This The Expanse review contains spoilers.
The Expanse Season 5 Episode 4
Ever since it began, The Expanse has known how to build action, which isn’t remarkable in itself for a sci-fi show. What makes this series different is that with very little exposition, it can create a sense that, as unsettled as things seem now, they’re about to get a lot messier. That’s a tricky balance to achieve since early episodes must also take the opportunity to create emotional beats before all hell breaks loose, and “Gaugamela” does just that.
The title of the episode refers to a decisive battle in Alexander the Great’s conquest of the Persian Empire in 331 BC. Like the Macedonians, the Belter insurrectionists commanded by Marco are small in number, but their tactics have now decimated huge numbers of their enemy. The asteroids that hit Earth killed millions without a ship firing a single shot, and the devastation will be felt worldwide. The scale of the catastrophe perfectly sets up the audience for a season of mayhem even though the effects have yet to be directly felt.
Amos, for example, is the only one directly in the path of destruction, but we won’t know how he and Clarissa “Peaches” Mao were affected by the Philadelphia impact until next week. Presumably the fact that the Chesapeake prison is underground will have sheltered them from the shockwave, but we’ve undoubtedly witnessed the preamble to a survival tale on Earth’s surface which the audience will be eager to watch unfold.
The motivation for Amos to have visited Clarissa in the first place was simple but powerful. Lydia helped him; now he wants to help her. Similar interactions strengthen the episode in other story arcs, such as the interlude between Bobbie and Alex, which makes it clear that they’re “building a coffin for a dying planet.” This ably illustrates the grieving process for the two patriotic ex-soldiers while also explaining why Marco has his own fleet of Martian cruisers. Never mind that the Mars parliament got hit by an asteroid, too!
Only Avasarala’s point of view on the moon, however, can create the sense of awe needed for such large scale attack. The audience certainly bought into her theory of stealth rocks even if the UN didn’t, but it was still nice to see Nancy Gao grasp the importance of the advice her predecessor gave, providing a small moment of triumph when Earth’s defenses stopped a fourth impact even as the cabinet was wiped out. In fact, this foreshadowing of Avasarala’s return to power further builds action even as we mourn the possible loss of her family planetside.
And speaking of mourning, is this the end of Fred Johnson in The Expanse? The impact of the mutiny on Tycho was felt hard both in the shooting of Fred and in the theft of the protomolecule. Although it’s unclear what Holden will be able to do with his knowledge of the betrayal, it was interesting to note that Monica was filming the whole thing with her eye implant. Again, even if we don’t know where it will lead, the intrigue has been established.
The realization that Marco and the Free Navy are holding all the cards is made all the more shocking by the fact that Naomi is forced to witness it firsthand, inside the belly of the beast. Her attempt to rescue her son Filip has merely resulted in her own entrapment behind enemy lines, providing a view for the audience of the Belter extremist’s actions while forcing us to worry about her well-being. The meshing of narrative necessity with the emotional investment of the main characters is masterfully done.
No surprise, though, right? The Expanse has been doing this kind of thing since season one, taking full advantage of the intricate plot elements it adapts from the equally well written James S. A. Corey novels. The series shows us once again that it’s equal to the task of translating this epic space drama from page to screen, and so far, the opening of one of the book series’ best storylines from Nemesis Games is right on track.