“The Expanse” has always been a show where one fact remains constant: No one and nothing is safe. Children are acceptable test subjects for mad scientists. A person promised a ride home might easily find themselves spaced. And war is forever on the horizon.
It’s a brutal place, the 23rd century, whether you live on the overpopulated, resource-strapped planet Earth or a rickety space station out in the Belt. And that continues into the third season of the Syfy original drama, which continues to track a vast ensemble of characters across an even more vast expanse of space.
The core crew remains largely unchanged, of course: We still spend a lot of time with Holden (Steven Strait) and his band of misfits on the Rocinante and keep an eye on the political (and not-so-political) maneuverings of Chrisjen Avasarala (Shohreh Aghdashloo), while the conflicts between Earth, Mars, and the Outer Planets Alliance (OPA) build in number– oh, and there’s this glowing blue stuff that’s completely alien to everyone…
There’s a lot going on, and after watching two full seasons as well as the first two episodes of Season 3, a problem emerges: While something’s always happening on “The Expanse,” the flow is a bit disjointed. Part of this is the way in which the show is both loyal and disloyal to its source material (the series of novels written by James S.A. Corey), manipulating the events of the books so that what might feel like a natural climax for a season doesn’t occur anywhere near the season finale.
Thus, the opening episodes of Season 3 are a nearly seamless continuation of what happened in Season 2. Nearly every character’s journey goes on as if there were no break to speak of. Structurally, it’s not how we conventionally break down seasons of television, and at times it can feel a bit unceasing. The simplest way to summarize what happens is “more of the same,” which feels dismissive but is intended as anything but — while the drama could be more heightened, there’s a sense that “The Expanse” has found a groove.
It may be a big show with a lot of moving parts, but the writers have proven quite capable of making sure that the most important components connect. In fact, much of the joy of the show is when the various pockets of characters come together. In Season 2, for example, the addition of Martian marine Bobbie Draper (Frankie Adams) to Avasarala’s entourage was a delight given the extreme contrast in their characters, and that dynamic continues into Season 3.
In general, while the mid-Season 2 departure of Joe Miller (Thomas Jane) and his wonderful hats does leave a bit of a vacuum, the ensemble has coalesced nicely, with both established performers like Chad L. Coleman and relative newcomers like Strait settling into their roles. Shoutout to Terry Chen, by the way — Chen is an actor who’s been appearing in film and television for decades, but has recently picked up a number of high-profile supporting roles in “Marvel’s Jessica Jones,” “UnREAL,” and this. He brings a unique flavor to each distinct character, and as Prax, a botanist searching to find his missing daughter, he’s easily one of the show’s most likable characters.
As always, the scientific and technical details are a major part of what makes “The Expanse” shine. While it may not be ruthlessly accurate, there’s no denying that there’s a major difference between cruising around the universe in a shuttlecraft and Avasarala having to take off her jewelry lest her rings and earrings literally rip off due to the G-forces she’s about to experience. The physical realities of space travel have always been a point of fascination, which keeps the action away from the level of spectacle, but does add a degree of grit lacking in other sci-fi franchises.
The show finds other ways to visually dazzle, though, thanks to its unique take on alien life — at least, that’s how we appear to think of the proto-molecule, though its full capabilities continue to be a mystery. It doesn’t seem like it’s an evil force, but the lack of understanding we have about it adds just enough of a sense of wonder to keep that familiar sci-fi spark alive; that fascination with the unknown that is at the core of nearly every space-set story.
“The Expanse” isn’t perfect television, but entering Season 3 it is confident in the story it’s telling and, more importantly, the kind of stories it wants to tell. The intra-solar-system politics serve, by and large, as background for the more human tales, brought to the forefront by so many scenes which are just about people trying to help other people get by in an unforgiving universe. Sometimes, this leads to moments more raw and real than you might see on any Earth-bound drama. They just so happen to take place in space.
“The Expanse” Season 3 airs at 9 p.m. on Syfy. Seasons 1 and 2 are streaming on Amazon Prime.