You can put plenty of pieces in place to help the process, but a story that takes place centuries in the future needs people to sell it. Luckily, “The Expanse,” one of TV’s longest-running sci-fi series, enters its Season 5 with a cast and crew that’s spent over a half-decade doing it in style.
By the time the show arrives at the outset of its second full season on Amazon Prime Video, it’s seen the existence of colonial outposts on distant planets, fervent religious separatist movements, and people getting help from ancient species to commune with approximations of dead friends. It’s a strange existence for the people of Earth, Mars, and the Belters who live in the outer reaches of the solar system and beyond. By the laws of escalation that govern longform episodic storytelling, it’s an oddness that needs some way to escalate.
It’s a heightening hinted at the close of last season, as interplanetary agent of chaos Marco Inaros (Keon Alexander) looms just beyond the horizon, ready to spark a revolution. That eventually means trouble for the quartet at the heart of “The Expanse,” the surviving crew members of the Rocinante now far-flung to different points across this web of lunar stations and gunships and rescue missions and romantic entanglements.
Not every show can withstand the separation of its central team, especially one with the chemistry that this crew has honed in past seasons. For the most part, “The Expanse” does. Holden (Steven Strait) is still grappling with his glimpses of a protomolecule force with still-unpredictable power, particularly for those who control its last remnants. Naomi (Dominique Tipper) receives some vital new information, sending her off on her own personal quest. Alex (Cas Anvar), one not unfamiliar with family troubles, is largely adrift and looking to start over.
It’s difficult to discuss the true scope of Season 5 without referencing key events that readers of James S.A. Corey’s book series have likely been anticipating for years. But suffice it to say that two individuals emerge from these episodes as even more indispensable to the show, even if other characters might be at the heart of more consequential turns of events.
The first is Amos (Wes Chatham), the final member of that Roci quartet, whose return to Earth not only informs his previously sparse backstory, but helps tether the ongoing story to a changing planet. Chatham was a key part of preventing the Season 4 arc on Ilus from becoming a wheel-spinning side adventure. Seeing Amos navigate how geopolitical changes have affected life on Earth underlines what’s at stake as the events of this season come into stark focus.
And no discussion of “The Expanse” is complete without a nod to Bobbie Draper (Frankie Adams), who continues to cement herself as one of the show’s foundations. Here, her pursuit of an illicit weapons trade ends up being key in keeping all the show’s disparate threads from becoming unraveled.
If there’s an element to this season that “The Expanse” seems to have the trickiest time negotiating, it’s Marco himself. An improvement over the small-scale corporate scuzziness of Adolphus Murtry, Marco still falls in a long line of would-be “Expanse” antagonists who can’t quite match the sheer terror of space itself. Though Marco surely makes his presence felt — Alexander is savvy at finding the right blend of charming political leader and murderous totalitarian sociopath — the ramp-up from brand new arrival to preeminent threat might have been even more effective with a little more lead time.
Nevertheless, despite the strong character work that likely hooks a majority of the show’s audience, “The Expanse” is second to none when it comes to portraying the day-to-day reality of a universe where interplanetary travel is a given. The show’s move to Amazon meant a chance to fully embrace both the magnitude of these remote tech-heavy environments and the logistical ecosystems involved in sustaining them. Even with the protomolecule saga relatively sidelined this season, “The Expanse” draws so much strength from exposing how fragile an expansive society like this is. The further out you extend, the more vulnerable you are to something sneaking right under your nose. One tiny crack in that system can be devastating. Anything more than that can be catastrophic.
The dots on “The Expanse” don’t get connected by happenstance. There’s an ongoing emphasis on making sure the audience is aware of the steps its characters are taking to avoid disaster, be they ship-based maneuvers, electrical riggings, or tactical ground locations. At times, it can be taxing to pause any action and burden a performer with having to lay out any unfolding scenario. But whether it’s Strait or Tipper or Shohreh Aghdashloo as the now-former UN Secretary General (again, no one on any planet can swear like Chrisjen Avasarala), all of these actors have gotten more in tune with the rhythms of a solar system in chaos.
As a result, “The Expanse” can trace this unfolding space epic along parallel tracks. The further the series has gone on, the more that it’s made the cosmic and the personalfeel more intertwined. There’s always been a keen consciousness of class in this world, how opportunities differ for those who become cogs in keeping the political, economic, and military apparatuses functioning, and how those with means can glide in futuristic bliss elsewhere.
All of that is fuel for a fire that Season 5 proves could erupt at any time. It’s there in the drops of blood that float in weightlessness after a brutal, senseless killing and it’s in the fiery rhetoric that emerges on more than one side of this growing divide. They would all be empty words and images without the careful support system this show has cultivated over a half-decade of storytelling on a grand level.
“The Expanse” Season 5 premieres December 16 on Amazon Prime Video. New episodes will be available weekly on Wednesdays.