Warning: contains spoilers for The Expanse season 4
At the beginning of The Expanse season four, the show’s characters stood at the crossroads of a brave and expansive new world, as did the cast and crew in their new home at Amazon. It was a marriage made in heaven. The Expanse was bigger, slicker, bolder, and grittier, but just as gloriously deep, rich and complex as ever. As season five gets ready to drop, let’s remind ourselves of the ups, downs, ins, outs, fights, smites and subterfuge of season four. We’ll start with the set-up and then look at each of the main locations/groups in turn, leading up to the season’s denouement and planet-busting cliffhanger. Major spoilers, obviously, ahead.
In the Beginning
Season three ended with the opening of the mysterious ring gates, and the 1300 habitable systems beyond them. Holden feared the beginning of ‘a blood-soaked gold rush’.
It’s a fear shared by UN Secretary General Chrisjen Avarasala (Shohreh Aghdashloo), who wants everyone to stay put. The UN’s stance is backed by the Martian Congressional Republic (MCR) and many of the Belters. The balance of peace and power in the Sol system is precarious, and a mass exodus could destabilise human civilisation. Besides, no one group wants any of the other groups to rush in and gain the upper hand.
A convoy of Belter ships rushes the blockade on the Sol side of the slow zone. The Barbapiccola, containing refugees from Ganymede, makes it through and enters one of the ring gates. The Belters settle on a planet there and begin mining lithium. They name the planet Ilus.
Two ships are dispatched in the settlers’ wake. The first is the Edward Israel, owned by a corporation called Royal Charter Energy (RCE), which already had a UN-and-Mars-backed mandate to conduct scientific studies beyond the ring gates. The second is the Rocinante. Avasarala wants Jim Holden (Steven Strait) and his team to bring their knowledge and experience of the protomolecule to bear on this strange new world, and also act as adjudicators. Officially, at least. It’s not really in Avasarala’s interests for the situation on Ilus to run smoothly.
Life on Mars
Bobbie Draper (Frankie Adams) spent seasons two and three in a whirlwind of defections, double-dealings and divided loyalties thanks to the cold war (and almost total war) between Earth and Mars, and the revelation of Mars’ role in the development of protomolecule bio-soldiers. Season four finds her somewhat adrift, living on Mars with her younger brother, David, and working for a company that dismantles decommissioned warships. She’s generally having a hard time readjusting to civilian life.
David gets embroiled in the criminal underworld, helping a gang to prepare illicit sense-enhancement drugs. Bobbie takes exception to this, so goes looking for the gang. She finds and beats down some of its members, in the process smashing up one of their labs and damaging their inventory. Her brother is kidnapped and forced to work off the debt incurred by the damage. Bobbie pleads for her brother’s release, a request to which the leader of the gang is willing to acquiesce, but only for a price: Bobbie has to leave a door unlocked at work so the gang can steal some military equipment. Reluctantly, she complies. When Bobby’s conscience gets the better of her she tries to report the gang to the police, only to discover that the high-ranking policeman who comes to log her report is the gang leader himself, Esai Martin (Paul Schulze). She later quits her job when her supervisor seems keener on getting in on the lucrative illegal action than in pursuing justice. Eventually she’s arrested for her part in the gang’s crime, and is only saved from prosecution when she agrees to accept Esai’s offer to work for his gang. Esai is motivated in his criminality by the pressing need to make enough money to secure passage off Mars and start a new life elsewhere with his family. He knows that the ring-gates, and the life and fecundity beyond them, have rendered Mars’ terraforming initiatives pointless, thereby dooming the planet to stagnation and, very possibly, extinction.
Esai and his gang are later involved in the theft of another piece of Martian military tech, which is handed over to a team of Belters, who summarily execute the gang before retreating off-world. Bobbie witnesses this happening.
Avasarala, Earth, and The OPA
The Outer Planets Alliance (OPA) faction represented by Camina Drummer (Cara Gee) and Klaes Ashford (David Strathairn) allies with the UN. They re-brand and re-purpose the Behemoth as Medina station, setting themselves up as gate-keepers of the rings, helping to enforce the UN blockade. It’s hoped that this will grant them a place at the table and influence over the new galactic order.
Not all Belters are on board with this new paradigm, perceiving it as selling out; a capitulation to those who would still demean and exploit them. Marco Inaros (Keon Alexander) is the most vocal and militant voice of opposition. Marco is Naomi Nagata’s (Dominique Tipper) ex-beau and father of their child, Filip (Jasai Chase Owens), and while these days he styles himself a freedom fighter, it wasn’t always thus. When he was with Naomi, he tricked her into writing code that he claimed would merely disable other ships, allowing their faction to come to the rescue and extort payment for their time and trouble. However, Marco used the code to overload the reactor of a docked ship, killing hundreds of people. When the distraught and guilt-ridden Naomi left the faction she was prevented from taking their son, Filip.
Marco is apprehended by Drummer and Ashford for his part in capturing the UNN colony ship Soujourner and executing its crew. While aboard the Behemoth, Marco tries to win Ashford over to his world view, reminding him that the Belt will suffer a terminal decline of profit and influence owing to the exodus, and, besides, very few Belters, due to their space-bound physiology, will be able to take advantage of the brave new worlds beyond the ring gates. The heads of the various OPA factions assemble to decide whether or not Marco should be spaced (ejected into space sans suit) for breaking the fragile truce between the inner and outer planets. It’s Drummer who breaks the tie, reasoning that killing Marco would make him a martyr, and propel into action those factions loyal to his cause.
On Earth, Avasarala faces a leadership challenge from Nancy Gao (Lily Gao) who, in contrast to the incumbent, is a fierce advocate for embracing the change, opportunity and adventure that the ring gates represent. Avasarala’s campaign takes its toll on her ethics and her personal life, especially her marriage. She resorts to smears against Gao, and isn’t above attempting to use the problems on Ilus to her advantage.
OPA bigwig Fred Johnson (Chad L. Coleman) reveals Marco’s location to Avasarala, who wastes no time in dispatching a team of marines to the Pizzouza spacecraft to extract him. Marco, however, isn’t on board, and the resulting firefight between marines and Belters results in grave loss of life. The fallout critically damages Avasarala’s image, reputation and election chances, and moreover plays right into Marco’s hands.
Fred Johnson visits the Behemoth, receiving from Drummer both a punch in the face and news of her resignation. Ashford vows to track down and kill Marco and wants Drummer to accompany him, but she declines on the grounds that she’s sick of politics and its machinations.
Ashford’s pursuit of Marco through the Belt leads him to a Martian naval officer, who reveals under interrogation the existence of a conspiracy involving Martians and Belters. When Ashford finally tracks down Marco, on an abandoned asteroid mine in the belt (from which there are also some asteroids missing) he’s prevented from killing him by the appearance Marco’s and Naomi’s son Filip, who emerges from the shadows to tip the balance of power in his father’s favour. Ashford is spaced, but before he dies he broadcasts a secret recording that incriminates Marco and will alert whomever receives the transmission to the conspiracy – even if Ashford never learned its exact purpose or shape.
On Earth, Avasarala is defeated by Nancy Gao. Avasarala dictates a conciliatory message to Nancy Gao, which ends thusly: “As for policy and the direction you’re taking the earth and all her peoples. Well, we disagree. One of us is wrong. I think it’s you… but I hope it’s me.”
When the Rocinante arrives on Ilus – or New Terra, as the UN would have it – there is already palpable tension and mistrust between the Belters and the crew of the Edward Israel. The RCE’s shuttle was downed on its way from orbit, resulting in deaths and injuries. Survivors of the crash include the group’s leader, the merciless Adolphus Murtry Burn Gorman); RCE security officer Chandra Wei (Jess Salgueiro); and exo-biologist Dr Elvi Okoye (Lyndie Greenwood). Violence is halted when everyone is swarmed by alien bugs, soon confirmed as protomolecule-based.
The planet is home to large structures that were built by the long-dead beings responsible for the protomolecule. Proto-Miller (Thomas Jane) appears to Holden and makes him go to one of the ruined structures to remove a root that’s blocking a connection. This turns on the structure and, it would appear, the entire planet, shaking loose forks of promethean lightning from the dark, oppressive clouds. Holden fires a torpedo at another of the structures when it too appears to activate.
Amos (Wes Chatham) and Murtry play detective for a time, discovering that the planet’s landing pad was blown up deliberately. In the ensuing stand-off between the Belters and the RCE group, Murtry shoots and kills one of the Belters. This violent act kills the potential bromance between Amos and Murtry. Both men are killers, but Amos, despite his shallow affect, follows a more honourable code of ethics, one that puts him at irreconcilable loggerheads with the ruthless Murtry. Amos is taken into custody while Naomi – still having trouble adjusting to terra firma, despite the help of acclimation drugs – helps a Belter woman named Lucia (Rosa Gilmore) escape the RCE’s clutches. She’s being pursued by the RCE because they know she was involved in blowing up the landing pad. Lucia explains to Naomi that it was only supposed to be an act of sabotage to buy the Belters more time. When it became clear that this act of sabotage would coincide with the arrival of the RCE’s shuttle, Lucia tried to abort the action, but was prevented from doing so by her co-conspirators. Holden and Alex (Cas Anvar) come to Naomi and Lucia’s aid as they’re hunted across the encampment, bringing some of the Rocinante’s firepower to bear. Alex takes Lucia and Naomi into orbit aboard the Rocinante, leaving Holden behind to plead with the two factions to evacuate the unpredictable, proto-molecule-soaked planet, with a little time left over to punch Murtry in the face and demand Amos’s release.
Neither faction wants to abandon the planet, or their claim to the lithium, but soon the planet itself renders Holden’s exhortations irrelevant. An island explodes, precipitating a shockwave and tsunami that threatens their survival. Worse still, the fall-out has somehow rendered the fusion drives on the orbiting spacecraft useless. There’s no prospect of escape or rescue. Everyone has to flee for refuge in one of the alien ruins.
Structures, slugs and synthesised drugs
Once inside, the survivors split into two factions, RCE on one side, Belters on the other, with Holden and Amos somewhere in the middle. They quickly discover that the structure is teeming with countless thousands of neurotoxic alien slugs and hostile micro-organisms. Everyone except Holden starts to go blind after being infected by the micro-organisms. Many others succumb to the fatal touch of the slugs. Murtry, becoming more unstable by the moment, reveals to his group his true objective on Ilus/New Terra. It isn’t the lithium he’s after, but the proto-molecule tech. He also wants to kill Holden and Amos.
Above the planet, Alex and Naomi devise a plan to tether the Rocinante to the Barbapiccola to prevent its decaying orbit from dragging it down onto the planet’s surface. Murtry keeps things interesting by ordering the Edward Israel to fire on the Rocinante.
The exo-biologist Dr Okoye works out – just in the nick of time – that Holden is immune to the micro-organisms because of the anti-cancer medication he’s been taking ever since he and Miller were exposed to radiation on Eros. She synthesises a cure, and the effects are reversed. In time, the waters recede enough for the survivors to leave the structure.
Meanwhile, proto-Miller again appears to Holden. The ‘real’ Miller is now battling with the protomolecule for control of the Miller ‘avatar’. In a moment of lucidity, Miller explains to Holden that the hat-wearing Miller he’s been dealing with is The Investigator, whose mission was to bring Holden and a dose of active protomolecule through the ring gates to activate the structures on Ilus. Miller, however, has identified a place on the planet where the protomolecule can’t go, where in fact all trace of it can be destroyed.
Holden heads off in search of this weak spot. He’s led to a portal which transports him to another structure elsewhere on the planet, swiftly followed by Murtry and Chandra (with whom Amos had a brief ‘romance’), who are intent on killing him. Amos and Okoye follow. Amos fatally shoots Chandra, then Murtry shoots and disables Amos. Meanwhile, Okoye and Holden find a mysterious circular rift that Miller refers to as ‘the bullet’. While Holden rushes to aid Amos and incapacitate Murtry, Okoye stays behind to help Miller with ‘the bullet’. Miller merges with items strewn around the room to give him the corporeal form necessary to enter and plug the rift. His self-sacrifice not only saves Okoye, who is almost swallowed by the phenomenon, but returns everything to normal. All vestiges of the protomolecule are removed, the planet is ‘deactivated’ and fusion engines can function once more. The Belters and some of the RCE scientists decide to stay behind on Ilus. In orbit, Holden ejects the only piece of protomolecule that’s still aboard the Rocinante into Ilus’ sun. Murtry is a prisoner aboard the Rocinante, but the crew decides to let Lucia go.
The Beginning of the End
Bobbie reaches out to Avasarala to tell her about the criminal conspiracy between Martian and Belter criminals/terrorists. Ashford’s message, which lends weight to this intel, is out there in the ether somewhere, but no one has yet detected it. Bobbie and Avasarala are now working together.
It was Filip who was with the team of Belters on Mars that stole the piece of military tech before eliminating Esai’s gang. The hardware taken was stealth tech, which we discover that Marco Inaros has used to cloak eight asteroids that are currently hurtling their way towards Earth.
It’s going to be fascinating and harrowing in equal measure to see what a few million tonnes of space-rock will do to the tentative peace that’s barely holding the Sol system together, and how the various factions will make peace – or war – with the atrocity to come.
Roll on season five.