18/01/2022

The Expanse’s Finale Cements Its Place as One of TV’s Best Sci-Fi Shows

Today, The Expanse comes to its end. Prime Video released the show’s final episode, “Babylon’s Ashes,” depicting the showdown between Marco Inaros’ (Keon Alexander) Free Navy and the united forces of Earth, Mars, and Kamina Drummer’s (Cara Gee) Belters. The Expanse lasted for six seasons, rescued by Prime Video after Syfy unceremoniously canceled the series following its third season. Based on the first six novels in James S.A. Corey’s (Ty Franck & David Abraham’s) 9-volume sci-fi series, The Expanse‘s blend of realism and space opera has firmly etched its way into sci-fi history as one of the best genre television shows of all time.

To sum up The Expanse as succinctly as possible, one might call it sci-fi Game of Thrones, though that doesn’t entirely do it justice, especially since it avoids most of Game of Thrones‘ excesses. It does bear a similar structure, following multiple point-of-view characters across a galaxy divided by seemingly unending and unchanging simmering conflict at the moment when an existential threat appears poised to wipe all other players off the board. And, as Game of Thrones deconstructed certain fantasy tropes, creating a sense of gritty realism in its fantasy world, The Expanse made a point of embracing many of the realities of space travel that other franchises choose to gloss over.

(Photo: Prime Video)

Concerns about fuel in Star Wars: The Last Jedi seemed like a jarring break in the franchise’s rules, and Star Trek essentially treats spaceships like sea vessels. By contrast, The Expanse embraced the nuances and challenges of space travel physics as storytelling opportunities. Scarcity is omnipresent, making every bullet and torpedo fired during a space battle — which directors often pointedly linger on — matter. Important characters die due to the stress of the increased gravity from a hard burn through space. An entire system of inequality sprung up around humanity’s extraplanetary evolution.

In The Expanse‘s galaxy, the United Nations, based on Earth, and the Martian Congressional Republic, an independent colony on Mars, divide power. Mars and Earth have long opposed each other on philosophical grounds that permeate their citizens’ lifestyles. Practically everyone on Earth is reliant on some form of government assistance. Mars culture emphasizes hard work, fetishizing struggle in a way that appeals to its many soldiers and technocrats alike. It’s essentially the blue- and red-state divide blown up to planetary-scale to encompass our solar system’s blue and red planets.

And then there’s the Belt, those doing the dirty work that keeps the galaxy going. They’re disenfranchised, eking out an existence by working to supply the Inner Planets with resources even though Belters struggle going down a gravity well after generations spent living in zero or artificial gravity. Through their eyes, whatever conflicts may exist between Earth and Mars is nothing but petty squabbling among the privileged who jointly keep their boots on Belters’ necks, viewing them only as terrorists and troublemakers.

This treatment leads to an entire Belter subculture, the rag-tag Outer Planets Alliance insurgency network, and some of the show’s most fascinating characters. Detective Joe Miller (Thomas Jane) worked for the Earth company that owned his home station and, as a Belter, grew tired enough of living in what he saw as a defeatist culture that he embraced the Inners’ cultural aesthetic. He went as far as to wear a hat despite never having had a sky above his head. Fred Johnson (Chad Coleman) was an Earther. He became disgusted enough at his role in keeping the Belters in their place that he defected and became the face of the OPA. His protege, Drummer, is a trueborn Belter, living in a polyamorous family made up of her shipmates. Thanks to Gee’s performance, the inner conflict she goes through as she allies with the Inners against other Belters proves heartbreaking.

The divide also led to the rise of charismatic insurgent Marco Inaros, who irrevocably shifted the balance of power with a single rock flung at Earth. But, as eternal optimist James Holden (Steven Strait) concedes in the finale, Inaros was evil, but he had a point regarding the Inners’ treatment of Belters.

(Photo: Prime Video)

And then comes that existential threat. Where Game of Thrones‘ invading White Walker horde was pretty straightforward, and its dragons interpretable as symbols of nuclear power, the protomolecule discovered in The Expanse‘s first season is both more sinister and more adaptable as a symbol. That’s because the protomolecule itself isn’t good or evil. It’s an advanced technology, and like all technology, its moral value comes from its use. The Expanse cleverly uses the protomolecule to depict how the promises of technological advancement that will make all lives better often serve as cover for enhancing the lives of the already wealthy, often through creating new weapons for war or advanced tools for oppression. The threat of whatever wiped out the protomolecule’s creators is out there, haunting every use of the ring gates like an ecological disaster waiting to happen. Yet, at the same time, The Expanse drives home the idea that humanity is plenty capable of wiping itself out well before that crisis could rear its head.

What’s an average person to do in the face of all this existential dread? That, in part, is what The Expanse‘s final episode drives home. There are plenty of noble deeds to be done in “Babylon’s Ashes.” The show’s heroic warriors — the tempestuous Amos Burton (Wet Chatham) and battle-ready Bobby Draper (Frankie Adams) — are at their most courageous. The intrigue is at its most intriguing, with the equally stately and ferocious Chrisjen Avasarala (Shohreh Aghdashloo) setting the pace. But ultimately, the moment that will linger is Naomi Nagata (Dominque Tipper) and Holden’s conversation after the fighting ends.

It’s Naomi’s monologue about how we’ll never fully understand the effects our actions have on others, how our kind words may linger, or cruel ones may haunt a person throughout their entire lives, and we’d likely never know. All we can do is live our best lives and hope that others do the same and that things change for the better. After all the warfare and politics, that’s the lasting message The Expanse leaves us with as it comes to its end.

Or does it? Fans who have read Corey’s novels know that there’s a 30-year time jump after the end of the sixth book, which is where the television adaptation concludes. And yet, The Expanse spent a significant chunk of its final six episodes introducing Laconia and its leader, Admiral Duarte (Dylan Taylor), and revealing what the stolen sample of protomolecule has wrought. These subplots only pay off in the final three books of the series and, despite a dramatic line about Duarte dealing with gods, they go unresolved in The Expanse‘s finale.

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The last line of The Expanse is Naomi, in response to Holden bringing up the still missing protomolecule sample, telling him to stay in this moment for the time being. It’s possible to read this as Naomi speaking to the audience. One might take it as a concession to the parts of Corey’s story that The Expanse never got to tell. Or, perhaps with a dash of Holden’s optimism, it could be telling viewers to savor the series’ conclusion for now while awaiting whatever might come next.

Or maybe that’s wishful thinking. Perhaps viewers will get to return to The Expanse’s universe sooner or later, be it through a trilogy of films or a revival series years down the line. Or maybe they won’t. Either way, the six seasons we’ve already seen are enough for The Expanse to stand alongside the likes of Star Trek and Battlestar Galactica as one of the great sci-fi shows in television history.