Reviews · TV

‘The Expanse’ Season 4 Review: A Bloody Frontier and a Fallen Empire

The anticipated fourth season of ‘The Expanse’ proves that its a good time to be a fan of sci-fi.
The Expanse S
By  · Published on December 9th, 2019

Being a fan of science fiction can be hard. Plenty of great sci-fi books are never adapted to film or television. Many more have poor adaptations, whether it’s due to low budgets or other constraints. Many get canceled before reaching their full potential. Dark Matter. Dollhouse. Farscape. Firefly. But this time, the long-suffering sci-fi fans finally got a win, and The Expanse has come back with a strong fourth season that builds on everything that has made the show such a beloved space epic.

At the end of last season, protomolecule-ghost Miller (Thomas Jane) connected the Sol Ring Gate to 1,373 other solar systems, all or most with planets that could sustain human life. The species that created these Rings has disappeared and all of their stuff is up for grabs.

Based on Cibola Burn, the fourth book in the Expanse novel series by James S.A. Corey (joint pen name of authors Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck), the new season delivers on that promise of a new interstellar gold rush. The abundance of resources beyond the Rings does not assuage the generations of oppression that Belters have experienced at the hands of the Inner Planets, and they carry that trauma with them to new solar systems. Unlike previous seasons that spanned vast distances and had implications for the whole human species, Season 4 focusses on a microcosm of the conflicts between settlers and corporate interests. The Rocinante, led by James Holden (Steven Strait) and his crew, Naomi (Dominique Tipper), Amos (Wes Chatham), and Alex (Cas Anvar), spend the season on the first colony, called New Terra by the Earth corporation granted exploration rights and Ilus by the Belter colonists who got there first.

Ilus is hauntingly beautiful, shot with anamorphic lenses to make the landscape feel even vaster and frontier-like. It is the perfect setting for the show to continue its exploration of themes of colonialism and the exploitation of the working class. The corporate entity of the season, Royal Charter Energy (RCE), is more nuanced than the diabolical villains of seasons past. It is embodied through two new characters, the warmhearted scientist-explorer Elvi Okoye (Lyndie Greenwood) and the vicious head of security Adolphus Murtry (Burn Gorman). As always, these very human conflicts are overshadowed by The Ring Builders’ leftover technology, which covers the abandoned alien planet. The Roci has come to investigate — if this planet is a ghost town, where did the original inhabitants go?

Overall, this season continues to be a very faithful adaptation to the novel series, no doubt aided by the fact that both Abraham and Franck serve as producers and writers on the show. One main divergence from the novels is that they have abandoned some of the character connections from earlier seasons. Dimitri Havelock, who plays a significant role in the novel, does not return in this season, though this may be because actor Jay Hernandez is currently busy as the lead character in Magnum P.I.

More importantly, the main Belter colonist who gets wrapped up in the resistance is a character from the books, but not the one book readers would expect. Rather than being Basia Murton, the father of Katoa (who viewers saw experimented on and killed with the protomolecule in Season 3), it is an adaptation of his wife, Lucia (Rosa Gilmore). But she isn’t Katoa’s mother, and Basia is nowhere to be seen. This seems like a missed opportunity to give the character a relevant backstory that would both connect her to the crew of the Rocinante and validate her fears of how corporations treat Belters as sub-human, explaining why she would take such radical action to protect her new home. Lucia is not unsympathetic without the backstory, but it would have provided more depth to her character (I’ve only seen the first six episodes of the season, so perhaps this is something that they’re saving for later, but if it was going to be included, it should have come up by now).

Unlike Cibola Burn, Season 4 does not leave behind all the characters that we know and love in the Sol system. Instead, it creates storylines for Chrisjen Avasarala (Shohreh Aghdashloo), Bobbie Draper (Frankie Adams), Camina Drummer (Cara Gee), and Klaus Ashford (David Strathairn). Some of these sub-plots are based on canonical sources, including the novella Gods of Risk and Nemesis Games, the fifth book of the series, while others are entirely new.

As Holden and co. struggle to survive cataclysm after cataclysm on Ilus, those back home are dealing with a changed solar system. Where do Belters fit into this new universe where resources and planets are plentiful? Will they die out entirely over the next generations? And how do you justify the terraforming effort on Mars when there are hundreds or thousands of habitable planets out there for the taking (hint: you can’t). Avasarala tries to balance this unexpected paradigm shift, playing factions against each other to prevent the entire human power structure from collapsing. Drummer and Ashford continue to try and wrangle the OPA into a real government, but they are undermined by more militant factions who will not forgive the Inner Planets for past wrongs. Bobbie tries to integrate into civilian life before being pulled unwillingly into a criminal group that is stripping Mars for parts to send off to the new colony worlds. These storylines are a welcome addition to the season which might otherwise feel like a one-off without much connection to the rest of the narrative. They also provide a strong foundation that sets up the next several arcs of the show (which has already been renewed by Amazon Studios).

Each season, The Expanse has grown more complex and nuanced with its interconnected storylines spanning across the stars. This season is no exception, blending hard physics, great visuals, and deeply human dynamics from flawed and complex characters.

Season 4 is more confident than ever, bolstered by the outpouring of love from its fans since its resurrection and the support that it has received from Amazon. If you loved The Expanse before, you’ll be thrilled with this season. If you still haven’t gotten aboard the hype train yet, there’s lots of room aboard.

The full fourth season of The Expanse touches down on Amazon Prime on December 13th.

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