[Editor’s Note: The following contains spoilers for “The Expanse” series finale, Season 6, Episode 6, “Babylon’s Ashes.”]
“The Expanse,” true to its name, ran for six seasons as one of the most sprawling space stories ever put on film. But you might not have guessed that if you only saw the show’s sets.
“I’ve always been pushing to make the ships more and more cramped, make everything a little tighter, a little smaller, ceilings a little lower,” said Breck Eisner, director of 14 episodes of “The Expanse” over its six seasons. “The paradigm for this season has been a submarine war film. Before we start, sometimes I go through movies and pull footage of inspirational clips. I did that this year with ‘Das Boot’ and other sub movies to try and emulate the looks of the lighting and the characters’ ragged appearance. The kind of cramped spaces and the idea of this feeling of the walls closing in on you.”
In the show’s farewell episode of Season 6, a series finale directed by Eisner, there’s no better example of that cramped feeling than the tactical team’s unconventional path down to the Ring Station. Bobbie (Frankie Adams), Amos (Wes Chatham), and some other assembled crew find themselves hurtling toward their ground target with nothing but cargo containers as their makeshift transit pods.
“[Series writer] Ty [Franck] or [showrunner] Naren [Shankar] described them as Porta Potties dropped out of space,” Eisner said. “The idea that I wanted to hang this setpiece on was this idea of starting an absolute claustrophobia, not being able to see or really know what’s going on from the point of view of Amos and Bobbie and then to blow the sides and put them in the middle of this World War II parachuting moment. It was a really technical piece to shoot. There was a motion control camera and we had a crane that Wes was on and we could move him up and the camera down to get around it. To me, it was a really thrilling moment. And Wes really sold it. His performance was crucial.”
In that tracking shot — one that mirrors the logistical composite challenge of last season’s Earth escape — Amos suddenly finds himself drifting through space, ducking aerial fire raining down all around him. Much like the show’s many ship-on-ship dogfights over six seasons, Eisner’s first step was to look to science, with some help from Franck, who co-wrote the original novels with Daniel Abraham.
“The first and most important thing is to talk in detail with Ty about every kind of piece of physics and ship technology, and every intense movement to make sure you have it. Ty’s the tech kind of guy who also knows the logic and has the reason for everything,” Eisner said. “Then Naren is the storytelling guy and together we make sure I try and bring those two pieces together in the execution. To me, the most important part of these set pieces is that you’re connected with the humans that are in the midst of it and that their decisions have an impact on the success or failure.”
That attention to detail also shows itself in sequences that are based more in practical environments. During the Ring Station attack sequence, Clarissa (Nadine Nicole) has to make her way down from the bridge of the Rocinante, where the rest of the ship’s main crew still on board is situated. In a textbook example of a logistical consideration that few other shows apart from “The Expanse” would make room for: Clarissa has to battle gravity just to walk over to and down a staircase.
“That was a complicated piece because the bridge of the ship doesn’t move. When we do set pieces with little sets we’ll build motion bases or they’ll be on bags or things that we can shake the set with. But the Roci bridge has absolutely no movement. It’s on steel and concrete. So all that was her acting and a little bit of camera movement. She did a really good job getting out of that seat to sell that moment,” Eisner said.
Maybe the most memorable part of “Babylon’s Ashes” is that the battle sequence doesn’t end up being the climactic moment. True to form for a show where diplomacy and interpersonal history played just as big a role as faster-than-light travel or mysterious protomolecule forces, the true goodbye moments of “The Expanse” finale are built around people talking. The first one comes in the calm before the storm at the Ring Station, with Holden (Steven Strait), Naomi (Dominique Tipper), Bobbie, Amos, and Clarissa all enjoying one last guaranteed meal together.
“We obviously rehearsed that scene quite a bit because it’s important how to hit all those beats. But things like Amos coming over to check on Clarissa and she stops him from taking a bite. And then Bobbie comes over later and he stops her from taking a bite. Little things that like just kind of developed as we were blocking it,” Eisner said. “All those physicalities, and personalities, and dialogue, and quiet. They’re not afraid to eat in silence, and the end of that scene really creates that sense of a tight-knit familial unit. I wanted to make sure that the actors had time to rehearse it and to play with it, and to let it sit there and be naturalistic, and honest, and real.”
The show also takes an unexpected route with the death of its primary antagonist Marco Inaros (Keon Alexander). As the ring entities tear their way through the Pella, vaporizing everyone on board, there’s a distinct lack of bombast in seeing Marco meet his end.
“It’s like watching a bullet fly out of the barrel of a gun. If you don’t slow time dramatically, you don’t see it. All you have is the reaction, is the result of it, but you don’t see the process. So the decision was ‘Let’s slow time way the hell down so we can see how he’s pulled apart on a molecular level,'” Eisner said. “It’s a quiet, quiet moment. I will definitely chalk that up to Naren. He was the one who pulled that idea together, which I love. And the interesting thing is, what Keon is doing in that moment for Marco as he’s at the moment of recognition his demise, he turns and looks to Filip and Filip’s not there. He’s gone. So he’s horrified by his own death, though he’s also horrified by the abandonment by his son at this moment.”
Eisner directed the first and last episodes of the season, meaning that block shooting put some of these final moments right alongside the other Season 6 bookends. (One notable example: Kathleen Robertson, who played Marcos’ close adviser Rosenfeld Guoliang, spent her first day on set filming her character’s death scene.) Eisner’s last day on set filming with the series’ main cast was Holden’s final press conference, where the reins of the newly created Transport Union for the rings are calmly (however unexpectedly) transferred to the hands of Camina Drummer (Cara Gee). But some of the other finale scenes meant even more attention than usual, given that the middle chunk of the season wasn’t in its final form yet.
“Not only had they not shot the episodes between 1 and 6, they hadn’t even read them. They’d gotten extended outlines, but the episodes are typically being finished while we’re shooting. So, because of the tighter schedule, we had to make sure we were really present and aware of what the characters had been through, even though they hadn’t experienced it,” Eisner said. “The final scene, we did a long rehearsal for that so that we could get the experimenting of physical positioning out of the way. And then just letting them really play with the scene, and find it, and be present and together. One of the things of life on a ship when you’re not racing to battle is you have time. It’s like flying on an airplane on an intercontinental flight. Time moves slowly. And so we let that breathe, let it be a slow and natural end.”
The final line of the series — Naomi telling Holden “Let’s just stay here for a minute” — might as well be a guiding principle for these farewell moments throughout the finale. That’s especially true for the last two images of “The Expanse”: Naomi and Holden sitting in their bay aboard the Rocinante and their trusted ship slowly disappearing into a giant galactic tableau.
“The last shot I wanted was this slow pullback of Naomi and Holden in the bed with the Roci girl on the screen above them. She puts her head on his shoulder, he puts his hand on hers as she puts his hand on his. All that was staged like a dance and was choreographed for the shot,” Eisner said. “The final shot of the episode, and of the season, and of the franchise, it was written very clearly in the script. The Roci flies off and disappears into the stars. It goes and goes and goes, not rushing, letting it fly away, letting the music swell, and letting it literally disappear into the starfield that we’ve been looking at. It’s giving the audience a hint of how vast the expanse of the world is that you’re looking at.”
With multiple installments in the book series still left unadapted, there’s still room for “The Expanse” to potentially continue in some form later down the line. Eisner said the door isn’t necessarily shut for a return someday, but for now this is the ending that he and the rest of the team were looking for.
“We wanted to give it everything we could within the parameters of our budget and time, trying to deliver as much and as high quality as we can,” Eisner said. “Obviously, there are three more books after this, and that all of us would love to one day finish those three, if possible. But those other books, if anything ever exists, will be its own thing by nature. We needed to stick this landing and finish the storytelling that we started six years ago. There’s a lot that’s left on the table to possibly tell one day. But we didn’t hold anything back.”
“The Expanse” Seasons 1-6 are now available to stream on Prime Video.