Warning: This contains spoilers for Seasons 1 and 2 of The Expanse. Not seen The Expanse? Catch up with our spoiler-free review of the show here. Minor spoilers for Season 3’s opening episodes follow, with major spoilers below the line.
We always knew The Expanse had the potential to be ranked with the best of TV sci-fi, but, after its strong opening season gave way to the lacklustre Season 2, Season 3 sees the show hit its stride – and then some. It’s DNA has always been equal parts Firefly and the Battlestar Galactica reboot, but now, it’s not just a pale imitation of those ground-breaking shows: it’s on a par with them.
Picking up directly from the events at the end of Season 2, which saw Martian defector Sgt. Draper, Deputy Undersecretary Chrisjen Avasarala and her bodyguard, Cotyar, trapped aboard bad guy Jules-Pierre Mao’s luxury space station as assassins closed in. While the desperate bid to escape continues, the machinations of traitor Errinwright produce their desired result: the United Nations declares war on Mars.
Stuck in the middle of this is the crew of the Rosinante, with Holden, Alex and Amos all united in disdain for Naomi’s decision last season to let Johnson, warlord of the Asteroid Belt, have both nuclear missiles and a sample of the extra-terrestrial protomolecule – is her loyalty to them or the Belt of her birth? Also on board is Prax, biologist from Gannymede, whose missing daughter, Mai – presumed abducted by Jules-Pierre Mao’s scientists in order to turn her into a protomolecule hybrid super-soldier – becomes the focus of the first half of the season. Holden, though, is reluctant to get involved, stating that they “just got out of the heroic intervention business”. It shouldn’t surprise anyone to hear that his neutrality doesn’t last long.
The opening episode doesn’t put a foot wrong, setting the tone for the rest of this near-perfect season. While the Rocinante head to Jovian moon Io to rescue Mai, and Draper and Chrisjen are thrown together in a tiny but crazily fast slingshot racer, a new character – Reverend-Doctor Anna Volovodov – is introduced, who proves to be pivotal not just for the first half of the season, but for all 13 episodes. A Methodist pastor, she’s old friends with Secretary General Esteban Sorrento-Gillis, who brings her in as his speech writer, but also because she’s more moral than him, and certainly those around him.
At the same time, Holden and the others are joined by Draper and Chrisjen, and fight their way into Jules-Pierre Mao’s child-torturing laboratory. In what is a minor quibble, the villain of the piece spends some time displaying a conscience – presumably because Mai reminds him of his own daughters – but flips rather pointlessly back to being dastardly.
The season builds to a gripping midpoint, and the narrative skips forward several months, during which time an uneasy peace has been established between Mars and Earth, with even the Belters now an official independent entity. This latter faction is represented by the starship Behemoth, formally a ‘generation ship’ constructed by Johnson for the Mormons who intended to take their faith interstellar, now repurposed as a warship. The wonderfully spiky Camina Drummer, she of the heavy eye make-up, is now captain, although she has discipline problems in the form of her First Officer, Ashford, and his fellow former OPA terrorist followers.
What transpires next is impossible to discuss without major spoilers – so see below the line – but suffice to say, the second half of Season 3 is better even than the episodes preceding it. The storylining throughout is breathtakingly slick, and the production values are even better than ever, presenting viewers with one jaw-dropping set-piece after another.
With the set-up for Season 4 promising to take the story to incredible new places, The Expanse can now take its place in the pantheon, not just of TV sci-fi, but of TV drama period. Simply superb.
Warning: Major spoilers from here on
In a reversal of The Expanse’s flawed second season, the climax of Season 3 doesn’t come mid-season; instead the action ramps up spectacularly as representations of the varying factions of the 23rd Century find themselves trapped together in the bizarre bubble within (beyond?) the protomolecule ring formation that suddenly bubbled up into space from Venus.
First off, the tension between Drummer and Ashford is expertly played out – with every story beat, as with all other plotlines, surprising the audience. Yes, Ashford ultimately ends up taking over the Behemoth and sending his OPA troopers after our heroes, but he remains conflicted and open to negotiation.
The mysterious Melba, soon revealed to be Clarissa, the disappointing daughter of Jules-Pierre Mao, has a great arc – from chemically-enhanced warrior fixated on killing Holden to one of the few people who help save the entire human race. When she asks, “Do you think a truly good act at the end of your life will make up for the terrible things you’ve done?” she could be reflecting the inner monologue of virtually every character in The Expanse. All have made hard decisions resulting in the deaths of others, and most find themselves fighting against people whom were previously friends.
Naomi’s story is, as last season, the weakest aspect of the season – though this is not to denigrate Dominique Tipper’s wonderful performance. But, as before, Naomi flitting off to rejoin the Belters – after she’s finally reunited with Holden, following six episodes of will-they-won’t-they? – feels unconvincing. It’s hardly a surprise that she almost immediately decides to desert and return to the Rosi. The writers tease us that the star-crossed lovers will be parted just as they’re reunited. “We lost so much time together,” says Holden, to which Naomi promises: “I’m not leaving again.” Hopefully. Season 4 will see her stay true to her word.
As with last season, one of the stand-out characters remains Sgt. Draper. In the role for which she was surely born, Frankie Adams continues to delight as the no-nonsense walking tank – although her superiors continue to express surprise when she, yet again, picks the Rosi crew over her orders. Surely, after the events of Season 3, the Martian Navy will kick her out and she can take up her rightful place on board the Rocinante?
What makes this season so blisteringly good is that there’s no fat on the narrative – every character slots perfectly into the story, with no strands left flapping around. Whether it’s having Anna on hand to unmask Errinwright and urge the fleet to power down their reactors, or journalist Monica being there to film her, all the characters earn their place. Even more importantly, we like them all and, while The Expanse promises a Game of Thrones-style death toll, every major character makes it through alive – just – and we don’t feel cheated at all; they’re all put through the wringer and survival comes with a physical and emotional cost.
And on top of all this wondrous goodness – now we’re far enough down into the spoiler section – we have the return of Miller. He’s not, of course, the real man, but a hallucination in Holden’s head put there by the extra-terrestrial intelligence. Though Thomas Jane is evidently not sporting the wacky half-Mohawk of before – he keeps his hat firmly on – it’s nevertheless fantastic to see him return. He transforms from a muttering weirdo to something akin to his former gumshoe self, still blessed with a sardonic wit. “Watch the doors and corners,” he warns. “Don’t just walk into a room with your dick out.”
As the season finale comes to its astounding ending, with the entire destruction of the human race averted, we’re reminded that merely populating the planets of our home system isn’t enough to guarantee against extinction. But the appearance of 1,300 wormholes leading to untouched habitable planets might be, although the rest of the universe might come to rue the day. Holden, reflecting the show’s pessimistic view of humanity, addresses the unknown aliens by saying that giving our species access to interstellar travel will just usher in “another blood-soaked gold rush”.
Humanity on the verge of breaking out of its home system is a hell of a hook for Season 4, but The Expanse doesn’t leave it there. The beings that created the star-gates, we are told, have been wiped out… but by what? And it’s then that we realise Miller – formed from the last vestige of an alien intelligence – wants Holden to help him find out. “I’m gonna need a ride,” he says, as a flash of energy enters Holden.
The first three seasons of The Expanse have been a trip, tapping into the spirit of Firefly, Galactic and Star Trek, but now the show’s taking that and sprinkling in the cosmic awe of 2001: A Space Odyssey and Carl Sagan’s Contact. The prospect is dizzyingly exciting and here at VODzilla.co, we can hardly wait.
The Expanse Season 1 to 3 is available to watch online on Amazon Prime Video as part of a £5.99 monthly subscription.
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Photo: Shane Mahood/Syfy