The Expanse Season 5 is sci-fi perfection
“A knife in the darkness”10
Ian Winterton | On 07, Feb 2021
Warning: This contains major spoilers for all five seasons of The Expanse. Not caught up? Read our reviews of previous seasons here.
“You must always have a knife in the darkness.”
It’s this single sentence – uttered over the inky blackness of deep space by Belter fanatic Marco Inaros in the final episode – that the myriad plotlines of The Expanse Season 5 are all, with dread inevitability, on a collision course with. More than that, it seems to have been the guiding ethos within The Expanse’s writing room. All the stories are packed as tight as a spring, each containing their own “knife in the darkness” – a twist that wrong-footed us but, looking back, was expertly built-in and earned. And just as inevitable.
The journey to that single moment of dialogue sees The Expanse back on top form, easily the equal of the near-perfect Season 3. Last season, decidedly average by the show’s high standards, left us on a high, the characters finally moved into interesting positions on the chess board. With its gameplan established, The Expanse Season 5 does not falter for a single second. Where Season 4’s tangle of prosaic storylines brought the series dangerously into soap opera territory, here we have a handful of distinct threads nimbly woven together.
The opening episode sees the four-strong crew of the Rocinante going off on their separate ways. Naomi heads to the Belt, with the intention of reconnecting with her son, Filip, now a fully fledged terrorist alongside his father, Marco. Holden remains behind on Tycho Station – as ever, the least interesting of all the lead characters – while Amos returns to the mean streets of his native Baltimore, Earth, for some familial closure, and Alex decides now’s the time to see if his estranged wife and family on Mars will have him back.
Honorary Roci crewmember – and favourite of Expanse fans – ex-marine Bobbie Draper continues with her mission from Avasarala, whom we also see (having lost the election last season) in bureacratic exile on Luna. And, best of all, Camina Drummer gets a juicy storyline, as her crew of doughty Belters are given an ultimatum by Marco and his self-styled Free Navy.
What our characters don’t know as they set out on the individual side missions, but we the audience do, is that Marco is preparing to launch several asteroids at the Earth. This threat has been ever-present throughout The Expanse, with Avasarala bemoaning the fate of the dinosaurs back in Season 2, not long before Eros – powered by the alien protomolecule – screeched through space towards Earth, only to be diverted to Venus.
This time, Earth is not spared, and the show’s depiction of this apocalypse – both the physical devastation and the shock rippling out via vidscreens to our off-world characters – is grimly thrilling. Like the Cylon attack at the opening of the Battlestar Galactica reboot (the show with which The Expanse shares most DNA), it can be read as a sci-fi exploration of 9/11 – a terrorist outrage that renders most of those attacked incapable of thinking beyond militaristic revenge. The voice of reason, of course, turns out to be Avasarala who, despite losing her beloved husband in the attack, remains able to see the bigger picture. It helps her credibility too, of course, that her investigations – in tandem with Frankie – enable Earth’s defences to at least prevent most of the rocks from striking their targets.
One asteroid, though, does hit Baltimore, which is bad news for Amos. He takes it all in his manly, muscle-bund stride, naturally. “Looks like I left it a day late getting off this planet,” he grunts, before getting on with the job of surviving. Pre-asteroid, we learn a little of Amos’ backstory. His real name is Timmy, a street kid brought up by his sex worker mother. There’s no judgement from Amos, only regret – and, though its barely vocalised, love. In a genuinely touching sequence, Amos visits his dead mother’s apartment and finds her life partner, Charles, preparing to move out. Crime boss Erich, with whom ‘Timmy’ once ran, only leased the apartment to Timmy’s mom. It speaks volumes about Amos’ priorities that he risks a return visit to Erich in order to ensure an old man gets to stay in his home.
But Amos’ true reason for returning to Earth is to visit Clarissa Mao (sister of Julie and daughter of nefarious Jules-Pierre Mao) who’s serving time for crimes committed in Season 3. But, having intergalactic telepathic contact with Amos last season, it’s apparent she’s contrite and Amos, having moved on from his own dark past, is willing to give her a second chance; “Peaches” is not just Amos’s throwaway nickname for Clarissa (stemming from his pun on her fake name, Melba), but – as he exchanged Amos for Timmy – also his subconscious (or maybe even conscious) urging to Clarissa: new name, new life.
“Peaches” gets her chance for redemption way ahead of schedule when the asteroid hits Baltimore, just minutes after Amos enters her cell. Their escape, with the help of a few ill-fated prison guards and prisoners, is fantastically tense, involving a climb up through the shattered building via elevator shaft. From then on, subsequent episodes see Amos and Clarissa – a “tribe of two” – stomp through snow-bound Maryland. Their tribe grows as Amos enlists the help of Erich and his surviving gangsters, and together they head out to the estates of the rich folk where Clarissa, growing up there, knows of a shuttle that will get them to Luna.
Meanwhile, Naomi is reunited with old Belter ‘friends’ – Cyn and Karal – from her time as a naïve freedom fighter in the Outer Planets Alliance, the OPA. They take her to her son, Filip, and he makes the call to take her to his father, Marco. Marco is not best pleased – especially when Naomi attempts to kill him, forewarns the Rocinante of potentially fatal sabotage and then launches herself out of an airlock, ending Cyn’s life in the process. It’s an example of a brilliant “knife in the darkness” that we, like Marco, Filip and Cyn, all believe Naomi is committing suicide, just as she tried to do all those years before. But she’s not – she has a plan. Floating through space without a vacc-suit might be pushing credibility a smidge, but Naomi pays for it physically, spending the rest of Season 5 with bloodshot eyes and oxygen starvation.
On Tycho Station, coordinated with the asteroid attack, Marco’s agents steal the protomolecule and assassinate Fred Johnson – as millions of unknown Earthers die from asteroid strikes, his death gives the audience a Game of Thrones-style jolt. No one is safe – not even your favourite characters.
Blasting off from Tycho – intact thanks to Naomi’s timely intel – Holden and his ragtag crew (including reporter Monica and “skinny” hating Earther, aptly named Bull looking to avenge Fred) speed across the solar system to a showdown with Marco.
Scenes set on Mars see Alex, knocked back by his ex-wife, team up with Bobbie as she investigates a faction of the military collaborating with Marco – his Free Navy immensely bolstered by acquiring a fleet of Martian warships. Alex and Bobbie, storylines converging with Holden and Naomi’s, speed through space aboard the Razorback (once owned by Julie Mao) – and are in place for the season’s startling finale.
Also on collision course with the final battle is Drummer and her crew. Following the asteroid strikes, Marco declares all Belters are either with him or against him. To save her crew, Drummer reluctantly agrees to join the Free Navy, despite wanting Marco dead for killing her mentor and friend, Klaes Ashford, last season. Her last-minute decision to sacrifice her crew member held on as tribute on Marco’s ship is perhaps the least surprising twist of the show, but the writers’ first-rate characterisation of Drummer – torn apart by vying loyalties – succeeds in making her actions unpredictable. And, as ever, it’s great to have Drummer back on the side of what passes, in the morally grey Expanse universe, the good guys.
The epic battle – seemingly set up so Holden and the Rocinante can go out in a blaze of glory – is a tense affair, and the space battle sequences are some of the best the show has shown. Of course, now we’re on the other side of it we know how it plays out: Marco defeated, Naomi rescued, the Roci, Holden and his crew intact – and no major characters killed.
Except Alex – dead from a stroke after one too many high velocity burns.
Some fans have complained it seems throwaway, and the knowledge that it was a last-minute addition due to actor Cas Anvar’s summary sacking following a third party investigation of sexual harassment and assault allegations certainly casts a grim shadow of the exit of a much-loved character. But, putting that aside, Alex dying in this manner is fully in keeping with The Expanse: space travel isn’t like in other sci-fi, it’s more like real life: damn dangerous.
Alex’s passing, too, sets Clarissa/Peaches up to become a permanent member of the Roci – as the ship, though they “fly no one’s flag”, join the war Marco has unleashed. Avasarala – reinstalled as Secretary General – gives a rousing speech to the assembled band of humans, drawn from all walks of life: “I want you all to take a good look around. This is what Marco Inaros hates. This is what he is afraid of. Why he tried so hard to destroy you and your ship. All we have to do now is turn every Belter, Martian, and Earther into this. This how we win.”
And that, alone, could have been a perfect ending to the season – setting us up for Season 6, now confirmed by Amazon to bring The Expanse’s saga to a close. The writers of The Expanse, though, aren’t ones to linger on happy endings. Marco Inaros has a knife in the darkness – and he unleashes hell on the Earth shops protecting the Ring. And, even more intriguing, we see Martian traitors, Admiral Sauveterre and his loyal lackey Lieutenant Emily Babbage, passing through to intergalactic space – intent on founding a quasi-fascist empire of discipline and purity. But as they pass through the Ring, they are disintegrated – presumably by the ancient and alien force behind the protomolecule, their true intention still be revealed…
It’s going to be a long wait for Season 6 but, on the basis of the 10 episodes to which we’ve just been treated, it looks set to be more than worth it.
The Expanse: Season 1 to 5 is available to watch online on Amazon Prime Video as part of a Prime membership or a £5.99 monthly subscription.