The Expanse Season 4 Review: The Resurrected Show Sets Up For The Future
The Expanse season 4 made its highly anticipated debut on Amazon Prime over the weekend. The shift from Syfy to Amazon has not changed the show, other than fancier special effects and more freedom to curse. With the premiere of season 4 of The Expanse, the show moves also in a new direction. Let’s explore what works and what the crew of the Rocinante have been up to since we last left them.
Minor Spoilers for season 4 of The Expanse and the book series below.
Image via Amazon
Season 4 of The Expanse Explores New Territory
The third season of The Expanse covered a lot of ground from both the second and third books: Caliban’s War and Abaddon’s Gate. With cancellation looming from Syfy, the showrunners attempted to squeeze in as much as they could into the third season. This led to some uneven pacing and confused narrative threads that dragged the series down from its previous height. Perhaps the most important plot point of the third season saw the formation of the ring gate. This gate rose up out of Venus after the alien protomolecule crashed into the planet via the space station Eros. The third season ended with thousands of portals opening within the ring gate, each one leading to new galaxies.
Season 4 of The Expanse mostly adapts the fourth book of the series: Cibola Burn. It follows the flood of humanity as they seek to enter the portals of the ring gate. They are all seeking new worlds to inhabit. Earth is overcrowded, Mars is still uninhabitable, and the Belters have never even had a planet of their own. This journey is of particular importance to the Belters (the working class who were born in space to mine the asteroids). We see this play out as a ship of Belter refugees from Ganymede (a casualty of the proto-molecule) run a blockade set up by Earth in order to pass through the ring gate. These refugees land on a habitable planet they call Ilus. It is on this foreign planet that the majority of the season’s action takes place.
Image via Amazon
The First Season To Take Place Primarily On Planets
Previous seasons of The Expanse took place primarily on spaceships like the Rocinante. Or on space stations like Eros and Ganymede. Some of the action does occur on Earth, but season 4 is the first time the action takes place primarily on planetside. We spend most of our time on Ilus with the crew of the Rocinante, and the Belter refugees. When not on Ilus, we are spending time with Bobbie Draper on Mars or Chrisjen Avarasala on Earth. Only the OPA portions of the season occur primarily on spaceships. This change of scenery makes the show feel fresh and new. The higher Amazon budget is put to good use depicting the alien landscape of Ilus, and the strange architecture that the proto-molecule left behind.
Landing on a planet is no easy feat for Belters, whose physiology makes it extremely difficult for them to live in gravity. We see this through one of the primary characters. Naomi Nagata endures a painful drug regimen that will allow her to step foot on Ilus. This planet is the first that Belters have ever called home, and it is clearly important for Naomi to experience it firsthand. The other Belter refugees who have staked their claim on the planet refuse to leave, even when natural disasters and dangerous organisms threaten their lives. The Belters are also at odds with the Earthers who have come to study Ilus (and claim the planet as their own ‘New Terra’). This very human conflict is set against the backdrop of the threat of the unknown alien technologies that the proto-molecule created.
The Crew of the Rocinante | Image via Amazon
James Holden Is An Unlikely Prophet
James Holden, our primary protagonist is still struggling to understand the vision he had at the end of season 3. He is also still talking to the ghost of Detective Miller in his head. As the season progresses, we learn a bit more about what is happening with Miller. And we get a bit of information about the proto-molecule, and how it came to be. But overall, this season ended up asking more questions than it did give answers about the mysterious proto-molecule. Holden spends much of the season trying to figure out what Miller wants him to do, even though it might be the proto-molecule itself guiding the detective’s consciousness. Holden spends a lot of this season attempting to do something to help and inadvertently causing disasters that he then has to fix.
It is here that I’d like to make a note about how the Expanse novels were originally developed out of an online RPG that the authors created. And that feeling of a role-playing game is evident in the character of Holden, more than anyone else. In many ways, Holden started out as a blank template. He is the character that anyone can slip into and roll a 20 in order to save a planet, or roll poorly and end up causing a tsunami. This has caused him to be a cipher of a character over the previous seasons of The Expanse. However, in season 4 I feel like he is coming into his own. His character growth is slow, and sometimes it is exasperating but it is building slowly.
Holden and Naomi | Image via Amazon
Mixed Screen Time for The Rest of the Rocinante Crew
Outside of Holden, other members of the Rocinante crew get varying levels of screen time and character development. Poor Alex doesn’t get much to do this season other than being very capable and empathetic. Amos gets a surprising love interest that helps to reframe the seemingly emotionless character, and add some humor to the mix. However, it is the character of Naomi Nagata that rightfully gets a large portion of the screen time this season. A complicated character with dark secrets and a shady history, Naomi’s previous life is starting to catch up with her. We learn more about her long-lost son, as well as her relationship with a terrorist who will certainly have a larger role to play in seasons to come. We also see Naomi’s dedication not only to her found family of the Rocinante crew, but her continued loyalty to the Belters she came from.
Naomi Nagata | Image via Amazon
Season 4 of The Expanse Shows Us Life on Mars
The main crew of the Rocinante spend much of this season separated from one another. Half of the crew are aboard their ship, while the others stay on the surface of the planet. Each setting has its own challenges for the characters to overcome, and problems to be solved. However it is not only on Ilus where the story spends its time, and each of the other plotlines have their own strengths and weaknesses.
In an effort to keep certain main characters in the spotlight, the showrunners pulled in plotlines from future Expanse books. This gives something to do for characters like the Martian ex-marine Bobbie Draper, and the U.N. Secretary General on Earth Chrisjen Avarasala. Bobbie’s plotline in this season is particularly effective in her development as a character. In a season where much of the character growth feels a bit static, Bobbie is given a chance to shine. We get to meet some members of her family and understand her fierce loyalty to them. We also see some of the humiliation that she endures, stripped of her rank and position with the Martian military.
Bobbie makes some questionable decisions this season, but it is nice to see her as a person, once the uniform is taken away. Bobbie’s involvement in various illegal schemes this season feel somewhat surprising for her character. But they make sense given her restlessness on Mars. Her burning anger needs an outlet, and her need to have something to do is palpable. This plotline also gives us a glimpse of what daily life is like on Mars, and how it is changing due to the discovery of new worlds.
Roberta Draper | Image via Syfy
The Politics of The Expanse Get More Complicated
Meanwhile, on Earth the U.N. Secretary General is facing an election. Chrisjen Avarasala goes through many personal and political trials this season. She makes some questionable decisions for political gain, and creates a rift with her loyal husband. This new storyline does not come from the books, and it feels intentionally added. It forces us to ask how much we trust our leaders, and asks questions about political dynasties versus new blood. As we are in the midst of a seemingly endless election cycle, this plotline could feel tiresome and unnecessary. But it gives Avarasala something to do in season 4, and adds layers of complexity to one of the show’s best characters.
Connected to both Bobbie and Chrisjen’s storylines are the plotlines of the OPA, although the threads don’t quite tie together by the end. The OPA (Outer Planets Alliance) has struck a truce with Earth and Mars due to the presence of the ring gate. However that fragile peace is threatened by a terrorist named Marco Inaros (Naomi’s ex-lover). The characters of Ashford and Drummer spend much of the season embroiled in politics, while they hunt this notorious criminal. This plotline, much like Bobbie’s time on Mars, feels like it is setting up for future seasons of The Expanse. However it does lead to one of the most compelling scenes of the season towards the end, one that was not in the book.
Chrisjen Avasarala | Image via Amazon
Where Will The Expanse Go In Season 5?
After Syfy cancelled The Expanse in 2018, the show moved to Amazon for season 4. Despite the uneven nature of the third season, it actually lent strength to season 4 as a new starting point for the show on Amazon. With the opening of the ring gates, the series moves in a new direction. And finding a new home on Amazon means that they will have plenty of budget for extraordinary new worlds. The Syfy cancellation might actually be the best thing that could have happened to The Expanse. Some fans view Cibola Burn as one of the weaker entries in the Expanse book series. However Amazon took this book and translated it to screen in a way that improved upon the source material. They also smartly made changes and incorporated elements of future books in order to keep the pacing tight, and the characters compelling.
Amazon has already renewed The Expanse for a fifth season, with filming already underway. No word yet on when that season will air, but it is likely to be sometime in 2021. Overall, season 4 of The Expanse is an excellent season that deftly sets up the playing pieces for the series long-term goals. All ten episodes are streaming now on Amazon Prime.
(Featured image via Amazon)
Emily O'Donnell is a writer and photographer with roots in some of the earliest online fandoms. She cut her genre teeth on the Wizard of Oz books at the tender age of 6 years old, and was reading epic adult fantasy novels by the age of 10. Decades later, she still consumes genre fiction like there is no tomorrow. She is delighted to be living through the golden age of sci-fi and fantasy popularity. She is unashamed of the amount of fanfiction that still lingers online under her name.