On The Expanse, every choice has weight. Sometimes literally. Early in the show’s compelling fourth season, a character decides to leave her spaceship home and go planetside. It’s a decision her crewmates have made multiple times before, but in Naomi Nagata’s (Dominique Tipper) case, there are special circumstances. As a Belter, Naomi was born and raised in low-gravity environments, which means that her body hasn’t built up the necessary muscle mass to endure planetary gravity. The series hasn’t lost its sense of scope since it left the SyFy channel for Amazon Prime. If anything, it’s broadened its horizons, taking in new worlds and the political strife of multiple systems. Yet a small but meaningful amount of tension is generated out of wondering if a person can walk across level ground without collapsing.
Naomi’s struggles, and the attention paid to those struggles, is emblematic of what makes The Expanse so effective. The show’s canny use of consequences ensures that its wilder sci-fi concepts exist in a context that grounds them without diminishing their impact. Even more importantly, those consequences always exist for narrative purposes. Information is never introduced simply for its own sake, but rather to ensure that the viewer is constantly aware of the cost of all this space travel and terraforming. Unlike the pulp fantasy of Star Wars or the utopian vision of Star Trek: The Next Generation, The Expanse is a fictional future that takes what we already know about humanity and the systems we cling to, and just gives us more room to fuck everything up.
Season four picks up months after the end of season three. The Sol Ring, alien technology that offers a gateway to a galaxy untouched by human concerns, is complete, and refugees are flocking to the new opportunity that galaxy represents. Worried about the potential for another proto-molecule disaster, U.N. Secretary Chrisjen Avasarala works to keep access to the Ring restricted, but some ships break through. When a group of Belters sets up a colony on a lithium-rich planet, they inadvertently discover evidence of an alien civilization—a civilization that might have ties to everything Avasarala is working to avoid. She sends James Holden and the crew of the Rocinante to investigate, along with a team of U.N. scientists and peace-keepers to begin “negotiations” with the settlers. Meanwhile, Camina Drummer and Klaes Ashford hunt smugglers to keep the peace between the Belt and Earth, and Bobbie Draper does her best to acclimatize to civilian life on Mars.
That “meanwhile” is important. The show remains strong, but if the fourth season has a major flaw, it’s the number of side plots running adjacent to the main focus. Season three remains a high-water mark for the series because its subject, the Ring, brought nearly every major character into its orbit. But while the after-effects of the Ring’s existence serve as a thematic connection, the actual stories in season four are considerably more disparate, with multiple character groupings existing in isolation, separate from one another outside the occasional news story and conversational reference.
In a weaker series, one with a less developed ensemble, this could’ve been a disaster. Instead, we get something that’s imperfect, but still strong. Performance helps a lot: Shohreh Aghdashloo is a force of nature as Avasarala (and now that the show is off cable, she gets to swear a lot), and Frankie Adams’ work as a brilliant soldier faced with a culture that no longer needs or values her skills keeps the Mars sections from falling flat. Out of everything, the Belter storyline, which has Drummer and Ashford balancing loyalties and pride against a possible future for their people, feels the least essential, but it’s hard to be disappointed about getting to watch Cara Gee and David Strathairn spar against one another again.
Really, that’s the saving grace of all of season four’s adjacent storylines. At this point, the show has such a deep bench of developed characters that it seems a shame to lose any of them for good, even when keeping them around means using material that, while still strong, lacks the urgency of the central plot. It’s impossible to shake the impression that the time spent away from New Terra (the name for the Belter-settled planet) is a kind of padding, but when the padding is as high quality as this is, it’s hard to be too upset about it.
Still, the real draw here is the main storyline, which follows a structure that has become something of an Expanse staple: Holden arrives in a complicated situation and, in trying to do what’s right, makes things worse (before they ultimately get better. Presumably.). Unsurprisingly, the show has a fair bit to say about the rights of the disenfranchised against the larger systems that work at best to exploit them, and at worst to erase them from the equation entirely. Much of the first half of the season is a juggling act of tension between rival factions on New Terra, as the Belters fight to defend their home from the forces that have betrayed them in the past, and the newcomers work to maintain order in the face of people already inclined to mistrust them.
We’re introduced to a few new people, including Burn Gorman as Adolphus Murtry, the trigger-happy head of U.N. security, and Lyndie Greenwood as Elvi Okoye, a biologist looking to see what the new planet can teach us. But the heart of the show remains the Rocinante’s crew. Steven Strait has finally settled entirely into the role of James Holden, leavening the character’s potentially insufferable righteousness with a healthy dollop of calm and world-weary concern, and Cas Anvar’s Alex Kamal is as charming and warm as ever. Dominique Tipper brings convincing determination and suffering to Naomi’s efforts to expand her horizons, and Wes Chatham’s Amos Burton is still an absolute wonder, a bracing mixture of pragmatism and honesty so direct it’s like nothing else on television.
Minor misgivings aside, it’s a relief to have a new season of The Expanse to get lost in. The show is still one of the best science fiction series out there, and it appears to have made the move to streaming with minimal compromises.