[Ed. note: Spoilers ahead for the finale of season 5 of The Expanse.]
The Expanse season 5 came to a close on Feb. 3, and in the process killed off one of its most beloved characters. For many fans who’ve been watching the science fiction series since its premiere on the SyFy channel in 2015, that death may have come as a surprise — unless they were keeping tabs on the show’s real-world production.
Ahead of the episode airing, Polygon spoke with showrunner Naren Shankar about how it all went down. Also on the line were Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck, who created the franchise and helped write this season. The pair wrote the novels which the television series is based on, collaborating under the pen name James S.A. Corey.
In June, accusations of sexual harassment and sexual assault were levied against Cas Anvar, who plays Martian pilot and Rocinante crew member Alex Kamal. As reported by Deadline, both the cast and the production crew quickly reacted with words of support for the alleged victims. A formal investigation at Alcon Television Group ultimately concluded with the decision that Anvar would not be part of the show in season 6.
Production of season 5 of The Expanse ended prior to the revelation of Anvar’s alleged misconduct. All season long, fans who followed the news have been waiting to see how or whether his character would be written out of the show. In the finale, they got their answer: Alex died of a massive stroke, brought on by the high-gravity maneuvers required to save the life of fellow crewmate Naomi Nagata, played by Dominique Tipper.
But did the team at Alcon go back and revise the ending of this latest episode, or had they planned for Alex to die this way all along?
“The truth is,” franchise co-creator Ty Franck says, “it’s kind of a meaningless question in television, because as an on-set producer, I have literally walked off the set, climbed the stairs to my office, and rewritten a scene we’re about to shoot. And Naren has done the same. Daniel has done the same. I mean, that is part of the television process. So there is no sort of ‘once the story is set’ when you’re in the TV realm.”
At the very least, co-creator Daniel Abraham says he feels his team did a better job in this instance than Serenity. That 2005 movie, based off the television series Firefly, infamously killed off another pilot named Hoban “Wash” Washburne, played by Alan Tudyk. Fans widely protested that writer-director Joss Whedon dealt out that death too callously and without reason.
“I got opinions about Wash,” Abraham says. “The thing that I continue to resent about the killing of Wash is that I didn’t feel like it was set up. We have been talking about the dangers of high-G burns since the pilot. I feel like we earned this. I feel like this was baked into the world-building so early.”
Shankar also reinforced the care with which they integrated Alex’s death into the narrative, giving it as much resonance as possible for the rest of the crew. The narrative hook they used was a letter, written by Naomi for her lover James Holden (Steven Strait), to be read in the event of her death.
“When you think about everything that’s loaded into the message that Naomi leaves Holden,” Shankar says, “she’s leaving this note about what’s going to happen if something happens to [her], if you lose people that you love. And then Holden can’t bear to play it. To have that happen at the end of it [after Alex’s death, but] in a different context, where they both can listen to it at the same time, that contextualizes their loss. That is not an offhand sort of a thing. That doesn’t just happen.”
Season 6 of The Expanse will be the series’ last on Amazon Prime Streaming, but the team has told Polygon that the show isn’t over in the traditional sense. There are more stories left to tell, in the form of several as yet unexplored novels, meaning that another television series could still happen.