Season 4 of The Expanse is out now on Amazon Prime, and one of its standout performances comes courtesy of Dominique Tipper. As Naomi Nagata, first officer of the Rocinante, Tipper has an awful lot of weight on her shoulders. That weight is partly physical: when Naomi steps onto the surface of a planet for the first time in her life, Tipper does an admirable job of conveying the pain and wonder of that experience. But the weight on her is emotional as well.
A few weeks ago, Polygon sat down with Tipper to discuss one particular scene that may set the tone both for season 5 of The Expanse, and what comes after.
[Ed. note: This interview contains spoilers for season 4 of The Expanse in general, and episode 5 in particular.]
Part of the challenge of The Expanse’s latest effort is cramming the plot of two different novels into a single season of television. Season 4 contains all of Cibola Burn and parts of Nemesis Games, the fourth and fifth books in the elaborate science fiction novels by S.A. Corey. To fit it all into 10 episodes, some characters and narratives were folded into one another, and entire plotlines were created from whole cloth to fill in the gaps. All of that is par for the course when it comes to TV, streaming or otherwise, but some elements of that compression were more challenging than others.
Naomi’s arc is particularly concise. In Nemesis Games, Tipper’s character spends nearly all of her time alone. Her narrative, which includes pages of backstory, is delivered exclusively through internal monologue. Much of that narrative has to do with Naomi’s estranged lover, Marco Inaros, and the unimaginable trauma he put her through during their relationship.
“That’s always the thing with translating books to screen,” Tipper told Polygon. “It’s kind of two-fold. There’s me taking what I read and trying to do it justice. When you read a book, you have all your own stuff going on in your head about what it means and what it feels like for you. I think we probably put our own experience onto the characters that we read.”
Tipper’s challenge for season 4 was to deliver all that internal, emotional work in just a few scenes. Perhaps the most difficult of those scenes deals with Naomi’s attempted suicide, which she reveals came years before.
It plays out in the med bay of the Rocinante. Lucia Mazur, played by Rosa Gilmore (The Handmaid’s Tale), has recently tried to kill herself. Naomi is there when she recovers, and tries to bring her back to her senses by telling Lucia how Marcos manipulated and tortured Naomi. She reveals the despair she felt, and how it led to her nearly walking out of an airlock.
“If you want to die,” Naomi tells her, “I can’t stop you, but there is a path from where you are to where I am. All we did was buy you a little time. You decide what you want to do with it.”
Life is fragile, Naomi seems to be saying, and more fragile still when you’re floating inside a tin can in space. On the ragged edge of the galaxy, death is always close at hand. Often, continuing to live is the harder choice, and Naomi defines it as a choice Lucia will have to make on her own.
It’s a remarkable, generous moment between the two women. Instead of pathologizing Lucia’s attempt to kill herself, Naomi opens up her own soul. The camera pulls in tight, and every nuance of her performance plays out in the brightly lit, sterile environment of the medical facility. The goal is to splash some cold emotional water on Lucia’s face. Naomi is challenging her to work hard, to persevere, with the hope of coming out the other end of the experience stronger.
It’s an unusual way to deal with an attempted suicide, and it gave Tipper pause.
“I was actually really nervous about that scene,” she said, “because I think suicide is a really delicate issue, and it’s not talked about enough. But often when it is talked about, it’s villainized in a way that I don’t really like.”
“When I read this, I thought it was one of the most beautifully written, effective [scenes] I’ve ever seen on it,” she continued. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen it [treated like] this before. […] within the theme of people making their own choices, and maybe just giving them some food for thought, but not berating them for what they maybe wished to do. I don’t know what people are going to take away from it. I hope that it’s good things.”
By the end of season 4, however, we learn that Naomi’s speech could just as easily apply to every citizen left on Earth. As the final episode unfolds, we learn that Marco has lined up a series of massive iron rocks coated in Martian stealth technology to impact the planet. Season 5 will likely kick off with an extinction-level event, one that could easily cause every surviving human on Earth searching for a reason to carry on.
It’s likely that Tipper’s performance in the med bay of the Rocinante will resonate throughout the remainder of the series. If Earth wants to die, neither Mars nor the Belt can save it. The decision to persevere will be left up to those on the planet who will have to decide what they want to do with the time they have left.
According to the cast, shooting for episode 5 of season 5 of The Expanse wrapped up just this week. That puts the next 10 episodes on course to premiere some time in 2020.