It’s a harrowing experience, watching The Expanse.
On the one hand, it’s a show whose entire premise is predicated on hope: Humanity will last long enough, it dares to suggest, that we’ll achieve astronomical miracles. We’ll dredge up the technological ingenuity to make our whole solar system home, and the cosmic luck to discover alien systems in turn. And if the path to those miracles turns out to be long and desperately hard? It doesn’t matter, because we won’t be traveling it alone: We’ll find unexpected family in the chaos, and astonishing kindness in the dark. We’ll survive.
On the other hand: Genocide. On the other hand: War. On the other hand: All of the ego, greed, xenophobia and petty resentments that have been so many albatrosses around humanity’s neck since the dawn of time. Mankind may last long enough to make intrasolar travel quotidian enough that even the poorest Belter can hop on the spaceship equivalent of a Megabus to get from planet to planet, The Expanse has determined, but we’ll never last so long that we’ll shed the darkest parts of our species’ nature—we’ll survive, but survival will often be the best we can hope for. And that can be a bleak takeaway even when the season’s central antagonist isn’t a narcissistic populist whipping up his impressionable base to commit shocking acts of violence against people they perceive as sneering moral elitists, or when the Roci’s crew doesn’t spend the entire season isolated from one another, scattered across the solar system and trapped in increasingly dangerous situations, or when the audience, itself, isn’t watching from the depths of one of the darkest, loneliest winters in modern human history.
Like I said: Harrowing.
Nevertheless, we made it. With this week’s long-awaited release of “Nemesis Games,” all of Season 5’s tensest story arcs are wrapped up. Better yet, all embargos are lifted. Whereas I couldn’t, in my initial Season 5 review, even allude to the fact that charismatic Belter extremist Marco Inaros (Keon Alexander) manipulates his and Naomi’s teenage son, Filip (Jasai Chase-Owens), into executing the most devastating terrorist attack in human history by bombing Earth with stealth asteroids at the end of Episode 3 (“Mother”), now I can publicly register the full psychological horror of the situation. Whereas I couldn’t grieve, then, with Avasarala (Shohreh Aghdashloo) over the indefinite loss of her husband in those attacks, or reel from the shocking murder of Fred Johnson (Chad L. Coleman) at the hands of one of Marco’s sleeper agents (Bahia Watson). I also could not marvel at one Naomi Nagata’s (Dominique Tipper) ability to survive not just being kidnapped by her own son, but also watching that same son commit mass murder, failing to pull him from his father’s psychic sway, and having to abandon him all over again in order to save Holden (Steven Strait) and everyone else in her Roci from dying in the Chetzemoka-shaped trap Marco laid out for them—nevermind the feats of brute mental and physical endurance she displays for the three episodes she’s locked inside that trap—now I can do it all.
I can appreciate how returning him to his Baltimore roots underscores just how much Amos (Wes Chatham) has grown as a person since climbing aboard the Rocinante way back in Season 1 (a shit-ton), and I can compare Avasarala’s desperation to first serve all of humanity, now that she’s stranded on Luna, to her ambition to prioritize Earth back when the story was just getting started (conclusion: it’s good). I can weigh Bobbie’s (Frankie Adams) hard-won disillusionment about Martian honor against Alex’s (Cas Anvar) newly bursting bubble on the one hand (purity culture: it’s bad), and Drummer’s (Cara Gee) mulish refusal to bow to Marco’s violent Belter empire-building scheme on the other (despotic terrorism: also bad!). I can admire the bulldog tenacity of documentarian/investigative journalist/perennial thorn in Holden’s side, Monica (Anna Hopkins)—which not only keeps her out of her would-be kidnappers’ hands more than once this season, but also repeatedly saves Holden and Bull (José Zúñiga) from almost-certain death—and I can find the value in the slow-burn redemption arc the show is giving Clarissa (Nadine Nicole), with a newly empathetic Amos as her unlikely mentor. Most of all, I can respect, as ever, Holden’s unwavering loyalty to both his team and all of humanity, even when his isn’t the central story of the season.
This last point, in particular, turned out to be key to the season finale. Holden survived only by the luck of having it be Drummer who Marco put (well, strong-armed) in charge of the Free Navy fleet ordered to destroy the Rocinante, which he was flying with Monica, Bull and a fleet of anonymous Tycho Station Belters to try to both save Naomi and stop Marco from hitting the Inners with something even worse than stealth asteroids. With Holden sidelined by that task, everyone else’s survival (or not, but more on that in a second) came down to their own wits and strength of character. Amos had to work with Clarissa and his mob boss childhood friend to get a rich family’s busted shuttle off the ground in Winnipesaukee; Alex and Bobbie had to speed the Screaming Firehawk (née Razorback) to the stranded Chetzemoka before Naomi ran out of oxygen; Naomi had to get a plan together to fend off the Screaming Firehawk before it triggered the proximity bombs Marco had set to kill anyone who came to rescue her, and then had to get together a second one, once her first plan—knocking out an engine to put the ship into a tailspin too intense for Alex to try and dock with—didn’t appear to be stopping him from trying.
That her last Hail-Mary plan—taking a running leap out of the airlock into the black of space, in a suit with almost zero oxygen, right as the Screaming Firehawk hit the Chetzemoka’s radar—gave her the slimmest of chances to get rescued safely signaled that Naomi would be alright in the end (well, that and the fact that Tipper is already signed on for Season 6). As a gift to both longtime fans who love The Expanse for its commitment to showing the brutal realities of life (and death) in the vacuum of space, and (one has to assume) to Tipper as an actress, the inevitability of her rescue is beautifully undercut by director Breck Eisner’s choice to trap the camera. For a full minute we have an extreme close-up of Naomi’s bruised, sweaty face as she spins through the black, rapidly running out of air, unable to discern if Alex and Bobbie have seen her, before finally pulling back into a long shot that shows her cycling through a short series of Belter emergency hand signals before shrinking into a speck and disappearing into the vastness of space. The audience is given a brief injection of hope as the camera cuts to the Firehawk and shows Bobbie catching sight of Naomi on the scopes, and Alex both recognizing and being able to read her hand signals, but we’re immediately kicked back out of certainty when Alex realizes she’s too close to the Chet’s spin to bring the Firehawk in safely. The camera leaps back to another extreme close-up of Naomi’s helmeted face, her faceplate misting over as her oxygen levels run out, stars spinning and spinning and spinning behind her. Even when Bobbie eventually reaches her, in her rocket suit, and connects their oxygen tanks before calling back to Alex that Naomi’s alive and secure, Eisner leaves us in Naomi’s helmet, trapped in fear and ecstasy as her death becomes less and less inevitable.
Naomi ends up safe and alive, sure—eventually Bobbie shows up, blurry, in the back of Eisner’s close-up, at which point she calls back to Alex that Naomi’s safe and they’re on their way—but these long sequences trapped inside her helmet are meant to make us understand: Space is dangerous. She could just as easily have drifted to her death with that Hail Mary leap than have been saved by Alex and Bobbie’s heroics. We’ve all watched this show long enough to understand this fact intellectually, maybe, but the viscerality of these sequences, Tipper’s devastating performance meeting Eisner’s framing choices in perfect measure, drive the point home on the soul level. And that’s important, because within moments after Bobbie’s saved Naomi and Alex has given them the green light to head back to the Firehawk, Alex is hit with a stroke and dies.
At the risk of spoiling a book that’s been out for six years, playing chicken with the Chetzemoka is not where Alex Kamal’s story was originally written to end. Whereas show-Alex dies from a statistically inevitable biological event after that last high-G burn to get to the Chet before Naomi ran out of time, book-Alex not only makes it through his hero-move unscathed, but goes on to fight the good fight with Holden et al for at least* another three decades. (*Book 9 in the series, Leviathan Falls, is due out this fall.) The former might be more realistic than the latter, at least medically speaking, but for all The Expanse loves geeking out about making every other kind of scientific element of its cinematic space world realistic, it’s still an epic space adventure at heart, and Holden, Naomi, Amos and Alex are still its heroes—whatever statistical inevitability of high-G-induced stroke Alex would realistically be facing aside, an adventure epic’s heroes are meant to get a happy ending. I mean, the Roci’s preternatural ability to make it out of the deadliest and/or weirdest of situations, time and time again, is so central to the series’ premise that it’s become a running joke. (“You and ya crew really lucky to be alive,” Marco’s spy observes in the first episode. “Yeah, we hear that a lot,” Naomi jokes back, “…too often, maybe.”) No one could survive the number of brinks they’ve collectively teetered on the edge of, but the rules of the genre demand it, so—up until now, at least—survive they have.
But as diehard fans of the show have known for awhile, the show was backed into a corner when allegations of sexual misconduct involving Cas Anvar surfaced on Reddit last June. The results of the independent investigation launched by Alcon Entertainment are fuzzy, but when Amazon renewed the series, in November, for a sixth and final season, they simultaneously announced that Anvar would not be returning. By default, this meant that his character, one of the series’ four core heroes, would also not be returning. And with Alex’s character arc having thus far been defined by an increasing drive to be zipping around space with his Roci family, helping humanity fight for survival, having him ride off into the proverbial sunset to, what, retire? That was never going to work. Narratively this meant death. And while there are bound to be fans who struggle to accept that death taking the form of a quiet stroke (genre fans generally have a lot of feelings about the kinds of deaths heroes “deserve”), the fact of the matter is, space is dangerous. Space is dangerous, and the kind of flying Alex was doing in the Screaming Firehawk, which repeatedly put him at the mercy of such high Gs that he had to regularly be “juiced up to the gills,” in Bobbie’s words, to avoid “stroking out,” was more dangerous still. So sure, from a dramatic perspective, him dying of a stroke a season before his story should have ended is a huge bummer. But from the perspective of surviving space is hard, but being a hero means facing the danger anyway—the perspective so viscerally underscored by Naomi’s harrowing survival arc over the last several episodes—I think it strikes a meaningful chord. This thing that Holden and the rest of the Roci crew are doing, playing heroes for the whole of humanity, it’s *genuinely risky*. That they keep doing it anyway? That means something. That they’re going to keep doing it, even after Alex’s quiet and untimely death—that might mean something even more.
It does feel a little weird, I guess, to end this season with the sense that, in spite of hinging on the most explosively violent act to hit 24th-century humanity, these last 10 episodes ended up having more to say about process than anything else—both process, and processing. It certainly wasn’t the season I was expecting, coming in, but at the end of a long, lonely year, in the midst of a harrowing sociopolitical crisis not unlike the one being whipped up by Marco Inaros, getting to spend so much time alone with each of these characters ended up being more fortifying than I could have anticipated.
That said, I’m ready for the Roci to be a team again, and to take on humanity’s next existential threat together, Alex’s memory carrying them through whatever that threat might be, just as Miller’s memory did after his death. As Naomi tells Holden, in the message she recorded before leaving to find Filip that she finally plays for him after she’s back on the Roci and Alex is gone, “Families change. It can be hard and sad, but we bear it, as long as we don’t shut ourselves off from the new and wonderful things that come.”
Which is to say, harrowing as the rest of it is, The Expanse is predicated on hope.
Now—on to Season 6.
Season 1-5 of The Expanse are streaming now on Amazon Prime.
Alexis Gunderson is a TV critic and audiobibliophile. She can be found @AlexisKG.
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