I would have written this sooner, but …well, I’m British. I spent most of the weekend frantically researching flights to Illus because let’s be honest with ourselves; barren balls of lithium in space plagued by Protomolecule caused natural disasters, are measurably better options than Earth right now.
But enough with my blind panic and error…The Expanse is back!
I would go on and on at length about the epic race to save our show after its shock cancellation by SyFy last year (no really, I would, I’d never stop, it was amazing). It was a battle as exciting and thrilling as the show itself, down to the last second victory when it was announced Amazon had pulled a Rocinante style save. But if you’re reading this, you already know.
The show picks up over a year after the season three finale, with the Ring gate, the way station between our system and over 1300 more, sitting largely unused because everyone is terrified of it. Well, by everyone, I mostly mean Chrisjen Avasarala (Shohreh Agadashloo), who all too clearly remembers how close the Protomolecule came to annihilating the entire Earth and has prohibited any travel through.
Absolutely everyone else, from the four billion jobless Earthers, to the many more billion stateless Belters, disagrees and the space around the Ring has become a dangerous badlands of pirate-plagued colony ships, prevented from passing through and too stubborn to turn back. Pirates have reemerged, as have various political and terror factions, turning what should be a time of peaceful, shared cooperation into a tinderbox of old rivalries and prejudices, threatening everyone.
The majority of the plot focuses on a group of Ganymede refugees Belters displaced after the precious station was decimated by the Earth/Mars war. Not unlike survivors of Syria, or the Grenfell fire in London, the Belters were promised reparations, or that their home would be rebuilt or that any home would be made available, but of course, the promises were empty and hollow. In a desperate attempt to claim something — anything — for themselves, the Belters make a dangerous run through the gate to land on a planet they name Ilus. Illus is, for all intents, a floating ball of lithium, its value to Earth, Mars and Belter minors near enough incalculable. Seeing the lowly Belters actually get them a piece frightens The Rich and Powerful of the Expanseverse and the RCE (Royal Charter Energy), a private corporation, is dispatched to try and reclaim the planet from the refugees.
The RCE has echoes of the East India Trading Company; a private company with a ‘legal’ charter which somehow gives them the right to claim land out from under people who are already living there, and to use almost unchecked violence to get their way. The RCE ship crashes upon landing at Ilus, raising the question of sabotage and as the season opens, tensions between the two groups stranded on the planet are reaching boiling point.
What, you may ask, does this have to do with our beloved crew? Well, because this is The Expanse, naturally Ilus is more than just Deadwood in Space. Examinations of the planet have uncovered massive and ancient structures, clearly made by the same technology that created or guided the Protomolecule. Fearing another Protomolecule incident, Chrisjen dispatched Holden (Stephen Strait) and the gang to investigate and ensure the planet is safe for habitation. Chrisjen is especially anxious to find out what’s happening on the planet. Her hesitation over allowing colony ships to pass through the gate has shaken her position as Secretary-General (President of Earth and all her colonies) and though she fears another Eros disaster, she finds herself facing a leadership challenge.
While it is not the crew’s official job to mediate the tensions between the RCE or the Illus Belters, the responsibility falls to them anyway, but they and the different factions have far bigger problems; There are Protomolecule devices on the planet, bigger and more advanced than any we’ve seen before. And when Holden lands on the planet ….they wake up.
Elsewhere, Bobbie Draper (Frankie Adams) has been allowed to return to Mars and lives a thankless existence, stripping old warships and sleeping on her brother’s couch. Bobbie is feeling more than a little untethered in life and it doesn’t help that the Mars she grew up on is changing. The majority of the army has been discharged, leaving millions jobless on a planet that isn’t meant to have unemployment, creating opportunities for criminals on a planet that isn’t meant to have crime. Terraforming efforts seem to be slowing down and everyone is considering leaving the planet and trying their luck with the gate.
Rounding out the story is beloved, fan favourite Drummer (Cara Gee), who has risen from Fred Johnson’s second in command to Belter leader in her own right. Drummer’s legitimately salvaged Arc-Ship-Turned-Warship has turned again, this time into a Station — the only one inside the Ring — and managed entirely by the OPA. Drummer represents the Johnson in the shaky alliance between Earth, Mars and the Belt, formed to manage travel to and through the ring. Though the Belters realistically hold all the power, owning the last station before oblivion, forming the first settlement, and mining a fortune in lithium, Earth and Mars still hold a chain around their necks and like to give it a yank every now and again to remind everyone of their place. Drummer is tasked with tracking down an OPA pirate and terrorists who have been attacking colony ships and killing the people trying to seek their fortune. Like Holden, Drummer finds herself trapped by the diplomatic responsibilities of her position, struggling to balance her loyalties in a way that will keep everyone happy. Luckily, she has Ashford (the glorious David Straithirn) at her side to offer considerable guidance and support. To say more would spoil things, but given where these two started, the friendship of mutual respect, admiration, and love that unfolds between them over ten episodes is one of the best things on TV this year.
In true Expanse fashion, these plots are linked by far more than just the relationships between the characters, and something bigger and darker is always bubbling away beneath the surface, though I’ll leave that to be seen. By far the most important part of the story unfolds down on Ilus, with the Belter refugees clashing with the RCE thugs in the midst of a series of escalating disasters. The Expanse has always reflected real-world conflicts and the events of Ilus (don’t let me hear you call it ‘New Terra’) call back to an aspect of Earth and Human history we’ve never really been able to handle; how to advance, explore and colonise new worlds, without stepping on someone’s neck.
We see this in full force as the RCE leader, the sinister Adolphous Murty (a simmering, seething Burn Gorman) almost immediately goes full Colonel Kurtz within days of his disastrous arrival to the planet. Murty already views Belters as something even lower than disposable and the trauma of the lethal crash and growing evidence it was an act of sabotage strip away whatever lingering shred of humanity he had left. Holden and our crew arrive the same day Murty escalates the situation in a brutally true to life encounter between him and an unarmed Belter.
As always, our team’s personal loyalties land them smack in the middle of the bubbling arguments; Captain Holden supports the Belters and their claim to the planet, promises to honour that but once the Protomolecule wakes up, the primary mission becomes survival. Naomi Nagata (Dominique Tipper), a Belter watching her peoples’ first forays into planetside life, is struggling with the physical stresses of gravity and atmosphere on her space-born body, and sees her own sins and hopes reflected in the plight of her fellow Belters. Alex Kamal (Cas Anvar) the team pilot, head chef, and heart and soul, watches the Belters fight for their families and remembers the choices he made to leave behind his own on Mars. But it’s Amos Burton (Wes Chatham) the team mechanic and generally who ends up with the lion’s share of the emotional heavy lifting. Amos, a pragmatic survivor of untold horrors and abuse, (and when this season dips into that well of memories? Damn, do things get dark, fast) sees Murty for what he is almost at once and quickly promises to settle the immediate violent tension that they develop within, like, a minute of their first meeting. Things are complicated, however, when Amos develops a close, intimate relationship with one of Murty’s mercenaries, his second in command, Wei (a restrained Jess Salgueiro). Wei is just as pragmatic as Amos, but where Amos is slowly learning to uncover his humanity from beneath decades of unspeakable trauma, Wei’s has long since burned away, leaving them both facing impossible choices.
As always, these boiling personal tensions are only the window dressing to the bigger problems, the ones Holden just can’t seem to get everyone to care about. Egged on by the returning Investigator (Tom Jane), the Protomolecule construct of the long-dead (or …is he?) Detective Miller, Holden unwittingly activates yet more Protomolecule tech, triggering a series of disasters that threatens to resolve the interpersonal problems violently and rather permanently.
The Expanse is back and suffice to say, getting cancelled might be the best thing that ever happened to it. The massively increased budget and scope has been well used, taking a show that already looked and felt excellent and making it something epic and at times, cinematic. It’s not just the fact they can shoot scenes outside opening up the space our characters inhabit.
They’re using better cameras, there’s a certain, specific colour correction used for scenes on Ilus and the series’ already talented directors have been cut loose from the shackles of shooting ‘for TV’, allowing for some spectacular set shots and pieces that I can’t imagine them pulling off had they remained on SyFy. A personal favourite is the top-down drone shots of the crew exploring the planet, edging between glaciers and rocky outcrops that shot from above, look eerily organic.
Everything just looks and feels …better, and for the first time, we get not just a glimpse of Mars but actually spend a huge amount of time there. Mars has remained somewhat remote throughout the show’s run, a faraway place we don’t understand just yet. This season went to great lengths to humanise (ah, heh) the planet and her people, to remind us that despite parallels drawn between Mars and, say, the Soviet Union or communist China, the people of Mars are innocents, fighting for their survival along with the rest of us.
It’s nearly impossible to pick what moment I like best or what new character most won me over. From Lucia (Rosa Gimore) a Belter medic, fighting for her family and hiding a deadly secret, or her fearless, genius daughter Felcia (Kyla Madeira). It’s impossible not to love the ruthless Wei, even as her journey sets her on a bad path …but it’s safe to say that more than a few scenes, if not the whole show, are entirely and completely stolen by Burn Gorman.
It wouldn’t be quite accurate to call Burn Gorman science fiction royalty, because his body of work is far too expansive and complete to pigeonhole him so completely. That doesn’t change the fact that a great many people who recognise him in The Expanse will know him best for his legendary turns in both Pacific Rim and of course, Torchwood. Burn gives good Villain, helped along by the particularly sharp angles of his face and a capacity to sneer in disgust without ever really moving a muscle and in Murtry, he gives us one for the ages. Murtry feels like a sickness, from his first appearance onscreen, radiating something closer to a miasma than an aura before he’s even set foot on the planet. He thinks of himself as pragmatic, a survivor, but as Amos calls out early on, Murtry likes power and he likes getting it through fear and control. What makes Murtry interesting and elevates him above the level of usual villains, even the show’s own profiteering Mau or scheming Errinwright, is that he truly cares about his own people, and his every action, however cruel, sinister or cold-blooded, stems from his trauma over those who died and his desire to protect the survivors. Okay, some of it stems from the fact he is an utter bastard, so deeply prejudiced against Belters that he barely views them as people, views anyone sympathising with them as even less, and makes clear he wouldn’t hesitate to kill them all by whatever means he can make work in his favour, the second he gets a chance.
The Expanse was never bad, or underdone, or lacking in heart or stunning visuals, but I think it’s found its true home on Amazon. With the bigger budget, scope and the simple security of knowing future seasons are already planned, the skilled creative team has been given the freedom and a platform to show us what they’re really capable of, and we are all better for it. The series has always been so much more than just well-made television. It’s a reflection of our current reality, a vision of the future we’re racing towards (assuming we even survive that long). With Holden’s Protomolecule-induced disasters reflecting our own planet’s climate crisis, the petty squabbles of settlers mirroring ludicrous political and ideological conflicts, Bobbie living the experience of many a discharged forgotten veteran, Drummer grappling with the responsibilities of a job she never expected to have, and even Chrisjen’s election battle, there are times when the show doesn’t exactly feel like escapism so much as a documentary about our own reality, where everyone just happens to fly spaceships.
There’s plenty to love about the new season of The Expanse and plenty to look forwards to when it returns next year (and Season 5 is already confirmed). A healthy crop of new stories has been set up and things can only get more complex and fraught as time goes on.
Watch The Expanse on Amazon Prime now, and then tell us what you think in the comments. Over and out, Beltalowdas.