“You’re such a fucking optimist.”
When Chrisjen Avasarala (Shohreh Aghdashloo) first leveled this charge, some seven years and two networks ago, at newly minted folk hero James Holden (Steven Strait), it was with a sense of exasperated superiority. The solar system was at war; idealism, as far as the undersecretary of the United Nations was concerned, was for children. If it could promise anything, it was only strategic failure and early death.
When she flung these same words at him in the series finale, “Babylon’s Ashes,” it was (perhaps unsurprisingly) with an equal sense of exasperation. But where the Avasarala of Season 1 anchored her exasperation in the certainty that her decades of political experience guiding Earth through both its Cold War with Mars and its colonialist chokehold on the Belt put her in the right, the Avasarala of Season 6 knows enough to understand that Holden’s particular brand of heroic optimism isn’t just laudable, but necessary. Which is to say, when the Avasarala of “Babylon’s Ashes” calls Holden a fucking optimist, it’s with humility. Exasperated humility, sure. But humility all the same.
Delightfully, the actions Holden takes to provoke Avasarala’s exasperation have stayed wholly, bull-headedly consistent: from his seizure of the Roci after the explosion of the Cant to his surprise abdication as the first president of the Transport Union, to the many suicide missions he and the crew of the Roci took to prevent needless suffering and death in the episodes between. As far as Holden has always been concerned, what we each do for each other, both individually and collectively, means something. And when something is right, it’s just… right. It doesn’t matter if it’s hard, or dangerous, or even monumentally, heroically stupid. It doesn’t matter if it bruises your ego. If it’s the right thing to do—and you can even attempt to do it—you should. To put it more plainly, Holden reaches the end of The Expanse no less than what he was at the beginning: A fucking optimist.
It’s to the show’s credit that this theme, even in the mad rush of this final, short season, never turned didactically pat. It’s always helped, of course, that Holden’s fairy-tale optimism has been filtered through his friends and co-conspirators. Avasarala’s foul-mouthed excoriation of his every stupid heroic move has dimmed whatever saintly glow might have blinded the audience after his greatest victories. Meanwhile, the various frustrations, doubts, and mixed allegiances felt along the way by Amos (Wes Chatham), Naomi (Dominique Tipper), Alex (Cas Anvar), Bobbie (Frankie Adams), and Drummer (Cara Gee) have obliged us to weigh his optimism against the complicated chill of reality on a regular basis. Similarly helpful has been the fact that Holden—in beautifully efficient counterpoint to the series’ prolix final villain, Marco Inaros (Keon Alexander)—has never not been almost clinically taciturn*. Nevertheless, be a good person, do good deeds is legitimate fairy tale, “moral of the story” territory. That The Expanse found a way for Holden’s optimism to be a robust, realistic solution in the face of intergalactic war and the aftermath of genocide—it’s impressive.
(*Holden’s commitment to speaking only what needs to be spoken is just one of the many ways in which The Expanse has consistently used silence to its benefit, a practice the writers stick to even in these final, action-stuffed episodes. And it’s not just the act of silence The Expanse wields like a scalpel, it’s the quality of each silence, calibrated precisely to the scene and context in question. Thick silence in the vacuum of space as the Roci moves in and out of position; flat silence inside airlocks as crews bob carefully through; or comfortably solid silence between characters who know their business. All of it is constructive. All of it is beautiful.)
Evading moral didacticism isn’t the only miracle The Expanse whipped up in its last whirlwind run. I mean, six episodes hardly constitute a full season under normal streaming conditions. To pull off a narratively complete and emotionally satisfying series finale of a show as sprawling and ambitious as The Expanse in not even half a dozen hours? Madness! And yet, with only a few plot-stuffing hiccups along the way—from Clarissa’s (Nadine Nicole) awkward mid-shift monologue to Holden about why she hated him enough to become a killer, to Prax (Terry Chen), Reverend Anna (Elizabeth Mitchell), and Dr. Okoye’s (Lyndie Greenwood) brief (but pointedly critical) cameos just handing our heroes the tools and/or information they desperately needed, at the moment they needed it—The Expanse managed just that.
To walk through every little miracle the show achieved this season would take ages (I mean, just watch the show!), but to summarize a few of the biggest:
Marco Inaros and the Free Navy: Beaten by a combination of Marco’s own hubris, thinking he could bomb and starve his own people into launching him to guaranteed victory, and Naomi using some science-y magic to both interpret and weaponize the mysterious red entities swallowing the occasional ship whole whenever travel through the Rings reached a certain energy threshold. Five or six more episodes and we might have had more time to both live with the mystery of the red entities and see how Marco built his own gallows with his overreach on Ceres. But watching him lose the confidence of his son (Jasai Chase Owens), get shut out by the man behind his “secret weapon” on Laconia, and then fade into red mid-victory cackle, all in quick succession? Extremely satisfying.
Filip: Marcos and Naomi’s son was always going to make mistakes, grow up, and have the scales fall from his eyes about his father’s dangerous monomania. So the big reveal that he took a skiff off the Pella before it was eaten by the red entities was, while certainly a relief, less a surprise than it was an inevitability. Again, Filip’s arc would have been so much more satisfying had it had even a handful of additional episodes to play out. Going from committing “righteous” genocide against distant Earthers to shooting your closest friend in the chest for questioning your status as the son of the Belt’s Great Redeemer to realizing that maybe you’re the baddie in barely half a dozen episodes is, after all, a tough sell. But thanks to the work Dominique Tipper had been putting in as Filip’s bereft, desperate mother since before Chase-Owens even came on the scene—up to and including the wailing grief we see her go through after she pushes the button that triggers the red entities eating the Pella—his heel-turn nevertheless comes off as real. (Now, whether he took his only friend, Tadeo, with him before the Pella went into battle, that’s unclear. I just have to hope he did.)
Alex, Bobbie & Clarissa (AKA the new Rocinante): Losing Alex at the end of Season 5, even if the move was predicated on a serious situation behind the scenes, was an enormous blow. But while the Roci’s original pilot may have been physically absent in these final six episodes, he was spiritually present in every one. Much as his death from a random stroke after too many high-G runs recontextualized the dangers of even everyday space travel for both his crewmates and the audience, his absence recontextualized what it means to be a member of the Roci family, as they had to pull themselves together into a new working configuration as the season wore on. Barring the one truly awkward speech Clarissa aims at Holden’s exhausted face mentioned above, her integration in the crew is organic and satisfying. Similarly organic is Bobbie’s return to the fold both during the war with Marco and for the long haul after the war is won (if the final scene is to be believed). Once again, more episodes would have made each of these journeys that much richer. But thanks to a handful of small, quietly domestic scenes—Amos and Bobbie singing to Alex’s old country songs while doing little repairs on their gear in the shop bay; Clarissa and Holden joking about how much salt she uses when eating red kibble; Bobbie goofing around with the Roci’s controls when she takes the helm for the first time as the ship’s new pilot—the series achieves remarkable depth all the same.
Drummer: If ever a woman existed who could take generations of Belters’ grievances against the Inners and build a bridge to a better future, Camina Drummer is that woman. Much as her seething knee-bending to Marco made sense in Season 5, her full-throated refusal to stay bent this season was inevitable, too. From day one her only goal has been to make life better for her fellow beltalowda. Whether any Belter was going to be able to swallow their pride deep enough to work with Avasarala and the rest of the Inners to end Marco’s war was maybe the biggest question going into the finale, but once we got to Drummer’s weeping “fuck you, fuck you, fuck you, fuck you” into Naomi’s shoulder, it was clear that it really shouldn’t have been. Rather than being her downfall, her pride was what helped her see a path forward in the end. And now, thanks to her very good (and unintentionally but undeniably funny) scheme with Holden regarding the three peoples’ collective future to elevate her to the first (well, second) ever president of the Transport Union, the Belters are finally on equal footing with the Inners.
And the Protomolecule? Ah, the one resolution we 100% didn’t get. For all the showrunners have underscored how they didn’t see Amazon’s announcement that Season 6 would be the series’ last as a “cancellation,” they certainly didn’t hide the fact they’d be ready and waiting should another streamer (or even linear network) be interested in picking up The Expanse for a few more seasons. I mean, how else do you explain the fact that, despite having just six measly hours of storytelling to wind down a story as complex and expansive as this one, the creative team nevertheless spent precious stretches of time in each episode on a small-scale story about a little girl we’d never before met, interacting with (expensively rendered) local fauna we’d never before seen, on one of the ring planets the Roci had never before visited?
Now, readers of the James S.A. Corey series from which The Expanse was adapted will have recognized the little girl as Cara (Emma Ho), a character from later books. They’ll also know that the confidently sinister Martian man she meets at her brother’s funeral in the fourth episode is Admiral Duarte (Dylan Taylor), the next antagonist the Roci locks horns with after the fall of Marco Inaros. But for your average viewer (me, included)? These references will have been completely illegible. Should Season 6 be the last one we truly ever get, it will be hard for me not to begrudge the time spent building towards a theoretical next chapter that might have better been used to flesh out Naomi’s investigation of the red entities living inside the Rings, or Clarissa’s integration into the crew, or even whatever greater impact Prax, Reverend Anna, or Dr. Okoye might have had, had they been given more than 30 seconds of screentime. That said, if having shown this much willingness to keep The Expanse’s story going ends up netting the show a third improbable network to call home, it would be a dream.
In the meantime, I will stay grateful for the fact that The Expanse got to be the show it wanted to be, and end with the message Holden’s been trying to get across from the beginning: You’ve got to follow your conscience in the hopes others will follow theirs, and commit to the hard work of collective action to build a future where everyone matters.
And if you snag yourself some legitimate salvage as dependable as the Roci along the way? Well, that’s just a bonus.
All six seasons of The Expanse are streaming now on Prime Video
Alexis Gunderson is a TV critic and audiobibliophile. She can be found @AlexisKG.
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