It’s hard to believe anyone, Amazon executives included, thought a six-episode final season was enough to wrap up The Expanse. The end of season 5 saw the whole universe thrown into war, and Marco Inaros (Keon Alexander) uniting the Belter communities against Earth and the U.N. forces, led by Secretary General Chrisjen Avasarala (Shohreh Aghdashloo). As the new season kicks off, the Rocinante crew find themselves straining against threats from all sides.
The dangling plot leaves a lot for a final single season to accomplish, slim-cut or no. And unfortunately The Expanse can’t help but buckle a bit under the pressure; there’s no way around the fact that viewers deserved a bit more of the space-faring series.
[Ed. note: This review includes minor spoilers for The Expanse season 6]
Season 6 operates as a war story, putting characters into survival mode and propulsively moving from one battle to the next. The main problem is that it doesn’t have the time for the pensive due diligence that classic films like Paths of Glory or All Quiet on the Western Front (and Expanse seasons in the past) excelled at; it’s a war movie that is uninterested in why any of these factions are at war, simply because it doesn’t have any time to expand on those ideas.
There are moments for depth scattered throughout the six hours. Despite the extratextual reasons for Alex’s death last season, The Expanse writers know their characters should and would mourn his passing. In “Strange Dogs,” the first episode of the season, we see Naomi still dealing with not only guilt but PTSD after barely surviving her escape from Marco in season 5. But too often the show’s trademark methodical world and character building gets dropped in favor of plot machinations. Lazy backroom sex scenes for Filip or a blink-and-you’d-miss-it apology from Holden stand in for deeper exploration of motivation. Those decisions never feel out of character, but there’s little time for foundation and even less of the usual deliberation for individual choices.
No one suffers from Default Characterization more than Avasarala and Inaros, two sides of the same complex coin. The pair were previously two complicated portraits of leaders, each portrayed by skilled actors. Both bristle at perceived injustice to their factions and care just a bit more about power than they necessarily do about the good of their people. Avasarala wrestled with her ruthless edge for five seasons, ultimately working to set aside ego and build a new world. Inaros was the logical outcome of a system that never cared about people like him, a leader more built for insurgent violence than he was leadership. Neither felt purely good or bad. But in season 6 they’re whittled down to a dichotomy we’ve come to expect from Star Wars. The choice blanches them a bit of what makes them interesting, leaving Inaros looking a bit inept and Avasarala more simply magnanimous.
The pace can make the rest of the season feel a little dizzying, but the show’s usual thrills still make an appearance. While its usual taut drama goes a little slack, there’s still epic space battles and political maneuvering throughout. Drummer (Cara Gee) and her band of rebellious Belters are still bold in the face of danger, while Bobbie (Frankie Adams) never pulls punches. To the end, The Expanse is a smart science fiction that’s interested in the fate of humanity, and how that can be impacted by just a handful of people in the throes of their feelings.
When fans look back on the end of Game of Thrones they’re filled with a righteous fury, at creatives seemingly abandoning the project and sense along with it. The end of The Expanse inspires no such vitriol, even if it still feels like fans are being let down. The season feels incomplete, an insufficient and far too economical kiss off for such an intricately constructed show. It’s sad to see a world built with the breadth of the universe have no room to breathe.
The good news is there’s certainly room left to grow in the Expanse universe, with a handful of books ripe for the picking and a prequel interactive game already in the works. As the opening of “Strange Dogs” shows, there’s a bunch of new worlds on the other side of those rings, and each one has new life — for humanity, for the ecosystem, and probably for the protomolecule as well — that could spin out new stories. With any luck, someone will give The Expanse a bit more time to tell them.
The sixth and final season of The Expanse premieres on Amazon on Dec. 10.