The Expanse – Season 5 Episode 1-3
“Exodus”, “Churn”, “Mother”
The Expanse makes a welcome return to our streaming screens, and true to its name expands its vision of the technologically advanced far future where human foibles remain unchanged even after the passing centuries.
When reviewing TV shows, it’s normally straightforward to decide the manner in which you do so, as they usually release one episode at a time or drop all at once on a streaming service. However, Amazon’s decision to, like with The Boys, drop three episodes at once and then switch to a weekly schedule puts a dilemma of how to review it consistently. Since most people will watch these episodes in a single sitting, it makes the most sense to review them together as a single viewing experience rather than separate write-ups for each part. And given how the episodes fit together, it actually works out quite smoothly, for writing about as well as watching. Given its source material of a series of novels that are adapted fairly faithfully, the TV show has always had an episodic narrative, but these three episodes in particular come together as an introduction to the new season.
The plot is far more disparate than usual, as the Rocinante is now in dry dock at Tycho Station undergoing repairs to the damage caused by the events of the previous season, and the crew have temporarily separated to deal with personal matters. Alex (Cas Anvar) travels to Mars to try to reconnect with his estranged family, Amos (Wes Chatham) returns to Baltimore following the death of an old friend, and Naomi (Dominique Tippe) searches for her lost son, now grown to a teenager, while Holden (Steven Strait) stays behind to hold fort aboard the ship.
The first episode does little to advance the plot, instead spending its time establishing where everyone is, both physically and in terms of their character development. For the first time since they were initially thrown together by circumstance the crew are separated, but this surprisingly makes the story more streamlined rather than less. The strands are for now completely separate, but ongoing events mean they will likely soon reunite to face it. If anything, its pace is perhaps a little too measured as little of any real consequence initially takes place, but such a potential criticism is rendered moot by the events soon digging into the new mysteries.
Holden’s part sees him trying to stay out of things by overseeing repairs on the Rocinante, but true to one of the series’ central conceits, this puts him in exactly the right place to become embroiled in the most significant events currently transpiring in the Solar System. He first becomes involved after being contacted by reporter Monica Stewart (Anna Hopkins), always one to overestimate her own importance, who is investigating a plot to steal Fred Johnson’s (Chad L. Coleman) sample of the protomolecule, that eternal and unknowable force at the core of everything to have thus far happened in the series.
Despite being the series’ nominal lead, Holden has always been one of its least interesting characters, especially after being removed from the loss and tragedy with which he was introduced at the start of the series. His generic brand of heroism is utilised after Monica is abducted and left in a shipping container, which if nothing else proves that even in the far future, ruthless people kidnapping nosy journalists will never go out of fashion. The cuts between the frantic search for where she is being held and the trapped woman slowly dying alone calls to memory the similar search for Julie Mao in the first season, particularly when it seems like rescue arrived moments too late. Intentional or not, the callback is subverted and the reporter saved, although it isn’t made clear why she was left alive, since those who took her doubtless intend to kill a whole lot of people and one more body wouldn’t matter to them in the grand scheme of things. Anyway, it sets Holden on the hunt for those after the protomolecule to prevent the weapon falling into the wrong hands.
Amos enters things heading back to Earth via a shuttle to Luna, and in the same way Holden is a magnet for primary plotlines, he can’t seem to avoid getting into face-offs with anonymous thugs, this time a gang running a protection racket on the interplanetary journey. It’s so taken as read that when Amos picks a fight with a bunch of petty criminals he’ll come out on top that the action doesn’t even bother showing the fight in its entirety. Instead, it uses the moment for Amos to tacitly take stock of who he is, the person he was on Earth he thought he’d left behind, and if returning to his old stomping grounds might cause him to backslide. When you are a violent person, it can feel good to unleash it on people who unquestioningly deserve to be on the receiving end of it, but every time you do so it comes with the risk of that compulsion becoming ever stronger and it finding its own way out without you wanting it to. Sometimes when you cage the beast, the beast gets angry, you might say.
Events back on Earth introduces details of Amos’ life explicitly laid out in novella The Churn and expand on a previous throwaway comment that there was a crime boss from Amos’ Maryland hometown with the same name as him. It was intended to suggest that he was a gangster in his former life, as of all the central characters he has been most taciturn about his past, and his quick to anger nature would certainly fit the typical personality of a professional criminal. It’s a fantastic piece of misdirection, and revealed that Amos Burton isn’t his real name, the identity having been that of the crime lord referenced, and stolen by Amos after killing him so he could leave Earth and his miserable life behind. We also learn his original identity of Timmy, which is a name for a young boy rather than a fully grown muscular man and really doesn’t suit him, which is likely intentional to draw a distinct line between the two stages of his life.
As for Baltimore, it’s one of the few times we’ve seen Earth outwith the UN buildings, and is portrayed as a decaying crime-ridden wasteland full of rotting buildings, squat tenements surrounded by unkempt landscaping, roads hastily lain into dirt and streets cluttered with debris, with holographic billboards over gutted high-rises the only concession to the sci-fi setting. It establishes in moments the disparity existing between rich and poor as being just as wide as ever, if not even more so. It also relates that Earth is not the wealthy utopian paradise it is often referenced as by those unfamiliar with life on it, but somewhere just as fractured and broken as the newer nations of Mars and the Belt, with the same feelings of helpless isolation by people who fall through the cracks of its society. It’s a far cry from the high-tech sterility we’ve come to associate with the planet, and demonstrates that even as humanity spread out across the Solar System, the resource riches reaped did not benefit everyone on the home world.
Amos isn’t one often given to emotional sincerity, but his capacity for feeling is shown in his memories of Lydia (Stacey Roca), the now-deceased woman who was more of a mother to him than anyone and without whose guidance he would probably be dead, and with her passing there is now nothing for him left on the pale blue dot. The notion of family being what you make of it rather than being specifically bonded by blood is one of the core themes of the series, and while it’s most clearly portrayed with the crew of the Rocinante being closer to each other than they are their actual relatives, it can also welcomingly crop up in other places.
Amos’ demonstrable ability to feel compassion is also shown in his meeting with his old friend Erich (Jacob Mundell), now a gangster himself having taken over the organisation of the original Burton, and risks being mistaken for an enemy and killed just so he could demand Lydia’s husband Charles (Frankie Faison) be allowed to remain in his house. Of all the multiple plotlines, his is the most tangential to the primary story, yet is also the most compelling, demonstrating once again that the series’ strength is in its people rather than its futurism, if such a thing is even necessary any more.
Alex becomes more directly involved in the main plot after returning to Mars, but after being swiftly and not entirely unjustifiably rejected by the wife he left behind he becomes embroiled in Bobbie’s current mission, working undercover for Avasarala to investigate a black markets arms dealing network that has seen stolen Martian military hardware end up in the hands of terrorists. It was one of the series’ best creative decisions to keep Bobbie around as a more significant character than she is in the novels, and the groundwork lain on showing how she arrived at her current circumstances makes her attitude towards them easier to relate to and her presence more straightforward to accept.
Alex’s knowledge of Sauveterre (Tim DeKay), a Martian admiral, makes him declare there’s no way he would be behind the thefts, but as anyone who has ever watched a police procedural knows, it’s always the least obvious suspect who turns out to be guilty. This is pretty much confirmed when he is attacked after a night of fishing for information from Babbage (Lara Jean Chorostecki), the man’s lieutenant who expressed painfully insincere interest in Alex and was trying to find out why he was back on Mars.
Background details confirm the fear of many that with the Ring Gate now providing access to hundreds of Earthlike worlds, the work requires to terraform the Red Planet into something truly habitable is no longer considered worth the effort. The only future now perceived is one where the arid rock once thought to be humanity’s only alternative home is left to crumble into ashes along with the distinctive Spartan society housed within rocky subterranean buildings that attempted to tame it.
Naomi’s search for her son Filip (Jasai Chase-Owens) brings her into contact with old friends, whose brief earlier appearances mean it’s possible to not remember them as part of the team in the opening sequence who murdered a group of scientists, making their betrayal of her all the more of a surprise. Likewise, Filip himself was the one leading them, something Naomi will react badly to upon discovering it even as others will attempt to bring her around to their way of thinking.
Themes of identity beginning with Amos’ past continue with Naomi’s very existence, since she is damned as an outsider wherever she goes as a result of her background and choices, perpetually perceived as a woman of divided loyalties. More than anything, her voice continuing to fluctuate depending on who she’s talking to demonstrates her feeling that she never truly belongs anywhere, speaking in a generic East London accent when speaking to Earthers and Martians, but slipping into the Afro-Caribbean part of Belter Creole when she’s talking to other natives of the industrialised asteroid pseudo-nation.
Avasarala (Shohreh Aghdashloo) is currently exiled to Luna after being ousted from her position in the UN, and like many of her appearances, she interacts only tangentially with the other main characters. However, her determination to root out a terrorist plot demonstrates that tenacity and manipulation can be just as useful a skillset as battle prowess or flying skills, and it’s with her that much of what’s revealed eventually intersects.
Elsewhere, Drummer (Cara Gee) is back and more stoically badass than ever, the loss of Ashford affecting her more deeply than she would ever admit out loud, causing her to abandon what few ideals she had and turn to piracy. She manages to stay nearer to the sympathetic side of moral ambiguity by not destroying the ships she and her crew plunder, but it still doesn’t stop her from being essentially a glorified thief.
Despite her ruthlessness, finding Ashford’s ship abandoned and stripped of equipment hits her hard. Like Amos, she isn’t one given to expressing emotion, but upon confirming that Ashford is dead she allows herself to be seen as vulnerable, finding some solace in the arms and bed of a crewmate. On that subject, it’s made clear that she and her crew are all in a single polyamorous relationship without jealousy or possessiveness, not dwelling on the matter but merely portraying greater sexual freedom as something not out of the ordinary that the future developed towards.
Her presence in the series is a composite of several supporting characters from the novels, but far from someone merely there to fill in the gaps more consistently she has grown into one of the series’ more compelling presences, coming with the certainty that whenever she’s on screen things won’t be boring.
The episodes each run with a strong theme involving people left behind; principally Alex’s family, Naomi’s son, and those of Amos’ past. It reminds us that everyone has their own lives independent of the principal heroes, and even though they don’t become embroiled in events that alter the very course of humanity’s development as a species and emerging position of interstellar prominence, their lives are just as important and carry on regardless of the momentous affairs taking place around them.
As consistently strong as the character portrayal and development is, that certainly doesn’t mean the effects work has been skimped on, which on the contrary continues to be superlative. Visuals like the corona-tinted empty blackness of deep space, the cavernous extent of Tycho’s shipyard, the richly detailed outer hulls of various spaceships and the exposed domes of extraterrestrial buildings all bring to life the extent of the advanced engineering required to allow our fragile human forms to exist beyond the surface of our home.
Likewise, attention to detail pulls you further into the setting, such as a drink Avasarala pours falling slowly into the glass to account for the Moon’s reduced gravity, similar to the angles liquid was seen to fall on Ceres in season 1, Amos having taken Murtry’s kit bag after the security thug was taken down last season, or blood from Monica’s cut hand being pulled towards a breach in the airtight seal of the shipping container held in the vacuum of Tycho’s docking hanger.
The opening also introduces Marco Inaros (Keon Alexander), the most wanted criminal in the Solar System and leader of the Free Navy, a particularly militant faction of the O.P.A. who was periodically seen in the previous season plotting the overthrow of Ashford in the belief the separatist group isn’t being aggressive enough, and who every non-Ilus subplot of its story ultimately led back to in setup for the events of this one. Like any revolutionary leader he will need to be possessed of a dark charisma to match his ruthlessness, and while this isn’t shown in any real manner, the seeds of it are planted in a recording viewed by Avasarala, in which he’s shown rallying a band of rebel Belters. The language he uses is familiar to anyone who has observed how the disenfranchised are swayed to a person’s way of thinking, playing into their feelings of isolation and disregard by larger powers they do not and can’t ever have any control over, and it’ll be interesting to see how much of what he says he actually believes in, and how much is empty rhetoric used to sway those he can subvert to his cause.
It’s unlikely to be a coincidence that his speech extolling the virtues of instilling fear is juxtaposed with a giant hologram memorial to a tragedy displayed just long enough to establish that the event will have some importance to be revealed at a later date. As magnificent a series as The Expanse is, sometimes its foreshadowing lacks a certain degree of subtlety, and there is a non-zero chance that Inaros was responsible for the disaster the monument immortalises.
Although only appearing for a few scant moments across the episodes, his presence is strongly felt, greatest of all in the third episode’s closing moments when the first phase of his plan comes to fruition, and a meteor too small to be observed by Earth’s orbital defences crashes into the sea off the South African coast, instigating the series main event and instantly raising the stakes involved.
Whether it was narratively intentional or merely a happy numerical coincidence, this triple-episode opening of season 5 of The Expanse functions perfectly as an introduction to a new plotline, continuing the personal journey of each of its central characters while announcing a dangerous new threat, and one far more human than many thus far faced. When thinking back over the episodes it’s sometimes difficult to remember which events happened in which part as each of them coalesce into a single viewing experience, and one that sets us up nicely for the rest of the season and its battle against an encroaching manmade Armageddon.
- The continuing focus on character rather than spectacle
- The decision to split the main cast providing an expansive scope
- The visual effects work
- Fleshing out Amos’ backstory
- Highlighting Amos’ capacity for compassion
- Not repeating Julie’s death with Monica
- The powerful theme of leaving people behind
- Naomi’s story expressing themes of identity
- Drummer showing some vulnerability
- The various plot threads coming together
- The spectacular ending
- Little of consequence happening for some time
- Some clumsy foreshadowing
- Naomi’s story being suspended midway
- Amos’ story being left hanging
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