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Looking back at six seasons of ‘The Expanse’, the grandest space opera show that’s way better than Star Wars

By Karl R. De Mesa Published Feb 04, 2022 10:00 am

Are we really done? 

The final episode of the last season of the epic sci-fi drama The Expanse aired last Jan. 14. It brought to an end six years of space exploration and humanity’s attempts to live among the stars—it spent the first three seasons on the Syfy channel then it got dropped like a hot potato, and fans hit the hype drum enough that, in the wake of its cancelation, Amazon prime funded another three seasons. 

So here we are. With just six episodes of season 6, instead of the usual ten (or 13). Based on the literally dense novels by James S.A. Corey (the pen name of two people) whose size are enough to count as blunt force weapons, the TV show stops more or less at the natural cliffhanger of Babylon’s Ashes—book six in the series. 

There was a truly bittersweet, moving epilogue posted by the production, the actors reading the final script lines of the last episode on the show’s socials: “Hold on the ship until it dwindles to just another point of light in the starry expanse.” Like the science fiction equivalent of riding off into the sunset. Sniff.  

For fans, even those who haven’t caught up yet to the final season, there’s what we all know after season 5: “Strange Dogs,” the first episode of season 6, opens with the aftermath of the terror attacks on Earth. Marco Inaros, the Belter equivalent of Osama Bin Laden, and his extremist followers have crafted “stealth” meteorites and flung them to the Earth with shattering effectiveness. As weapons of mass destruction have over and over hit the planet, millions have died, plenty of agricultural land has been lost. The method and devastation of course mirrors the 9/11 attacks.

The Expanse is the kind of smart science fiction that’s interested in the fate of humanity. Its speculation of how such a fate might be ruined or elevated by the worst devils and best angels of our nature has been damn riveting.

Meanwhile our heroes, the crew of the Rocinante, are now without their pilot Alex Kamal (after Cas Anvar was revealed to have a sexual misconduct case, Kamal was killed in season 5 after a series of dangerous maneuvers). But they are now joined by Clarissa Mao (Nadine Nicole) in the role of mechanic. In season 5 she was rescued by Amos Burton from prison and her storyline of redemption, after doggedly pursuing Holden to murder him, on-board the Rocinante is a truly great arc all its own. 

Did the final season satisfy all that was needed to become a definitive one? Yes. And no. At just six episodes, it’s easy to say that the season feels incomplete. Yet within those six episodes I applaud the writing and production for not falling into a dirty mess that plagued Game of Thrones. Sure it was functional enough. Yeah, it was satisfying enough. It tied off major plot threads and that’s easily the best the fans can hope for with the episodes halved. There’s plenty to love in those dense episodes, still.

A scramble for resources has always been one of the driving themes of the series. And for the last two seasons, that struggle has unfolded into themes of oppression, power, and terrorism. Over five seasons, the series has shown us how the conquest of space travel hasn’t meant a conquest of our darker impulses. That humanity among the stars and planets is still humanity’s worst enemy.  Meaning to say: people always screw up a good thing, a hopeful thing, a thing of potential beauty. Arguably the branching legacies of the Anthropocene climate crisis we’re neck deep in now are still issues they grapple with in the world of Corey—material and ideological brutalities mean neither the Inners or the Belters have pivoted their thinking at all; they view resources and the environment as matters of conquest rather than cultivation.

One of the best things that fans have loved about The Expanse is how it’s a space drama with proper hard science fiction.

In this world, as humanity has scattered out into the solar system to slowly conquer space travel and found riches there in the rare minerals of the other planets and the asteroids, we have splintered into arguably three distinct races: the Earthers, the Martians, and the Belters. The last two have biologically evolved from generations of life in space stations (the latter) and on the conditions of another planet (the former). Which is to say that it is now easier to wage war on the “other” as they are literally unlike you. No doubt, The Expanse is the kind of smart science fiction that’s interested in the fate of humanity. Its speculation of how such a fate might be ruined or elevated by the worst devils and best angels of our nature has been damn riveting. Meaning, we can go to space but we’ll always bring our hang-ups with us. Said hang-ups might just become blood feuds that we’re too busy dealing with to notice the powerful alien entities waking up to our petty ruckus, our clumsy attempts at war. 

One of the best things that fans have loved about The Expanse is how it’s a space drama with proper hard science fiction. Although some technologies are fantastical like the proto-molecule and Martian terraforming tech—especially the Epstein drive (theoretical at best right now that it’s almost verging on sorcery)—space travel, and especially ship vs ship combat, factors in gravities, distances between planets and bodies, down to the inertia and the inescapable cruelty of g-forces on human bodies have solid footing.

While I consider it better than Star Wars or even Star Trek in terms of story development and writing caliber, the different pleasures you can get from those two franchises still elicit a different frisson. Star Trek has a romantic, almost way too optimistic view of the future. It echoes a lot of that '60s vision of loving positivity for all. Star Wars is great for the adventure aspect and the mysticism. Arguably just wizards and warriors in space on a Lucasfilm budget, but of course it has nearly no hard science in it—but who doesn’t love lightsabers duels? Battlestar Galactica and Babylon5 are more the natural ancestors of The Expanse. Shows that, despite low budgets and sometimes shoddy acting, didn’t shy from recognizing how social division and human aggression must always be factors to consider when science develops or new tech tries to advance; no hopeless naïvite or rose-tinted view of humanity. Underlying all those three series is the perennial question: has humanity really progressed that much during the 12000 years of civilization? Nope. Those series and The Expanse show us this sans judgement. No proselytizing. It is what it is.   

Two things I also love about The Expanse are how women hold some of the crucial lynchpins of power and how, while they aren’t beholden to men, they aren’t at all immune to the corruptions of power. The Earth’s UN Secretary General Chrisjen Avasarala (Shohreh Aghdashloo) and the marauding Outer Planets Alliance firebrand Camina Drummer (Cara Gee) are two sides of this same power-hungry coin. Different in their methods. Both hankering for praxis for what they believe to be the betterment of their own races. In any case, the series always passes a basic Bechdel test—the women are too busy with greater issues to just be sexual objects for men.     

While withholding all the major spoilers, the rest of the six episodes play out for the characters what the audience hankered for them all along. 

A minor quibble I have with the final season is how they could have used their remaining time more wisely. Precious screen time is indulged in for the Laconia storyline, one of the worlds on the other side of the Ring Gate. And while the tech discovery and goings-on there are indeed momentous, it does nothing to impact the events of the war between the three factions on this side of the solar system. Another one is the introduction of new, minor characters.

The final episode ticks off all the boxes you’d expect. A space battle that involves the proto-molecule and the Ring Gate, the high stakes political sparring, and the emotional peaks that the characters need to go out on a high note. I can’t say I wasn’t satisfied. But it’s like one of those moments you got exactly what you expected and what you wanted at exactly the right time and yet it still felt that it wasn’t entirely the kind of ecstasy you were expecting? Ever get one of those? Because I did like the ending. Yet it didn’t feel as visceral as I thought it would be.   

I still have plenty of questions that I want visualized answers for. What is the Earther dream now that it has been devastated in the post-Inaros attacks? Will the Martians abandon their generational terraforming dream for an easier time of frontier-staking among the worlds beyond the Ring Gate? How will those Laconianas fare after a few generations with the animals that craft miracles on their world? Where can I take up language lessons for Belter creole? I want more from such an epic that’s well, as the name implies, expansive. Ah, I miss the series already. 

If, like me, you have a pervasive feeing of “Are we really done?” then we all share in the bitter gratification of its consummation. It’s finished, but not really. There are still books to read. There’s the Telltale videogame to play with Cara Gee stepping back into the mag boots of Camina Drummer when it’s released. 

For now, I will set aside six hours to watch the whole season again until I can picture in my mind the Rocinante traveling through the void. Holding on to the glow of its engine as it fades into the distance. Just another light in the vast expanse, the distant stars as destination.    

The Expanse season 6 can be streamed on Amazon Prime Video.