While the space-opera series The Expanse is set in a future where humanity has colonized the stars, the show has always had a strong sense of history. That’s especially true in season 5, currently rolling out on Amazon Prime Video, with new episodes on Wednesdays. This season, the protagonists are trying to reconnect with people from their pasts, as the world is rocked by events inspired by the fall of the Soviet Union and the rise of Osama bin Laden.
Back in 1991, Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country tackled Chernobyl and the fall of the Soviet Union with Trek’s usual utopian ideals, imagining a future where the United Federation of Planets and the Klingon Empire could put aside their long-standing grievances and achieve a new peace. But history didn’t end with the Cold War. The extra two decades between Undiscovered Country and the first of the Expanse novels, written by Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck under the pen name James S. A. Corey, gave the authors time to develop perspective on the same events. The books and the show that adapts them come from writers who’ve digested what’s happened to the world since then. They’ve provided a more accurate metaphor for Cold War politics.
The Expanse’s version of the United Nations, which controls Earth and the Moon, has been locked in a cold war with the highly militaristic Martian Congressional Republic. The largely impoverished denizens of the Outer Planets, dubbed Belters, are perpetually squeezed in the conflict. Martians have sacrificed for generations with the vision of terraforming the Red Planet into a home greater than the world they left behind, but that dream collapsed at the end of Season 3, when humanity gained access to the Ring gates, a network of wormholes leading to habitable planets around the galaxy, built by a mysterious ancient alien civilization.
While most of season 4 focused on a test colony on one of these planets, season 5 is fully diving into their impact. A striking image of what was once the packed center of a Martian domed city shows nothing but vacancies, as residents and businesses flee for literally greener pastures. What’s left behind are scavengers and predators looking to sell Martian military technology to gain some edge in the new world order.
Taking advantage of the chaos is this season’s primary villain, Marco Inaros (Keon Alexander) a Belter terrorist with a plan to use Martian stealth technology to weaponize asteroids and attack Earth. While the Outer Planets Alliance had reached a tentative truce with the inner planets, the organization has always been marred by infighting, with Marco as the latest ambitious radical to push the Belters into pressing their advantage rather than accepting a perpetual place as second-class citizens.
While the geopolitical drama is playing out, most of the large ensemble cast is trying to confront their own histories. The Expanse was at its strongest in Season 3, as all the protagonists worked together to deal with an existential threat. But that tight-knit group and plot fragmented in Season 4. Ironically, Season 5 feels more cohesive than last season, even though the characters are more separated than they’ve ever been, because they’re united by their reactions to world-shaking events and the themes the show’s writers are exploring.
After adventures that made them all famous, The Expanse’s heroes are learning that they really can’t go home again. Martian pilot Alex Kamal (Cas Anvar, who will not be returning for season 6 after being accused of sexual assault), tries to reconnect with the wife and child he abandoned on Mars, but finds they’ve moved on. Instead, he gets embroiled with former Martian marine Bobbie Draper (Frankie Adams), who’s trying to track the Martian weapon smugglers on behalf of UN master of intrigue Chrisjen Avasarala (Shohreh Aghdashloo).
The perpetually well-dressed, smug Chrisjen lost her re-election bid for another term as Secretary General and has been exiled to the Moon, where she’s desperately trying to get anyone to listen to her claims about how dangerous Marco is. But as has always been true in The Expanse, and has only proven more true in the real world this year, being right doesn’t matter if politics aren’t on your side.
Belter engineer Naomi Nagata (Dominique Tipper) revealed in season 4 that she had a son with Marco, but abandoned him and fled because she could no longer be a part of his increasingly violent attacks. Now, she wants to try to save Filip Inaros (Jasai Chase Owens) from being killed alongside his father, but she doesn’t understand how much he’s been radicalized, or how frayed her past relationships have become. Tipper always does a phenomenal job as a character pulled between worlds, code-switching to take on the Belter Creole when dealing with Belters, while speaking with just a hint of an accent when she’s with her current Earther boyfriend, Jim Holden (Steven Strait). Her arc this season features some phenomenal performances as she’s pushed between guilt, vulnerability, and her usual ferocious strength.
Borderline sociopath and ship mechanic Amos Burton (Wes Chatham) is always one of the show’s best characters, bringing a unique charm and swagger to scenes that perpetually seem to be on the cusp of turning into a display of impressive violence. This season, he’s visiting Earth to settle some affairs from when he was a Baltimore gang leader, a plot that seems like a tribute to The Wire, right down to a guest appearance by Frankie Faison.
Like The Wire, The Expanse has a huge cast of characters and a complex web of interpersonal relationships, and the writers rarely offer callbacks or flashbacks to help viewers keep up. Both shows also focus on complicated people trying to make their way through a world where the rules never seem to be in their favor, and institutions are constantly failing to protect the most vulnerable.
This being The Expanse, the big geopolitical struggles and emotionally devastating personal plots are also clearly just the preamble for something much, much worse. The Ring gates were built by an incredibly sophisticated civilization that was wiped out, and only Holden seems to care about finding out why and how. He’s convinced that something terrible is out there, and that using the Ring gates is actively angering it. But as any climate scientist can attest, it’s very hard to stop people from consuming resources when profit and power are on the line, in spite of any future cataclysm they might cause.
But Holden has always been right about The Expanse’s alien plots, and it will likely be up to him and his allies to try once again to answer the next terrible threat, as the world becomes embroiled in war, prejudices, and all-too-familiar power grabs.
The Expanse’s keen understanding of history and politics, combined with its relatively low technology level, has allowed the show to feel about as realistic as science fiction can get. Unfortunately, it might not ever really catch up with the present. While this season is based on the fifth entry in the nine-book series, Amazon has announced that its run of the show will end with season 6. While the creators call this a pause in the series rather than a cancellation — and a culmination of a deliberate six-season plan rather than an unexpected end — it’s hard to imagine how most of these plots could reach satisfying pause points this season. But perhaps that’s actually for the best. The writers of The Expanse understand that history doesn’t end, and even the most dramatic events wind up just being the start of a new chapter.
The first three episodes of The Expanse season 5 are streaming on Amazon now. New episodes will be released weekly on Wednesdays.