The science fiction space opera is by now a well-known genre, and yet somehow The Expanse is hard to describe. Let me try to sum it up at its most basic: The Expanse is a show about space. It is a show about society, about resources, about people with passions and problems and desires and—most especially—about what happens when all those things collide.
It is also, in a word, excellent. The Expanse‘s fifth season is the best since its first, a long-awaited high-stakes payoff to several seasons’ worth of setup. If you drifted away from the show during earlier seasons, like something accidentally dropped in microgravity, this new season makes it worth finding a way to come back.
For the first few seasons, The Expanse was concerned entirely with our own solar system. In its vision of the 24th century, we have fairly widespread access to spacefaring technology, just all at sublight speeds. The moons of Jupiter and Saturn might be accessible, but not so much the stars beyond.
That all changed at the end of season three thanks to the alien protomolecule, an artifact of a long gone alien civilization that apparently sent some of it toward the Sol system in days gone by. Long story incredibly short, the discovery of the protomolecule led to the construction of a weird and mysterious ring at the far reaches of the Solar System. Go through the ring, and you end up in a weird massive null space that basically serves as a transit hub where more than 1,300 wormholes connect—each with access to a different star system. Surprise! Suddenly humans can access and colonize space outside of our Solar System.
The sudden appearance of the ring gates wrought havoc on an already unstable political situation. During the first few seasons, the politics of the Solar System break down into three core factions. Earth is the dominant political center, with the United Nations serving as a global government. A little further out, we have Mars. Mars is a smaller power, but during its centuries of terraforming and independence from Earth, it developed a strong military with advanced stealth technology.
Even farther away from the warmth of the Sun, we have the third, and most interesting, faction: the Belt. All of the people who live and work on the moons, asteroids, and planetoids both in the asteroid belt and beyond it fall into this category. These colonies—mines, farms, shipyards—tend to be much less pleasant places to live, and the Belters who call them home are by and large a heavily exploited, oppressed underclass. Those conditions tend historically to inspire rebellion, and space is no exception. By season 5, the OPA (Outer Planets Alliance), a loosely aligned group of factions with no small amount of violence and piracy in their collective past, is trying to go legit as the ruling government for the outer solar system.
Everyone wants access to the newly available planets on the far side of the ring gate, but perhaps no one wants it more than Belters. Season 4 dealt with the messy colonization of one planet, Ilus. Not only were opposing factions from the Belt and Earth shooting at each other over resources, but also the planet turned out to have massive alien artifacts on it related to the protomolecule. The Rocinante crew, our main characters, survived a series of disasters throughout that season and at the end of it headed home, exhausted.
This, then, is where we begin season 5: Belters don’t want to put up with living on crappy asteroids, making Earthers rich at their own expense, when there are literally thousands of habitable planets out there for the taking, wild-west style. Mars is falling into crisis, as Martians, too, are less invested in the long-term terraforming project to make Mars a proper home when, again, there are literally thousands of other planets out there. And Earth is losing its influence, as anyone with a craft that can hold atmosphere is striking out for the ring gates to seek their fortune light years away.
The crew of the Rocinante work best as an ensemble and as a family, but season five deliberately splits them up. Ship’s captain James Holden (Steven Strait) ends up hanging out on Tycho Station, the effective headquarters of the nascent Belt government, while the Roci undergoes repairs after the misadventures of Ilus. The rest of the crew, meanwhile, basically takes advantage of the downtime to go deal with all the personal affairs they’ve been neglecting while they were chasing around the Solar System (and the galaxy) saving other people’s butts.
Our brilliant engineer Naomi Nagata (Dominique Tipper), who is also Holden’s girlfriend, heads off to the Belt to try to find the son she left behind years ago when she fled from a dangerous ex. Our hotshot pilot, Alex Kamal (Cas Anvar), likewise hopes to reconcile with the son, and perhaps the ex-wife, he left behind on Mars when he took up working in space. And our mechanic and all-around heavy, Amos Burton (Wes Chatham), heads to Earth to deal with the last loose ends he left behind in his home city of Baltimore before he went “up the well” and into space.
This is a tough trick to pull off: with no two characters in the same place at first, the show somehow has to keep us invested in more than half a dozen different points of view and plots without letting any either drop for too long or crowd out others. Spreading out the Roci crew, though, also helps us stay deeply connected to all the political threads.
Holden’s cooling his heels on Tycho Station puts him in the same place as Fred Johnson (Chad Coleman), the effective head of the legitimizing Belt. Events of previous seasons made the two occasional allies and eventual friends; events of season five force them to work together once more, as a crisis involving the protomolecule appears to be unfolding on the station.
Over on Mars, Alex reconnects with Bobbie Draper (Frankie Adams), where he tries to help her chase down a massive network of dealers apparently selling off Martian weapons and technology on the black market. Bobbie, in turn, is funded by Chrisjen Avasarala (Shohreh Aghdashloo). Over the course of the show, Avasarala has held various high-ranking government roles, including a term as the UN’s secretary general—basically, president of Earth. At the end of season 4 she lost her re-election bid, and as season 5 begins she is struggling to adapt to her new lack of political power. Bobbie is one of the few assets she has left.
Naomi’s attempt to reconcile with her son Filip (Jasai Chase Owens), meanwhile, brings her closer to the dangerous Marco Inaros (Keon Alexander)—Filip’s father. Inaros charmed his way out of execution in season 4, only to return in the season’s final episode to ambush and murder Klaes Ashford, who had previously spared him. Camina Drummer (Cara Gee), who was Johnson’s protegé before taking over as captain of Medina Station (humanity’s outpost in the ring gate space) also kicks off season five trying to chase down Inaros in the wake of Ashford’s death.
Amos heads to Earth alone to pursue his own affairs, the only major character to be deliberately heading away from any of the political leadership and conflict in the Solar System. Conflict, though, has a way of finding him.
Some characters’ arcs suffered from the long buildup of seasons 3 and 4 (Bobbie Draper, I’m looking at you), as the show seemed to need to keep them fresh in viewers’ minds without actually giving them a whole lot to do. There’s a reason the show kept everyone where it did, though, and all those characters metaphorically shift out of park and start racing away in season 5.
One of the best features of The Expanse is that space, and the physics of it, are not just something to be handwaved for the sake of bringing plotlines together. Instead, space itself is a major character in the series, nearly as important to everything as Holden or Naomi.
The show—and the books, for that matter—work harder than any other science fiction series I can think of to make you feel space. Gravity—its presence, its absence, its different effect on different bodies—is an absolutely critical factor to the story, and the show consistently uses both big shots and small details to make that clear. You have less of it in the Belt, more of it on Earth; there’s only so much of it you can survive; and how fast your ship is going will determine which way is “up.” Science and physics matter: the show has always wanted to make absolutely sure you know and understand that Sir Isaac Newton is the deadliest son of a bitch in space and what the repercussions of that are.
The care The Expanse takes with the details of space carry over to care in every other detail, too. Every room in every space station and ship has a clear purpose, an intentional design. No prop is superfluous; no space is wasted. Resources matter, and how you get your air and water, and how much weight you can haul, are crucial questions in space. Expensive ships may have fancy compartments while junkers use fraying netting, but everyone firmly secures their gear and straps in to something before powering up a ship’s engines.
The characters, too, benefit from this exquisite attention to detail. Avarsala, for example, has always had a fantastic wardrobe. On Earth, it’s full of long, flowing saris with an abundance of fabric. But when she’s on the moon, at the beginning of season 5? It’s all trousers and sleeves, so they don’t float up into her face or tangle her legs in the lower gravity.
Nor is the detail only physical. The Belt has its own culture, including its own language, and the show takes care to respect that culture it has created. One of my favorite touches throughout the series has been the way Naomi code-switches depending on who she’s talking to and where she is. Not only does she switch into or out of her native Belter accent and creole as needed, but her body language and even the styling of her hair change subtly depending who she’s with, too.
Although the characters begin the season disconnected, an explosive and disruptive event links all their paths sooner rather than later in the season. It’s impossible to tease out all the details of every character’s story without divulging dozens of spoilers, and so I won’t. I will instead say that, across the episodes I watched, the disparate threads end up weaving together in both satisfying and occasionally unexpected ways.
Of all the character dives in season five, I think that Amos’ might be the most interesting. I’ve thought about his character a lot over the years, both in the books and on screen. We the viewers (readers) are inclined to think of him as a good guy, because he’s our guy, and whatever he does, he does for what we think are good reasons.
But from as early as the first season, Amos repeatedly tells everyone, explicitly, exactly who he is—a violent and occasionally homicidal man—and we should believe him. What we see as a heart of gold beneath a gruff exterior, he largely sees as a series of pragmatic decisions made for his own reasons.
Season 5 is when we truly learn why Amos is who he is and why he makes the choices he does. The show briefly alluded to some of his childhood experiences before, but during the course of his visit home to 24th-century Baltimore—where very little has apparently changed since the days of The Wire—those allusions become explicit. His arc does not become a lazy story of redemption, which he doesn’t seek and doesn’t seem to want or need, but nonetheless bends toward doing good… in his own way.
There are eight published books so far in the series of novels on which the show is based, with the ninth and final installment expected in 2021. The show has been more or less moving through the plot events of one book per season, and so season five brings us to book five: Nemesis Games.
Millions of people have read some or all of the books in the series, and so these viewers have had some sense of the shape of events yet to come. The television series has certainly deviated from the books in the past, largely to positive effect. Stories need to work differently in books than they do in film or in television, after all, and it’s a good sign when writers, directors, and producers adapt details as needed to keep the spirit of a work intact. Combining a handful of tertiary characters to expand Drummer’s role, for example, works out magnificently.
That said, there are certain tentpole moments, let us call them, that longtime fans of a book series know must be coming when there’s an adaptation. The most potent cultural examples perhaps come from Game of Thrones, where book readers had a 15-year head start on show watchers when it came to shocking twists like Ned Stark’s ultimate fate (season 1) or the Red Wedding (season 3).
The Expanse has some of those moments, in season 5, that you feel must turn out a certain way… until it doesn’t. Amazon explicitly asked reviewers not to spoil them—and after managing to keep mum about major plot events to my own spouse in my own household for the last five years, I’m certainly not going to ruin it now. And so to fellow book readers I will say only: yes, the show is faithful to what you know is coming, and no—that doesn’t make it any less suspenseful to watch.
The Expanse relies on the beautiful science of space as both a setting and an apt metaphor for all of the personal stories moving through it, as they dance around each other like so many celestial bodies in the sky. Sometimes, two people really are traveling the wrong way for their paths to intersect ever again. Sometimes, a son might find himself locked in orbit around a father who burns hot and bright as a star. Sometimes a small push, years ago, becomes an inexorable path from which you cannot deviate without intervention. And sometimes, when two things collide hard enough, neither survives.
The first three episodes of The Expanse‘s fifth season will be available to stream on Amazon Prime Video on Wednesday, December 16. The remaining seven episodes will become available on a weekly basis through the season finale on February 3, 2021.