The crew of the Rocinante have been through a lot, from the moderately mundane (exploding ships, interplanetary secrets, attempted murder) to the previously unimagined (a deadly hybrid, an alien intelligence, the opening of hundreds of ring gates, a hostile alien planet). But this season, the threats are of a more human nature. Expanse showrunner Naren Shankar has described the season five theme as “you reap what you sow,” but there’s another old saw we can use here: a lot of space chickens are about to come home to roost.
Though The Expanse will mostly release weekly this season, Amazon let loose the first three episodes at once. It’s a lot to talk about at once, so let’s get to it! And yes: here there be spoilers.
First, a quick trip through “previously, on The Expanse”: Okoye, the scientist on Ilus, wanted to understand the war between the protomolecule builders and whatever destroyed them. Bobbie figured out there was something very wrong on Mars. Alex’s wife and son thought he was dead. Intrepid journalist Monica Stuart noted how Amos Burton shares a name with a dead mob boss in Baltimore. Nancy Gao beat Chrisjen Avasarala and is now the Secretary-General of the UN. Naomi asked Fred Johnson to help her find Filip, her son with Marco Inaros. And Marco threw some very large rocks at Earth.
Episode 1: “Exodus”
Those rocks have been traveling for 173 days when this season starts. They’re sneaky little bastards, coated in Martian stealth tech, and when fragments of one turn up on the scanners of the Hanami, a science vessel near Venus, it’s instant bad news for the ship’s crew, who are summarily disposed of by Filip and a small team. When Filip lets one of his men die rather than risk the mission, the Inaros creed is clear: It’s all about the work. Everyone is expendable.
On Tycho, the Roci is in the middle of some much-needed upgrades after its excruciatingly stressful maneuvers over Ilus. Naomi continues her habit of making nice with highly competent women, making quick friends with Tycho’s chief engineer, Sakai. As always, it’s an utter delight to watch Dominque Tipper shift from Naomi’s Belter self to her Roci self: the weight of her accent, the swagger in her walk and shoulders, the different ways she’s at home in each world. She’s cheerful and relaxed while talking to Sakai about her ship. But when Fred Johnson summons her to say he’s found Filip, she goes still. She wants this, but the reality of Filip is also scary. The show has dropped little bits of Naomi’s backstory, but gave us the whole tale of Marco and Filip last season, when Naomi told Lucia how she had failed her son, and how she came back around to wanting to live.
This isn’t Naomi’s first solo mission, so to speak, but it’s the first time Holden really, really can’t help her. He can’t go where she’s going—he can’t pass among Belters, couldn’t even if he wasn’t ridiculously famous. And Naomi has until now left out one small detail about her son: that his father is Marco Inaros. Of course Holden wants to do something, and though he’s smart enough not to say it, it doesn’t help that to some degree Naomi is lying to herself about what she’s going to find, convincing herself that Filip isn’t working with Marco. Still, this is something Naomi has to deal with alone. It’s about saving Filip, or at the very least seeing him, yes. But it’s also about being a person who can live with herself.
This is the joy of a show that gets to exist for this long: the characters get to grow in ways that don’t fit inside a season or two. The Expanse has long excelled at packing action sequences with character development: the ways people do or don’t act, the infuriating choices they make, radiate gorgeously across the system and through the smaller spaces between individuals. This season moves forward by looking back: the Roci crew were different people with different lives before they wound up the only survivors of the Canterbury. Those old lives still exist—and need to be reckoned with.
Except, maybe, for Holden, whose past is a vague story about many parents and a farm in Montana. What he’s wrestling with is his tendency to take everything that’s happened on himself. The colony ships heading out through the ring gates, the protomolecule ruins on distant worlds, the continued speculation about colonists and builders and aliens: Jim Holden feels responsible for everything. Even his family’s farm was something he thought had to save. It’s tiring just watching him.
When Monica shows up to tell him that there are rumors about a secret protomolecule research facility in the Belt, it gives him something new to fight, but there’s an exhaustion to his anger. Monica is right that everyone who has gotten their hands on the protomolecule has been certain they won’t screw up like everyone before them, and they’ve all been hideously wrong. And to have Fred Johnson turn out be one of these men—confident and foolish, using the protomolecule for leverage, as if he can control anything about it—is a huge disappointment. Holden goes straight for the personal appeal, telling Fred how every time he goes through a ring, he gets a glimpse of an increasingly angry world full of whatever killed the protomolecule builders.
Fred doesn’t listen, because his version of reckoning with his past means trying to be a person who builds, not a person who fights, and the protomolecule is just another tool he can use to build power for the OPA. His pep talk is laughable: Holden’s been doing nothing but meaningful things for the last however many years. And Holden has built something with Naomi: a family in the shape of the Roci’s crew. What can Holden build that will matter to him half as much as what he’s been doing? How do you follow “opened 1300 gates to distant solar systems and then stopped a planet from melting down”? What does “after” look like to Holden and Naomi, or to any of them?
But what an interesting choice of language Fred uses—the focus on building. They call the protomolecule species “the builders,” and the alien projection of Miller told us what happened to them: wiped out by an even more powerful alien society. Everything built can be torn down.
On the trains on Mars, all the ads are about finding a purpose in the new colonies. In the space malls, everything is going out of business. With Avasarala’s backing, Bobbie Draper has been buying up black market military materials, trying to work her way to the top of the trash heap and find out who’s behind the shady deals. Watching Bobbie use her training and martial bearing to work through the underworld is almost chilling: she’s still angry about the lost dream of Mars, and she’s turning that anger into a cold focus on work. When Alex shows up, cheery and full of platitudes about family, he doesn’t fit with the space she’s carved out for herself. Nor does the Western bar he invites her to, all Western kitsch and saddle seats. It’s a reminder of how Mars once saw itself: a frontier, but a lawful one. But the red planet can’t compete with hundreds of planets that boast blue skies and breathable air (and murderous fauna, but no one wants to talk about the eyeball parasites).
Speaking of air, Amos Burton is on his way to Earth. When we last saw Amos, he was beating the living shit out of Murtry. But something is different. His reaction to the shady insurance dealers is classic Amos: there will be no shakedown. There will also be no waiting around to get jumped. He knows how these games work, and he doesn’t play them. He’s a hammer, not a chisel.
But afterwards? We don’t watch the fight happen; we see it in flashes of Amos’s memory as he stands, panting, after it’s done. He’s almost shaking, and it reminds me of the moment last season when, lost in the dark, Amos snapped. He lost his cool, lost his chill, lost everything but the fear of going back to that dark place from his childhood. And that childhood is exactly where he’s going.
Not that he can sneak by Avasarala, who has him brought to her office on Luna. Her frank “You look like shit” followed by his earnest “You look amazing” is exactly their dynamic in a nutshell and it’s perfection and I would like to watch a whole buddy comedy with these two. Consider another exchange, when he calls her “Chrissy”:
“Don’t call me that. I’m a member of parliament, not your favorite stripper”
“You can be both?”
Amos has equal respect for both of these jobs. And I think Avasarala knows that.
Chrisjen often forgets that other people have lives that are not about interstellar politics (her husband is still on Earth). Though she’s on the moon to do a job Nancy Gao gave her out of spite, she can’t keep herself to just one thing. Not when there’s something off about the destruction of the Hasami. Not when she’s sure Marco Inaros is a threat that can’t be ignored. The speech of Marco’s that she watches at the end: he’s not wrong. He’s so often right, which is exactly what makes him so dangerous.
Time to impact: 12 days 7 hours 13 minutes.
Episode 2: “Churn”
We’re getting into book six stuff here, and it’s great. Camina Drummer has always been a mashup of two book characters, Samara Rosenberg and Michio Pa, and here she leaps full-force into part of Pa’s storyline from Babylon’s Ashes. Her crew of pirates demands fealty and obedience from smaller, lesser Belter ships; takes what they can from the inners’ colonist ships; and then walks away. And they’re good at it.
Drummer also gets Pa’s shipful of relationships; the intimacy of her crew goes beyond that of colleagues. They call her Camina, which is a dead giveaway. She can’t have been with them all that long—the rocks have been traveling for 173 days, less than six months—but they move around each other, and in their tiny space, in a dance of familiarity that’s so good to see. She’s fierce as ever, but also letting people in.
And then Ashford’s ship comes up on their scans.
“Churn” is an hour of screenwriters Daniel Abraham and Ty Frank, aka James S.A. Corey, delivering highly concentrated shots of emotional chaos. You can feel how comfortable the pair are in the space they’ve created—how precisely they calibrate the moments when characters like Drummer and Amos drop their guard just a bit. These nuggets of devastation are strung into a plot involving Monica Stuart’s kidnapping on Tycho, and it’s saying something that the Tycho story is the least intense of the bunch. Monica’s in a shipping container running out of air, and I’m over here biting my nails about what Amos is going to find in Baltimore. This is the good stuff.
Amos’s backstory isn’t here to explain his behavior, or try to justify who he is. It fills him out without flattening him into a cliche, a troubled child grown into a violent man. Amos is capable of extreme violence, but he doesn’t seek it out—not on the ferry to Luna, and not on the streets of Baltimore. He watches. He remembers. And he pays his debts, even if those debts aren’t apparent to anyone else.
I love the scene with Amos and Charles: two men who don’t know each other, but whose lives were changed by the same woman. Neither of them can give each other any closure, but they try. Charles tells Amos how Lydia died; Amos does his best to approximate empathy. The way he says “Tea sounds great” is precisely why I adore this character: Wes Chatham’s ability to give us Amos’s emotional distance and his attempts to recognize others’ emotional needs, all in the span of three words.
Lydia, Amos says, taught him to save himself. And she taught him about the churn. Float to the top or sink to the bottom; everything else is the churn. What he feels he owes to Lydia, he transfers to Charles. There are layers of indebtedness here, fraught and fragile.
Amos in Baltimore is not like Amos in space. His watchfulness is different, his temper slower, like an old habit. He makes his way to someone named Erich using the tools at his disposal—observation and violence—and the show leans into the misdirect, making everything seem ominous. All that’s really happened is that Amos—Timmy—has just thrown a wrench into an old friend’s day. This is a whole new Amos for Erich. He’s changed. He doesn’t try to take immediate advantage of the situation. He’s there to make life better for someone else. “You don’t have to test me. I’m not here to take anything that belongs to you.”
There’s a balance here: Amos did something important for Erich, once, but Amos’s existence is a threat to Erich. It puts him in a position of power, and one that Amos just wants to walk away from. And he will—after one more little side trip.
But let me not ignore the moment when Amos’s recurring memories of the woman and the little boy finally have sound. All we see of Lydia, this towering figure in Amos’s life, is the speech she gives him on the dock. “When you’re hurt, hurting others is easy. It takes strength to choose not to. When life has not treated you with kindness, doing the right thing anyway always takes strength. When you can even tell what the right thing is.”
Little Timmy barely reacts to what Lydia says. And what he takes from this speech is maybe not what she meant the lesson to be. Amos doesn’t hurt people because he’s hurt; he hurts people if they hurt other people. For a long time, he left the question of the right thing up to Naomi, his outboard conscience. But then she broke everyone’s trust (remember that? When she gave the protomolecule to Fred?) and Amos, gradually, took charge of himself in a new way. He’s a little less lost and a little more open. Chatham puts all of that in Amos’s face—and then puts his power in one word, “No,” when some punks try to mess with him.
On Tycho, there’s a mole somewhere, but there’s no time to worry about that when Monica is running out of time. (Shipping containers seem to have changed very little over the centuries.) She’s only running out of air because she broke the seal (which is the only reason Holden and Bull, Tycho’s ops chief, find her). Why would her kidnappers leave an oxygen monitor in the container with her? If they wanted her dead, why this whole process?
Meanwhile, Bobbie brings Alex in on her plans, despite Alex continuing to kind of be a pain in the ass. The most interesting thing on Mars is the thing that initially seems tedious: Admiral Sauveterre’s speech at the war college. Pay attention, class, because he’s talking about the ring space from an angle we haven’t really considered: as a symmetrical chokepoint. “This allows a much smaller force to hold all the rings simultaneously,” he says, in a way that surely is not at all foreshadowy. He also gives a whole aggression pep talk about how it’s better to fuck something up than never do anything because you’re busy overanalyzing everything. I would prefer the admiral stay the hell out of my head.
Sauveterre’s entire perspective on the gates is strategic. His focus is expansion, which is not exactly the same as the UN’s desire to colonize the planets. Close, but more … tactical. Tactics mean also that he will not publicly play nice with Alex, who pilots a stolen (legitimate salvage, sir!) Martian ship for an Earther captain. He’ll just send a woman to do the dirty work of figuring out why Alex is poking around.
On Luna, Nancy Gao would like Chrisjen Avasarala to stick to her assigned tasks. Avasarala is not the kind of woman to keep her head down and focus on her own work. She can’t let go of the question of the Hasami, and she knows just how to push Admiral Delgado toward asking the important questions. Why would the Belters attack a ship in the inner planets? Why now? It’s agony watching her inch closer and closer to the truth that we already know. Especially as her daughter asks her to come home, to talk to her husband, to pay attention to her family. Avasarala is so focused on the big picture, on her growing certainty about what’s happening, that she has no time to think about the potential consequences.
Episode 3: “Mother”
Time to impact: 22 hours 47 minutes.
“We’re right. And you know it.”
You are right, Chrisjen, you’re so horribly, horribly right. To start this episode with Avasarala and Delgado figuring out what’s going on with the rocks and end it with the first strike is a masterful piece of bookending, neatly shot through with the increasing horror that is watching them realize what’s coming. It’s got to absolutely infuriate Avasarala to be treated like Chicken Little when the sky really is falling.
Avasarala isn’t the only one putting things together. On Ashford’s cold, empty ship, Drummer does some math too. (Ouch, that moment when she remembers the vote that let Marco live.) Drummer has that moment when she wants to turn her pain into rage—to go after Marco, to collect the bounty on his head—but now she has a family, not just a crew. Her guilt about Ashford (would it have gone differently if she’d been with him?) is deeply bound up in her anger, but her partner is there to talk her down, to give her permission to grieve, to mourn and step back. When she sends Ashford’s last message to Fred, she tells him, “This is not my fight.”
I don’t know, though. It kind of is. But Drummer has something else to live for, now, and all of that is beautifully captured in these scenes of bodies relaxed in sleep, Drummer with her hair down, Drummer without her straight-backed posture. The way the rest of the crew looks to Oksana, the tall one, when Drummer stalks out: they’re all in this together, but Oksana takes the lead where Camina’s feelings are concerned. (It’s not totally clear if they’re all one marriage group, called a ketubah in the books, but I’m choosing to believe so.)
Everything on Tycho points to a protomolecule-focused conspiracy that reaches all the way into the past to pull up Cortazar, the scientist who had his empathy removed in order to focus fully on protomolecule experiments. A Belter strike team showed up on Ceres, murdered a bunch of people, and took him. Anderson Dawes (I guess Jared Harris is too busy to show up on screen) doesn’t know who’s responsible. It’s, uh, weird how there’s clearly a mole on Tycho, yet no one seems super concerned about who’s in the room when they talk about all this stuff.
On Mars, Alex does an incredibly bad job of trying to weasel intel out of Babbage, who does a much better job of getting him to talk. (I hated watching her play him, but also I just miss bars and might be jealous.) Babbage straight-up asks what they did to turn the machines on, on Ilus, and he straight-up says just a little bit of protomolecule on the Roci did it, and I cannot understand why he would tell anyone this, let alone someone in the military who they suspect is part of a black market conspiracy, but sure, ok, Alex, you go on.
You go on right into a trap in your hotel hallway. Here’s the thing that really bothers me about this scene: Bobbie said the police are in on this whole scheme. Alex, while drugged, told his attackers exactly what he was doing and who he was working with. So why aren’t they going into hiding? Freaking out about how the cops know they’re digging? Why do they seem to think these cops will do a fine job of handling the two ex-petty officers who jump Alex? Why are people so trusting sometimes?
I love how Belters touch foreheads as a gesture of affection. Even out of suits, they do it out of habit, like Naomi and Cyn, the older man from Filip’s crew. These two showing up in the Belter bar where Naomi is getting shaken down, well, it seems iffy. A little too convenient. But they provide a reminder of how complicated these relationships, and loyalties, can be. Naomi’s delight in seeing old friends is as real as the threat when she tells them that if she wanted them to be in jail, they would be. Everything hovers around violence and scarcity; even the stories they warmly remember are about getting better shifts. Every scene in the Belt is a reminder of why Marco’s plans draw such support: Belters have been kept down and oppressed and shit on. They do deserve better. But where’s the evidence that Marco is actually invested in anything beyond destroying the Inners?
It certainly isn’t in how he’s raised his son. The long, long minute when Naomi and Filip stare at each other is perfect: they’re wary cats with everything and nothing to say. Jasai Chase Owens is perfectly, almost unbelievably well cast, and this scene lets us trace the lines from Naomi’s face to his, to watch the way they watch each other. There’s nothing either one of them can say to change the other’s mind—but there’s also not the slightest giveaway of what Filip winds up doing. Naomi bought the ship to give to him, so he takes it. And her. Which was clearly not part of the plan. But when Marco Inaros is your father, and he gets what he wants by displays of power, well, what better way to display your own power than exert it over the mother who abandoned you?
When the countdown stops and the first rock hits Earth, the crew is more separated than ever. Holden’s in the midst of another conspiracy. Naomi is on her way to a place she never wanted to be again: in the power of Marco Inaros. Amos (who doesn’t appear in “Mother”) is on Earth, we know not where. On Mars, at least Alex and Bobbie have each other, but they’re the only people they can trust. On Luna, Avasarala has pieced most of Marco’s plan together, but no one will listen, and Delgado isn’t willing to fight as hard as she is. Even when she says “Please.”
What separates them isn’t just distance, loyalties, history. It’s the people they used to be—people who can’t be left behind. But every story here is also about what comes after: for Chrisjen, “after” is now, as she struggles to be heard in a government she’s served her whole life. For Amos, it’s what follows that moment in the dark when he realized he was still Timmy and always would be. For Naomi, it’s the unknown: she’s finally found Filip, but now what? For Alex and Bobbie, it’s what comes after a planet-wide dream begins to crumble, and for Holden, well, Holden just keeps finding himself in the middle of something immediate and pressing and deadly, and all that is going to catch up to him eventually.
FLOTSAM & JETSAM
- Bull shares a name with a character from Abaddon’s Gate, but the only other similarity seems to be that his Earther background leads to some tension. It might mean something, book-reading friends, but it might not. Similarly, there’s a Michio among Drummer’s crew, but I think that’s just a nod to the book character.
- Not much to say about the scene with Alex and his wife but that it felt awfully pat, like a loose end tied up too quickly. I’m glad she didn’t give him so much as the emotional time of day, but … something feels off.
- Counterpoint: I loved the message from Esai Martin’s wife, who’s grateful to Bobbie for somehow funding her family’s trip to become colonists. Some people are cutting their losses, but Bobbie isn’t one of them.
- “You probably have. I’m out of context here.”
- Everybody’s giving Amos fancy whiskey this week, or walking away from a full drink. I really wanted Monica to pound Holden’s beer.
- The memorial at the end of “Exodus” is a callback that the show does not explain, but the Augustin Gamarra is the ship that Marco destroyed using Naomi’s code. It’s a painful reminder of exactly what kind of action Marco likes to take
- If Sauveterre’s aide, Babbage, looks familiar, you might bee a Hannibal fan: that’s Freddie Lounds! And Sakia is Bahia Watson, who had a small but pivotal role on season 2 of Star Trek: Discovery.
- But what about the end of Delgado’s joke?? What does the Earther order to drink like his enemies??