Spoilers ahead! This review will freely discuss spoilers for the first six episodes of The Expanse Season 4 and for the previous three seasons, as well as the books the TV series is based on. Tread carefully.
I couldn’t really get into The Expanse when I first started watching it during or after its first season aired (I can’t remember when I initially started). Fans and reviewers alike had compared it to space opera series like Babylon 5 (one of my favorites) and Battlestar Galactica (which ultimately disappointed me). I drifted away from watching the rest of the show, but I’ll admit to being extremely intrigued by the continued praise, and its eventual pick-up by Amazon Prime Video in the aftermath of its cancellation on SYFY.
My interest hit a new peak when I saw The Expanse Season 4 premiere at New York Comic Con while covering the show’s panel. What I saw teased a show which had grown into its own, expanding its outreach from a sad detective and the sad crew of an ice hauler to a whole solar system (and now universe) of possibilities.
So, I started watching the series again and found myself hooked, especially through the first season and the first half of the second, which mainly follows the events of Leviathan Wakes, the first book in the series. I just finished Leviathan Wakes, and I’m now not just impressed by how they managed to adapt such a massive book but also by how cinematically the book was already written. Everything escalates in both the books and the TV series very quickly all the time. A family member who’s also a fan of the show (and was before I became one), told me that he enjoys how the show refuses to show an idealized view of humanity.
And that is why everything escalates so quickly on occasion after occasion in the series. Because the people in this series make horrible mistakes, just like we all do. Which is perhaps why I was disappointed by what I’ve seen so far of Season 4. Make no doubt about it, people still make horrible mistakes. But for some of them, it’s on purpose. Like, very on purpose.
One question people had about The Expanse at the end of Season 3 is where they were going to go with the series. They had adapted the first three books, and sure, there were six more to go (with the final one, the ninth, pending publication), but the series had just radically changed from one about conflict over a tiny corner of the galaxy to the opportunity to explore more galaxies than the characters had possibly imagined, with the opening of the Ring gates. The premise of the series had been altered substantially.
And while the episodes are still well-structured and thankfully, efficient; the characters are well-acted; and the special effects are some of the best in the history of sci-fi TV, there is something missing. Because The Expanse is still essentially good and compelling TV, I struggled to figure out what it was. Then I settled upon the main point of contention I had.
Let’s go back to the point that people make horrible mistakes this season, but that they make them on purpose (at least so far). The season’s major antagonist is Adolphus Murtry, a chief of security for the Royal Charter Energy company on the new, Earth-like planet that some refugee Belters discover, Ilus. Murtry is played by Burn Gorman, who is pretty good, but then again, it’s tough playing an out and out psychopath. And that’s also a difficult antagonist to write. I get the feeling Amos Burton (Wes Chatham) was always a difficult character to write, as he’s the closest thing the show gets to a sympathetic psychopath, but he’s also not as far as gone as say, the Thoth scientists in Seasons 1 and 2, or in this season, Murtry. Murtry is also the only real antagonist this season.
Chrisjen Avasarala (Shohreh Aghdashloo) has a sort-of antagonist in the form of a political opponent threatening her tenure as United Nations Secretary-General, but besides being smug and self-satisfied, the opponent (Nancy Gao, played by Lily Gao) isn’t really an active threat to anyone — she’s not weak-willed like Esteban Sorrento-Gillis (Jonathan Whittaker), who served as Secretary-General in Seasons 1 through 3. And she’s not delightfully conniving like Avasarala’s mentee, Sadavir Errinwright (Shawn Doyle). She’s just there to threaten Avasarala’s place in the UN, and Avasarala’s not going anywhere. Bobbie Draper (Frankie Adams) also has problems but her antagonist this season is just a slimy black market traitor. By the end of the sixth episode of this season, she is somewhat willingly working for him. There’s also a certain story weakness there.
No, Murtry is the only real bad guy, and seeing as he has seemingly no inner conflict about gunning down Belters or leaving them to die on an increasingly hostile planet, he’s not an antagonist like most on The Expanse. Both Jules-Pierre Mao (François Chau) and Clarissa Mao (Nadine Nicole, who makes a brief appearance in the Season 4 which is a lovely moment) both suffered from their guilt over what happened to Julie Mao (Florence Faivre). Clarissa even turned good in the end. Sorrento-Gillis knew he was weak and struggled with just how ineffective a leader he was. Errinwright swung between dedicated to helping Mao with the Protomolecule to wanting to back out and feign innocence constantly. Anderson Dawes (Jared Harris) didn’t really want to hurt Joe Miller that badly (Thomas Jane, who’s back as the mysterious Investigator character) — he just wanted to protect the OPA and keep their power going.
But speaking of that pesky Investigator fella (who’s played in a really fun way by Jane) and that annoying protomolecule situation — they may be the second closest things to an antagonist this season. Somehow, Jim Holden (Steven Strait), still our stalwart hero, activates a protomolecule tower of sorts on Ilus thanks to the Investigator. That activation promptly unleashes hell on Ilus and on the ships orbiting the planet (including the Rocinante after the midpoint of the season). But whereas Murtry is actively a danger, the protomolecule creating chaos is treated as an annoyance by the Belters, RCE and the Rocinante crew–until it very much is not, by the end of the sixth episode.
But maybe I’m not being entirely fair to Murtry — maybe he was a nice guy before the RCE transport he was on got blown up by a small faction of the Belters on Ilus (essentially the initiating incident of the season). Maybe he’s just revenge-crazed. But we’ve already seen that, and in a much more compelling way, with Miller’s storyline in Seasons 1 and 2. Also, we got to know Julie, the reason why Miller went on his own revenge journey. We don’t know the people who die in the RCE transport crash, other than a brief scene with the crew before most of them get blown to hell. Again, Gorman does a good job, but the writing for Murtry just isn’t on par with the villains of the show’s past.
Even the OPA isn’t that villainous these days. Camina Drummer (an excellent Cara Gee) is stuck running a glorified gas station for the Ring — the most joy she seems to get is getting to boss Klaes Ashford (a delightful as always David Strathairn) around. Both of them are getting bossed around by the UN, thanks to the treaty that was apparently signed post-the Rings opening at the end of Season 3. Maybe the situation will turn around by the end of the season, but it mostly feels like the UN is kicking puppies when they kick around Drummer and Ashford, because they’ve both gotten so nice; and considering Ashford was essentially the antagonist for the back half of Season 3, it’s a little weird. Naomi Nagata’s (Dominique Tipper) ex and father of her child, Belter pirate Marco Inaros (Keon Alexander) makes an appearance, and if they are still closely following the books, he’ll be important next season (unless, of course, they decide to bump up more of his story to the end of this season). He could be an antagonist, but so far, he’s just an irritating, extremely talkative pirate.
Apparently, Cibola Burn, the fourth book in the series, from which this season is ostensibly based, does not include a lot of our favorite characters, so the showrunners appear to be bumping up some of the events of the fifth book, Nemesis Games, to make up for that fact. They did the same thing with Leviathan Wakes and the second book, Caliban’s War, and that ultimately worked well, with fan favorites like Avasarala getting their debuts earlier than they would if this was played as a straight adaptation of the books.
I’m hopeful that when I see the back four episodes of this season that this season will make sense to me in the context of the excellence I’m used to with this show. The first season only had 10 episodes, and they’re going back to that with the move to Amazon. And speaking of that move to Amazon — there doesn’t appear to be any major changes other than a weird ratio change whenever they’re on Ilys as opposed to when they’re in space. I suppose it’s supposed to show off the brave new frontier they’re exploring — but honestly, it’s just kind of distracting. The show still looks as great as it always has, and the acting’s great, and again, the stories are well-constructed. There are some really great moments (Ashford watching a video of himself cradling a mysterious baby years ago was a highlight for me), but I’ll admit everything feels…hollow. This may be a season in transition, too — a brief diversion to explore a new planet before hopping back into the meat of this show, which is horrible humanity…in space!
I do feel like I should throw in some mentions of what the main characters, the Roci crew, are doing here. Holden’s freaking out all of the time thanks to his special connection with the Investigator and the torrent of hell it unleashed; Naomi is trying to adapt to gravity drugs and failing and essentially destroying her body to do stuff on Ilus (thankfully, Alex and Holden insist on her going back into space on the ship); Alex Kamal (Cas Anvar, charming as always) initially tries to get laid, and then just decides to be his usually pleasant self when that effort fails; and Amos does get laid, and after that he has a super duper weird relationship with his new sort-of girlfriend (Chandra Wei, played by Jess Salgueiro), who’s the deputy of Murtry.
Not to sound like a broken record as I wrap up here, but again, I have to reiterate: it’s still a very good show. And I haven’t seen the whole season yet. As a whole, it may make sense, and there may be more surprises in store that weren’t in the first six episodes. And even if it is a lackluster season, there’s plenty being built up here that could get extremely excellent and compelling in the already-in-production Season 5.
I look forward the complete season, which is available today on Amazon Prime Video.