Season 5 of The Expanse Goes Big by Getting Small

Finally, a reason to be grateful to be living on Earth in the year 2020.

TV Reviews The Expanse
Season 5 of The Expanse Goes Big by Getting Small

It seemed impossible, after Burn Gorman’s villainous guest turn in Season 4, that The Expanse would be able to introduce anyone more exquisitely poisonous than his corporate merc, Adolphus Murtry. And yet here we are in Season 5, and here is the Belters’ new would-be leader, Marco Inaros (Keon Alexander). With only three episodes of the season’s 10 dropping this Wednesday (the rest will roll out on a weekly basis, until the season finale on February 3), to say much more than that would break embargo, but suffice it to say: dude’s not just bad news—he’s an existential nightmare.

But of course, he’d have to be. Or, at least, someone would have to be. This is, after all, The Expanse we’re talking about, a series that started with an Earther trade tycoon (Jules-Pierre Mao) trying to turn war profiteer by exploiting a mysterious alien protomolecule with the ability to turn human bodies into bright blue crystal farms from the inside out, and only spiraled into deeper astro-philosophical minefields from there. If James Holden (Steven Strait), Chrisjen Avasarala (Shohreh Aghdashloo), and Bobbie Draper (Frankie Adams) are back in their respective solar corners, then you can absolutely bet someone new has stepped up, galactically massive ego in tow, to put the fate of all humanity on the line. This time around, it’s Marco Inaros’ turn.

Setting Marco up as the season’s grand existential antagonist ends up being the most familiar and compelling move the series makes in its new set of episodes. Don’t misunderstand—all the pieces The Expanse fans love are still in play, from Amos (Wes Chatham) dispassionately busting skulls to Camina Drummer (Cara Gee) glaring rail-daggers through anyone who crosses her, to Avasarala cursing her way into the highest (like, to-the-Moon highest) halls of power while dressed to the jewel-toned nines. But where fans might be expecting to see Amos bust those skulls with Holden, Naomi (Dominique Tipper), and Alex (Cas Anvar) around to keep him grounded, or Drummer glare those rail-daggers while working to help the Belters achieve peaceful stability, or Avasarala doing her power-sweeping through the halls of the UN, loving husband and/or Bobbie just a call away, this season finds them all scattered across the solar system, thrown into settings and character combinations we’ve never seen.

In practice, this finds Holden left alone with the in-repair Roci on Tycho station, no one but Fred Johnson (Chad L. Coleman), his Chief of Ops, Bull (José Zúñiga), and Monica (Anna Hopkins)—the journalist who tricked Holden’s crew into giving away the Ring’s secrets in Season 3—left to keep him company. Amos is off to Earth, on a pilgrimage back to Baltimore to tie up loose ends following the death of the woman who raised him; Alex is off to Mars to try to make things up to his wife and son; Naomi is off to Pallas Station to try and find her own son, who Marco’s abusive bullying had forced her to abandon when he was just an infant. Avasarala, meanwhile, has not only been banished by the new UN Secretary General to a humiliating (for her) ambassador gig on Luna, but she’s officially on the outs with her husband, who had given her an ultimatum between her job and him and come away disappointed. Bobbie and Drummer are the closest to where we’ve seen them before—Bobbie, working secretly in Avasarala’s service to try and root out corruption in the Martian Navy, Drummer leading her new ketubah faction on salvage runs around the Belt—but really, that’s only because they’d isolated themselves from their respective institutional worlds in Season 4. They’re both still, like the rest of the Earth-Mars-Belter crew we’ve grown accustomed to seeing mostly together, most of the time (Avasarala excepted), thrown so far apart from the rest, they’re more or less tasked with facing the various threats of Season 5 alone.

Now, how well this will work for you will absolutely vary. Having its core characters so dramatically isolated means that the action in Season 5 is, by necessity, much slower than a lot of fans will be used to—and The Expanse already had the capacity to be a pretty slow show. (A generous description would be meditative, but an honest one might allow for ponderous.) The pace does pick up some starting in Episode 4—the first three episodes, which drop together on December 16, serve mostly to set all the characters we know up in places and with other characters we don’t—but it doesn’t pick up much. Mostly, by then the new places and new characters are just familiar enough that it’s easier to care about their stories, and how they interact with our core heroes. Personally, I dig the change in pace; getting to know more about Amos, Naomi, and Alex without Holden’s heroic shadow hanging around is really satisfying, as is seeing Avasarala out of her element. I’m also much more willing to appreciate Season 5 taking a chance to breathe, knowing that Season 6, when it comes, will be the series’ last. (The last, at least, for now.) But for fans who want a bit more going on than a bunch of solo heroes working through their own long, dark teatimes of the soul, I can see it being a bit of a slog.

That said, a bit of a slog, when it comes to The Expanse, is still a deeply satisfying, multisensory experience, and for all that the interpersonal stories are smaller this season, it is still as beautiful to look at as ever. The Belter ships and stations are so full of texture, the Martian cities so lived-in and vast, the UN settlements on Luna so crisp, it’s a challenge to remember they’re not real places where real people live and work. So, too, the Baltimore of future-Amos’ youth, and the Chesapeake conservation park he goes to visit Clarissa (Nadine Nicole) in before heading back into orbit. (I live by several Cheseapeake-adjacent conservancies, and they’re beautiful, but not nearly so cinematic as they look on The Expanse.)

On a less (initially) warm note, one of the rougher elements in the series’ move to Prime in Season 4 was in how the writers handled the streamer’s more lax rules on cursing. On the one hand, the limitations it ran under on Syfy weren’t realistic—grown-ass human beings constantly in the crosshairs of molecular alien infiltration, intra-species war, and the unforgiving vacuum of deep space really should be cursing. Like, a lot. But after three seasons perfecting the skill of getting the feeling of cursing across, without the actual cursing, Season 4 too often had the feeling of a pack of kids left alone in an empty house with a pile of pixie stix, a megaphone, and a sailor’s book of dirty words. There wasn’t purpose to it, just glee. Season 5, happily, makes up for that enthusiasm, striking the right balance between organic fervor and genuine meaning midway through the opening trio of episodes and sticking to it for the rest of the run.

Which, speaking of the rest of the run—from what I’ve seen of the episodes provided for general review, it really is solid. There are a couple Naomi-centric episodes that especially shine, but really it’s all just good. And while I’d love for everyone (me, included) to get to binge it all in one long weekend, I do ultimately think this hybrid mini-binge/weekly-episode plan will let viewers savor what really is one of the best sci-fi series of the last decade. We only have two (for now) more seasons of it, after all; let’s enjoy them.

Seasons 1-4 of The Expanse are now available to stream on Amazon Prime. Episodes 1-3 of Season 5 will premiere on December 16. New episodes will premiere every Wednesday starting December 23, with the season finale set to drop on February 3.

Alexis Gunderson is a TV critic and audiobibliophile. She can be found @AlexisKG.

For all the latest TV news, reviews, lists and features, follow @Paste_TV.

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