[Editor’s Note: The following interview contains spoilers for “The Expanse” Season 5, Episode 9, “Winnipesaukee.”]
The end of “The Expanse” Season 5 is turning out to breathtaking in more ways than one. After building to an oxygen-gasping hard vacuum jump just a few weeks ago, the show embraces that kind of tension on an even bigger scale in its penultimate episode, “Winnipesaukee.” Switching its attention from the void of space to the aftermath of Marco Inaros’ devastating attack on Earth, “The Expanse” follows the group led by Amos (Wes Chatham) as they try to board and rig a private shuttle to escape the planet.
The episode culminates in a dazzlingly executed sequence where this ragtag crew fights to fend off the private security forces bent on taking the shuttle for themselves. From the surprise ambush, all the way through the fiery launch, it’s a real-time battle that’s as impressive in its conception as it is in its execution.
If the set design somehow included a thermometer, the audience would see that the temperature was certainly its own practical effect. “We got lucky. They said to me, ‘There’s always snow in the winter on the ground.’ So I was really counting on it. I just wanted that look of white snow and white sky and just that kind of bleak look,” episode director Breck Eisner said. “But what I didn’t count on was it would be -34 degrees Fahrenheit for three nights in a row. It was the coldest by far I’ve ever been. It wasn’t snowing, just ice frozen in the air. It was intense.”
Long before a single shot is fired, the episode’s opening shot establishes that the surrounding environment is a signal of the chilling threat on the horizon.
“We took a helicopter up to the Lake Muskoka region outside of Toronto in the dead of winter. We were able to do these big vista shots and then add in that these these very wealthy homes have a rocket launch pad. We’re able to set up that there are multiple open and empty pads of people who escaped and then there’s this one that’s still unused,” Eisner said.
Finding a house that could both fit the overall aesthetic demands of the story and the logistical needs of everything before and during the final attack sequence proved to be a challenge. The estate described in the novel “Nemesis Games” is on Lake Winnipesaukee, which gives this episode its title. While Eisner said that the property they eventually filmed on was more ranch land with no major bodies of water nearby, it had much of what the show needed to set the stage for the climactic showdown.
It provided plenty of vantage points for the standoff earlier in the episode, when the Pinkwater forces arrive to threaten Amos, Peaches (Nadine Nicole), Erich (Jacob Mundell), and the rest of the crew making their temporary home base there. Later, when that threat erupts in violence, Eisner wanted to stage the group’s escape as if it was unfolding in a single take.
Since “building a space shuttle launchpad underneath a rural Canadian home” wasn’t a viable option, the “Expanse” effectively merged together three disparate locations — hours away from each other — to make that sequence feel as immersive as possible. A fake entrance to the shuttle hangar was built into the house’s existing garage area so that the shot could bridge the divide between exterior and interior. For the stretch where Amos and the rest of the group get the first blast door sealed off, the hallway was filmed in a tunnel underneath Ontario Tech University in Oshawa, 40 miles outside of Toronto. The final piece of the set, featuring the entrance ramp and the exterior of the shuttle (which Eisner named the Reveta Bowers as a tribute to the Head of School from his elementary school days), was built inside a location normally used as a wind tunnel testing site.
“That was a huge part of my job in this specific section. It was written with story in mind, but not with what the actual locations were. I needed to find the locations, put together what those locations are going to be and then stage the scenes in such a way that establishes the geography,” Eisner said. “The transitions that we built in each location, we would have the lighting overlap. If there’s a dramatic shift of lighting, you’d feel it. At the house, in the garage we created the beginning of the hallway. When you enter in and come through that hallway, you feel the beginning of a lighting change. It’s all about that transition.”
Threading all of these pieces together to give the appearance of a seamless tracking shot would be difficult enough under serene circumstances. Factor in that icy temperature and the inherent choreography of a fictional firefight and it made the sequence that much harder.
“The Pinkwater soldiers chasing after them, they’re in the trees, but the way to achieve that was to see them via gunfire. So the 10 stuntmen in the trees at each point are firing with you know, automatic weapon fire with full-load blanks. There’s the cacophonous noise of that and then everyone firing their weapons, which have a tendency to jam when it’s really cold,” Eisner said. “The explosive hits of the bullet impacts are the actual really dangerous piece. You have to make sure that characters aren’t getting near them. So you’re coordinating the fire towards them, their fire, the hits around them, squibs on people when they’re dying, getting hit. And it’s all happening on in these complex, long shots. It all it all has to run properly because if you miss a take the reset time can be long.”
All of these disparate pieces coming together makes an effective contrast to one of the episode’s other key emotional moments. Chrisjen Avasarala (Shohreh Aghdashloo), in the midst of an evolving ethical power struggle, takes a moment to honor her late husband. She adds his name to the floating memorial, along with the countless others who perished in the attacks on Earth. There’s a simplicity to the design of that memorial that’s affecting in its own, quieter way.
“[Co-showrunner] Naren [Shankar] had a really clear idea of what he wanted, for it to be very simple. Something that wasn’t planned, but developed in the moment. It’s almost like where people are pinning up their names,” Eisner said. “It’s hard to tell a story like this, you know, without seeing everybody’s story. It’s not a story about all the other people. It’s about our heroes’ survival. But this was a good way to connect with the scale and the emotion of the tragedy.”
Back on Earth, maybe the thing that crystallizes the effectiveness of the overall “Expanse” approach is seeing the takeoff itself. As the plume of engine fire ignites everything in its path, taking off nearby roofs, there’s one final acknowledgment that this evacuation didn’t come without a price.
Capping it all off is Amos, with the planet firmly in his rearview, taking one last glance back at his former home.
“It’s Amos’ goodbye to Earth. And I think that was a really, for me, a poignant moment in the script. It’s not a ‘hooray’ moment. They’ve survived, but Earth might not. And Amos knows he’ll never be back there,” Eisner said. “Like many of our set pieces in ‘The Expanse’ over the years, it’s not always success and failure. It’s survival, and then continuing to fight. I think the audience watching will feel a lot of emotion throughout the year about the earth in peril the way it is. It’s not often that the villain is successful in such a catastrophic attack on something that we connect with. Having those moments is really important.”
“The Expanse” Season 5 finale will be released via Amazon Prime Video next Wednesday.