[Editor’s Note: The following contains spoilers for “The Expanse” Season 5 finale, “Nemesis Games.”]
All the way up until its enigmatic, red-hued final moments, Season 5 of “The Expanse” had its share of mammoth-scale moments. But in the season finale, the quietest ones might end up being the longest-lasting.
In the moment, the rescue of Naomi Nagata (Dominique Tipper) is certainly one of the most striking. Completing an arc that began with a daring hard vacuum escape, Naomi’s second untethered journey through space ends with the life-saving help of Bobbie Draper (Frankie Adams). As Naomi processes everything that’s happened to her since leaving her son, the camera stays on Tipper’s face.
“The length to which that scene goes on, it never cuts. You’re just with her,” executive producer and co-showrunner Naren Shakar said. “I remember the first time I saw it on the first director’s cut, and that’s essentially unchanged from what it was at that point. Full marks to [director] Breck Eisner for that because he really conveyed the isolation of the moment.”
Bringing those moments to life, both the ones onboard the Chetzemoka and drifting through the vast emptiness, required a massive amount of physical and emotional work from Tipper.
“Dominique is an incredible actress, and she embodied those moments so brilliantly. She could do it in any environment. That being said, you give her the respect to have a very quiet and empty set as much as possible. It’s important that everyone keeps her in the zone, to not get in her eyeline and not have a lot of chatter around,” Eisner said. “For her, it was a very emotionally wrought performance. It’s amazing how much she says without any dialogue. And we wanted to support that in every way we could.”
As is common for “The Expanse,” the logistical and technological execution of the show ended up becoming an ideal complement to the emotional storytelling on display.
“The whole team did an amazing job with that sequence. The visor’s not actually there. The visor, the condensation, her tear when it squeezes out of her eyes floating in zero G and it hits the visor: that’s all visual effects. And it looks so incredibly real and you’re right there with it. It’s such a beautifully well-done sequence,” Shankar said.
“The Expanse” also excels at the elaborate as well as the intimate, as last week’s escape siege sequence proved. One of the biggest challenges in the finale ended up being the encounter between the Rocinante and Marco Inaros’ Free Navy ships sent to destroy it. As with most of the ideas in the show, whether or not they’re drawn from the books by authors and series writers Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck, that showdown started out on a grand scale.
“We never try to have the same fight twice in the show. And so Naren will say, ‘Alright, Ty. Come up with something that we haven’t seen yet.’ I will spend a bunch of time trying to come up with something, I will present it to him, he will explain the ways in which it is 10,000% too expensive. We start negotiating from there and that negotiation continues through the entire process,” Franck said. “Daniel and I and Naren will read the script, do a little more trimming to get it down to where we can make it. Then we have production meetings, and the departments come in and say we can’t possibly do this like you have described on the page. But what’s actually amazing to me is how much of my original idea actually winds up on screen, considering how many layers of negotiation and manipulation you have to go through to actually create a final product.”
The most consequential development in this finale is the death of Alex Kamal. Since news broke before Season 5 that Cas Anvar would not be returning to the series for the planned final season, there’s been plenty of speculation as to how the show would handle his exit.
The answer, it turns out, was hiding in plain sight. The TV series altered the trajectory of the books with the death of Fred Johnson earlier in Season 5. (In the books, Johnson doesn’t die until the events found in the source material for what will eventually become Season 6). His death by stroke after a hard burn became Alex’s TV fate.
“We had already killed Fred Johnson in a way that was not the one we have in the book. So the death that Alex got was really Fred Johnson’s death from the books. So we had that already worked out that moment to draw from in the source material and we just got to bring that over and keep that in it,” Abraham said.
For Abraham, Franck, and Shankar, a necessary decision ended up being one that past seasons of the show — not just the books — provided a pathway.
“Think about Avasarala on the Razorback in Season 3. They’re talking about this exact issue in that exact ship,” Shankar said.
“In Episode 1, when they’re getting ready to flip the Canterbury around to try to go to that distress signal, one of the characters says that we’re all going to stroke out from a high-G burn while the cargo breaks loose. This has been on everyone’s mind as a danger of high-G spaceflight since the very first episode of our very first season,” Franck said.
Losing a member of the central quartet made the reunion of Naomi, Amos, and Holden one filled with plenty of swirling emotions. Though the three address Alex’s loss in relatively vague terms, it won’t be the last time the character is acknowledged.
“One of the things that is tricky when you have moments like the loss of a major character is the initial tendency that we should have everybody weeping and rending of garments. You do too much of that and you go over the top and you actually undercut the emotion of it. So the trick is: How do you find ways to address it and deal with it that keeps keeps you engaged to it and doesn’t make you tune out?” Shankar said. “One of the things that we often get to use in this show is that there are a lot of time cuts that are happening here. People have a chance to process it, some people have a chance to trade messages. Every time we directly address the issue, it’s in a slightly different context. People have more time to process it, so the conversations are a little bit different.”
“The grief isn’t all going to be sewn up in this episode and then never mentioned again. The loss is something that’s going to carry through and kind of hover over the the characters moving forward, the way it does,” Abraham said.
Regardless of what Season 6 brings, it’s clear that Marco (Keon Alexander) will play a significant part. After showing the lingering effects of his attack on Earth, both on the ground and in the system-wide political chaos that comes in its wake, Franck wanted to set the stage for what’s to come in the show’s dash to the finish.
“One of my least favorite things in stories is when the story keeps telling you that somebody’s brilliant and dangerous over and over and over again and you never actually see them being brilliant and dangerous. So we needed to see Marco being brilliant and dangerous,” Franck said. “You start the season with him pulling off this audacious strike on Earth that nobody had considered possible and you end the season with him basically securing his position as the de facto ruler of the outer planets. He defeats a Navy at the Ring that you would not have thought was beatable. He’s got these mysterious allies with these Martians who are going through the gate. You start the season saying this guy’s a pretty dangerous terrorist. And by the end of the season, you’re saying this guy is potentially King of the Universe.”
“The Expanse” Season 5 is now available to watch, in its entirety, on Amazon Prime Video.