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In the End, ‘The Expanse’ Broke the Wheel

After six seasons, one of the best sci-fi series of this generation has come to a close

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Spoiler warning

Each episode of the sixth and final season of The Expanse opens on Laconia, a newly colonized planet in the far reaches of space. The vignettes center on a little girl interacting with alien wildlife and making a confounding discovery: a dog-like species that can seemingly bring the dead back to life. It’s clear to the viewer that this scientific miracle is the work of the protomolecule, the mysterious alien substance that has propelled The Expanse’s expansive (sorry) story line farther into the cosmos. And anyone familiar with Stephen King’s Pet Sematary—let alone the countless times that meddling with the protomolecule has nearly led to extinction-level events on The Expanse—can assume that using “dogs” to resurrect the dead probably won’t end well.

But while The Expanse’s final episode dutifully closes the loop on many of its lingering plot threads and political conflicts, the protomolecule-influenced events on Laconia amount to nothing more than an ellipsis. The last vignette sees the little girl and her zombified brother, who was struck by a vehicle earlier in the season, running deeper into the Laconian wilderness toward an uncertain future—one that is unlikely to ever be resolved on-screen. The doom that underlined each scene never materializes; a looming threat disintegrates into a whisper.

For a show that is frequently compared to Game of Thrones, this resolution (or lack thereof) would be like if the HBO series ended without addressing the White Walkers. (In retrospect, maybe that would’ve been better than how it actually ended.) But for all the DNA they share, The Expanse is not Thrones. For one, The Expanse isn’t being afforded the opportunity to adapt every existing book of source material, which delves even further into the protomolecule and its origins. And while both series have a massive scope, The Expanse showed a greater ability to reel in its story—even as it teased out events on Laconia that serve as the foundation for the final three novels in the series after a 30-year time jump.

But for all the intrigue surrounding the protomolecule, The Expanse has always been more invested in humanity and how mankind’s three factions—Earthers, Martians, and Belters—treat alien technology that can be used (and abused) to consolidate power. In its final season, The Expanse traded protomolecule-related conflicts with big-picture implications. It focused on its ragtag heroes trying to usher in an era of peace for the solar system by stopping the Belter terrorist Marco Inaros, who successfully killed millions of Earthers through a series of asteroid attacks in Season 5.

Much of The Expanse’s final season finds Earthers, Martians, and Belters clinging to a history of tribalism that prevents them from rallying against a common enemy. What’s brilliant about The Expanse is how it can elicit genuine sympathy for each faction—the Earthers lost millions of lives to Inaros’s asteroid attacks; the Martians’ long-held dream of terraforming Mars was extinguished after the discovery of habitable planets like Laconia; the Belters have long been oppressed as the solar system’s working class—while at the same time introducing power-hungry villains from each group. Time and again, characters are so narrowly focused on where a person comes from, rather than defining them by their actions.

Throughout its run, The Expanse never shied away from the kinds of atrocities human beings can commit in the name of power, prejudice, or corporate greed: In addition to Inaros’s attacks on Earth, we’ve seen refugees tossed out of airlocks and children experimented on with protomolecule samples. But even in its darkest moments, the show has an underlying optimism in the power of the collective and good triumphing over evil when characters set aside their differences. The crew of the Rocinante—James Holden, Amos Burton, and Naomi Nagata, who are joined this season by Clarissa Mao and Bobbie Draper—live up to that ideal by being from Earth, Mars, and the Belt.

Given the animosity between Earth and the Belt, particularly after the Inaros attacks, it’s telling that one of the most radical gestures made in Season 6 is a simple handshake between two political figures: U.N. Secretary General Chrisjen Avasarala and Belter leader Camina Drummer. Their decision to band together against Inaros in the series finale is one that, ironically, doesn’t directly affect the villain’s demise: it’s the Roci crew that ends up taking care of business. Instead, the real work comes after the war with Inaros, when Avasarala has to make good on her promise that Belters will have a real seat at the table next to Earth and Mars after generations of disenfranchisement.

Avasarala’s solution is to appoint Holden as president of the newly formed Transport Union, an independent body that oversees mankind’s continued colonization efforts beyond our solar system. He might be an Earther, but he’s viewed as a symbol of unity without allegiances to a single faction. While Holden doesn’t have a secret lineage, the character is The Expanse’s equivalent to Jon Snow: a mopey, reluctant hero whose moral convictions are in tragically short supply. And like Jon, Holden has no interest in holding power. In his first and only act as president, Holden resigns and appoints Drummer to lead the Transport Union. For once, the balance of power is tipped toward the Belt. “It was the only way to secure the peace, the only way we move forward together,” he tells an irate Avasarala. “And you know it.”

By stepping down, Holden effectively forced leaders from Earth and Mars to put the same trust in the Belt that they demanded—and repeatedly abused—from the Belt. Oppression had long been standard for the Belters, which is also why Inaros’s actions, while reprehensible, seemed inevitable—and bound to repeat themselves if Earth and Mars didn’t enter into the union with newfound goodwill. Meaningful change and lasting peace don’t come from maintaining the status quo, but by breaking the wheel.

The best science fiction doesn’t just feature new planets or beguiling life-forms, it holds a mirror up to mankind. For years, The Expanse showed the ugly side of human nature—how technological advancements and the colonization of the solar system (and beyond) don’t matter when everyday people remain entangled in a familiar web of greed, tribalism, and prejudice. But in its final moments, The Expanse imagined a future in which disparate factions can learn to genuinely coexist.

That this peaceful resolution largely comes down to a symbolic handshake and one man’s resignation may seem idealistic and simplistic, but the show also understands that peace doesn’t mean the elimination of conflict. Elsewhere on Laconia, scientists were experimenting with the protomolecule under the watch of a militaristic Martian leader whose motivations aren’t entirely clear, but nevertheless sinister. Curious fans can always seek out the books to reach the conclusion on Laconia, but the mysterious machinations on the planet underscore that, despite the progress made in our solar system, complications will always arise to threaten the fragile truces of men.

While showrunner Naren Shankar remains hopeful that The Expanse can one day finish its entire story on the small screen, the fact that it was given a proper ending at all feels like a victory in and of itself. Across two homes (Syfy, Amazon Prime Video), an early cancellation, and a fan-driven campaign to save the show, The Expanse endured a tumultuous journey to complete six seasons, which is already a long shelf life in the streaming age. Through a combination of intricate world-building, political intrigue, shocking twists, compelling characters, and impressive production values, The Expanse became the best science-fiction series of its era—if not the best of all time. And for all the worthy comparisons to Game of Thrones, there’s one thing The Expanse achieved that its HBO counterpart couldn’t: This show stuck the landing.