Written by Joe Hunstone and Ed Akselrud
Warning: This review contains spoilers for the end of Season 4.
This past month has been a mixed one for The Expanse. The announcement that Season 6 will be the final season of the show has sparked a rather lukewarm response within the fandom. Meanwhile, the positive news that Cas Anvar will not be returning for Season 6 after a flurry of sexual misconduct allegations earlier this year seems to have flown somewhat under the radar. This has left many people wondering what content Season 5 will cover, and if the conclusion to the show will be satisfying or leave us with another cliffhanger reminiscent of Season 3. Well, we’re happy to report that Season 5 is the best season yet, and we’re confident Season 6 will be just as good. The Expanse is back and it’s bigger, better, and more intense than ever.
It’s hard to articulate just how much the show has matured. While screening Season 5, we felt like we were watching The Expanse as it was always meant to be: A perfect combination of deep, sensitively written character development, thought provoking socio-political exploration, attention to scientific detail, and high-octane, heart pumping action. Being fans of the books as well, we loved Season 4’s slow burn dive into the mysteries on Ilus and the Belter-RCE conflict. But there is something truly cathartic about finally seeing Nemesis Games, a book that many cite as their favorite in the series, finally adapted to the screen. Needless to say, this is the show we all fought for and we are extremely proud of the teams at The Expanse, Alcon Entertainment and Amazon Studios for the brilliant execution of the show’s penultimate season.
We pick up right where Season 4 left off as belter terrorist Marco Inaros (Keon Alexander) has just hurled a set of Martian stealth-cloaked rocks at Earth. Avasarala (Shohreh Aghdashloo) races to uncover this plot but soon runs into conflict with UN Secretary General Nancy Gao (Lily Gao) who usurped her in Season 4.
Meanwhile, the crew of the Roci is apart for the first time since the beginning of the show. Alex (Cas Anvar) heads back to Mars to settle some old business and soon gets embroiled in Bobbie’s (Frankie Adams) investigation into the theft of Martian stealth tech. Naomi (Dominique Tipper) heads off in an attempt to reconcile with her long-estranged son Filip (Jasai Chase Owens) and Amos (Wes Chatham) returns to his former stomping ground in Baltimore on a personal errand. This leaves Holden (Steven Strait) at a bit of a loose end on Tycho station, alongside Fred Johnson (Chad L. Coleman) and series newcomer Bull (José Zúñiga), a character that we’re sure many book readers thought they would never see in the show. Meanwhile, Drummer (Cara Gee) – ever the amalgam of many book characters – has assembled a polyamorous crew of Belters and is looking for Ashford’s ship after his untimely demise at the end of Season 4.
The first thing you’ll notice watching this new season is just how big it feels. The Expanse has often drawn comparisons with Game of Thrones, which we typically think are less accurate and more an attempt to give a vague idea of the tone and realism depicted in The Expanse. But here in Season 5 there really isn’t a better comparison to make in terms of narrative structure: The scale has reached such a point that many episodes even eschew a main character or two in favour of focusing on specific stories.
While the scope and scale of this season is the most immediately arresting thing one notices, the characters are the real stars of Season 5. These storylines give us a dive into each character in ways we’ve never seen before, with many of them delving into new aspects of their backstories and showing them in new lights. The side effect of this is that the main cast are able to flex their acting muscles in some of the best work we’ve seen from many of them.
Dominique Tipper taps into a long-hidden side of Naomi in the most personal arc we’ve seen so far, and delivers her most emotionally impactful performance yet. We’ve long been fans of Tipper, and you might remember that we gushed about her in our Season 4 review, so it’s no surprise that we continually find her to be the strongest performer on the show. It really cannot be overstated just how good the material Tipper works with this season is, and how much she runs with it to deliver a stunning performance in some of the most shocking scenes in the series so far.
Amos, meanwhile, is cut adrift from the Roci crew and has to make decisions for himself for the first time in years. Wes Chatham uses this as an opportunity to show both how much Amos has grown throughout the show and how much he needs the rest of the crew. There’s a delightful vulnerability to Chatham’s performance as Amos that always shines through even at his darkest moments, and his interactions with the characters he meets throughout his plotline underscore just how well Chatham understands the character he’s playing.
As Alex helps Bobbie track down the suspicious activity on Mars, she helps him come to terms with the new reality on his homeworld, further fleshing out their relationship and providing some great material for both characters. While the performance is solid enough, we’d like to address Cas Anvar’s presence this season after the recent misconduct revelations. Many have been speculating as to whether the season might be edited to include less of Anvar, but as far as we can tell, his presence is around the same and his arc does its part for the season overall. For those of you not wanting to see too much of him, while he has less overall screen time than the rest of the Roci crew, his arc is still significant enough to yield him a fair amount of scenes.
Steven Strait has been delivering a brilliantly low key performance for his entire tenure as Holden, a character who seems to be somewhat controversial in the fandom. We’ve always been fans of Strait’s work, and his facial expressions and line deliveries never cease to get a smile out of us. Holden’s story doesn’t provide him with a huge amount of development this season compared to others, but Strait still delivers the empathetic and well-rounded performance that we have come to expect from our captain.
Keon Alexander’s introduction as Marco Inaros felt a little shallow in Season 4, but this season he’s been brought front and centre. For those who were on the fence about his performance last season, we doubt you will be for very long. Alexander oozes nefarious charisma as the self-styled liberator of the Belt and will have you wondering if he might just make some sense in one scene, only to remind us what makes him so dangerous in the next.
Shohreh Aghdashloo and Cara Gee are likewise given some really great material to chew on and deliver possibly their best turns as these characters. Nadine Nicole returns to do a fantastic job with an appreciably more well-rounded Clarissa Mao, while Anna Hopkins again graces us with her presence as the renegade journalist Monica Stuart. Newcomers José Zúñiga and Jasai Chase Owens deliver memorable turns as well. Meanwhile, ever a hallmark of this series, even actors playing very minor roles bring life and energy to the kinds of Redshirt characters that TV often forgets about, with some excellent new additions in the Amos, Naomi and Drummer storylines.
The show continues to impress on the technical front as well as the narrative and character ones. With a visible bump in the budget, the amount of special effects shots has grown, looking more and more like a true high budget production. Even more notable are the countless stunning new sets and environments built for Season 5. As the show finally spreads out across the entire solar system, taking us to many locations on Earth, Mars, Luna and the Belt, fans will get a much better sense of just how big and diverse the world of The Expanse is. If at any point you started to feel like you were seeing too much of the same in prior seasons, prepare to be delightfully refreshed.
Direction for the season is great across the board, featuring many familiar names as well as newcomers Thomas Jane, Nick Gomez (Laws of Gravity, New Jersey Drive) and Marisol Adler (The Good Doctor, Lucifer), who directs two excellent episodes. The direction of performers has increased its demands, as this season requires several significant emotional beats, and the directors succeeded in extracting the absolute most out of this cast.
As always, the writing team have continued to hone their craft and delivered a tasteful, carefully crafted journey for us this season. As the story unfolds, we confront themes of oppression and grief, tribalism and conflict, loyalty and betrayal, fear (and the lack thereof), and so much more. The show explores some new issues with certain arcs such as Naomi’s relationship with Marco Inaros and her son Filip; Drummer’s polyamorous family (providing more great LGBTQ+ representation fans have been hoping for), Amos’s return to Earth, and Alex reckoning with the decline of Mars. And while the narrative deftly navigates the big picture, even minor characters feel thought out with many short but delightful appearances, some of which book readers will especially enjoy. Likewise, The Expanse’s subtle but witty sense of humour pops up throughout the season to lift the weight of Season 5’s apocalyptically epic storyline off our shoulders from time to time.
Pacing is another great strength of Season 5 and the way the writers balance each narrative against other and bring stories together in interesting ways is very reminiscent of the first half of Season 3. This season is truly firing on all cylinders and the writing underpins all of the best moments, injecting them with weight and gravitas. If Game of Thrones proved anything, it’s that without a good script, your show will struggle to meet expectations, and we’re happy to report that the writing in Season 5 is the best we’ve seen from this phenomenal team.
It is not lost on us that we are reviewing the season as already big fans of the show, so if all of the above sounds too good to be true, believe it when we say that it is indeed true. It’s hard to find much to criticize this time around: With Season 4, there were a few elements that may have caught some viewers off guard and the slower pacing and somewhat disjointed stories felt a little unlike what show-viewers had come to expect after the previous two seasons. Season 5, however, rewards us with a journey that goes from 0 to 100 by Episode 4, and reminds us just why this show is so special, and why the team behind it knows what they are doing. We might be biased, but we don’t think you’ll disagree with us once you’ve seen what we have.
The Expanse returns to Amazon Prime Video with the first three episodes dropping on December 16th, followed by a weekly release for the rest. As always, thanks for reading, and fly safe.
– TEL Crew