After six seasons, or more like five and a half, Amazon Prime’s “The Expanse” has come to an end, though it leaves open opportunities for a potential comeback. The series is based on the novels by “James S.A. Corey” (noms de plume for authors Ty Franck & Daniel Abraham) and was adapted by show-runner Naren Shankar (“Star Trek: Deep Space Nine,” “CSI”). The show went out with a bang for its 65-minute finale, “Babylon’s Ashes.” A lot of story was packed into that final episode, including many battle scenes, both in space and a brutal, hand-to-hand combat mission.
Note: The same-titled Expanse novel of “Babylon’s Ashes” was published December, 2016.
The characters have come a long way in the past six seasons. I was a latecomer to this show, and while that first season was a bit of a chore to get through, I quickly warmed up to it by the second season. “The Expanse” now stands as one of my favorite series of the new millennium to date.
Populating “The Expanse.”
In a typical sci-fi series of years past, the character of James Holden, as played by Steven Strait, would be the alpha male, “Captain James T. Kirk” of the series; but with the colorful lot of characters populating “The Expanse,” Holden is but one interesting voice in a dynamic chorus. This season saw the Rocinante’s skipper given a golden opportunity to eliminate the Solar system’s mortal enemy, Inaro Marcos, and Holden falters. Seeing his lover Naomi’s son Filip on the bridge of the enemy ship Pella while delivering his surrender terms, Holden reluctantly orders the launch of a killing blow torpedo from the Rocinante–only to disarm it himself, shortly before impact. Holden’s crew finds out later on, and while they question his decision, they remain loyal. Despite the hell Marco Inaros and even Filip have put everyone through in the past few years, Holden cannot make the kill shot for strictly personal reasons. The character, like many in this show, navigates a complex ocean of moral gray, not simple black and white.
After the war is ultimately ended, and Inaros is finally destroyed, some measure of calm is restored. Holden is appointed by UN Secretary General Chrisjen Avasarala to be the head of a new joint “Transport Union” for Inners and Belters heading into the Ring (the true ‘final frontier’ of “The Expanse”). It’s clear from the start that Holden does not want this role, and bristles audibly at the very suggestion. He ultimately decides to take the job, but with an ulterior motive. At his first speech to a group of assembled delegates, he appoints the fiery Belter resistance leader Camina Drummer, as his immediate replacement. Like nearly every decision of Holden’s, his reasons for doing this are both personal and logical; primarily, he doesn’t want the job, but secondarily, he recognizes a historic opportunity to solidify the new peace between Belters and Inners by appointing Drummer as his successor. A win-win situation, even if he faces the formidable wrath of Avasarala afterward.
Note: Steven Strait has come a long way since the earliest days of the show, and has settled nicely into his role as the closest thing “The Expanse” has to a moral compass.
Which leads me to my favorite character of the show, the aforementioned UN Secretary General Chrisjen Avasarala, played by talented Oscar nominee Shohreh Aghdashloo. During a season of major character developments, hers has arguably seen the most… yet, conversely, her ambition remain largely the same, even if her compassion has grown exponentially. She finally frees her aide/advisor (and former Martian Marine) Bobbie Draper, whom Avasarala recognizes as a born warrior, not a diplomatic . We later see Avasarala taking point on a relief effort to the abandoned inhabitants of the dwarf planet Ceres in the Asteroid Belt. The Ceres’ Belters were left behind as a trap to lure Inner humanitarian rescue efforts, only to destroy them (and sacrificial Belters) with rigged explosives. Avasarala survived, as did her newfound compassion to Belters, whom she is determined to help, despite their remaining loyalty towards their radical leader, Inaros.
Unlike the character as we’ve seen her in previous seasons, this final year sees Avasarala trying to win the conflict by appealing to hearts and minds instead–and it works. She is able to make headway with the de facto leader of the non-radicalized Belters, Camina Drummer, and the two of them agree to a new alliance to defeat their mutual enemy–Marco Inaros and his Free Navy. In one of her most introspective moments yet, Avasarala confides to Holden that she once tortured a Belter for information (which we saw early in the first season), largely because she could. She is no longer that person. Her molten core of power remains, but her once casual disregard for the pawns in the Solar system’s chess game has waned considerably. Avasarala has evolved, however imperfectly, into that almost mythical state of power and compassion. We see a bit of her ‘old self’ resurface as she scorns Holden (“you little shit”), but she quickly concedes his point, and recognizes the value of placing a trusted Belter in the job instead…
Note: I had the rare privilege (especially so during the COVID pandemic) of meeting Shohreh Aghdashloo last summer in Las Vegas! See the bottom of this column for details–and photos!
… that somewhat tentatively trusted Belter is, of course, Camina Drummer, as played by Cara Gee. Drummer, like other characters in this series, has undergone a considerable evolution over the past few seasons as well. Previously serving in the shadow of Belter leaders Fred Johnson and Anderson Dawes, Drumer moves out from their influences with the guidance of her late mentor (and occasional thorn in her side) Klaes Ashford (David Strathairn), who was brutally murdered by Inaros’ forces last season. Ashford arguably had the greatest hand in shaping Drummer for the leadership role she eventually assumes. Finally breaking free of loyalty to the egotistical Inaros’ radicals, Drummer becomes an unofficial leader to the remaining non-radicalized Belters, even if some of them see her as a sellout. In full view of her people on Ceres, he takes the outreached hand of UN Secretary General Avasarala in a symbolic union between Belters and Inners. That union is later solidified after Inaros’ destruction, when newly appointed Transport Union leader Holden immediately resigns and gives Drummer the job. Given the vicious temper she demonstrated during the various conflicts between Belters and Inners, one would think that Drummer would be a lousy choice for a bureaucrat, but her warrior attitude makes her an ideal choice for the post. Camina Drummer will not be easily bent or bought, and that is something a fresh approach to space politics demands.
Note: While it was not given opportunity for exploration this season, it is noteworthy that the character of Drummer was also shown to be in a ménage à trois relationship last year, which understatedly established the character as bisexual–a nice nod to how matter-of-factly one’s sexuality will be treated in this 23rd century. On a cosmetic note, Drummer’s dramatically dark eyeshadow subconsciously evokes a vibe of tribal war paint rather than runway model glamor.
The remaining crew of the Rocinante have their own arcs as well. Before a deadly assault mission, we see shipmates Holden, Naomi, Amos, Clarissa and Bobbie enjoy a home-cooked meal together–a final feast before their desperate Hail Mary pass against Inaro’s railgun. Former Martian Marine Bobbie Draper, played by Frankie Adams, is released from her job as Avasarala’s aide, and rejoins her comrades-in-arms aboard the Rocinante. For the most part, Draper does what she does best–kicking ass and taking no prisoners. Following last season’s sudden death of fellow Martian Alex Kamal (Cas Anvar), Draper and Amos share a few moments this year recalling the eccentricities of their fallen shipmate (Anvar, and his character, were prematurely released from the series following alleged sexual harassment incidents).
Bobbie and Amos reunite in combat once again during the show-stopping manned assault on Inaros’ railgun weapon platform orbiting the entrance to the Ring. Draper, wearing her ammunition-resistant Martian body armor, drops onto the platform and saves Amos’ ass on several occasions, taking a lot of dents in her thick spacesuit. Ultimately, the two of them destroy the formidable railgun, delivering a critical blow to Inaros’ stranglehold on the Solar system’s transit to its colony worlds beyond the Ring.
Note: Frankie Adams, who certainly has the believable build for her role, has come a long way from her character’s early days in the show’s second season, honing her dramatic chops while maintaining her character’s inherent stoicism. Her friendship with Amos this season feels very natural, and fills the void left by the ‘demise’ of Cas Anvar’s Alex.
Amos Burton, played by fan favorite Wes Chatham, has settled into the role of both fighter and lover this season, with his romance of Clarissa “Peaches” Mao (Nadine Nicole), the former assassin seeking redemption as Amos’ assistant in the Rocinante’s engine room. Romance has softened Amos’ rougher edges, such as his hilarious, near-psychotic glee in causing pain to an enemy. While he’s still a dangerous opponent in a fight, he’s a nicer person to know–even if he still slips into his old habits of too much boozing and whoring, as we saw when he took a brief leave with Bobbie earlier this season (he never felt compelled to apologize for that lapse with Clarissa, either). As mentioned earlier, Amos’ combat skills were put to the ultimate test when he and Bobbie dropped onto a deadly orbital railgun platform in a near-suicidal mission to destroy it, which they did. Back aboard the Rocinante, Amos and Bobbie’s swollen, bruised faces and bodies told the story.
Throughout the episode, Clarissa had been suffering from random dizzy spells, which were confirmed by the ship’s medical diagnostic computers to be symptoms of a terminal illness known as ‘Endocrine Collapse Syndrome.’ She’s expected to live about five more years. At the series’ conclusion, she doesn’t tell Amos of her illness–preferring to live in the moment, and enjoy their remaining time together.
Note: Clarissa Mao is, of course, the sister of Juliette Andromeda Mao (Florence Faivre), the missing heiress to the Mao fortune whose disappearance began the mystery which led to the discovery of the protomolecule–an alien substance that dramatically changed the political dynamics of the solar system and led to the discovery of the gateway ‘Ring’.
All of the difficult choices put to the Rocinante’s crew this year are bubkes compared to the decision Naomi Nagata (Dominque Tipper) faced this season. After repeated attempts to draw her teenage son Filip away from his dangerously egomaniacal father Marco last year, Naomi has resigned herself to the fact that her son is beyond her salvation. The final attack on Inaros’ Free Navy involves rigging the Belter-repurposed colony ship Giambattista’s reactors to explode near the Ring, which will thin Inaros’ forces considerably. During the battle, Naomi herself has to push the very button that will overload the Giambattista and trigger a devastating response from the Ring itself. The resultant explosion has the desired effect, which leads to the destruction of the Pella. Naomi lets out an anguished cry in Holden’s arms as she’s forced to reconcile her mother’s grief with a soldier’s allegiance to the greater cause.
At the end of “The Expanse,” we see Naomi and Holden, together in their cabin aboard the Rocinante. He’s rejected his appointment as Transport Union administrator, and she appears to be recovering from the shattering grief of her son Filip. Echoing what we see with Clarissa’s choice to live her remaining few years with Amos, Naomi soothes Holden’s busy mind–reminding him to forget the problems that lie ahead and simply enjoy their moment together. Holden heeds her good advice. Their moment together feels well-earned.
Note: Dominique Tipper does some terrific acting this final season. Her anguished cry at what the perceived loss of her son Filip will rip your heart out. While Tipper herself doesn’t really look old enough to have a son the age of Filip, her performance makes it easy to hand-wave it away. I also like Tipper’s subtle switch between proper English and Naomi’s native “Belta” dialect, depending on with whom she’s speaking.
Speaking of Naomi’s son Filip (Jasai Chase-Owens), this leads to my single greatest nitpick with the ending of “The Expanse”; during the final montage showing the crew of the Rocinante getting on with their lives, we see a flashback to the moments just before the destruction of the Pella, when an increasingly defiant Filip has finally had enough of his father’s jingoistic Belta bullshit. During Maro’s final speech to his brainwashed crew, a headstrong Filip is seen quietly slipping away and commandeering one of the Pella’s escape pods. This leaves the door open for the character’s eventual reunion with his mother Naomi.
While this is arguably a deserved happy ending for Naomi, it’s also a dramatic cheat–like an old Saturday afternoon serial where see the hero’s car careening off a cliff in part one, only to learn the following week that the hero jumped out of his car at the very last second (yes, Kathy Bates used the same analogy in “Misery”, and it still fits).
Note: Can we also go back to the part about Filip being a cold-blooded murderer who killed his best friend during a bar squabble earlier in the season? I realize he’s “just a kid,” and that “The Expanse” is all about gray morality, but that was just cold-blooded murder. One could also argue that Filip previously abandoned any chance of reconciliation with his mother last year.
Speaking of cold-blooded murders, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Keon Alexander‘s terrific performance as Marco Inaros, the rabble-rousing terrorist-leader of the Belters whose insatiable ego begins to fatally cloud his judgment this final season, blinding him to the flaws in his own leadership. Inaros even uses his own people–the very people he’s sworn to protect–as bait in a trap on Ceres to kill Avasarala’s relief efforts. Inaros rigs part of the station to explode, after robbing its survival rations for his own Free Navy. After the Ceres explosion, when the truth begins to trickle out, there are still inhabitants of Ceres station who remain loyal to Inaros. This is brutal commentary on our own world’s current issues with political/religious radicalization. Marco Inaros could be Osama Bin Laden, Donald Trump, or just about any radicalizing influence anywhere in the world. The fact that he appealed to so many disaffected Belters proves Holden’s later point that he wasn’t entirely wrong, either–the Belters have been traditionally exploited and mistreated, making a populist leader like Marco Inaros inevitable.
Note: While I’ve had my fill of Star Trek’s obsession with the character of Khan Noonian Singh (as played by actors Ricardo Montalban and Benedict Cumberbatch), I’m struck by how perfect actor Keon Alexander would be for the role if they ever reimagine the character again someday. I’m not saying it should happen, but if it does…
One new character this season who was able to reach through the blustering front of Marcos Inaros was his trusted aide, Rosenfeld Guoliang, played by Kathleen Robertson, a veteran of the 1990s TV series “Beverly Hills, 90210.” Guoliang certainly believed in Inaros, even if she was occasionally blunt in her assessment of the man’s tactics. She would often tell him what he needed to hear, not just what he wanted to hear, but she would package it in such a way that prevented her from being spaced. It may be that Inaros also valued having an aide who could be more candid with him than his usual mindless, hero-worshipping subordinates. In a way, Guoliang is a less angry version of Camina Drummer–someone else who could’ve been useful to Inaros, if only his ego could stand the competition. Unfortunately, her role as advisor only went so far, and Rosenfeld Guoliang dies in the line of duty. As coolly essayed by Robertson, Guoliang made quite an impression in only a handful of episodes.
Several threads were raised in the final six episodes, and were left deliberately open for a sequel or followup series someday. One thread that dominated the first episode of the season (“Strange Dogs”) concerned the mysterious Laconian colony’s bizarre, forest-dwelling creatures that have the power to resurrect the dead, a la Stephen King’s “Pet Sematary”, with the dead subjects returning somewhat… altered. We see a demonstration of this when a little girl named Cara (Emma Ho) takes the corpse of her freshly dead brother Xan (Ian Ho) and asks for the ‘dogs’ to resurrect him. They do, and a gray-skinned, black-eyed Xan returns home as an abomination who is immediately attacked by his own father.
Another thread saw the construction of large orbiting spacecraft using glowing blue protomolecule technology, which was the primary focus of earlier seasons; both as a weapon, a resource, and as an indirect means of alien contact. The purpose of the spacecraft construction is not entirely clear just yet, though it has a sinister, Death Star-vibe to it. These threads are picked up in “The Expanse” sequel novels “Persepolis Rising,” “Timiat’s Wrath” and “Leviathan Falls,” which take place over 30 years later, following the death of Chrisjen Avasrala and the collapse of the Transport Union. Here’s hoping we might see these later novels adapted into live-action someday.
For full disclosure, I’ve not yet read “The Expanse” novels and novellas, but now that the TV series is finished, I look forward to reading them, as well as noting the many differences, some of which I’ve already gleaned from snooping ahead.
Summing It Up.
So, as series finales go, how does “Babylon’s Ashes” stack up? I’m sure there will be some who find the deliberately unresolved threads disappointing, but my personal focus is on the characters; and for my money, they are generally well-served. I’m relieved the Rocinante crew was left more or less intact for possible future adventures, with Holden turning down his Transport Union post, preferring to remain as captain of the Rocinante. We see Secretary General Chrisjen Avasarala back in the thick of Inner politics where she belongs, and more importantly, Camina Drummer is now in Holden’s vacated Transport Union role–a role which will benefit her fellow Beltas, and one which she was clearly groomed for, however inadvertently. Ship’s muscle Amos and his ill-fated lover Clarissa have at least a few years ahead to enjoy, and ‘my favorite Martian’ Bobbie Draper remains forever a badass. A mega-happy ending for everyone.
If I had any nits about the finale, it’d be the resolution for Naomi’s son Filip Inaros. The scene where Naomi was forced to help destroy the Pella (with Filip and his father aboard) was one of the hardest moments to watch, but it’s undermined by the later revelation of Filip surviving the destruction of the ship by commandeering an escape pod. It was a dramatic cheat that robbed Naomi’s earlier heartbreak of its power. This was a move that felt surprisingly inauthentic when compared to the rest of the otherwise sound finale.
With the main characters well serviced, the Belters and Inners finally coming together for mutual benefit, and a few threads left open, I can’t imagine a better send-off for this show. The schmaltz is kept to a minimum as well. A less disciplined, more sentimental series finale might’ve padded out its running time with endless goodbyes, needless flashback montages, and a few too many hugs, but “The Expanse” isn’t that show. The show ended with its characters finally being allowed to relax. That’s what I’ve wanted most for these characters after the hell they’ve been through–a lasting moment of peace and serenity.
Best to end it there.
Meeting the Secretary General Herself.
Last August, I clamped down on my own COVID-phobia, masked up, and attended the “55 Year Mission” Las Vegas sci-fi convention (formerly the official Star Trek convention), where I finally had the chance to meet none other than “Chrisjen Avasarala” herself, actress Shohreh Aghdashloo. I’d virtually ‘met’ her on Twitter a couple of months earlier, when I replied to a post she made about a recent visit to the city of Santa Barbara. My wife and I were going there for our own wedding anniversary, and she responded personally–recommending a visit to the city’s Botanical Gardens, and wishing my wife and I a happy anniversary. I was very pleasantly surprised by her personal response and recommendation.
Note: The Santa Barbara Botanical Gardens were lovely, by the way.
When I finally met her to get an autograph at the convention, she allowed me to step behind the COVID-protective plexiglass and take her photo, which I did (I still had my mask on, and was/am fully vaccinated). She even remembered our tweets about Santa Barbara, and asked if my wife and I enjoyed the Gardens. My friend George and I later attended her panel the following day. We both listened in rapt attention as she told the harrowing story of fleeing her native Iran as a young woman, following the tumultuous Iranian revolution (1978-1979). She also mentioned seeing the movie “Annie Hall” in 1977, and how it would inspire her to stake a claim for herself by playing strong female characters, eventually leading to her role of Chrisjen Avasarala.
Aghdashloo was also nominated for an Oscar for her role in 2003’s “The House of Sand and Fog” (costarring Ben Kingsley and Jennifer Connelly). The actress also joked about her daughter’s infatuation with handsome actor Chris Pine, with whom Aghdashloo worked on 2016’s “Star Trek Beyond” in her role of “Admiral Paris” (another strong female character). Shohreh Aghdashloo is delightful and cultured–a refined, but earthy lady. My friend George called her a “force of nature”, and that is a perfect description. I’ve met many celebrities over the years, but meeting Shohreh Aghdashloo was a genuine thrill.
Where To Watch/Be Safe.
All seasons of “The Expanse” are, of course, available to watch exclusively on Amazon Prime Video, as part of the subscription service. The current number of COVID-19 related deaths in the United States is over 850,000 (and well over 5.5 million worldwide) as of this writing, so please wear masks (N-95/KN-95 masks are optimal), practice safe-distancing and get vaccinated as soon as possible to minimize infections and protect your loved ones (booster shots are available everywhere). There is also the highly contagious Omicron variant to safeguard for as well, so please continue to mask up in public spaces for others’ sake as well as your own.
Take care and be safe!