Over the weekend, The Expanse ended for the second time — only this time around, showrunner Naren Shankar and franchise creators Ty Franck and Daniel Abraham (collectively known as the author James S. A. Corey) wrapped up the series on their terms. The beloved television adaptation of the novels by James S.A. Corey faced a premature end once, after original network SyFy declined to renew it following its critically acclaimed third season. Against all odds, the series found a new home on Amazon Prime, which just wrapped an abbreviated six-episode season that plunged its characters into the thing they’ve been trying to avoid all along: war.
As the show comes to a close, Polygon got on the phone with Shankar, Abraham, and Franck to talk about how there is no neat way to end a war, and how it’s important to accept that the universe is full of things we will never truly understand.
Polygon: The whole season is very much one big war story, was that what you set out to do from the start?
Naren Shankar: Yeah, absolutely. That was the intention. We talked about it in precisely those terms. This is a war story. It’s these people who’ve been at war for, you know, eight months we say at the beginning of the season. It’s a war of attrition, and the entire season was a crawling, agonizing, climbing up the ladder, so to speak — getting out of that hole and taking the fight to the final battle.
Despite being a big war story, the final season of the show builds towards this very optimistic place; was that something you always wanted to end on?
Shankar: When we adapted the books, we tried to stay very close to the spirit of the books. So, that kind of mix of optimism and hope and admiration for humanity, and also grimness and darkness and an awareness of all of the failures that humans tend towards. That’s all in the project from the beginning, for me. You know, Ty is really the one who originated the story in all its various forms. And so I think that was in the DNA from the start.
Ty Franck: Yeah, anybody who knows me knows that I’m very optimistic and almost saccharine sweet.
Daniel Abraham: Yeah. His favorite saying is “When you die, can I have all your stuff?” [laughs]
And yet, despite a bittersweet ending, there’s also a nod that things are not getting less complicated — Holden pretty much undermines the compromise between the U.N. and the OPA, things are tense!
Shankar: One of the things we’ve always worked with in this project is the idea that things are always complicated. War is complicated. And reconciliation is complicated. And it has always been complicated and it will always be complicated; the part where it all gets real simple tends to be because there’s some sort of atrocity going on.
Franck: Yeah it’s easy to stop arguing when you just kill everyone on the other side.
Abraham: To clarify, we’re against that! [laughs]
Yeah, a cool thing this season does is stress that institutions are resistant to reconciliation, and the Rocinante crew is just tugged around.
Shankar: The Roci has always been that third alternative you know? From the beginning people were asking them, Are you Martian? Are you Earther or are you Belter? That’s always been a sign that they misunderstood, because the cancer is always — as soon as you pick the tribe, you’re wrong.
Abraham: Holden talks about that in season 1, he says “That’s the whole problem: When people take a side.”
Can we talk a little about those prologues? What did you want to ultimately get across breaking up this short story across each episode?
Shankar: Those opening vignettes are all based on the novella that Ty and Daniel wrote called Strange Dogs. And it deals with people who are living on Laconia under the rule of these Martians who are creating this independent state. For us, it was a way to connect the events of season 6 to the big questions that ended season 5 about the alliances that Marco had made with these rogue Martians to get warships. He gave them the proto molecule as payment and the scientists who knew how to use it, and they took that through the ring to do something that was mysterious, and the ship gets eaten at the end of season 5 in a mysterious way. There was a way to deal with all these questions and also not lose some focus on the protomolecule, which was really the thing that has always been at the center.
And a thing I’ve always appreciated about the show and its lore is how the protomolecule is still so unknowable. Was it important to keep it that way?
Franck: I’ve always felt like detailed explanations of the unknowable are either bad or annoying, because the story goes “here’s this dramatically unknowable thing,” and then the reader or the viewer invokes some image in their head — you’ll never be the thing that they’ve imagined. And so when you try to do that, either you’re disappointing, or just bad?
The reality is we’re still struggling to figure out the big questions about the universe. So any answer you give that asserts completeness is usually a lie. And so it’s OK. It’s OK to leave some mystery in the world, it’s OK to say, here’s some hints or some clues about the things that are going on. Here are some evocative details that might imply certain answers. But when you sit down and you give us a dissertation where you say, “I’m going to go ahead and explain all the mysteries of the universe to you in my five minute lecture” — that’s usually not a good ending.
Shankar: Ty always put it this way, which I loved: The protomolecule was the rock that people broke themselves on. And by that he meant, every time people thought they knew what it was and tried to bend it to their will, they discovered it was something else. And it was simply that we could not understand it. And that’s threaded through the story from the very beginning.
Franck: Yeah, and in the first book, we are specific about that, because we say the protomolecule is like a bunch of monkeys found a microwave. One of them figures out how to open the door, and he goes, “Oh, this is a box to put things in.” And another one realizes that a light comes on, and they’re like, “Oh, this is a light to illuminate the darkness.” And another one says “This is really heavy, and I can break things with it.” So it’s a handy weapon for getting stuff.
All of them are wrong, because a monkey has never reheated a frozen burrito. So they have no context. So when the humans find the protomolecule, we keep going, “Oh, it must be this.” And we’re always wrong. Because the context in which the protomolecule was created and the species that created it, we share no context with. And so as Naren said, we keep breaking ourselves on this because we don’t we don’t understand it. And in many ways, we will never be able to understand it. So we’ll just keep beating each other to death with it, thinking it’s a big rock.