This spoiler-free review is based on viewing the first six episodes of The Expanse season 4.
The timing of The Expanse’s move from Syfy to Amazon could not have come at a better time in terms of the source material the show is adapting in season 4. With the crew of the Rocinante spending most of their time on a new planet discovered on the other side of the Ring gates, the narrative shift seems somehow appropriate given the show’s newfound freedom to curse with abandon (particularly helpful in Avasarala’s case) and the need for more flashy visual effects that might have been beyond their previous budget. Overall, viewers will likely be giddy with delight when the show returns on December 13th, not only because it will finally be the conclusion to a year-and-a-half of waiting, but also because the new season actually feels more immersive and cinematic in its new home.
This in spite of the fact that many main characters from earlier seasons, including Bobbie, Drummer, and Avasarala are separated from the other principals by quite a distance for most of the season. The writers had to get extremely creative (especially with Bobbie’s story) to keep some of these fan favorite personalities and their tangential arcs relevant to the overall narrative. Thankfully, using threads from later novels in the James S. A. Corey series, The Expanse season 4 is able to expertly weave together a tapestry of tales that relate directly to the cultural effects of thousands of worlds suddenly becoming available beyond the gates while also laying the groundwork for seasons to come.
In fact, the same could be said of season 3’s refugee crisis on Ganymede, which here in season 4 leads to Belters with no one to take them in and nothing to lose in running the blockade that prevents anyone from settling on the potentially dangerous (but also possibly very lucrative) planets the protomolecule makers left behind. The central conflict becomes immediately compelling: who do these planets belong to? When an Earth corporation obtains a charter to mine the lithium on the planet claimed by the refugees, the familiar cultural prejudices of The Expanse are carried past the bounds of our solar system, especially once sabotage of questionable origins enters the picture.
Not surprisingly, Avasarala sends Holden to the planet (called Ilus by the Belters and New Terra by the Earthers) to negotiate a peace between the factions, but the more interesting reason for his presence there comes from the phantom Miller, who in The Expanse season 4 becomes even more convincingly entangled in the tireless and undiscriminating drive of the protomolecule to find out what happened to its makers. The sheer scale of what the colonists and those back home don’t understand about those behind this inscrutable technology becomes a focal point of the season, and humanity’s insignificance, especially with regard to its petty squabbles, is a theme that can’t help but draw the audience in with its undeniable gravity.
As the new Secretary General of the U.N., Avasarala has a sense of the dangers, of course, but even she is inexorably embroiled in the political implications of blockading the Ring gates. What’s surprising, however, is the role that Drummer and Ashford play this season in enforcing the rule of law from the newly installed Medina Station (formerly the Behemoth, now a stationary hub inside the Ring space) which gives the OPA a seat of power at the only point of access to other worlds. The investigations they undertake reveal much about the different attitudes various Belter factions have about changing their culture to accommodate planetary gravity and adapting to a solar system without war.
And they’re not the only ones who need to adapt. Although not much can be said about Bobbie’s story without spoiling things, her perspective on her home planet allows us to see that Mars is suffering from a lack of motivation to continue its terraforming efforts, and this deficit is having surprising effects on the discipline of its military and its citizens. Why transform a dead planet when there are so many fresh ones ready for the taking on the other side of the Ring? The true brilliance of The Expanse season 4 lies in its ability to make even this subplot relate both subtly and powerfully to what’s going on elsewhere in the system, and deducing those connections is a joy for the viewer.
As for the crew of the Rocinante, fans of The Expanse will perhaps not be surprised to learn that Naomi and Amos have the most satisfying character arcs this season. Both are largely departures from the books, but they speak volumes about what each have been through and what they’re about to endure in future seasons. Among the new characters on Ilus, Burn Gorman as Adolphus Murtry, the man in charge of the Earther faction, stands out as a particularly strong villain even among the stiff competition from protomolecule exploiters of seasons past, and he makes the perfect foil for Wes Chatham’s increasingly laudable performance as the lovable sociopath, Amos.
In some ways, however, the star of the season is the protomolecule itself which begins to give us a truer sense of its origins and of how out of its depth humanity is as it blindly crosses into the unknown. Honestly, that’s kind of what it feels like to be a viewer of The Expanse, especially in this new season on Amazon Prime Video: we’ve ventured into new territory where the vastness of space and the intricacy of the story being told leave us in stunned awe. There might be no danger of dying from the experience in our case, but there’s plenty of room for surprises, betrayals, adventures, and emotional roller coasters. The Expanse season 4 has all of these and more for those who would brave the journey. Give us the juice!