throws on the next-to-useless pressure suit, and jumps out of the airlock in the hopes of being rescued. When she is eventually recovered, she has radiation burns, decompression blistering and severe apoxia, but she’s lived to fight another day… and perhaps reunite (somehow) with Filip. Dominque Tipper gives her strongest performance in the series to date (and that’s saying a lot), with “Hard Vacuum” being a standout. Most of Tipper’s scenes in that episode are of Naomi alone on the transport, pulling us ever deeper into her plight. In what is largely a one-actor performance, Tipper is extraordinary.
Note: If I have any issue with Tipper’s “Naomi Nagata”, it’s only that, at age 32, Tipper looks much too young to have a son the apparent age of Jasai Chase Owens, who plays Filip. In flashbacks with newborn Filip, Tipper doesn’t quite look like a teenage mother. Then again, one can assume that in the much lower gravity of the Asteroid Belt, people age differently (?).
Rocinante‘s resident dead-eyed sociopath and hired muscle, Amos Burton (Wes Chatham) returns home to the mean streets of Baltimore where he grew up. We learn a tremendous deal about the famously secretive Amos this season, as we see how his experiences aboard the Rocinante have began to infuse him with a measure of humanity he’s never known. First, he meets an elderly man named Charles (Frankie Faison) who lived with the woman Lydia (who was like a surrogate mother to Amos) until her death. Rummaging through some of his old things, we learn that “Amos” is an assumed identity—Amos’ real name is Timothy (aka “Timmy”), and that the real Amos Burton was one of Timothy’s earliest victims. The elderly Charles is facing eviction until Amos intervenes, confronting the local mob boss Erich (Jacob Mundell), whom “Timmy” used to roll with. Erich agrees to leave Charles alone, on the condition that Amos never returns to Baltimore.
That condition is short-lived, as an asteroid attack by Marco Inaros submerges much of the eastern seaboard of the United States, leaving Amos trapped at a maximum security prison where he was visiting “Peaches,” his nickname for Clarissa Mao (Nadine Nicole), the murderous, artificially-modified sister of Julie Mao, the missing socialite whose disappearance triggered the protomolecule discovery way back in the first season. While Clarissa was a deadly force to be reckoned with in season three, she and Amos had a special connection, and we see that she meant more to him than he led on. For safety’s sake, they make their way to what remains of Baltimore—already reneging on Amos’ agreement with Erich.
Eventually Amos rescues Clarissa, Erich, and a group of displaced locals, whom he shuttles from the Earth to the Moon, using a small spaceship in the private launch silo of an abandoned mansion (the sort of place in which former socialite Mao grew up). Once again, Wes Chatham plays his character to perfection as a curiously lovable cross between early Han Solo and Dexter Morgan—the sadistic sociopath with a latent heart.
Note: We’ve seen that being around good people keeps the sociopathic Amos ‘good’ as well. But away from the Rocinante crew’s influence, we now realize that he is capable of doing good on his own, without the guidance of Holden or Naomi to keep him on the straight and narrow; this is the most fascinating revelation of the character to date, even more so than his name of ‘Amos Burton’ being an assumed identity. Unfortunately, this ‘goodness’ appears to be fleeting; the longer Amos is away from the Rocinante crew’s influence, he begins to lapse. Going out of his way to kill a heavily-armed survivalist for his rations, Amos is confronted by Clarissa about his dubious moral choice. Amos realizes he needs his friends.
Also going home is the Rocinante’s crack Martian pilot, Alex Kamal (Cas Anvar), who (like Naomi) goes off to reconnect with an estranged family who shuns him. While on Mars, he reconnects with shipmate Bobbie Draper (Frankie Adams), the ex-Martian marine who is on a secret assignment for former-UN secretary (and lunar administrator) Avasarala to learn who is supplying weapons to Belter terrorists. Alex strikes out with his family, and has a tense reunion with a distracted Bobbie, but later attends a seminar at his old war college, where his exploits aboard the Rocinante catch the attention of a spy, Lt. Babbage (Lara Jean Chorostecki). The gullible Alex is flattered by the attractive lieutenant’s attention, unaware that she and Admiral Sauvaterre (Tim DeKay) are secret sympathizers working to arm the Belter terrorists; the very arms dealers that Bobbie was sent to find. After a date, Babbage drugs Alex and his loose lips tell her what she needs to know.
Note: Listen carefully to the music as Bobbie walks into the bar during Episode 2, “Churn”; the country-western song playing in the joint comically announces “here comes Annie Oakley” as soon as the former Martian Marine makes her entrance. Fitting, and hilarious.
Bobbie and Alex later team up aboard his sleek spaceship Razorback in an attempt to rescue Naomi. Both Alex and Bobbie are pushed to their limits using ‘juice’ to boost their tolerance to severe g-forces during space combat, as they are attacked by Inaros’ “free navy” (a loose collection of warships radicalized and recruited by Marcos). Warned of the risk of stroke by repeated ‘juicing’, Alex dies during the rescue of Naomi in episode 10, “Nemesis Games,” quietly succumbing to a juice-induced stroke as Bobbie goes EVA to rescue the Naomi from the void of space.
Note: Actor Cas Anvar got into considerable trouble recently regarding alleged inappropriate behaviors with his fellow actors and fans, which led to his being written out of the series by the end of this season (the character of Alex survives in the books). For full disclosure, I met Anvar at a convention several years ago, and we had a nice meet ‘n greet. I’m not defending what he allegedly did, nor am I trying to minimize the seriousness of it; I’m merely saying that my own encounter with Anvar gave no immediate evidence of such behavior, that’s all. If the allegations are true, it’s best that he left. It’s unfortunate to see a fine series suffer the loss of a once-beloved character over an actor’s alleged personal conduct. I offer no judgments on the matter one way or the other (everyone deserves due process), only to say that the character of Alex was, at the very least, given a fitting sendoff; at least he wasn’t awkwardly recast or shabbily killed offscreen.
My favorite character of this series is “the past and future queen” of the United Nations, Madam Secretary Chrisjen Avasarala (Shohreh Aghdashloo), a political animal whose intensity and passion are equaled largely by her pragmatism, almost instantly recognizing the appropriate response to any given crisis with only a moment to process. During the asteroid bombardment off the east coast of the United States, Chrisjen loses her beloved husband Arjun (Michael Benyaer), yet manages to keep her wits about her, grieving only when convenient.
Note: In the first three seasons of “The Expanse,” the role of Arjun was played by Brian George, who also played the father of Dr. Julian Bashir (Alexander Siding) in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (a series which also employed the talents of “The Expanse” producer/developer Naren Shankar). The role of Arjun was recast in “The Expanse”‘s 4th season due to Brian George’s lack of availability; Brian George is much in demand as a character actor, having appeared in many TV series and movies such as “Seinfeld” and “Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery” (where he played the UN Secretary).
The vocally colorful Chrisjen stands ready to take charge, following the death of current UN Secretary Nancy Gao (Lily Gao). Gao is killed when her aircraft is destroyed in the immediate wake of the asteroid attack, just as she’s coordinating with Chrisjen, who’s safely on Luna. When placed in the cabinet of acting UN Secretary David Paster (Sugith Varughese), Chrisjen immediately finds herself at odds with the inexperienced Paster’s ill-advised retaliation against the entire Asteroid Belt. When she resigns her post in protest, most of the fledgling UN Secretary’s cabinet leaves with her; that’s how much pull she carries, even in her current diluted position. It’s only a matter of time before she’s back in charge of the United Nations, by use of an emergency vote.
Chrisjen (whom Amos teasingly calls “Chrissie”), like most of the characters in “The Expanse,” has a checkered past; even using torture to gain needed information early in season one. That said, there is much charm and personal magnetism in Shohreh Aghdashloo’s performance. Her raspy voice almost sounds like an exotically-accented demon at times, and you soon realize that is part of the overall package that makes her so effective; she is charming, yet somewhat terrifying. A well-placed f-bomb is as effective a weapon for her as a grenade from Amos’ well-stocked personal inventory. Despite her personal loss and worry for her surviving daughter and grandson, she soldiers on … never once losing her natural momentum as a born leader.
Note: Shohreh Aghdashloo would be an easy Emmy nominee if “The Expanse” weren’t a sci-fi series, which still carries an undeserved stigma when it comes to American entertainment awards.
Another strong character in the series is Belter captain Camina Drummer (Cara Gee), who is still grieving the loss of her shipmate, former rival and mentor Klaes Ashford (David Straitharn), a half-cocked, charming old Belter who was murdered by Marcos Inaros in an ambush at the end of last season. Captain Drummer has found some comfort in the arms of her shipmates Oksana (Sandrine Holt) and Josep (Samer Salem), but even that is taken from her when Oksana ultimately sides with the powerful Inaros instead. It kills Drummer to treat the murderous terrorist Inaros as the de facto leader of the Belters when they later meet aboard the Pallas. An exhausted Drummer later cries out, “How much s#!t do I have to eat before you treat me with some respect?” Cara Gee delivers this line with a pained sincerely that shatters any chance of it being misperceived as glib.
Note: I’ve seen some internet buzz surrounding the ménage à trois relationship between Drummer, Oksana and Josep. Onscreen, it’s not sensationalized, and is presented very matter-of-factly. Personally, I think any/all consenting adults have the right to determine which relationship arrangement works best for them. It would’ve been interesting if the relationship had worked out. To my knowledge and research, it would’ve been only the second time that a TV series showed a functioning relationship of multiple partners–the first being the short-lived British sitcom “Threesome” (2011-2012).
While Drummer isn’t quite put through the sorts of physical challenges she endured in previous years, the emotional toll on her character is equally great; and once again, Cara Gee is well up to the challenge, conveying a hardened, embittered strength that clearly masks vulnerability. In a rare unguarded moment, we see Drummer by herself, venting her anguish at her shipmates’ betrayal in a primal scream of unfiltered rage. Once again, Cara Gee (her aggressive black eyeshadow looking almost like warpaint) creates a character with many shadings beneath her carefully cultivated veneer of Belter toughness.
In addition to the loss of Alex Kamal, this season also saw the death of shady, often untrustworthy Belter leader Fred Johnson (Chad Coleman), a former citizen of Earth who had long ago thrown in with the Belters, becoming their beloved leader until the cult of Marcos Inaros made him a target as well. Fred is killed by a secret Inaros assassin Sakai (Bahia Watson) during the theft of the remaining protomolecule, which Fred kept hidden in his quarters. While Fred Johnson was seen as an extremist by the United Nations of Earth, some of his fellow Belters see him as a compromising moderate, too often aligning himself with Earth interests, despite the questionable strides he made in the name of Belter autonomy (his claim on the Mormon colony ship Nauvoo, for example; as well as the protomolecule). Johnson’s loss marks a new era of Belter ‘leadership’ under the megalomaniac Inaros, who lacks any of Johnson’s capacity for compromise. Chad Coleman will be missed as well, as the actor brought a perfectly believable moral ambiguity to his character.
Note: Coleman also costars on Hulu’s “The Orville” as Klyden, the Moclan husband of Second Officer Bortus (Peter Macon), with whom he fathered a baby girl–a ‘birth defect’ in Moclan culture. The baby’s gender was subsequently ‘corrected’ to male in the highly controversial episode “About a Girl.”
Radical Belter terrorist Marco Inaros (Keon Alexander), with the help of clandestine Martian sympathizers, can direct stealth-shielded weaponized asteroids at whichever planet he chooses (Mars or Earth). He devastates Earth with two asteroid impacts with kill millions and submerges the Eastern Seaboard of the United States. The aftermath of his attacks carries a 9/11-style resonance, but on a far grander scale of horror. Inaros has also arranged to steal Fred Johnson’s surviving bit of protomolecule, which he’s used to buy ships from the Martians to create a new “free navy” for the Belt.
What makes Inaros an even more effective villain is that he’s not entirely unsympathetic, despite his horrific acts; the miners of the asteroid belt (Belters) have been exploited, marginalized and denigrated (“skinnies”) for over a century as a working class for the elites of Earth and Mars. The situation with the Belters and the Inners is analogous to the long-exploited oil nations of 21st century Earth. Marcos’ deadly followers can be seen as stand-ins for ISIS, Al-Qaeda and many other terrorist groups of the Middle East who resent foreign powers meddling in their regions while shamelessly exploiting their energy resources.
Note: Just want to make clear that while Marcos Inaros may have an arguably valid perspective, nothing justifies his actions–certainly not the mass murder of millions of civilians. Chrisjen Avasarala recognizes this when she protests UN Admiral Delgado’s indiscriminate plan of retaliation upon the Belters.
Yes, Marcos is clearly a megalomaniac who has weaponized his own son Filip, but there’s an undercurrent of painful, inconvenient truth to his mission of terror. One can imagine a time when a pre-radicalized Marcos might have been seen as a magnetic, charismatic individual—one easily capable of seducing a young gullible Naomi. That the season ended without Inaros blowing up, or being conveniently killed defies expectations. This sets up an intriguing storyline for next year as Inaros further consolidates his power over both the solar system and the new extrasolar settlements beyond the Ring.
One of the most interesting ideas for this season was the potentially alienating move of separating the Rocinante crew for so much of the 10 episode season. While some may not have liked this idea, I enjoyed it very much as it gave a nice opportunity to learn who these people are outside of the influence of their core Rocinante family. We see Naomi torn between families; an estranged son and her adopted family aboard the Rocinante. We see Alex failing to connect with a family that’s moved on without him. We see Bobbie in the thick of a mission, which minimizes her own separation issues (if any). We see Amos slowly realizing that his time with his shipmates has fundamentally changed him. The ending of season 5 sees a bittersweet reunion of the crew, as they mourn their lost comrade Alex Kamal. The drinks and smiles feel well-earned. Like the crew of Star Trek’s famed USS Enterprise, the crew of the independent salvage ship Rocinante (named after Don Quixote’s horse) are a family as well. This season—my personal favorite of the series to date—truly cemented that familial feeling.
This season was filled with dozens of other interesting secondary characters (Cyn, Bull, Monica Stuart, Admiral Delgado, etc.) whom I could profile as well, except that this column would run about 50,000 words. So at the risk of taxing my patient readers’ patience, I’ll simply say the renewed focus on the core characters as well as a return to the Sol system brings this must-see sci-fi series back to its roots. After the more typically sci-fi adventures of last season (alien artifacts, extra-solar planets, etc), it was a welcome return to form.
One of the things I love about this series is how it often reminds us that our varied own solar system is a universe unto itself.
All five seasons of “The Expanse” are available for streaming on Amazon Prime (included with an Amazon Prime service subscription). To my readers, I once again wish you and all of your loved ones good health and strength during the current coronavirus pandemic. The current number of COVID-related deaths in the United States are over 450,000 as of this writing. Meanwhile, several vaccines have been developed and inoculations have began, but it will take months for mass distribution throughout the population. Even with vaccines, the overall situation is far from safe; many unknowns remain regarding coronavirus (can may be vaccinated and unwittingly carry or spread coronavirus). So for the time being, please continue to practice social safe-distancing as often as you can, wear masks in public, and avoid overly crowded outings as much as possible. Please remember that current CDC guidelines don’t advise indoor dining or indoor theaters, so please bear that in mind as well.
Take care and be safe!