Season four of the Expanse has arrived! If you haven’t watched it, go do that.
Because below thar be SPOILERS!
The first episode opens up with what amounts to a roll call, revisiting the series’ various characters, now clumped into a few groups that will mostly remain separate through the season as they grapple with the ramifications of the galaxy being opened up for possible exploration and exploitation by the events at the end of season three.
On Earth, UN Secretary General Chrisjen Avasarala is facing a new web of political machinations, far less sinister than the plots she foiled in season three, but in some ways, this new ordeal is more horrifying: an election. Despite popular clamoring for expansion, her impulse is to hold back on colonization beyond the ring gates. Having seen the horrors of Eros, she is reluctant to open the floodgates and let the “blood-soaked gold rush” that central protagonist James Holden predicted begin.
So when she needs someone to help her apply the brakes to the expansionist zeal, she turns to the man who knows the ring-building protomolecule best: Holden himself. At her behest, he and the Roci head out past the ring gates to a little planet called Ilus, or New Terra, depending on who you talk to.
The Ilus storyline where Belter squatters and corporate stooges from Earth tussle for control of a planet that is brimming with both hostile alien organisms and world-shaping protomolecule technology is adapted largely from the fourth Expanse novel, Cibola Burn.
On Ilus, Holden and his crew work through a pretty self-contained story arc. The Earth expedition crashed under suspicious circumstances and their security chief, Murtry, wants to flush out the Belter terrorists responsible. Meanwhile, Holden has ferried the protomolecule’s artificial intelligence based on the memories of Joe Miller along to Ilus and inadvertently switched on the planet-scale machinery beneath the surface. Meanwhile, Naomi pushes herself to the breaking point trying to acclimate to a planet’s gravity and Amos makes a new friend (wink, wink). The conflicts these core characters face are mostly external now since they have coalesced into a little family and aren’t at odds with one another. The action here isn’t quite episodic, but the challenges and complications our core characters face feel somewhat disconnected from the larger issues of the galaxy, just as they did in Cibola Burn.
That novel takes place almost entirely on Ilus, away from all the other characters except the core Rocinante gang of Holden, Alex, Naomi, and Amos. Season four of the show, though, does not leave the rest of the cast from the previous seasons behind.
Just as the show continues to track Avasarala’s political conundrum even after she has sent Holden on his way, it also keeps up with Drummer and Ashford, who are now both in uniform and hunting rogue OPA around the ring gate to maintain the uneasy alliance with Earth and Mars. Ashford is a changed man since season three. He acknowledges his errors and has resolved himself firmly to non-violence—well, in the largest sense anyway. He still has to shoot down pirates, but he preaches to any he can catch that the new Belt needs to reject violence as a political tool. It’s easy to see that this stance is both his penance for almost lashing out at the ring gate and wiping out humanity and the natural evolution of his compromises in the name of progress when we met him in season three. The show, though, hints that he has also come to blame himself and his life of violence for the death of his child, alluded to in past episodes but made more tangible here as he watches some old zero-G home movies.
The Expanse was no doubt trying to get the most out of its big guest star here and lets him outshine Cara Gee’s Drummer a bit, but that’s understandable, considering his fate. His loss at the end of the season suggests darker developments ahead for the peace between the Belt, Earth, and Mars.
The show also finally goes to Mars. We’ve technically been here before, but only for an outdoor combat exercise in season two. At long last we get to see Martian culture through Frankie Adams’s Bobbie Draper, now a disgraced ex-marine looking to reintegrate into Martian society. Ever since she first joined the show, I’ve been hoping that they would just leave Bobbie on the Rocinante once she was there (even though that’s not what happened in the books either). Bobbie’s reluctance to do so makes sense for her character, though. She is, as we hear so often, a good Martian. But that means less than it used to now that Martian society is fraying. Why spend your lifetime terraforming Mars, many are now wondering, when there are livable worlds on the other side of the gate?
The novella Gods of Risk features Bobbie as a side character and is one of the most forgettable of The Expanse’s ancillary pieces. Going into the season, I’d kind of hoped we wouldn’t be seeing it hashed out on screen, but it does serve as the jumping off point for Bobbie’s arc here. The series, though, extends that story and eventually makes her foray into the underworld connect with the larger events in the system. It makes sense for the show, and even makes sense for the character—to an extent. Bobbie slides into her criminal life a little too easily. I honestly thought she was probably under cover for the cop who harasses her at the beginning—that she’d discreetly contacted her and was gathering evidence to bust up Esai’s little syndicate.
But the Bobbie Draper we met on the show has always been different than her counterpart in the books. Always a little angrier, and always a more fervent believer in Mars’s destiny. Having that carpet yanked out from her and losing her sense of purpose yet again just works as justification for stepping outside the law. Many fans may have wished that she would just take Avasarala’s job offer and leave Mars right away since Frankie Adams and Shohreh Aghdashloo are delightful together and their chemistry in seasons 2 and 3 made those some of the best episodes of the whole series, but hopefully we will see plenty fo them together in season five.
In their discreet plot arcs, each of the main characters from the previous seasons interacts with new faces—some potential allies, some foils, and some antagonists. Bobbie spends her time running with a crew who are in no way as cool as the Roci gang. Avasarala has a couple of new political flunkies (I really thought one of them would turn out to be Soren from the books) and a new political opponent. Their two story lines likely feel the least significant because those other characters don’t seem to be sticking around for long and don’t really carry much weight when all is said and done. When Bobbie is back on her own, we aren’t exactly left missing her erstwhile fellow criminals—and would rather see her clash with the new enemies she meets in only a literal flash at the end of her story on Mars.
The Expanse has had villains before, monsters like Dresden or people warped by their ambitions like Errinwright and Mao. But the show’s best antagonists are the ones who kind of have a point. Dawes and Fred’s conflict was layered and nuanced, just as their eventual alliance is presumed to be (I hope they are moving heaven and Earth to ensure we see Jared Harris again in Season 5) because you could see Dawes’s argument and understand his ambitions for the belt even when they ran counter to what our heroes wanted.
Murtry, the boogeyman of Ilus is certainly not one of those characters. He could have been, and it’s somewhat disappointing that the show misses such an obvious chance to develop him as a more nuanced counter to Holden. The moment when he spins around and says, “Now that’s a threat” and fires without real provocation was too black and white. A simple second or two of footage where the Belters, uncowed, continue challenging him, a simple “What if it is?” to cast some shades of gray into the moment would have made his whole arc and all the choices he made afterward more compelling.
But Murtry was never staying around long anyway, so it’s no great loss.
If The Expanse missed its chance with him, then it stuck the landing with Marco, who is obviously being set up as a major antagonist for the future of the show. We know from the exposition introducing Naomi’s former love and lover that he has a reputation for being “charismatic,” but that flash of tell, don’t show in Ashford’s dialogue is rendered totally forgivable when we meet him and find that, dammit, they weren’t kidding.
Played by Keon Alexander, Marco is seductive. His scene in the airlock doesn’t just win over some of the enemy factions, it woos the viewer. He is easily the strongest new presence in any of the separate threads that run throughout the ten episodes of season four.
These threads come together—or at least start to—in the end. Like the novel Cibola Burn that provides much of the material for this season, season four does a lot to set up the board for future action. That foreshadowing becomes more overt by the end of the season when Marco Inaros reveals his plan to attack Earth, where most of the rest of our characters either are or are heading to. The entire plot on Ilus was about resolving the nagging issues of intergalactic expansion, wiping away the last traces of the intelligence that opened the gates for us so that this bold new frontier would be ours, truly ours, and even demonstrating that, in a pinch, we can survive the myriad trials waiting for us on these habitable, but still alien worlds made available through the miracle of the protomolecule.
But in the hands of showrunner Naren Shankar and his tremendous cast and crew, the season is also a settling of personal frictions. Each character explores and resolves inner conflicts. Drummer is going to be her own person. Avasarala has made her peace with defeat, for the first time. Bobbie, robbed of her life-long purpose, has found another mission. By working with Lucia, Naomi accepts that she has remade and redeemed herself. Alex, too, is able to articulate his regrets about his family, but is still sure he is where he belongs. Holden moves past being simply the “hand terminal” the protomolecule is punching buttons into and chooses his role as the vanguard for this new civilization. (Amos is, well, still Amos; but even he has faced the very root of his trauma through the ordeal of going blind.)
Through it all, they’ve now been tested and are steeled for the challenges ahead in Season 5…
IF YOU’VE NEVER READ THE BOOKS, THEN THAT’S THE END OF THE REVIEW—TURN BACK NOW!
And readers of the books know what those challenges will be.
Obviously, setting up Marco’s attack on Earth seems like it’s spoiling one of the big shocks of Nemesis Games. In the post Game of Thrones era, TV viewers no longer expect that the heroes will always thwart the bad guys at every turn and many are likely prepared now for the rocks to fall.
The build-up, though, lends more direction to the events of season 4. These threads that Drummer, Ashford, and Bobbie have been pulling lead somewhere—somewhere more horrible than any of them has yet realized. Looking ahead to season five, it’s difficult to imagine how the show will reckon with a catastrophe of the scale described in the books. One hopes it does better than the novels did. Holden making “sympathize with the Belt” videos after the greatest atrocity in human history always seemed both tone deaf and pointless. I think Shankar knows where to go with this, though. The level of foreshadowing that has gone into this moment—not just with Marco’s holograms and the captured Martian’s warning about the dream of Mars being “writ large,” but from hints and mentions of “rocks” falling throughout the show’s life—suggests that he knows that he and his crew are building up towards something both massive and monstrous.
The Expanse is often compared with BSG—hell, I’ve done it—but the disaster of the Cylon attack launched the series. This will be different. The entire world of The Expanse will be upended and a new order will be left in its wake.
- I wonder why Brian George was recast. New Arjun was one of the most distracting things in this season. It’s hard to accept such a dramatic turn in Avasarala’s relationship without the sense of continuity we’d have had with the previous actor remaining in the role.
- Also, the choices they make in Avasarala’s arc on Earth are fascinating. The conceit of her losing the election was concocted for the show, along with the tension in her marriage (which had alway seemed like her rock both in the novel and past seasons of the show). But the really fascinating wrinkle comes in her debate with Nancy Gao. Gao’s attack on the economic policies on Earth is dramatic and we can’t help but see Avasarala as a guardian of a social order that is fundamentally unjust. As with her later manipulations that alienate her husband, Avasrala is just plain wrong. It’s an interesting choice for one of everyone’s favorite characters and I’m curious how it will shape her future.
- We get to see Nadine Nicole’s Clarissa Mao reach out to Amos via video chat because she has no one else left in the world. She comments that she has to—cough, cough—spend the rest of her life in jail. Stay tuned, Peaches.
- Also, for shits and giggles, I inaugurated a new Twitter feed with one-sentence recaps of every Expanse episode as self-help book titles like this one. Check ‘em out.