This review is based on screeners of the first 6 episodes of Season 4 provided to the press by Amazon, therefore it is not a review of the entirety of Season 4 and will be updated once the season is released to reflect our opinions of the whole thing.
This review contains minimal spoilers for plot threads and character arcs in Season 4.
There’s a lot riding on Season 4 of The Expanse. It’s the first season to be released since the show was cancelled in May of 2018 and the first season on Amazon’s streaming service, Prime Video. Fan expectations are varied and many – some hope the show will be bigger and bolder on Amazon, others hope for faithful adaptations of certain novellas, yet more are yearning for their favourite characters to get some great material. Needless to say, this is easily the most anticipated season of the show so far.
Check out our custom collection of The Expanse Season 4 wallpapers here!
Season 4 has a lot of what makes The Expanse unique and brilliant, but I’m fairly sure it’s going to be one of the more divisive seasons of the show. Before I get into why that is, I want to talk about Amazon – because one of the most hotly-debated questions of the past year has been whether or not the show will feel any different on the new network. The answer to that question is no, not really. The Expanse is the same great show it’s always been, with all the characters we know and love. The way it’s shot is mostly the same – aside from a creative decision to shoot with anamorphic lenses in some parts. The writing is of the same caliber its always been, and there’s no noticeable hike or drop in budget. The only truly noticeable change is that nobody has to say “forget you” any more since Amazon have lifted Syfy’s previous restrictions on strong language (pic unrelated.)
However, with that having been said, the content of Season 4 is very different from the show as it has been so far. It provides a mostly faithful adaptation of its source material, Cibola Burn – one of the more divisive books in the series – so there are certainly people who won’t be as into this season as others are. Most of the action in Season 4 takes place planetside, which means that in places it resembles more of a space western than a space opera. This is certainly not a bad thing, but it may not be what non-book readers are expecting from The Expanse.
In Season 4, the crew of the Rocinante are tasked with a peacekeeping mission to a rugged planet through the ring gates – New Terra, or Ilus, depending on who you ask. The planet has been settled by a group of Belter refugees from Ganymede – who are mining lithium and hoping to support themselves by selling it – but the colonization rights to New Terra have been claimed by Earth, who have tasked Royal Charter Energy with discovering its secrets. The Roci crew, stuck between these two rival factions, have to keep things from slipping out of control while Holden and proto-ghost Miller discover what the protomolecule is up to on Ilus.
Meanwhile, Avasarala faces new challenges to her authority on Earth, and Bobbie deals with re-integrating into civilian life while plagued by troubles in her family – and the scorn of Mars after a dishonorable discharge. Finally, Drummer and Ashford police the ring space as part of their duties in the newly-minted deal with the inners.
The Ilus storyline is where much of the focus of the first 6 episodes is and it is by far the strongest storyline of the season. The Roci crew are introduced to a new cast of characters including ruthless RCE Security Chief Adolphus Murtry, RCE scientist Elvi Okoye, and Belter doctor Lucia Mazur, who each play an important part in the story as tensions rise between RCE and the Belters while the secrets of Ilus are uncovered. The Roci crew are given some really good material on Ilus, especially Naomi, who for me is the standout of the season so far – with some great emotional beats that give Dominique Tipper a chance to flex her acting muscles in ways we haven’t seen before. Amos has a great subplot full of classic one-liners and cool interactions with other characters while Holden has funny, badass and touching moments in equal measure. The only member of the Roci crew that feels a little short-changed here is Alex, who has been relegated to more of a support role in much of the action. It’s a shame after the great material Cas Anvar was given last season, but makes a lot of sense since the storylines on Ilus are more well-suited to the other characters.
The new characters are memorable – especially Murtry. The menacing RCE security chief is played fantastically by British actor Burn Gorman, who is absolutely in his element this season as a driven and mercenary villain who – in true Expanse fashion – makes just a little bit too much sense to be truly evil. Meanwhile, Lucia is given some shocking moments that resonate well with other characters but could have been given a bit more time and explanation to properly land.
Avasarala’s story is probably the thinnest plotline this season. She has an interesting setup that is marred by not really having much content, and a weaker supporting cast that doesn’t give Shohreh Aghdashloo the opportunity to shine like with characters such as Cotyar and Bobbie. Aghdashloo herself is fantastic as always, and has some great one-liners now that her language restrictions have been completely lifted.
Bobbie’s storyline is probably the strongest outside of Ilus. It gives Frankie Adams some great action and emotional beats to work with as we finally get a good look at Martian society from the inside as tensions rise about the planets through the ring – which need no terraforming and are causing many to question the Martian dream. However, there is one decision Bobbie makes about halfway through the season that doesn’t particularly sit well with me, and I’m hoping it gets some more explanation in the latter part of the season since it seemed somewhat out of character.
Speaking of out of character: my chief criticism of the episodes I’ve seen so far is that there is a decision made during the Ashford/Drummer storyline that results in a very misplaced character-defining moment. This exposes a problem with Ashford’s character this season, which is a real shame given his strength last season. To put it simply, Ashford isn’t the same Ashford he was before; he’s all the best bits of his character with none of the worst. Ashford in Season 3 was the main villain of the final episodes, but Season 4 makes it feel like we missed a whole redemption arc in the time between seasons. David Strathairn is still one of the stronger actors in the show, but simply isn’t given as much of the complexity that made him so memorable last season, and feels almost like a fan service character now. Drummer, meanwhile, feels a little left out in the cold in favour of our new BFF Ashford.
On the production side of Season 4, things are just as great as we’ve been expecting, with the cinematography we’ve come to love taken to a new level with anamorphic lenses and lots of fantastic special effects (there are a few shots that are notable exceptions to this, but generally the VFX are as good or improved in some places). Ilus is the standout here in terms of cinematography, while the VFX in space look better than ever. At times Ilus feels a little lifeless, as if the vision and the budget didn’t quite align, but this doesn’t really detract at all from the overall feeling of the planet and some of the fantastic cinematography we see there. Clinton Shorter continues to do great work on the score, keeping the drama heightened with some great riffs on the title theme. The production design continues to be fantastic, from the prefab buildings on Ilus to the new ships and the sweeping sandstone-like designs of Mars. Sets are really great this season, given the added challenge of creating two new environments that we haven’t seen before.
Overall, Season 4 is simultaneously a continuation of the show we know and love and a departure from everything we’ve seen before. There may be a few decisions by characters that don’t make much sense and a few writing stumbles here and there, but Season 4 is ultimately The Expanse as we know at heart: Great acting, great special effects, political drama, scientific accuracy in spades, and lots of new characters for our main cast to play off of. It may not be for everyone but there’s definitely lots to love if you love this show like I do.
Check back here for the full review once the season comes out on the 13th. As well as this, I will be doing deep dives on each episode in the weeks following the release of the season with separate sections for book discussion, so keep an eye out for them as well!