Editor’s note: The following contains spoilers from Season Three of The Expanse, including tonight’s season finale.
After all the pain and death, you just flip a switch and we’re free to go? Nice try. I think the gates are what you planned from the beginning. Are we, humanity, now a part of that plan? I don’t think you did that out of the goodness of your heart. It was never about helping us. We know all of our divisions, all of our hatreds. They didn’t just magically disappear the moment you set us free. You’ve given us a new frontier, 1,300 habitable systems on the other side of those gates outside those rings. We’ll go. You know we can’t resist. It’s going to be another blood-soaked gold rush. Am I scared? Yeah, you’re goddamned right I’m scared. And I think you know why. I saw that the civilization that built the rings is gone, wiped out. What could have killed them? —James Holden, “Abbadon’s Gate”
One of the quieter tensions of SyFy’s gorgeously cinematic space joint, The Expanse— which just wrapped its third, literally stellar season—pulses out from the Martians’ and Belters’ bone-deep sense of something lost in their disconnection from Earth, some integral part of what it means to be human, cut off and long gone but still, constantly, aching—like a phantom limb, if the limb were part of one’s soul.
This sounds poetic, but as Outer Planet Alliance rabble-rouser Heikki Sabong (Joe Delfin) and Martian Marine Bobbie Draper (Frankie Adams) demonstrate—the first through gravity-based torture in Season One, the second through a nauseated, gritted-teeth, hobbling march to the dirtiest edge of the ocean in Season Two—this loss is tangibly real, and its symptoms crushingly physical.
Blood-Ox booster. Muscle fatigue inhibitor. Osteo-X rapid bone density enhancer. Anti-blinding, high-opacity wraparound sunshades. Horizon-orientating asanas. Life for humans living beyond a bone-fortifying 1G environment, without fresh atmosphere, in domes or on ships with no horizons with which to develop a healthy sense of equilibrioception and no sky in which diffuse sunlight might train the eyes for the brightness of day, is so distinctly other from life on Earth that before a Martian or a Belter can’t even think of setting foot on terra firma, an entire medical regime must be undertaken. For Martians, seen by the United Nations (Earth’s superseding authority) as enemy extremist separatists, the very invitation that would precede the medical regime is entirely political and nearly impossible to net. For Belters, flung out to the edges of civilization and left to struggle in overpopulation and poverty, the funds to afford both the medical regime and the deep space trip simply don’t exist. Meanwhile, Earthers have let their air and oceans and cities turn to garbage, while the political elite sashay their way through intellectual (and sometimes not-so-intellectual) wargames.
No wonder the system, as the third season began, found humanity’s resentment boiled over into full-on interplanetary war. And no wonder the survivors, as the season wrapped, ultimately found it impossible to trust one another to make the right decisions in the face of cold alien infinity. As both The Expanse and we all know: Being human may be the thing that binds us all together, but it is also the greatest obstacle to peace that we will ever face.
Earth, flashpoint though it is, ultimately took a backseat this season, as the Earth-Mars war the first two seasons were always leading to flung itself, along with the show’s top Earther avatar, UN Undersecretary Chrisjen Avasarala (Shohreh Aghdashloo), deeper and deeper into space. But just because the bulk of the season’s action took place either in the black or on outer planet moons and stations doesn’t mean Earth’s legacy as the source of what it means to be human didn’t loom so large that it nearly suffocated half the season’s characters. With all the work the Seasons One and Two did to communicate the soul-deep significance of Earth in the imagination of all humankind, the planet didn’t need to be in Season Three to have impact. It needed, in fact, to not. Not to be the staging ground of any of the war’s battles; not to be in danger of desolation from the fallout of any of the battles; not to be the source of the nuclear warheads that eventually stopped traitor Errinwright’s (Shawn Doyle) moon-bound protomolecule hybrids from prolonging the war by making it to Mars.
It needed not to have a protomolecule sample of its own, and not to have its only competent politician (Avasarala) on the ground, and not, from the start of war to the end, to have any moral ground to stand on. And once the war was over, and the seventh episode opened on the solitary Belter racer executing high-G loops in the black to impress his girl, his haters, and all the inners who ever doubted the Belters’ value, Earth absolutely needed not to be the setting of any plot whatsoever.
From that bloody point on, it wasn’t. And by the end of the season—and especially in tonight’s two-hour finale—it was Earth’s absence juxtaposed against the epic mystery of the protomolecule gate at the end of the solar system that drew out the most soul-pounding existential turns from everyone who approached contact with it, not just our mixed-allegiance crew aboard the Rocinante, but also the representatives of Earth and Mars trying to beat each other to first contact, and the first Belter Navy trying to run with them as big dogs, and self-consciously selfish Methodist minister Anna Volovodov (Elizabeth Mitchell), so excited to see the edge of the known she was willing to leave her wife and daughter back on Earth, and disgraced socialite Clarissa Mao (Nadine Nicole), bent on avenging her father by killing James Holden (Steven Strait), and the joyriding Belter racer so anxious to give inners the middle finger he smashed himself into a spray of blood racing headlong into the gate, and even—especially—the shell-shocked Earther soldier aboard the U.N. science vessel commissioned to study the ring who died unceremonially of suicide as he was faced with the likelihood that Earth might ultimately have no meaning at all.
Earth wasn’t a part of any of Season Three’s final stretch, and yet it was everywhere.
To backtrack a bit to that midseason story shift mentioned above—one of the reasons, I think, that The Expanse never gained the wild mainstream success for SyFy that either that network’s previous highly-produced projects have, or that similarly ambitious genre dramas over on other, more prestige-y networks have (cough Westworld cough), is that too many genre shows with compoundingly dense and sweeping stories take as their mantra, “the only way out is through.” But one of the ways out, The Expanse is happy to keep showing us, is to simply open the door to the next room. It did this back in the middle of Season Two when it put the button on Detective Miller’s (Thomas Jane) protomolecule-assisted femme fatale hunt and then shook off any residual narrative drag by launching the story months into the future, and it did it again in this season’s sixth episode when, in an explosion of Earth’s protomolecule-infected battle charger, it revealed the treasonous con at the heart the Civil War that had been raging more or less off-screen for six episodes as the Rocinante tracked down a missing kid, then launched the story months into the future once again, skipping right over Avasarala’s ascendancy to U.N. Secretary and dropping us, disoriented, straight into an entirely new narrative landscape.
What has resulted from these huge leaps forward is not just a growing agility in the show’s overall storytelling, but the chance for characters we love to get to fall into fresh arcs of emotional development, without all the plodding that it would normally take to get there. In this season’s sharp left turn, we saw that utility play out in especially compelling ways as James Holden (Steven Strait) faced both burgeoning celebrity and mental breakdown as the Roci was infected by the protomolecule-hologram-ghost of Miller, as Naomi Nagata (Dominique Tipper) had to interrogate her warring Roci-Belter identities (complete with warring brogues!) from her new position as Chief Engineer for the Belter Navy, and as Captain Drummer (Cara Gee) and Commander Ashford (David Strathairn) went to ideological war over what the overall Belter identity in the network of human governments should be.
It was equally compelling to watch as newly reinstated Martian Marine Bobby (Frankie Adams) had to set her conscience against her allegiance yet again, as Anna moved from being the conscripted voice of moral reason for the U.N. Secretary during the war to the voluntary voice of ministerial curiosity aboard the U.N.’s science vessel sent to study the gate, and as Anna’s call to compassionately “do what has to be done” came up against the same call the Roci’s resident fighter, Amos (Wes Chatham), hears when “what has to be done” is not compassion, but violence. (In the calmness with which he initiates and ends violence, and quiet disconnect he has from predictable human behavior, Amos is, just as an aside, the most fascinating character in a sea of fascinating characters. More Amos, Amazon, please and thank you.)
This kind of storytelling may ultimately not have won the audience that the series needed to stay on SyFy, or to compete with other current genre shows with Very Big Ideas, but it did at least win the confidence of Amazon, which picked it up for a fourth season after its cancelation. This is a loss for cable TV, but a win for the cast and crew on the show—and it’s validation of the kind of storytelling The Expanse has been interested in from the beginning. After all, streaming is where the team always saw this going: As series co-creator Mark Fergus noted (prophetically!) in our interview with him, “The show lives on beyond broadcast. When the show is said and done, people will watch it in a linear, streamed kind of way, or they’ll binge it or whatever. It will be a straight line, so you can’t really worry about the season enders and the rhythm of the show, at least in terms of the big pauses in between. If you look at it as a big book, by the end of it, it’s five seasons—or seven seasons, or whatever we get—and it’s one big, long story.”
And given Holden’s portentous monologue to holograph-ghost Miller at the end of tonight’s finale, a monologue that caught hold not just of the big sci-fi protomolecule story but all the internecine human misery and striving those sci-fi threads weave in and out of, that big long story is one I can’t wait to keep watching.
Seasons One and Two of The Expanse are now streaming on Amazon Prime. The final five episodes of Season Three are available on SyFy.com.
Alexis Gunderson is a TV critic whose writing has appeared on Forever Young Adult, Screener, and Birth.Movies.Death. She’ll go ten rounds fighting for teens and intelligently executed genre fare to be taken seriously by pop culture. She can be found @AlexisKG.