At the end of season three of The Expanse, more than a thousand doors opened. Space: it’s an even bigger place than we thought! But humanity hasn’t always been great with places it thinks are empty and ripe for the taking. History is at the forefront of everyone’s mind as The Expanse moves into its fourth season. What does a mad rush to colonize new planets look like when people are short on opportunities? What is opportunity, and who gets more of it? What if these planets have already seen interstellar conflict and destruction? What if no one fully understands the situation?
The first episode of season four screened at NYCC, and so as not to retread that territory I’ll skip the summary—besides, season four isn’t the place to pick up this complex and engrossing series, friends! Start at the beginning! But for those of you who are caught up: if you don’t want to know a single thing about season four, you’re free to stop reading now with the assurance that, based on the first six episodes, it’s the same show, smart and immersive as ever. But if you want a little more, let’s talk a little about where the story’s going, and what it all means.
In Cibola Burn, the fourth Expanse novel, a system-wide drama narrows to one planet: Ilus to the Belter refugees who landed there first, and New Terra to the inner corporate ship that turns up on their heels, claiming that a charter from the UN gives them the right to the planet. If this entire conflict seems a little absurd—it’s a whole planet! Just share!—it’s meant to: the situation on Ilus illustrates what might happen at scale as colonists, refugees, opportunists and others pass through the ring gates. On the page, it’s effectively claustrophobic and sometimes terrifying, especially since humanity isn’t alone here. But to narrow the story this much on screen would’ve required sidelining major characters for an entire season, and risked changing the show’s momentum and style drastically.
The Expanse team has been incredibly smart about combining plots from different books, and about shifting and melding characters to serve the adaptation. Nothing seems to have changed with the move from Syfy to Amazon, and this narrative trend is no exception; the inclusion of narrative threads on Mars, Earth, and the Belt means we get Chrisjen Avasarala, freed to swear as much as she likes and facing a challenging political upstart; Bobbie Draper, at loose ends after a dishonorable discharge from a Martian army that doesn’t really know what to do with itself now that its conflict with Earth is over; and Klaes Ashford and Camina Drummer, two Belters in a delicate dance of power between the inners and the Belt—and situation that’s far from figurative given that Medina Station (nee Behemoth nee Nauvoo) stands guard at our solar system’s ring gate.
I’m probably not the only reader of the books who relishes these excuses to step away from Ilus and its primary antagonist, Adolphus Murtry, a corporate shitheel who’s never met a problem he doesn’t think he can murder away (or at least put under martial law). Murtry believes he’s right, and he doesn’t listen to anyone. Not to Belter settlers, and not to James Holden, who—along with the Rocinante and the rest of her crew—heads to Ilus at the request of Avasarala, who wants eyes on the ground. Especially eyes that know something about protomolecule technology. What’s beyond the rings? What killed all those planets in the vision Holden had at the end of season three?
The first six episodes of this new season—which end on a brutal cliffhanger—look just as good if not better than what’s come before, and they hold up to repeated viewings. There’s so much going on that every line of dialogue serves double if not triple duty; layering in meaning and history. You have to watch the news on screens behind characters, pay attention to what they’re seeing, and ask the questions that they forget to ask, or you won’t get everything there is to get out of this show.
But this season simultaneously feels streamlined; you don’t have to do all that to enjoy it, and to see the broader strokes of what’s going on. Earth is playing space parent, trying to control things beyond the ring without letting on the potential for protomolecule shenanigans. Mars is at a loss; an entire culture based on war now finds itself dismantling ships and trying to figure out what to do with a whole lot of soldiers who are suddenly out of work. The Belt has a new position of power, but everyone wants something different from that situation—and some still want nothing at all to do with the inners, or believe that the planets beyond the gates should belong only to the Belt. Who’s been living in space? Who’s been mining asteroids? To whom should those new worlds belong?
No one, of course, wants to think too much about the possibility that the worlds aren’t just there for the taking.
I watch Expanse episodes twice: once for the space politics, and once for the personal dramas, the little moments of character work that surprise and linger. Maybe that’s Drummer explaining to a hostage that she’s a friend of Naomi Nagata; we don’t know what that means, yet, in the show (though book readers will), but we can’t miss the look that flashes across the hostage’s face. Maybe it’s Amos trying to fix things the way he knows best: physically, and with blood and pain if necessary. Maybe it’s a little change to Murtry’s narrative that makes it just a bit more difficult to loathe him outright. (Just me? I can’t stand the man, even when he’s played by Torchwood’s Burn Gorman.)
I miss some things about season three—primarily Elizabeth Mitchell’s Anna, who I hope returns someday. Ilus is brown, gray, chilly; the landscape is meant to evoke a dead world, and it’s oppressive in appropriately uncomfortable ways. It’s hard to watch Bobbie go through this part of her story (taken in part from the novella Gods of Risk) when you want so much more for the best space marine around. But the new cast is great—yes, even Murtry, ugh—especially Sleepy Hollow’s Lyndie Greenwood as Elvi Okoye, a scientist who sees right through Holden’s evasiveness, and Rosa Gilmore as Lucia, a Belter med tech caught up in a crisis she didn’t intend to be part of. Alex feels a bit underused so far, but watching Amos watch the situation planetside is an absolute delight. And Naomi’s story shifts just a bit, giving Dominique Tipper more to do; I can’t wait to talk more about one of her scenes that got me totally choked up.
The Expanse at its best is about how humanity fucks up and how we save the day; how we keep making the same mistakes while trying, and failing, to learn from them; how everyone can be right and everyone can be wrong, and sometimes something bigger than us will make all notions of right and wrong irrelevant. It reminds me that we too are floating in space; that space isn’t just what’s out there, but what’s here, too, on this unlikely, small, angry planet. I sat at home after episode six’s cliffhanger and I thought about gravity and spin and orbits and tectonics and distances bigger than I can get my head around, and I felt miniscule—and fine with that—in a way that only the best stories can make me feel.
Molly Templeton has been a bookseller, an alt-weekly editor, and assistant managing editor of Tor.com, among other things. She now lives and writes in Oregon, and spends as much time as possible in the woods. You can also find her on Twitter.