The Expanse’s greatest strength is also the source of its biggest weakness. In adapting a series of novels to television, the show’s writers have a tremendous amount of material to draw from, including character histories, a fleshed-out universe, and a narrative arc they can tweak and reshape as they see fit. But each individual novel rarely fits within the confines of a single season of television, and books don’t have the same demands as television shows; characters can disappear for long periods of time without authors having to worry about actor contracts or audience investment. In its fourth season, The Expanse focused on Cibola Burn, the fourth novel in the series. Since that book’s plot stuck to a limited number of locations and a smaller cast, the show added in scenes and subplots following other characters who would be important for later entries. It made for a good season overall, but one that still felt essentially diluted.
Fortunately, the show’s fifth season does not suffer from a similar concern. Once again, the writers are focused on a single novel—here, it’s Nemesis Games. But thanks to some setup in season four and the scope of Games’s plot, every storyline feels like an equally important piece of the whole. This is critical, because the season also takes the risky move of separating its core ensemble for the bulk of its episodes. The chemistry and interplay among the crew of the Rocinante has always been a major draw, and here, it’s more or less a moot point, with each one stranded from the rest, isolated in part by the massive crisis that serves as the season’s main threat. The fact that this works as well as it does is both a testament to the quality of the source material, and proof positive of how much time the show has put in making sure all of its core cast is worth watching.
The fourth season ended on a major cliffhanger, with the Belter terrorist Marco Inaros (Keon Alexander) launching eight asteroids cloaked with Martian stealth technology at Earth’s blind side. When season five begins, the asteroids are in play, but none of them have struck the planet, which gives some breathing room to establish the new status quo and set storylines in motion. James Holden (Steven Strait) and Naomi Nagata (Dominique Tipper) are on Tycho Station, waiting for the Rocinante to be repaired; Amos Burton (Wes Chatham) is heading to Earth to take care of some personal business, while Alex Kamal (Cas Anvar) is off to Mars to do much of the same. Meanwhile Chrisjen Avasrala (Shoreh Aghdashloo) has been relegated to a meaningless position on the moon after losing an election last season, and Bobbi Draper (Frankie Adams) is deep undercover, investigating Martian arms-dealing to the Belt.
It takes a few episodes for Marco’s plot to take off, and that breathing room allows other threads to develop naturally, ensuring that individual storylines never come off as rushed or forced. The Expanse is at its best when it presents multiple different perspectives and victims of a central crisis, and the main threat in season five is deadly enough, and far-reaching enough, to affect all of the show’s major players in distinct ways. It helps that Marco makes for an effectively loathsome main villain, a Belter alternative to the corporate Machiavellis that dominated much of the show’s previous seasons. Charismatic, driven, and ruthless, his arrogance serves to underline one of the series’ ongoing concerns: the ways in which ambitious individuals can serve to shape the course of events, even as that shape spirals out in ways beyond their control or understanding.
To that point, it’s worth noting the alien mysteries that have long served as The Expanse’s counterpart to its more human threats are largely sidelined this season, relegated to subplot status that may disappoint fans hoping for more development in the show’s macro-narrative. At least one early scene suggests that the writers are playing the long game, focusing on an immediate catastrophe while other, more existential dangers lurk in the wings. Presumably this will pay off in the show’s sixth, and final season, but that does mean that this stretch of episodes (excluding the finale, which was not available for pre-air review) is focused on more practical concerns.
But then, practical concerns have always been an important part of The Expanse. Of the individual storylines, Amos’ and Naomi’s are the most immediately striking. The chance to learn more about Amos’ hellish backstory is more than welcome, and seeing him on his home turf is satisfying enough to have supported an entire season on its own. That his return also ends up bringing back a familiar and unexpected face is just a bonus. Naomi has long been the most underserved member of the core cast, and here, she goes on an arguably misguided rescue mission to save her son from his father’s clutches. Since said father is Marco himself, that both puts her at closest proximity to the season’s central storyline and does the necessary work digging into her own past. Being alone in hostile territory brings out a resourcefulness and determination in a character too often pushed to the sidelines.
Other threads succeed to varying degrees. Avasarala finds herself locked into her usual political machinations, albeit with less power than ever before, and with the family support that kept her grounded in earlier seasons. It’s a relief to see those machinations so immediately and absolutely relevant, and fans of Battlestar Galactica might recognize the back-and-forth struggles of an unstable government negotiating the tensions between deliberation and immediate response. Alex and Bobbie team up to uncover a conspiracy, the actors’ natural chemistry helping to enliven solid material. With Miller gone, Holden is left on clean-up duty, watching from the sidelines as people continue to ignore his warnings, but fans of him begrudgingly white knighting his way through a catastrophe will not be disappointed.
None of these storylines are duds, and the ways in which they all interact with one another to varying degrees remains one of the show’s greatest accomplishments. Late in the season, two characters discuss whether it’s worth it to try and help as many people as possible during a crisis: Do you reach out to others, or close ranks and protect your own? The main argument of The Expanse since the very beginning has been that such a debate misses the point: Everything is connected. Everyone is involved, and the more individuals fight for supremacy at the expense of others, the more the whole will suffer. In a cold and hostile universe, there’s no such thing as strangers.