As a vocal and perhaps slightly overbearing fan of The Expanse, the Amazon science-fiction series that’s been pound-for-pound one of the genre’s best for the past decade, I’ve found the quickest way to pitch the show to newcomers is by comparing it to Game of Thrones. Like Thrones, The Expanse has large-scale ambitions: It’s set 300 years in the future, as humankind colonizes the rest of the solar system and splits into three main factions on Earth, Mars, and the asteroid Belt (Belters, for short). But rather than focus on superficial spectacle—which would be quite easy to do given the interplanetary space battles and a mysterious alien technology capable of mass extinction at play—the show’s expansive (sorry) scope has always conveyed thoughtful ideas about humanity. Like Thrones, this space opera soars when establishing its immaculate and highly detailed worldbuilding.
Comparing The Expanse and Thrones isn’t exactly game-changing, or particularly original. If you took a shot every time The Expanse was mentioned in the same breath as Thrones—including several times on this very website—well, let’s just say you’d be doing a stunning reenactment of Mads Mikkelsen’s latest film. Granted, comparing a series to Thrones isn’t as, uh, complimentary as it was before the show’s terrible final season, but to dismiss its standing as an essential piece of TV monoculture because of a bad ending would ignore what made it a sensation in the first place. At its peak, Thrones somehow seamlessly balanced myriad conflicts across Westeros—from the political machinations in King’s Landing to the impending threat of ice zombies beyond the Wall to Daenerys Targaryen and her dragons literally roasting slave owners a continent away. With few hiccups, Thrones made all these story lines compelling, even if it took hours of actual viewing between various character check-ins. (In fact, the show went downhill once it started narrowing its scope for the endgame.)
So how does this relate to The Expanse? Please don’t throw me out of an airlock for belaboring the point, but it’s true: Season 5, which premiered its first three episodes on Wednesday, operates on a scale that neither the series nor the rest of the post-Thrones television landscape has attempted before. If the trailer felt a bit all over the place, that’s because the early episodes of this season are setting up an overwhelming number of chess pieces throughout the solar system. The Expanse is definitely the first show in television history to juggle one story line in the Chesapeake Bay with one about horny space pirates collecting scrap metal beyond the asteroid Belt.
The biggest difference between this season—which is based on the fifth book in the series of the same name from James S.A. Corey (the shared pen name for cowriters Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck)—and the previous four is what ends up happening to the crew of the Rocinante: Earthers James Holden and Amos Burton, Martian Alex Kamal, and Belter Naomi Nagata, the show’s main protagonists who have spent most of the series preventing the destruction of humanity at the hands of the protomolecule, a mysterious alien technology. (The protomolecule’s creators seem to have wiped themselves out, and we’ve been given enough hints to surmise that it might’ve been from abusing the enormous power of their own creation; spot the metaphor.)
For once, the Rocinante gang has some downtime, and the characters set about dealing with personal affairs. Amos returns to his hometown of Baltimore; Alex travels to Mars in the hopes of reconciling with his estranged family; Naomi searches the Belt for her son Filip, who’s been raised by her ex, the charismatic Belter terrorist Marco Inaros; and Holden, a mopey, reluctant hero in the Jon Snow mold, stays with the ship for repairs at the Belter station Tycho. Meanwhile [deep breath], former Martian marine Bobbie Draper continues investigating black market arms dealing on Mars; former UN secretary general Chrisjen Avasarala takes up a leadership position on the moon; and fan-favorite Belter Camina Drummer mourns the death of her mentor, Klaes Ashford, by abdicating any responsibilities in the Belt and scavenging shipwrecks in the far reaches of the solar system.
Naturally, this split between characters couldn’t have arrived at a more inopportune time. As revealed at the end of Season 4, Inaros has sent several asteroids coated with Martian stealth technology toward Earth, and even a single one hitting the planet’s surface could bring about millions of deaths. While the series’ biggest existential threat continues to be the protomolecule, it’s also a bit of a red herring, since the technology is reactive to humans’ attempts to meddle with it instead of actively trying to destroy us. Inaros, though, shows that even in an age of spacefaring exploration, power-hungry humans still pose the greatest danger to our collective survival. And unlike previous villains, he doesn’t have to use the protomolecule to change the course of history.
The lack of protomolecule-centric drama, combined with so many important characters being isolated and unaware of the impending crisis hurtling toward Earth, makes for a potentially faulty season if all the show’s moving parts don’t cohere. It was, after all, the warm chemistry and interplay between the Rocinante crew—from Amos being the weirdest fucking dude in the solar system to Naomi and Holden’s budding romance—that helped The Expanse build such a passionate fan base in the first place. If there are weak links in the deep ensemble, Season 5 will make them easy to spot.
But while the fifth season takes a little longer to gain momentum—the premiere is the weakest of the nine episodes made available to critics on account of dutifully setting up so many story lines—it builds to a breathtaking crescendo that represents a new high mark for the series, which already draws favorable comparisons to Battlestar Galactica. Book readers will know, and everyone else who’s watched the first three episodes should be able to surmise that, (spoiler alert) the first asteroid making landfall is only the beginning of an apocalyptic shitstorm. (The Expanse works so well because of the little moments, but it’s still pretty thrilling when the big asteroid goes boom.)
One of my favorite things about The Expanse has been its measured approach to Earth, Mars, and the Belt, which have all produced loathsome and heroic characters in the face of heated interplanetary divisions and prejudice. (It’s little wonder that the Rocinante, essentially a micro melting pot of humanity’s near future, has been such a force for good.) And the strength of Season 5 is a testament to the work the previous seasons did in developing the ensemble so that individual characters can stand on their own. To wit: Amos used to be the muscle with a skewed moral compass; now he’s grounding a space show in goddamn Baltimore as his story line pivots to a gritty tale of survival in the midst of chaos. While there are certainly life-threatening stakes—I don’t want to dismiss the epicness of giant asteroids sent to Earth by a space terrorist—this season is more intimate and character-driven. It lays the foundations for everyone’s personal demons, what they’re fighting for, and most importantly, why they’re worth caring about.
It’s a tricky balance to pull off, as even the best seasons of Thrones had some forgettable subplots and characters. (Remember Dorne and the Sand Snakes? Exactly!) But Abraham and Franck, who are also writers and producers on the show, established a blueprint for showrunner Naren Shankar that The Expanse gracefully follows without any on-screen setbacks. (With respect to George R.R. Martin, it helps that these guys hit their deadlines.) It’s been a different story off-screen, where The Expanse has dealt with a more rocky existence, getting cancelled by Syfy in 2018 before an intense, fan-driven campaign to revive the show helped it get a second life on Amazon Prime.
The Amazon era of The Expanse has given the series more creative leeway, and a chance to end things on its own terms. As announced in November, the show was renewed for a sixth and final season, which should begin filming sometime next year. (Cas Anvar, who plays Alex, will not return for the final season after several women said the actor sexually harassed and assaulted them.) While Abraham and Franck’s series is nine books long—the final installment, Leviathan Falls, is slated to be published in 2021—they view the sixth book as a satisfying end point for the show.
It might feel a little bittersweet that The Expanse won’t follow the entire journey of the eponymous book series, which would presumably answer more questions about the origins of the protomolecule and how far humanity stretches itself in the cosmos. But for a show that almost suffered a premature end on cable television, six seasons with a mapped out conclusion is nothing to scoff at—especially when, in its penultimate season, The Expanse is as great as ever. And I’m sure fans of this brilliant series will agree: Let’s hope the ending is one area where The Expanse separates itself from Game of Thrones.