Contributing editors: Ed Akselrud, Shannon Boyle
THE FOLLOWING ARTICLE CONTAINS MAJOR SPOILERS FOR SEASON 5 EPISODE 10 OF THE EXPANSE.
The Expanse is a show about people. It has space battles, political intrigue, looming alien threats and apocalyptic stakes, but it’s about people. Over the course of the five-year run of the show and the nearly ten-year run of the books, the writers and actors have consistently anchored the action of the show in real and believable characters. For a story this grounded in reality to work, the characters need to not only be well-rounded but have believable motivations and arcs. If the writers are considering how gravity affects their characters but not how serious trauma does, then it sticks out.
This is the greatest strength of The Expanse. Grounding its conflicts in the believable motivations of real people allows you to understand even antagonists like Errinwright and Marco Inaros. It adds depth to a story and gives it stakes that you can become emotionally invested in. In short, a story without good characters is most often a story without emotion, and The Expanse has really good characters.
This is why we talked about Season 5 being the best season of the show in our review. By focusing on the journeys of our characters and putting them in situations we haven’t seen them in before, Season 5 demonstrates just how compelling The Expanse can be even in episodes without universe-ending stakes.
Nowhere is this better demonstrated than in Naomi’s storyline – her past and present colliding in a subplot that explores almost every facet of her character, showing her as a mother, an engineer, a fighter and everything in between. The amount of screen time spent on Naomi this season not only gives us a tangible idea of why Marco Inaros is so dangerous and evil, but also shows us just how far Naomi has come since she was young and gives Dominique Tipper a chance to show us some of the the best acting this show has seen so far.
Cast as the “damsel in distress” trope, Naomi spends this season constantly subverting it, showing us her strength as a character. Placed in an impossible situation, she uses all of her significant skills and brains to save the lives of the people she loves, and she succeeds. Naomi doesn’t need rescuing – she saves herself and the lives of her friends.
Well, nearly all of them.
After a sustained period of time on a high-G burn, Alex Kamal suffers a stroke and passes away while trying to rescue Naomi. Judging by the behind-the-scenes shot below, it would seem that this is the result of reshoots that took place after Cas Anvar was accused of sexual assault and harassment by over 40 people last summer. This decision will probably come as a shock for a lot of Expanse fans who expected the character to be recast for the sixth and final season. We must admit it came as a shock to us as well, but we’ve given it some thought and we think it was ultimately the right decision for the character and the story moving forward.
Alex Kamal is a specific kind of character. Recasting with an actor of Indian/Middle Eastern descent who is approximately the right age and build, can pull off a convincing Texan accent and is available to sign a contract on short notice is not impossible but certainly presents a difficult casting challenge. Especially when you’re talking about a main character who needs to seamlessly integrate into a pre-existing cast and will only act on the show for one season. From a casting standpoint, it’s a tall order, and if it fails it could lead to a bad main cast dynamic and a somewhat butchered character in the final season of the show. It’s a far more risky gambit than it may initially seem.
So why was killing him off the right choice as opposed to writing the character out in some other way off screen? Writing the character off without killing him in between seasons, or at the end of this season, would have potentially required more significant involvement from Cas Anvar. Without it, the change would have likely seemed really out of place, with his leaving or death being simply mentioned by other characters. Our theory is that Anvar was either not involved or very minimally involved in the reshoots, owing to the nature of the claims against him.
Now, none of this is to say that Alex’s death is great. It works surprisingly well but does suffer because Anvar likely couldn’t be involved in a meaningful way, and feels very sudden with little lead-in to his passing. That said, let’s talk about how Alex’s death works conceptually, because here is where we feel it begins to make a whole lot of sense.
Season 5, as we now know, is the penultimate season of The Expanse, which tasks it with setting the stage for the final conflicts of the show. We see this being done with Marco’s attack on Medina Station and the set up of Laconia. A crucial part of setting the stage for the final act of a story is ensuring that the stakes are materially raised going into it. In a story like The Expanse, where incredibly high stakes have been on the table since at least Season 2, having a main character die raises the personal stakes for both the other characters and the audience, and allows the writers to create even more tension for the upcoming season. Having characters this well realised not only makes season 5 work as a whole but allows us to really feel Alex’s loss, and relate personally to the upcoming events of the show.
Alex is uniquely positioned for this role since he is a fan favourite character, but has not had a major influence on the direction of the story since the beginning of the show. Where other members of the Roci crew often change the course of the story, Alex generally finds himself along for the ride, helping out where he can. This doesn’t mean that Alex is not an important character; he simply doesn’t occupy a role in the story that is crucial to its continuation. Alex is also the oldest member of the Roci crew, and his passing reminds us that spending so much time doing dangerous high-G maneuvers in high-stress situations has real consequences and would certainly take its toll on a person.
WARNING: THE CONCLUSION OF THIS ARTICLE CONTAINS BOOK SPOILERS FOR THE EXPANSE.
Killing one or more main characters is a tried and true tactic to ensure the stakes of a story are raised when needed and is something that The Expanse has done before with Miller (twice) and does to great effect in the books as well. Though Alex may be still alive by the end of Nemesis Games, the show has set a significant precedent for adjusting the story to suit its needs. In fact, book readers may notice that Alex suffers the same fate that Fred Johnson does in Babylon’s Ashes. While Alex’s death will come as a blow to many fans and the real world circumstances of it are less than ideal, the actual story beat itself makes a lot of sense at this juncture and raises the stakes for the conflicts to come, reminding us that not all of our faves will necessarily make it to the end of the show.
This is further strengthened by the other shocking reveal of the finale: Laconia will be in the show, complete with the presence of Admiral Winston Duarte.
For months after the announcement that the show will conclude with Season 6, fans have been speculating as to whether the rogue Martian military detachment-turned-empire will make an appearance. The Laconian arc takes place over the course of three books (one of which is yet to be released), including a significant time jump after the middle trilogy. Like much of the community, we erred on the side of caution and assumed that the show may expand the Free Navy conflict instead of tackling the Laconia storyline. Suffice to say, we were stunned when the final scenes of Episode 10 revealed that Laconia will, after all, have a presence in the final season, accompanied by a return to the protomolecule and the mysterious Goths.
This development will undoubtedly come as a pleasant surprise for many fans who were disappointed to hear that the show will be wrapping up next season, fearing that Laconia will have to be omitted. While we are absolutely thrilled to learn that this will not be the case, we will be remaining realistic in our expectations. We are confident that the writers will find an excellent way to portray Laconia and wrap up the show, but they still have to do this in a single season, so we expect that Laconia’s involvement in the story will be very different on screen. It is entirely possible that most of these changes will be quite significant, so we are looking forward to Season 6 as an almost entirely new story. At this juncture, the show has diverged far enough from the books that it exists as its own experience and can be enjoyed entirely separate from them.
With all that said, we want to once again congratulate and thank the writers, production crew, and cast for all their hard work on this show. We wish them the best of luck on Season 6, the production of which commenced last week, and hope that everyone stays safe, healthy, and motivated to see this through despite all the obstacles and new safety protocols the crew has to follow. We can’t wait to witness some of our favorite storylines from the final trilogy on screen, and see how The Expanse will conclude.