The Expanse – Season 6 Episode 1
The Expanse begins its final season in a measured manner, bringing us up to date with the state of the war against Marco Inaros and his Free Navy, and demonstrating the toll the conflict is taking on all those involved.
The primary focus of The Expanse has always been its characters, with any sci-fi shenanigans and high-tech plot devices a close but distinct second. We go into the final season in much the same way; even though interplanetary war is currently raging, what’s important is how it’s affecting the combatants and those who bear the brunt of any attacks.
It’s been six months since Inaros took control of the Ring Gate and with it humanity’s access to habitable exoplanets. With the loss of the interstellar wormholes, along with the Belt now a fully-fledged enemy, the betrayal of rogue Martian navy vessels, and the secession of various space stations, Earth, once the mightiest power in the Solar System, is trapped in a defensive position and all but helpless against Inaros’ asteroid strikes devastating the planet’s surface.
An introductory montage relates the destruction the attacks are raining down on the pale blue dot, showing flashes of impact explosions, cities in flames, clouds of smoke so thick they blot out the sun, destroyed buildings, and tent cities of refugee camps. Despite the efficiency of the pseudo-stock footage, it’s only when we get an actual snapshot of the world that the ruination truly hits home, seeing Bobbie and Avasarala looking over the desolation of dead plains that were once prosperous with food growth. The dim lighting and snowy countryside demonstrate in a moment the passively destructive effects of dust clouds from the meteor impacts choking the planet’s atmosphere. Avasarala even states “it’s like a goddamn nuclear winter,” only with the weapons bringing it about being considerably less finite than the Earth’s atomic arsenal. It seems that the politician only managed to re-attain power in time to govern wastelands of spreading permafrost and a homeworld gradually becoming uninhabitable.
Next up, we rejoin the core of the show, the crew of the Rocinante, scouting deep space for Inaros’ vessels and running afoul of one of them. The space battle is brief but intense and shows that even though they might be diminished in the skill at their disposal, they’re still a force to be reckoned with when it comes to zero-G dogfights. Despite this, the physical and psychological exhaustion of each of them is made clear without words. War is not just about the battles that dictate its development, but also includes everything in between. No matter how hardened a warrior, a person can only take so much of the relentless vigilance required to maintain your safety, and right now none of them are able to see an end to the current conflict that doesn’t involve the Earth’s – and their – destruction. Nevertheless, they feel compelled to do what they can to prevent such an outcome because to do anything less would be to defy who they are.
Although it was tacitly suggested at the end of the last season that Bull was going to take over as the Rocinante’s pilot after Alex’s sudden death, since he’s now nowhere to be seen it would appear that idea was scrapped. Although his continued presence would have been a good fit, he was likely dropped because adding another core character to an already large ensemble would unnecessarily complicate an already taught narrative, especially now that Clarissa has come aboard.
Speaking of whom, the presence of the socialite-turned-conspirator-turned-prisoner-turned-mechanic is inauspiciously established by organising some post-battle repair work with Amos. Although the potential awkwardness from her presence has largely been skipped over, partly due to the time that’s passed and partly for narrative efficiency, she certainly hasn’t been welcomed by all on board the ship. Amos’ typically pragmatic attitude towards the universe at large means it took merely a small mental adjustment to accept Clarissa, augmented by his experiences with her on Earth last season, but Naomi’s hostility is plain even by saying little. Amos does allude to Naomi also having some shady activities in her past, but while it might be a valid observation using it to score points in an argument is stepping over a line, which she quite rightly calls him on. Regardless, Clarissa genuinely wanting to atone for all she’s done will likely be a recurring theme throughout the season.
Redemption is something you have to work to achieve, but it’s also something others have to let you work towards. While framing you as part of a conspiracy and attempting to orchestrate your death is a lot to move past, at the same time attempting to survive against the forces of a megalomaniac who wants to see you dead above little else is a matter that should take some precedence. It’s likely that Clarissa will later have the opportunity to prove herself unreservedly, but for now she’ll have to just deal with the brunt of Naomi’s distrust. There’s also the point that having spent much of last season’s events edging ever-closer to death while displaying a mental and physical fortitude few could match, Naomi naturally has little headspace to deal with someone she has no wish to trust her life to. Unusually, Holden doesn’t have anything to say on the matter, possibly because as the captain he can’t be seen to take sides, especially when his lover is one of them, and also because doing so would create disharmony at a time when it can be ill afforded. Besides, more pressing matters arise that pull things into the main plot.
They discover an asteroid with a drive engine bolted into its rock, explaining just how Inaros has been able to orchestrate such precision strikes against Earth, and figure out that a ship has been signalling them to fly towards Earth. Although nothing more comes of it this episode, it offers a glimmer of hope that Inaros’ planetary assaults can be curtailed and millions of lives can be saved.
The antagonist side of things finds us back on Ceres Station, the de facto capital of Inaros’ new Belter Nation, which has now also become some interplanetary Tortuga where space raiders come to unwind after a few days of hunting detractors. Like Alexander the Great, whose birthplace and imperial capital his ship is named after, Inaros has no more worlds to conquer, and with the near-defeat of his enemies his leadership now turns towards actually running his cultural union freed from the servitude of the inner planets. He might have dreamed of the Belt being liberated from the control of others, and while he certainly loves the adulation and chanting of his name every time he enters a room, now that he’ actually achieved it, it seems as though the practicalities of running a country don’t interest him enough to actively engage with them.
Filip, meanwhile, is embracing his position of prince of the new nation by screwing every young woman in sight, evidently of the opinion that they should drop to his feet in worship purely on account of who he is. The sense of entitlement from both being Inaros’ son and believing the adulation his father bathes in should also be reflected in how others act towards him, as well as the part he played in the fight against Earth and Mars, have turned him into an insufferable brat. Like many people with an overinflated sense of self-importance, he doesn’t understand that respect is something that by its very nature cannot be demanded, but rather earned. After hitting on an attractive bartender older than the simpering girls throwing themselves at him and thus far less impressed by the arrogant posturing of an immature young man, he learns that his opinion of himself isn’t always reflected in that of others.
It’s important to remember that despite looking barely seven years younger than his parents, Filip is supposed to only be about 16, and being thrust into a position of prominence at such a young age goes some way towards explaining his rash decisions and thoughtless actions, if not actually excusing them. Certainly, his shooting his best friend in a burst of anger is taking such justification a bit far, and whether or not his father deems such an action as acceptable remains to be seen. Given Inaros’ demonstrable opinion that fear and control is the best way of keeping underlings in check he may well laud his son for not taking any crap, but alternatively he may point out that the display of lethal petulance could backfire from people starting to distrust him.
There’s also the tacit suggestion that Filip is suffering from PTSD as a result of being a part of killing so many people, but likely believes that voicing or demonstrating such problems will be seen an weakness, since even two centuries in the future mental health considerations have progressed little. His driving force has been less a steadfast belief in his father’s dream of a free Belt, and more the craving of his approval and wanting to be seen a worthy in his eyes, in much the same way many young people crave any kind of parental validation. There’s also the matter than as well as having his father’s militaristic determinism, he’s also in some ways his mother’s son, still not so fully bereft of her quiet nobility that he doesn’t feel the guilt over what he’s done weighing down on him.
Establishing the status quo in Ceres Station also highlights one of the episode’s points of detraction, specifically Anderson Dawes being written out with a throwaway line of Marco offhandedly stating he killed him. Despite not having actually appeared in the series since season 2, Dawes’ shadow as an influential and powerful figure in the OPA, not to mention his important role in Babylon’s Ashes, the novel from which this season is largely adapted, means he can’t be ignored. Unfortunately, he couldn’t be included due to Jared Harris’ unavailability as a result of commitments to filming Foundation, and his absence had to be addressed. Unfortunately, it doesn’t follow that Inaros would have killed Dawes simply because he “got tired of listening what he had to say,” even for a man frequently seen to order and carry out summary executions of allies and underlings, and instead feels like a cheap excuse we’re expected to just accept.
Elsewhere, Drummer and her crew of the Tynan are having an even worse time in space than their sometime allies as a result of having to hide from bounty hunters and eke out survival from scavenging wrecks floating in space. A mistake by Michio almost leads to their destruction, leading to the decision being made to leave her behind. It may be due to the character being a little superfluous, given that she is one of several individuals from the novels whose exploits were merged into Drummer’s story arc to better streamline the TV series’ narrative. Regardless, Michio’s imminent departure also demonstrates the strength of the found family by which the Tynan operates. She is not primarily being ditched on account of her being a liability, but rather because being left somewhere would be the safest place for someone whose current mental state isn’t conducive to dealing with being at constant risk of attack and fiery death.
As well as the returning regulars, there’s also the matter of the episode’s cold open featuring Cara, a little girl on a distant planet, being fascinated by some of the titular critters. This is Laconia, one of many colonised worlds accessed through the Ring Gate, but crucially the one where the rogue Martian navy is based and above which floats the mysterious behemoth being used as an experiment in using the protomolecule for construction that was seen seemingly coming to life in the closing moments of season 5. The events adapt the opening of a novella that has the same title as this episode and provides a backstory for a minor character in eighth novel Tiamat’s Wrath. However, since this season will see the end of the series it could well be that elements from the rest of the novels may be incorporated to bring the saga to a true conclusion, meaning that Inaros and the might of the Free Navy might not be the only dangers Holden and his allies will have to face.
“Strange Dogs” is a measured but compelling opening that continues what we’ve come to expect of The Expanse over the years, with its focus on character moments rather than action or visual effects keeping the story engaging. It deftly portrays the realities of war, not just armed combatants facing off against each other and the psychological toll it takes on them that’s often portrayed as all conflict consists of, but also how each opposing nation can continue to actually function during hostilities. The mounting tension begins pushing us towards a final confrontation, while also slowly setting up the cosmic forces that could bring things to a conclusion.
- the measured establishment of the new status quo
- the portrayal of the psychological effects of being at war
- the balance of determination and emotion among Drummer’s crew
- the increasingly desperate state of life on Earth
- the moral conflicts of Naomi and Filip
- The inconsistency of Anderson Dawes’ off-screen death
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