How do you end a series like The Expanse? The problem’s right there in the name: It’s expansive, and while the title is more specifically a reference to the big black void of the universe, it could also refer to the wide-ranging cast of characters, political conflicts, interlocking backstories, and science-fiction twists introduced in the previous five seasons. Some of those twists have been resolved; many have not. As the show heads into its sixth and (at least on Amazon) final season, its episode run nearly halved, it has to find satisfying answers to a seeming infinite number of questions, along with providing dramatically sound resolutions to an ensemble with so many competing interests that anything approaching a happy ending seems legitimately impossible, if not outright suspect.
It’s a big ask, basically, and it’s not entirely surprising that season six doesn’t quite manage the trick of dotting every i and crossing every Holden. It’s hard to blame the show, really; most series struggle to find a definitive ending that offers closure without ending up feeling abrupt or cloying or outright insane, and the fact that The Expanse manages to reach a conclusion without completely embarrassing itself is cause for relief, and maybe even some backhanded praise. But while this review won’t spoil anything to come, it might be best to head into the sixth season with moderate expectations when it comes to the grand finale. Think less “grand” and more “functional.”
A large part of the problem, alongside the inherent difficulty of conclusions and the show’s epic scope, is that the sixth season plays out less like a condensed version of a new narrative, and more like an extension of the previous season’s main storyline. This in and of itself isn’t new for the show; as an adaptation, The Expanse has often been forced into the awkward position of finishing the plot of one source novel midseason and then starting a new one in the four or five episodes left before the break. The unfortunate mismatch of material to television structure is something that’s easier to accept when there’s a certainty that more episodes will be coming along in the future. Here, though, we get a definitive ending to storylines introduced in the fifth season, a few hints at what might have come next, and… that’s about it.
All of that aside, this is still the same Expanse fans have come to love, with its usual share of intrigue and pessimistic optimism. If the story doesn’t always sing as clearly as it has in the past, the characters remain as thorny and compelling as ever. The plot picks up a few months after last February’s “Nemesis Games.” Avasarala (Shohreh Aghdashloo) is in command with Bobbie (Frankie Adams) at her side as Earth’s forces struggle to keep up with Marco Inaros’ (Keon Alexander) Free Navy; Earth itself is dying from multiple meteor attacks, fertile land turned into a waste of rock and ash.
Marco and Filip (Jasai Chase-Owens), his son with Naomi (Dominique Tipper), celebrate their ascendancy on Ceres Station, where they are treated as kings even as Filip struggles over his role in the new order. Drummer (Cara Gee) is on the run with her own people, a bounty on her head as the members of her family do the best they can under extraordinarily difficult conditions, unsure of her loyalties but determined to keep fighting for the Belt.
Meanwhile, the Rocinante is out doing what the Roci does, hunting down mysteries and giving Holden (Steven Strait) a chance to do his holy fool routine. The most obvious change, apart from everyone looking a bit more tired and worn down than usual, comes from a new crew member: “Peaches,” a.k.a. Clarissa Mao (Nadine Nicole), Julie (Florence Faivre)’s sister and the woman who tried very hard to ruin Holden’s life back in season three.
Clarissa joining forces with Amos (Wes Chatham) last season was one of that season’s better surprises, and it’s great to see her still here. After Alex (Cas Anvar)’s death in “Babylon’s Ashes,” the Roci needed a fourth member to round out its crew; more importantly, Clarissa’s ongoing efforts to redeem herself, encouraged by Amos’ trust and the gradual thawing of the rest of the crew, are a key of expression of The Expanse’s hard-earned faith in humanity.
There’s a new storyline introduced as well, the only truly new development of the season, and one of the few times season six allows itself to indulge in the high-concept science fiction that has otherwise been a series hallmark. A girl on Laconia, the distant planet Marco granted the Martian colonists at the end of last season, has some unusual experiences. To say more would be spoiling, but suffice to say that while plot serves as a runner throughout the short season, it ends just as it seems to really be getting going, a teaser for events which likely will never make their way to the screen.
The other major problem for season six is the diminishing returns of Marco Inaros, the asshole terrorist. The performance is fine, although Keon Alexander’s smirking rasp wears thin fairly quickly; what really stings is watching a show with this deep an ensemble of interesting individuals and conflicts get hung up for so long on an obvious creep who is clearly doomed by his own unending hubris.
The fifth season did a good job making the tension around Marco seem vital, with expectations constantly shifting as to how far he was willing to go, and just what he really wanted to achieve. By now, though, the act borders on translucent, and while the season spends a lot of time focusing on Filip as a tragic failson, unable to live up to his father’s expectations but unsure if he can follow in his mother’s footsteps, it’s hard not to wish it could’ve found a more compelling villain for its final outing.
Admittedly, the show’s faithfulness to its source material likely would’ve made such a major swerve difficult, and six episodes is likely not enough time to introduce new enemies or to offer anything remotely approaching a conclusion to the series long meta-plot about departed aliens and the mysterious technologies they left behind. As is, if this is the last we’ll see of this particular cast and crew, it’s a minor disappointment to have them leave with something like a whimper.
That disappointment is thanks to the expectations set by the consistent quality of previous seasons, and even much of what’s on display here. For most of its running time, season six offers up the same exhilarating mixture of brutal physics, impossible situations, and wry humor that’s kept The Expanse an ongoing concern almost from the start. If, in the end, it leaves you wanting more, maybe that was inevitable regardless. After all, as the show itself was fond of pointing out, nothing ever truly ends.