Last year, the fourth season of The Expanse came racing out of the gate after Amazon swooped in to save the cult favorite from cancellation. While the crew of the Rocinante dealt with alien artifacts on frontier planet Ilus, the seeds for The Expanse Season 5 were laid back on Earth, Mars, and the Belt with Avasarala (Shohreh Aghdashloo), Bobbie (Frankie Adams), and Drummer (Cara Gee) investigating contraband weapon sales and Belter extremist factions. Now, as the Roci crew returns to their home solar system, those storylines begin to bear fruit.
In an intense Season 4 cliffhanger, viewers saw Belt revolutionary Marco Inaros (Keon Alexander), alongside Naomi’s estranged son, Filip Inaros (Jasai Chase Owens), launch stealth-coated asteroids towards Earth. The impending doom that those asteroids could spell for the entire planet hangs over early episodes of The Expanse Season 5, imparting a palpable sense of tension and inevitability.
Avasarala, Bobbie, and Drummer are still engaged in independent investigations across the system. Avasarala is looking into the seemingly accidental destruction of an Earther science ship, Bobbie is investigating weapons smuggling on Mars. And Drummer — our pirate queen — is hunting down Marco for killing her mentor, Klaes Ashford, last season. It becomes apparent early into the new season that these three storylines are all tied into a single overarching plot by Marco’s radical faction of the OPA.
Meanwhile, for the first time since the ice hauler Canterbury was nuked in The Expanse Season 1, the Rocinante‘s crew separates. Holden (Steven Strait) remains on Tycho where the Roci is in berth for repairs, Amos (Wes Chatham) returns to settle old debts on Earth, Alex (Cas Anvar) returns to a dwindling Mars, and Naomi (Dominique Tipper) finally tracks down her long-lost child.
In earlier seasons, James Holden seemed to be the main character of The Expanse — if this ensemble series had one at all. With his supernatural relationship to protomolecule-ghost Miller and his impulse to tilt at windmills, the crew captain has led in both political and combat situations. But it’s never been a one-person show. In particular, Belter engineer Naomi and Earther mechanic Amos Burton have both always stood out as they grapple with their haunted pasts.
Although Amos is part of the privileged class that had the luck to be born on a planet, his return to his home town of Baltimore reveals a community rife with poverty and injustice. With the exception of free air and atmosphere, his upbringing is not unlike some of the Belt’s seedier parts. His decision to return to Earth is particularly badly timed given Marco’s plans for the planet. Amos’ arc in Season 5 is largely divorced from the larger machinations enveloping the solar system. Instead, he brings a “boots on the ground” perspective to the consequences of the interplanetary conflicts taking place.
On Mars, affable Alex Kamal reunites with former Martian Marine gunner Bobbie as she investigates deeper into black market weapons sales discovered last season. Although this Mars storyline has been one of the duller parts of the show in the past, it highlights one of the things that The Expanse has always done best: weave seemingly disconnected threads closer and closer until they come together in unexpected and wrenching ways. Sol system storylines from Season 4 — weapons smuggling, Belter factions, and the diaspora affecting Mars — are finally brought together to give the viewers answers about the who and the how of plots building for years.
This separation of the crew gives each of the characters a chance to shine as they become personally embroiled in a very human struggle for power and independence. The strong all-around performances this season are crowned by Tipper’s heart-wrenching delivery of Naomi. Not only is she in an untenable position torn between two families, but Naomi also finds herself wrapped up in a war that she had spent years running away from. Her previous involvement with the OPA is finally elaborated on as she tries to reconcile with her teenage son and save him from making the same mistakes that she did.
Tipper dances from nostalgia to resignation to scheming like a ballerina in zero-G. Both contemplative and action scenes are imbued with conviction and skill as she comes to terms with her past and fights to save both of her families. Series newcomers Jasai Chase Owens and Keon Alexander bring great chemistry with Dominique Tipper. The complicated and painful family conflict between Naomi, Filip, and Marco is at the heart of this season, fleshing out an impoverished and radical side to Belter culture, which both Naomi and Drummer find themselves entangled with.
The Expanse has always been a lot of things: hard science fiction, detective noir, space opera, frontier adventure, and horror. The protomolecule — humanity’s first experience with a vast, powerful, and inexplicably extinct extrasolar life — has initiated the conflict in every season, but the show’s true villains have always been more mundane: corporations with no regard for human life if it gets in the way of their profits; oppressed people on both sides of the line between revolution and extremism; politicians who put the lives of their people before others; scientists without compunction or ethics. Although the protomolecule plays a crucial role in Season 5, it takes a step back from the prominence given in earlier seasons.
Instead, the focus narrows in on the crew’s personal history and the demons they’ve tried to leave behind. The true villains are human, and the protagonists have too many skeletons in their closets to come out looking clean. This moral ambiguity has always been The Expanse‘s strength, bolstered by a great cast and damned good special effects. I have not seen the Season 5 finale yet, but based on the first nine episodes screened in advance for the press, I am confident that The Expanse will deliver a satisfying denouement while setting up the confirmed sixth and final season of the show.
The first three episodes of The Expanse Season 5 will air on Amazon Prime Video on Wednesday, December 16th, after which episodes will be released weekly.