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The Art of the Ending

After six television seasons, nine books, and hundreds of plot twists, ‘The Expanse’ concludes its TV and novel series within weeks of each other. Can it avoid the typical pitfalls of the genre series finale?

Jay Torres

Editor’s note: Following the series finale of The Expanse, we are recirculating this piece, which originally ran prior to the Season 6 premiere.

Midway through the sixth and final season of The Expanse, which premieres on Amazon on Friday, two characters reminisce about the Canterbury, the ice hauler whose destruction all the way back in the show’s pilot catalyzes the exhilarating plot to come.

“The Canterbury? I haven’t thought about that in a while,” one says.

“Me neither,” the other responds.

And neither, most likely, have the series’ fans—the Canterbury exploded six years ago, for television viewers, or 10 years ago, for readers of the novels upon which the show is based. Its callback this season emphasizes just how far The Expanse’s story has traveled. Along with the television series—which has aired on two different networks—have come nine books, numerous complementary novellas and comics, role-playing and board games, and hundreds upon hundreds of plot twists, shifting alliances, and torpedo rounds fired by the Rocinante, the series’ flagship and spiritual—if not also physical—home.

Even in a mass of bold, imaginative space operas that have reinvigorated the genre in the last decade, The Expanse shines bright. Centering on humanity’s exploration of the solar system and beyond a few hundred years into the future, the series combines a richly developed world with memorable characters and brisk pacing. Rotten Tomatoes’ editorial team ranked The Expanse no. 10 on its list of the 100 best sci-fi TV shows of all time, and last year the novels won a Hugo Award—the most prominent in science fiction—for Best Series.

Yet as the franchise wraps up both on television and with its ninth novel, Leviathan Falls, which hit shelves at the end of November, its creators had to confront a unique challenge: how to craft a satisfying conclusion to a beloved genre series in two different mediums, releasing separately within weeks of each other.

That’s no easy task even when working in one medium at a time, as anyone who watched the final season of Game of Thrones or has waited for the final books of A Song of Ice and Fire can attest. A proper conclusion isn’t just one that makes sense for the story, but also appeases readers and watchers as well. Modern fandom places preeminent importance on an ending, often going so far as to disregard the rest of the series if the conclusion doesn’t land—and writers can struggle to satisfy the disparate demands of a passionate fan base.

“Every book in this series is somebody’s favorite and somebody’s least favorite, all of them,” says Daniel Abraham, one member of the duo that writes the books pseudonymously, as James S.A. Corey.

But The Expanse delivers most of the way on screen and all the way on the page, and in so doing exemplifies the necessary steps to wrapping up a prodigious saga while leaving fans wanting just a bit more. “I don’t think you have to answer every question,” says Ty Franck, the other half of James S.A. Corey. “I think a story that still leaves with a little mystery is OK. But if you promised an answer, then you should probably give an answer.”

It’s not too much of a stretch to advertise The Expanse as “Game of Thrones in space”: Both novel-cum–TV series detail the fight against immediate geopolitical problems along with a longer-term supernatural terror, as told in a variety of point-of-view chapters over long books. The Expanse’s two authors also have personal connections to Thrones scribe George R.R. Martin: Franck worked as his assistant for several years; Abraham cowrote a sci-fi book with him and adapted a Thrones graphic novel series; when they all lived in New Mexico, Martin was even part of the group that experimented with the role-playing board game that eventually became the Expanse story.

If those parallels were to continue, then, Season 6 of The Expanse would be in danger, as Thrones best typifies the pitfalls of concluding a vast story set in a large fictional world. And indeed, some cast members felt pressure to stick the landing. “​​We worked for so many years, so hard on this thing, and to not be able to finish it well [would be] a nightmare. That’s the worst nightmare,” says Steven Strait, who stars as James Holden. “We wanted so desperately to honor this story, and to do it right. And I think we did.”

The action picks up six months after the end of Season 5, with Earther and Martian forces engaged in a desperate defense against Marco Inaros’s Free Navy, which in Season 5 grabbed command of the asteroid belt and “ring space” that will control the future of human civilization. The mysterious alien protomolecule remains a powerful peripheral threat—but as one character says in a strategy meeting, “We cannot afford the luxury of worrying about the future until we end this war.”

From the start of the season, it’s clear that the audience is joining events already in place. “We basically wanted to pick up in the middle of a war,” says Wes Chatham, who plays mechanic Amos Burton, “so you get a sense that we’ve been at this for a long time, and when you first see us that we’re exhausted and run down by everything that’s happened.”

That weariness manifests both physically and emotionally, after so many years battling menacing foes. Strait lost weight before this season to better reflect Holden’s stress. “He’s not sleeping. He’s not eating,” Strait says. “He’s deeply worried about what’s going on, and about his family, and about the war, and about the protomolecule, and the weight of all of it is just pressing so hard on his shoulders.”

Unlike previous seasons, which included 10 to 13 episodes apiece, Season 6 features only six episodes, only one of which extends past 45 minutes. For a season that must adapt most of a 500-plus-page book (a large chunk of one story line moved up to Season 5), that’s not a lot of time to let the story play out. Most of the book’s B- and C-plots shrink or disappear entirely.

There is some storytelling benefit to the abbreviated season length. Where Season 5 meandered at moments, Season 6 is forced to be tight and propulsive. The streamlined schedule “gave it a really good dramatic compression,” showrunner Naren Shankar says. “Every episode escalates, and so in some ways it worked for us.”

Yet the greatest obstacle to the show’s wrap-up isn’t Season 6’s structure, but the absence of seasons 7, 8, or 9, thanks to Amazon’s decision to make this the final season. Season 6 is a mostly faithful adaptation of the sixth book in the series, Babylon’s Ashes, with the same end note—which means none of the settings or plot points explored in the final third of the book series will translate to the screen.

On the one hand, the series’ authors say the main priority of a conclusion is to fulfill the premise’s promise, and they worked to achieve that initial goal. At the start of the pilot episode, Franck says, “there is a text crawl that lays out the state of the solar system, what the powers are, what the conflicts are, and promises that that’s going to come to a head. That is the promise that the very first episode of the show makes, and … if you watch Season 6, Episode 6, you’ll feel like we told that story and we fulfilled that promise.”

On the other hand, however, the show very quickly introduced further complications beyond the political conflicts offered in that text crawl: namely, the protomolecule, which only offers more questions in Season 6. The beginnings of all six episodes push forward the plot of Strange Dogs, a complementary novella that effectively serves as a prologue to books 7 through 9. Shankar and the two authors, who also serve as writers and executive producers on the show, say they included this story on screen so the protomolecule would retain a presence amid the season’s focus on human-on-human violence. But non-book-readers may find this tease of a new world, led by a new villain, frustrating without any further answers to come.

In the meantime, viewers can at least enjoy further time with the characters they’ve watched for 50-plus episodes. As befits a solid conclusion, Season 6 offers a blend of the familiar and unfamiliar, reaffirming old character bonds and doing right by the series’ longtime heroes, while simultaneously introducing new elements to the fray. (The one notable absence is Rocinante pilot Alex Kamal, who was killed off at the end of Season 5 as a result of actor Cas Anvar’s sexual assault allegations.)

Clarissa Mao, in her first season as a member of the Rocinante crew, adds a particular spark and note of emotional resonance; two of the most affecting scenes center on her character’s acceptance within the ship’s family. Exploring this new dynamic, actress Nadine Nicole says, felt like being “a little kid in a candy shop, like, ‘Oh, I’m on the Rocinante!’”

And a number of old friends return for a brief moment or two, offering callbacks and dialogue reminders of events like the Canterbury explosion. Yet adding these Easter eggs requires a delicate balance, on both screen and page; they must be chosen judiciously. If there is “slavish devotion to checking in with every single character you have named in every book,” Franck says, “you wind up, then, with books where you have 47 viewpoint characters and every one of them gets one chapter and it’s very unsatisfying.”

Given the corporate mandate, there wasn’t much else the show could accomplish in its finale: The remaining story in the novels is properly cinematic, but far too vast to possibly fit in the available television space. If the show had to navigate a premature ending, this is the most sensible place to stop—especially because the start of the seventh book involves a 30-year time jump after the end of Book 6.

“We have a complete story, and it’s so rare to be able to get that as an actor,” Strait says. “One, to be able to tell a story for this long, with the kind of writing that we’ve had, and then to be able to complete it on your own creative terms, it just never happens.”

Even if audiences enjoy Season 6 for what it is, the protomolecule still forms a large, lingering hole in the center of the story. Continuing the Thrones comparison, it would be as if that show’s final season had resolved the struggle for the Iron Throne, but not addressed the looming White Walker catastrophe. (On second thought, given Thronestreatment of the Walkers at the end, maybe some fans would have actually preferred that vague conclusion.) For a final exploration of the protomolecule, fans need the books.

Fortunately, the books and show chart such a similar course through six seasons that show-only fans should be able to pick up books 7 through 9, which form a sort of Laconian trilogy, without reading the first six.

The authors say they felt no added pressure to cater to fan expectations when writing their finale. “If you start trying to second-guess what fans are going to want and what they’re going to think and start writing to that, you’re just going to write a bad book,” Franck says. “If Daniel and I were writing to what we thought fans wanted, we would’ve wrote an epic fantasy [series].”

Another aspect of the modern fan experience involves guesses galore on subreddits and collaborative forums about how the endgame will take shape. Careful readers might have predicted large swaths of the series’ resolution, but the authors don’t mind this sort of interaction and wouldn’t want to insert a surprise solely for the sake of a surprise. “If you’re a million words into something and nobody knows where you’re going yet, you screwed up,” Abraham says. “A sophisticated reader should be able to read the first part of your story and at least have a good guess.”

The authors wouldn’t want to deviate from their long-planned course in response to fan theorizing, anyway: The last line of the last chapter of the series (not counting an epilogue) was written all the way back during the drafting of Caliban’s War, the second book in the series.

(The contents of the epilogue and one particular character’s role in its events, however, were not decided so soon. That concept came later, when the writers looked back on earlier books and discovered they had added inadvertent foreshadowing. The whole epilogue hinges on a “gag line [from] earlier,” Franck says—but it’s an incredibly satisfying concept nonetheless.)

The last book starts off relatively slowly, as the point-of-view characters all investigate various mysteries and chase down leads. The tension builds all the while. The series has never shied away from horror elements, dating back to the protomolecule’s appearance on Eros in the first book and TV season, and that element ratchets even further here.

After the 30-year time jump, the accumulated exhaustion is even more apparent than in the show, from the details of wrinkles in the characters’ faces to their well-worn muscles in a fight. In this final book, the protagonist’s point-of-view chapters are labeled “Jim,” rather than the “Holden” they have been marked for the rest of the series. “The chapter headings are how the people think of themselves,” Franck says, “and he takes himself less seriously. That need to be the leader and the paladin has sort of been beaten out of him.”

And then, halfway through the book comes a mind-bending chapter that accelerates the finale toward the concluding set piece. This chapter is like nothing the series has included before, a change to the typical point-of-view structure that fits a “form follows function” ethos. The effect is spectacularly dramatic.

“As we came into the last book, we knew there was no reason to hold anything back,” Abraham says. “We’re not going to hold anything for a 10th book—if we’re going to do it, do it now.”

Abraham cites Walter Jon Williams’s initial Dread Empire’s Fall trilogy as an inspiration because its final book “ends on the last sentence. You’re not off the hook until the very last moment. I really admired that one.” That model is clear in Leviathan Falls, which maintains suspense until the absolute end.

Along the way, just like the sixth TV season, the ninth book includes callbacks that allow the world to feel cohesive and offer a “reminder that this is a single unified story,” Abraham says. But the world and story evolve, too: Season 6 doesn’t really return to Earth, nor does the ninth book really return to the entire solar system—called Sol, by this point in the story—instead choosing to spread the action to other worlds that had opened up midway through the series.

In Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Harry returns to Hogwarts for the final battle; Holden doesn’t return anywhere near Earth in Leviathan Falls because, the authors say, that pivot would have felt forced in the context of the series’ growth. “I think Rowling can go back to Hogwarts for the final battle because all the important events of the previous six books are based around Hogwarts. It is the center of the story,” Franck says. “We move away from Sol system in the story for like four books.”

Early in Leviathan Falls, a character born midway through the series reflects on the effect of switching from the one familiar solar system in which all humans have ever lived to—after the unfurling of the “ring gate” doorways—1,300 different systems, each with its own planets, opportunities, and dangers.

“When they talked about the time before the ring gates, it was like watching an old entertainment feed,” the character thinks while hurtling through one of the new systems aboard the Rocinante. “The idea of all humanity trapped in a single system made her feel almost claustrophobic.”

After nine books, sticking near Earth or Mars or the Belt would have felt claustrophobic, too. That’s one of the main lessons of the conclusion—befitting a series called The Expanse.

Although Season 6 is the final planned run for The Expanse, the creators are careful with the language they use to describe it, referring instead to a “pause” or “off ramp,” but not necessarily a full conclusion. After all, the show was already canceled once, by the Syfy channel, before a robust fan campaign helped convince Amazon to revive it.

For now, those involved with the show are holding out hope that they might be able to tell the Laconian trilogy in some form or another on-screen. Asked how the show would handle a time jump with its cast if the opportunity arose, Shankar says, “Let’s put it this way—I hope we get to have that problem to figure out.”

The written series, however, is definitely done after Leviathan Falls and one final complementary novella that will be published as part of the Memory’s Legion collection in 2022. Perhaps no story is ever truly finished in the current era of intellectual property cannibalization—but the writers aren’t conflicted about choosing to end the series now, nor do they sound like they have any desire to ever return to this fictional world.

“There’s this drive to drag things back out of their coffins and prop them up and move them around like a Weekend at Bernie’s thing,” Franck says. “Daniel and I have been very adamant that the last Expanse book is the last Expanse book. Ten years from now, we’re not going to drag out the corpse of The Expanse and go, Expanse: The Next Generation.”

After all, the co-authors have new characters to invent and new worlds to explore. Franck is a video game fan and says, “I don’t want to play the same game over and over again. People will go, ‘Hey, Halo 17 is coming out.’ I’m like, ‘I played the first three Halos, I’m kind of done with Halo.’

“I pick things up and I play with them until I feel like I’ve gotten what I wanted out of that universe or that series, and I move on to something else,” he adds. “I’ve been playing The Expanse for nine books now, and I’m ready to go play a different game.”

Next up for the James S.A. Corey duo is an unrelated trilogy that takes place in the far-off future—they have cited Dune as one inspiration—rather than the more medium-term timeline of The Expanse. The writers say this change of scenery allows for a focus on different kinds of technology and world-building, along with actual physical encounters with aliens unlike what The Expanse’s more mysterious extraterrestrials have to offer.

On the screen, the similarities between The Expanse and Game of Thrones extend only so far: The best space operas this century—The Expanse, Firefly, Battlestar Galactica—have tended to attract cult followings rather than garner mass appeal. Amazon is winding down The Expanse early at the same time it’s spending hundreds of millions of dollars in a search for the “next Thrones for a reason.

Yet on the page, the next Corey trilogy will publish in a literature landscape in which accessible space opera adventures are flourishing—in part because of The Expanse’s popularity. Abraham downplays their contribution to the genre’s latest wave, saying that other authors “kicked the door open and we walked through it,” and they hope their efforts can similarly inspire other authors to create their own.

“Part of why The Expanse exists is because of 10-year-old me’s hunger for more stories in the Stars My Destination universe,” Franck says. “Hunger for more stories in a setting that you love causes you to make your own stuff. So I hope somebody out there 20 years from now that read The Expanse when they were 15 and is writing their own books goes, ‘Gosh, I wish there had been more Expanse stories,’ and then writes their own amazing sci-fi.”

Ultimately, one of their greatest beliefs about an ending is that it should contain a tease for more. Inside both the Expanse universe and the broader genre it illuminates, the authors never want to answer every question, but instead provide just enough to satisfy readers before moving on to the next great saga.

“I’ve never written a neat ending,” Abraham says. “I’ve never written an ending where history stopped and all the stories were finished and nothing was going to happen afterward.”

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