Following the overviews of previous seasons of The Expanse, this is intended to be a spoiler-light overview of Season Five, but it will probably mean little to those who have not watched those seasons or at least read their overviews here.
That is particularly true for this season, because one really needs to be familiar with the fourth season to appreciate fully the literary craftsmanship of the way the fifth leads on from it. Season Four consisted of a self contained main storyline, which concluded at the end of that season, and three apparently unrelated subsidiary plotlines, which are now woven neatly and conveniently together into one in Season Five.
Bobbie's investigation of the Martian arms trade, the ups and downs of Avasarala's political career, and the problems the "Belters" are having with Marco Inaros, who seemed at first to be no more than an irritant, all turn out to be related. It is a masterpiece of construction, and the whole season is tied together, very obviously, by a definite common theme: Family.
The season begins with the crew which is now established as a family in its own right on the 'Rocinante' going their separate ways, if only for a little - it is assumed - while their gunship is being repaired at Tycho station. Amos, Alex, and Naomi take leave to meet what they see as family obligations from their previous lives on Mars, Earth, and Pallas station respectively.
Left alone, Holden (Steven Strait) ends up gathering a temporary family around him, including pushy journalist Monica Stuart (Anna Hopkins) from Season Three and Bull (Jose Zuniga), apparently Fred Johnson's new Second in Command at Tycho. Bull is part of Johnson's own substitute family, but all is not well there. In the previous season Johnson (Chad L Coleman) fell out with his previous Second in Command, Carina Drummer (Cara Gee), who resigned from the OPA Navy in a huff and has become a pirate. Do we see the influence of her other substitute father, Klaes Ashford, in that? It is no surprise that she has immediately become leader of her own small faction within the OPA. Yet her crew seem more like a hippie commune than pirates. They too consider themselves a family, with Sandrine Holt as a very unpiratical mother figure.
Meanwhile, Amos, Alex, and Naomi have not met with warm family reunions of their own. This is hardly surprising since they all, with differing levels of justification, made the deliberate choice of walking out on their previous families.
Alex (Cas Anvar) is the least deserving of sympathy, and he gets none. That said, what we see of his wife makes his decision understandable if still indefensible. Perhaps she was not like this before? Perhaps it was the otherwise amiable Alex who made her so? We are in no position to judge. Perhaps that is the moral of this part of the story, that outsiders know nothing about what happens within families.
However, he falls in with Bobbie (Frankie Adams), whose own family was an important part of her life in the previous season but who is now drifting in every sense. In spite of Alex evidently wanting to think of himself as a ladies' man, his relationship with fellow Martian 'Rocinante' veteran is strictly brother and sister. This is believable because, although Bobbie is a likeable character, and is played by a very attractive woman, there is something quite daunting about the former Marine Gunnery Sergeant. She is given another opportunity later in the season to remind us how frighteningly proficient she is at killing people.
It also has to be said that Naomi's attempts to reunite with her long lost child are rather pathetic and out of character. One has to agree with the response that she left it too late. Naomi (Dominique Tipper) was a strong character in the first three seasons, but rather on the bench in the fourth, so the prospect of her carrying the plot forward again in the fifth was very welcome, and the weak, whining Naomi we see in the first half of the season is therefore rather a disappointment. However, we get the tough, resourceful, highly motivated engineer we know and love back with a vengeance in the later episodes, in which a woman alone simply does not give up in her efforts against the odds to save her own life and those she loves.
By that stage, she has been in contact with yet another renegade crew that likes to call itself a family, but in this case it is a toxic family, headed by the manipulative Marco Inaros (Keon Alexander). He is a true psychopath. He cares little for others but enjoys the power he has over them by playing with their feelings for him. We see clearly, as his followers cannot, how he uses charm, threats, and fake emotion alternately to control them. They love him and want his approval, never realising how little he cares for them, which is why he always has the advantage. As his public importance suddenly increases, his good looks make him a sort of Che Guevara: he appears perfect on the poster, or in this case on the video screen, but behind the image is only a hollow, hate filled narcissist.
He is rare example in The Expanse of a villain with, so far, no redeeming features.
Redemption is a major theme in Amos' thread, not that he would ever put it in those terms himself. We always knew that Amos (Wes Chatham) had "a past" and it turns out that his childhood was even more horrible than most of us would want to imagine. Yet even there he found a sort of substitute family. He returns to Baltimore, which seems not much changed from The Wire, to find the people he sort of loved either dead or unwelcoming. Then dramatic events lead him to form what he calls a "tribe," which is also of course a family, around him.
This begins with Clarissa Mao (Nadine Nicole), the murderer from Season Four, with whom Amos has forged one of his odd friendships. Guarded as he is, if Amos decides he likes someone, he really likes them, and his loyalty is absolute. Clarissa has family issues of her own, being the sister of the wayward Juliette Mao, whose disappearance kicked everything off in Season One, and the less favoured daughter of wealthy industrialist Jules-Pierre Mao, who nearly destroyed the Solar System in Season Three. It is typical of the way The Expanse shows that there at least two sides to everything, and everyone, that, as we get to know her better, we see something of what Amos sees in her. Her character arc begs the question: if another toxic family made her a toxic person, might she be a good person in a good family?
The events which prompt Amos to gather his own family or tribe also revive the runaway Holden's concern for his strange biological family back in Earth and the career obsessed Avasarala's for her neglected husband.
Notice the repeated use of the word "family" in the preceding paragraphs? It is no accident. A drinking game in which one drank something every time the actual script either mentioned the word or alluded to the concept would not last long. As if that was not enough, Naomi is given a big speech in the final episode which rather beats us over the head with the moral of the story - as if we had not worked it out already!
This does not detract from the fact that it is a good moral, a good story, and a very good season.
As if conscious that Season Four, due to the dramatic necessity of emphasising the depressing greyness of the frontier planet of Ilus/New Terra, lacked the visual splendour of previous seasons, Season Five invests heavily in some of the best effects and location work we have seen so far. We are given some lovely looking space battles: it is always a treat to see 'Rocinante' firing on all guns. We also get to see more of Earth, Mars, and Luna, where Avasarala (Shohreh Aghdashloo) now has her office - an extreme case of having your desk moved further towards the door, a few hundred thousand miles further. The Mars scenes seem to reference Verhoeven's 'Total Recall,' a pleasing touch for genre fans. The only criticism is that the bits of Earth we see are not much different from today. The dialogue explains that a forest where we spend some time is unusual because it is a well supported nature conservancy. Perhaps we ought to have been shown more of the environmental devastation mentioned before.
The acting remains of a very high quality. Michael Irby, the President of Mayans MC, is a good political Admiral. It is perhaps a missed opportunity not to have used more of Frankie Faison, who appears in a poignant guest role in an early episode. Brent Sexton does well to build sympathy for a conflicted member of Marco's "family" in spite of being him introduced committing a particularly vicious crime. We really should not like him as much as we do.
There is no avoiding a spoiler alert at this point. A major character event occurs in the final episode, prompted by events off screen about which it is beyond the scope of this review to comment. Suffice it to say that, in purely dramatic terms, the change is definitely not for the better. Nevertheless, the decision being made, the production team deserve credit for treating the character with respect and handling the situation tastefully. It is also satisfying that the way it is done is consistent with something that was said in a previous season, and is apparently also mentioned in the books in respect of another character. Such things happen in Space.
The main storyline does not end neatly with the season, but it enters a new phase and will doubtless be resolved in the next season because, at the time of writing, it is, sadly, scheduled to be the last. If so, everything is set up nicely to go out in style.
Review: John Winterson Richards
John Winterson Richards is the author of the 'Xenophobe's Guide to the Welsh' and the 'Bluffer's Guide to Small Business,' both of which have been reprinted more than twenty times in English and translated into several other languages. He was editor of the latest Bluffer's Guide to Management and, as a freelance writer, has had over 500 commissioned articles published.
He is also the author of ‘How to Build Your Own Pyramid: A Practical Guide to Organisational Structures' and co-author of 'The Context of Christ: the History and Politics of Rome and Judea, 100 BC - 33 AD,' as well as the author of several novels under the name Charles Cromwell, all of which can be downloaded from Amazon. John has also written over 100 reviews for Television Heaven.
John's Website can be found here: John Winterson Richards
Published on July 16th, 2021. Written by John Winterson Richards for Television Heaven.