There was a number of reasons I was looking forward to this fifth season for the screen version of my favorite space opera series, The Expanse: first, it’s one of the most dramatic segments in the narrative arc, the point of convergence of several threads that include the violent reaction of some extremist fringes in Belter society to the decades-long exploitation by Earth and Mars; the never ending struggle to use the alien protomolecule for power leverage; and the profound changes – political and economical – brought on by the discovery of the ring system and its portals to many habitable worlds. And then there is the character development enjoyed by some members of the Rocinante crew, who are cut off from each other by circumstances, so that they enjoy their own separate arc, therefore gaining much more depth and a better definition of their past and of the way they became the people they are in the present. Much as it’s hard to see them so scattered, because time and hardships have built the four of them into a family, the separation does not only achieve the goal of adding compelling layers to their psychological makeup, it also offers the opportunity to follow the various narrative components of the story through their eyes and experiences.
James Holden, who until now has been the fulcrum of the events and the front-and-center character, is left a little on the sidelines in this fifth season, allowing the spotlight to shine on his crew-mates, particularly Naomi and Amos, and we see him feeling somewhat adrift now that the rest of his found family has departed from the Roci to meet their personal needs that, although in different ways, are all centered around family matters. Avasarala is suffering under similar circumstances since losing her position as Secretary General of the UN, and her tight focus on politics and power has cost her the estrangement from her husband as well, so that her initial story arc follows a similar path to Holden’s, that of someone in search of direction – not that I doubted for a single minute that she would find it…
The common factor for Naomi, Amos and Alex, as they depart from the Roci, is their need to deal with the past and for all of them this journey will have quite unexpected consequences: Alex goes back to Mars to try and reconnect with his estranged family, but time and his previous attitude have made this impossible. Of the three this felt to me as the less compelling thread and it became more interesting only once Alex met with Bobbie Draper, now engaged in the investigation about the strange goings-on apparently implicating the Martian Navy in smuggling operations. As the two team up to shed some light on the mystery of the diverted equipment and the ramifications that seem to involve some of the higher echelons in the Martian military, we see how the discovery of the ring gate, and the number of habitable planets beyond it, has impacted on the Martian dream of terraforming the planet and turning it into an Earth-like world – after all, why toil for decades, if not centuries, when there are countless worlds out there ready to be colonized? What once was a tight society united by a common goal has now lost its inner cohesion and is rapidly turning into a despondent civilization ready to crumble: Bobbie’s sorrow as she observes the death of the ideals that fueled her world is saddening, but at the same time her resolve in getting to the roots of the puzzle shows that she is the same fighter we have come to know and love.
Amos’ travels bring him back to Earth instead, and more precisely to Baltimore, the city he had run from at a young age to carve his life in space: Lydia, the woman who cared for him like a mother, died recently and he wants to pay his respects. When I read the book, this was the story section that helped me focus better on Amos’ character: back then I had not yet read the novella The Churn, which opens a huge window on Amos’ past, so that the events depicted in Nemesis Games finally gave me a perfect grasp on his personality. The TV series has been able to flesh this character in a more organic way, and I enjoyed the way the actor has been able, in this season, to seamlessly blend Amos’ outward fierceness with his unexpected softer side, particularly when he decides to visit Clarissa “Peaches” Mao in the maximum security prison where she has been sent. The unspoken reason for such a visit is that he somehow feels connected to the young woman through their shared violent past and that he probably wants to offer her the hope that there might be a form of redemption down the road, as was the case for Amos thanks to his ties with the Roci’s family. Which might indeed be the kind of opportunity “Peaches” is given at the end of the season…
From my point of view, though, the most important, most intense thread is the one focused on Naomi: we already learned that she has a son she had to abandon to escape from involvement with the most radical fringes of the OPA. Now that she knows her former lover Marco Inaros, the father of that child, has become a dangerous terrorist, she wants to save her son Filip from the same fate she escaped long ago – if that is still possible. When I started watching The Expanse in Season 1, I felt that Dominique Tipper was the perfect Naomi as I pictured her from reading the books: here, in this fifth season, she gives her absolute best performance so far, one that is both physically and emotionally heartbreaking as she deals with the choices of the past and their consequences. I was able to perceive Naomi’s pain and regret as she seeks to connect with a son who does not know her – apart from what he’s been told by a manipulative father – and tries desperately to drag him away from Inaros’ toxic influence; and I felt just as physically ill during the long, painful sequences where she attempts a desperate gamble to undermine the terrorist leader’s callous plan to destroy her friends. If you saw the episodes I’m referring to, you will not be surprised if I tell you that I needed to remind myself to breathe, because Naomi’s struggles with the situation on the derelict ship were so vivid and intense that for a while I could not remember it was just a TV show.
And speaking of Naomi, I’d like to point out how many other amazing female characters people this series – both in the books and on screen: I’ve spoken often of Avasarala and her aggressive but effective approach to power, but she’s not alone. Bobbie Draper is another amazing character, and the way she faces challenges – either with or without a powered armor – has always been one of my favorite elements in the story; and in this season we see more of journalist Monica Stuart, whose courage and persistence in following leads elevates her above the professional norm. But the one I want to talk about more extensively is Drummer, portrayed by the very talented Cara Gee: this character has been fleshed out more in the TV series, and I’ve been always looking forward to her appearances, where her determination and strength of character manage to hide a form of vulnerability that becomes more apparent in this season where she has to deal with many painful losses and very hard decisions. From her famous speech on the bridge of the Behemoth in the previous season to the present interactions with her crew, struggling to find a way between the Belter ideals and Inaros’ violent approach, she emerges as a compelling figure where strength and gallows humor combine to create a fascinating personality that is so easy to connect to and enjoy watching.
Given how much further depth this show has managed to achieve with this fifth season I’m saddened at the thought that the sixth will be the last one, leaving the last three books in the series (the ninth of which should be out toward the end of the year) out of the screened story. Still, this continues to be a brilliant, deeply engaging series that fully deserves all the praise that it rightfully receives.