The Expanse Season 4: What works and what doesn’t for the revitalized show?

The Expanse -- Courtesy of Amazon Prime Video
The Expanse -- Courtesy of Amazon Prime Video /

Beautifully shot and brimming with political intrigue and scientific reality, The Expanse stakes its claim as one of the most important series around with a strong Season 4 on new home, Amazon Prime.

If the Star Trek series opened the floodgates on space exploration narrative, The Expanse has tethered it in interplanetary reality. There is no television series that walks a fine line between global politics and scientific foundation better than The Expanse, according to many scientific experts (and my own natural viewing experience). Scientists have labeled the series, based on the novels by James S. A. Corey (pen name for Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck), as the most scientifically accurate of the intergalactic shows.

Which is why news of its cancellation after Season 3 on the SYFY channel met with such passionate fervor to not let it go. Jeff Bezos (a fan) stepped in and the full fourth season of The Expanse dropped on Amazon Prime a day early on Dec. 12, to the delight of the show’s fanbase. The wait has been worth it.

The first three seasons developed around the fight over the great protomelecule mystery, an open war that motivated factions from Earth (governed by the U.N.), the disadvantaged Belters who manned the Asteroid Belt, the Outerplanets Alliance (known as a sociopolitical movement or a terrorist organization, depending on who’s describing), and the militaristic Martians.

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Control for the mystifying alien element fueled the space-bound factions into a race of who could transform it first into a superpower weapon that put humanity at risk. However, this only culminated in the protomolecule opening the Sol Ring and a galaxy that offered endless possibilities of additional worlds to explore.

Season 4 of The Expanse opens up with a messy situation on Ilus, a habitable world that is also resource-rich, attracting the attention of Belter refugees who have broken the Ring gate prior to the U.N. enacting a blockade. The land rush scenario has also drawn the attention of the Royal Charter Energy corporation, which has the contract to mine lithium on Ilus, a planet they call “New Terra.” As expected, this leads to rising tensions between the Belters who have blockaded themselves on the planet and the RCE who feel they have a greater legal right to reside there.

United Nations Secretary-General Chrisjen Avasarala (Shohreh Aghdashloo) brings our favorite crew of the Rocinante, Capt. James Holden (Steven Strait), Naomi Nagata (Dominique Tipper), Amos Burton (Wes Chatham), and Alex Kamal (Cas Anvar), to arbitrate what is a tumultuous situation in unchartered territory. Holden butts heads with the RCE chief, Expanse new villain, Adolphus Murtry, portrayed by newcomer Burn Gorman that sets off a storm (literally) of friction as well as alien-inspired atmospheric activity.

I screened the first six episodes of The Expanse prior to the release of the full season, but I waited to publish a review until the entire season was combed through to give The Expanse Season 4 a complete verdict on the move to Amazon Prime. It’s such an important show that spans the scope of humanity, interspace colonization, and how all this fits within a very fragile political landscape.

Just as the action builds up to Episode 6, momentum is just getting started, and it felt premature to write something up on such a cliffhanger, especially with the four excellent episodes that follow. So let’s dig into the details on how the transition from the SYFY channel to Amazon has gone.

The foundational crew has only grown in stature

The main storyline of The Expanse begins with the Rocinante crew of Holden, Nagata, Amos, and Alex. If you liked the ensemble players before, you will love them in the fourth installment. Each actor is given meaningful plots to sink their teeth into in the latest season, and they’ve each finely tuned individual, nuanced performances.

As Naomi Nagata, Dominique Tipper’s movement acting conveys the difficulty of dealing with intense gravity for a Belter for the first time. Her awed, painful stature (which she is masking) is heartfelt to witness. Wes Chatham’s Amos has developed an added layer of sensitivity that makes him an even more compelling pseudo thug this season, and he’s even funnier. Cas Anvar’s Alex is continuing to bear the burden of his family isolation while maintaining a morale booster for the crew.

As the rock of the group, Steven Strait is an even more absorbing presence this season. He especially shines in the scenes with Thomas Jane’s Detective Miller. The two have terrific chemistry, which is only enhanced by Jane’s ability to turn out this pulsating performance. It does not seem as if the protomolecule version of his role survives, but what a shame it is to lose such a captivating presence. Enjoy their last scenes together while you can, they’re a lot of fun to watch.

The biggest suspense isn’t provided by the people

Without giving too much more away, the science behind the series is perhaps the biggest star in the narrative. When all is said and done, you can’t argue that The Expanse comes the closest to what 200 years into the future might look like, with the advancement in space exploration technology. And the individuals (and governments) who would want to control it.

But it also taps into the riskiest element of that kind of venture: the unknown. How would humans react to the new environmental hazards on Ilus or any other such unchartered realm? It is the great unknown that unhinges the warring factions more than anything, and this is where The Expanse S4 narrative comes alive as it crescendos to its conclusion of the latest season.

The high-quality feel of the fourth chapter only enhances the overall richness of the 10 episodes that just dropped. Amazon has given this brilliant show the platform it deserves.

The Expanse — Courtesy of Amazon Prime Video
The Expanse — Courtesy of Amazon Prime Video /

We get a real glimpse of life on Mars and it sucks

I wasn’t enamored with the Bobby Draper storyline of her return to what looks like an ill-starred life back on Mars. She played such a heroic part in the last two seasons of The Expanse, it’s difficult to watch her go through humiliating trials once again, on an almost voluntary basis. Rather than having the Martian military bring their might down on her, a series of bad luck choices does almost the same for Bobby.

It’s a frustrating subplot, but it paints a more detailed picture of what life is like on Mars. It also serves a purpose of steering the ex-marine back to synching up with Avasarala, and boy have I missed those two banter together. They made quite the dynamic duo the last two seasons and I’m holding out hope for Bobby’s storyline if it leads to her joining forces with Avasarala.

Remember this great scene?

What doesn’t work

Nothing is perfect, not even such a thought-provoking, intellectually stimulating series as The Expanse. If there is one thing that I could point out, it’s Chrisjen Avasarala’s husband, Arjun, recast with actor  Michael Benyaer. The role was previously played by Brian George, who seemed much better suited. A relaxed, happy Chrisjen makes for a very boring storyline so I get it, throwing tension her way allows us to bask in her glorious, expletive-filled tirades.

Avasarala’s my favorite character on the series by far (just watch the seven minutes of her impatience here; sheer joy), but falsely injecting her subplot with a weirdly intense husband, who comports himself more like a villain than a life partner, is painfully jarring. Also, where are all her grandchildren? Their constant presence always helped humanize her.

Seeing her irritated by a difficult re-election campaign? Yes. Dealing with a suddenly unsupportive husband? No. Let’s hope we see less of him in the fifth season, and she and Draper go on a quest that makes us forget all about him.

The fourth season of The Expanse has set up escalating tensions for the OPA’s game in the fifth season, which is currently filming in Toronto. I’m especially intrigued by the emergence of a new foe, Marco Inaro (Keon Alexander), and how Naomi Nagata will deal with this development, most especially over their son.

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Season 4 of The Expanse is now available on Amazon Prime. If ever there was an engrossing series to binge in one setting, this is it.