The fifth (and next to last) season of The Expanse concluded last week. I am on record as being rather lukewarm towards this show, which somehow manages to bring together its strong individual elements—compelling characters, good performances, an interesting world—into a whole that I’ve always found weirdly easy to put down. The just-concluded season doesn’t overcome this core problem, but it’s still the best season the show has delivered. I thought I’d say a few things about where this season worked and where it didn’g, then open the floor to the commenters (who are, I know, generally more positive towards the show than I am).
1. One selfish reason for my enjoyment of this season is that its quality feels like confirmation of one of my core beliefs about The Expanse, that the alien threat that kickstarts its story and underpins most of its plots is actually the weakest and least interesting aspect of its worldbuilding. Season five is the least alien-focused story the show has told—to the extent that while the possession of the last remaining sample of “protomolecule”, the aggressive hegemonizing swarm that has, in previous seasons, reduced the populations of entire space stations to so much gloop, is a major plot point early in the season, by episode seven it is destroyed with hardly any fanfare, and almost no impact on the rest of the season’s storylines. (Of course, the protomolecule, and the alien menace it heralds, return at the very end of the season as a teaser for next season’s storyline, because we can’t have nice things.)
In previous seasons, The Expanse has used the aliens as a crutch, with which it has propped up its milquetoast, “can’t we all just get along” political storytelling. The existence of all-powerful aliens who might show up at any minute to exterminate all of humanity is treated, by the show and by the characters it designates as right-thinking, as an impetus for humanity to set aside its differences and work together. Which would be fine, except that those differences are the differences between the oppressors and the oppressed; between billionaires who commit genocide with impunity and striking laborers who are murdered by the military; between the Earth’s elite and the permanent underclass whom they have locked out of education, jobs, and social mobility. By pointing at the aliens, The Expanse gives itself a justification for treating anyone who remains hung up on these conflicts as, at best, hopelessly behind the times, and at worst, actively dangerous.
It’s not that season five is bereft of this attitude—the season’s villain, Marco Inaros, is a radical terrorist from the long-oppressed colonies in the asteroid belt who, in an act of revenge for decades of exploitation and violence towards his people, lobs asteroids at the Earth, killing millions and rendering vast parts of it uninhabitable. But by removing the artificial counterweight of the alien menace from its storytelling, The Expanse finally gives itself enough room to grapple with the true complexity of its worldbuilding—the fact that Inaros’s grievances are legitimate; that the Belt, lacking a formal government structure, is vulnerable to takeover by his faction; that the only targets it offers for retaliation are civilian ones. This makes for a richer, more complex story than the show has ever attempted, and though some of the show’s weaknesses still shine through (what is even the point of James Holden, I ask you), it’s the first time I’ve felt as if The Expanse is living up to the promise of its setting.
2. Having said all this, it must also be acknowledged that this is a 9/11 in space story. A particularly blatant one, for that matter—the government meeting in which the merits of bombing a civilian Belter station in response to the attack on Earth are discussed reads like the comment section of a political blog circa 2002 (“how can we identify combatants if they don’t wear uniforms?” “the enemy is using civilians as human shields!”), and the immediate aftermath of the attack even features some deep cuts (“I heard there was dancing in the corridors of Pallas station”). Which comes across very strangely in 2020-21. For a while there in the 00s and even the early and mid teens, it felt as if all of popular SFF (and a lot of pop culture in any genre) was engaging, directly or obliquely, with 9/11, the War on Terror, and the occupation of Iraq. But right now, as we’re struggling to cope with rampant inequality, the rise of a global fascist movement, and the erosion of democratic norms, retelling 9/11 feels beside the point—and all the more so because science fiction fans have already seen SFnal versions of this moment and its aftermath at least half a dozen times in the last two decades. It’s not The Expanse‘s fault that it only got around to adapting this novel in the series in 2020, but the result inevitably feels less immediate than it clearly wanted to be.
3. One reason that 9/11 in space stories struggle is that they often seem to go too big. The actual 9/11 was a profound psychic wound whose events nevertheless only impacted a relatively small number of people and left the rest of the US able to go on with their lives largely unaffected. When science fiction retells this event, however, it seems to gravitate towards literalizing the day’s psychological impact—the most obvious example being Battlestar Galactica, which tried to equate 9/11 to a genocidal attack that killed tens of billions of people, destroyed their civilization, and left a tiny fraction of a percentage of humanity fleeing for their lives as desperate refugees. The Expanse also falls into this trap. The storyline set on Earth after the attack is essentially a post-apocalypse tale. Whole cities (including most of the Eastern seaboard) are drowned and left uninhabitable. The few survivors are left to fend for themselves. Gangs roam the landscape, terrorizing and robbing from anyone they encounter. The law of the jungle holds sway.
And yet when the narrative switches to government meetings on the moon, the focus is almost entirely on retaliation against the Belt. The issue of relief efforts on Earth is literally the last on the agenda, and almost every scene featuring members of the new government centers on geopolitics, with hardly any attention paid to the massive, perhaps irreversible transformation of the planet and its society. In one of the season’s final scenes, most of the show’s characters come together at a swanky party on Luna, sipping wine and listening to soft music. “This is how we win”, newly-minted Earth leader Chrisjen Avasarala announces, very proud of the pan-solar-system team she’s assembled, with which she hopes to counter Inaros’s coalition. The fact that, even as she’s celebrating and looking outward towards the Belt, on the planet below her there are still countless people struggling to survive the recent devastation, is clearly on nobody’s mind.
It’s tempting to read this as deliberate political commentary, but that’s not what it feels like. Rather, the impression formed is that the show’s writers wanted to write a post-apocalypse, and they wanted to write 9/11, and never stopped to consider that these two stories don’t mesh together very well. And conversely, the extent of the devastation on Earth makes a lot of the handwringing about the proportionality of Earth’s response seem baffling—this isn’t an isolated terrorist attack; it’s an act of genocide. Given that most of Belt’s military factions fall in behind Inaros, it’s hard to argue with the belief of hardliners in the Earth government that they are at war with the Belt, and that the rules of engagement should reflect that.
4. For the life of me, I do not understand this show’s determination to give Clarissa Mao a redemption story. This is a billionaire’s daughter who, in response to the “injustice” of her father having to face consequences for [checks notes] using an asteroid full of Belters as unwitting guinea pigs in an illegal experiment in which he exposed them to the protomolecule, went on a vengeance rampage in which she killed many innocents. Season five finds her in a maximum security prison, full of self pity—for the harshness of her incarceration, for the minuscule chance that she will ever be released, and even for the fact that she must now regard herself as a monster. To bring this back to the issue of how oddly this season plays in 2020-21, I am really not in the right headspace for a story about a child of privilege whose engorged sense of entitlement caused her to commit massive amounts of violence, and who is now crying because she wasn’t allowed to get away with it. That the show keeps equating Clarissa with Amos—a former child prostitute whose psyche is permanently damaged by horrific abuse and deprivation, and who nevertheless possesses an innate moral code—is bizarre and hard to stomach.
5. Another impression that this season has confirmed in me: this whole show would be a million percent better if it was the Naomi Nagata and Camina Drummer show, with special appearances by Chrisjen Avasarala. Amos and Bobbie can come too, but only if they promise to leave their worse halves behind. Holden, it should go without saying, is not invited.
6. The circumstances of Cas Anvar’s departure from the show are no laughing matter, but I have to admit that I found the show’s “Alex died on the way to his home planet” solution to the problem entirely hilarious.