Walking across the set of The Expanse can be a fairly surreal experience in that distances between planets are compressed to a few steps. Behind one flat is the UN situation room on Earth where Avasarala is briefed on military operations in deep space, and around a corner is a rocky underground public space on Mars, illuminated colorfully to break up the red stone walls. It is here that we incongruously meet with Steven Strait and Wes Chatham, who play James Holden and Amos Burton on the show, neither of whom spend any time on Mars. “Ilus is the next hall over,” Chatham informs us, referring to the distant planet on which the Rocinante crew find themselves in season 4, mediating a dispute between Belter and Earther settlers who seek to profit from the resources beyond the Ring gates.
Chatham and Strait are both dressed in dusty, rugged clothes with mussed hair and longer beards than we’ve seen them sport in seasons past: a clear indication that the planet of Ilus is a frontier world, brand new to humans but long dead to the protomolecule-makers. “Our beard arc tracks how far away from civilization or clippers we’ve been for all these months,” Strait explains with a smile. Chatham adds, “It’s also a primal journey because we’ve taken a step back in our technology. We’re on this planet, and we’re not bathing regular. It’s not the same that we’re used to.”
That being said, Amos’ impoverished past has uniquely prepared him for roughing it on an alien planet. “Being back in an atmosphere and the fresh air [is] awakening things in him that he hasn’t felt in a long time, reminding him of Earth and where he grew up, and that’s kind of awakening dormant memories from his past,” says Chatham. “As they go through this season, who he is and what’s motivating and what’s driving him is starting to come to the surface. This season, we will get a window and a glimpse of who he is beyond the external thing that he created to show the world and protect himself.”
Ostensibly, Holden and the Roci will be set on their diplomatic mission by Avasarala in The Expanse season 4 premiere, but it’s Holden’s visions of Miller, speaking on behalf of the protomolecule, that drive him to go through the Ring to find out what happened to the ancient civilization that made interstellar travel possible. “For Holden, having this ongoing relationship with this ghost in his mind has become more normalized,” says Strait. “He’s accepted that this is part of his existence now. There’s no terror or shock or awe to what’s going on with him anymore. For him as a guy, he’s settling into the extraordinary circumstances that he’s found himself in, in a much more grounded way than we’ve seen in previous years… He’s finally at a place where the people around him have given him the support he’s needed over the years to actually become the leader he needs to be and they need him to be. For Holden, that’s where we find him at the beginning of season 4.”
Chatham admits that this normalization of Holden’s inner voice isn’t always easy for Amos. “He has somebody he’s really close to, that he relies on and leans upon, talking to dead people and ghosts,” says Chatham. “He believes Holden to a point, in the fact that everything that he’s said so far has been true and helped us, so he believes that. But he doesn’t necessarily know that he believes it’s Miller in there, and he doesn’t really know exactly what’s going on. There’s always the fear of, ‘Am I relying on a crazy person, and he’s just been right in the beginning?’ So going through this gate, depending on somebody that he’s really close with but doesn’t really know 100 percent where his sanity is, [Amos] is going to trust and be loyal to him and back him up in every way he can.”
Holden’s past has also informed his current situation, and the character’s evolution to this point has been very satisfying for Strait. “What I’ve loved so much about playing Holden is just how vast his arc is,” he says. “We you meet him originally, he’s this cocky, a bit arrogant, naïve guy who has literally run from the responsibilities of his life and found himself in the middle of fucking nowhere. Only through chance or fate, if you choose to believe in it, he gets pulled into this much larger world than he ever wanted or expected to be in and that he’s totally unprepared for. What’s been fun about playing him, to the best of my ability, is to portray a realistic ascent to heroism. It has not always been pretty; he’s had some really ugly turns. He certainly hasn’t always been the most likeable guy… but he’s always been vigilant.”
But Holden has a unique and singular perspective based on his vision last season of the total extinction of the powerful race that made the protomolecule, making the ancient past almost as important as his personal past. “What he experiences in the station is about the most extreme dose of humility anybody could possibly ever get,” says Strait. “He not only gets an entire record of a civilization that is far more advanced and older than the one that he is part of and its place in the universe, but he understands how fragile not only he, but humanity is as a species. If something this advanced could be wiped out and they had no way of stopping it, what hope do we have on these few little rocks in the middle of the solar system?”
Chatham agrees that the situation presented by The Expanse season 4, both in the home system and on Ilus, shows how vulnerable our species is in the context of the show and in real life. “I think that’s fascinating… how malleable and fragile our identities are. To look and say, ‘I’m an American and you’re a Canadian,’ and how many wars have been fought over these identities, these things you are protecting? When the reality is that this gate opens, and these moons are there, and their identities are gone instantly… Who are we now and what are we going to be? So much of the worst behavior of our inner selves comes from this identity that we think we are. It’s really a house of cards.”
As Chatham and Strait leave the Mars backdrop to go film a scene on Ilus next door, it’s hard not to reflect on the past as the actors had done and as their characters are about to do for The Expanse fans everywhere when the show returns on Friday, December 13, 2019. This magnificent space sci-fi series has maintained its identity as it crossed the gate between Syfy and Amazon, revealing its own fragility through its near cancelation and its adaptability in its new home. The success of the show has been in large part due to the strength of characters like Holden and Amos and the unparalleled writing in adapting the James S. A. Corey novels. How far we’ve come, and how far still to go!
Listen to our interview with Naren Shankar and Dominique Tipper on the Sci Fi Fidelity podcast: