What could have made this season work better?
I’m looking back at a season, right now, that covered a lot of territory. The attack on Tycho Station and the assassination of Fred Johnson; the buildup to the rocks hitting Earth and of course the big kabooms there. Naomi going after Filip; Bobbie and Alex on Mars; Amos and Erich and Peaches.
I guess I’m a bit surprised that I liked the season inspired by Nemesis Games (the novel) quite a bit less than the one based on Cibola Burn, which most people consider the weakest of the books so far. So, first admitting that it’s been a while since I read NG, what are the choices and strengths that were made in these last two seasons that made one season work better than the other?
Let’s start here because people have been complaining, and not wrongly, about the pacing of this season. And I think a lot of that has to do, now that the entire season is laid out, with the fact that Season 4 built to a climax, and a good one, with lots of questions as to how, and if, things would at all work out. Season 5? I don’t particularly like the word anticlimactic, but that’s the only way to describe most everything after Episode 4. In retrospect, the dropping of the rocks was the real high drama moment of the season. The rest of the season basically dealt with three storylines.
- Amos gotta get off Earth (Great climax)
- Avasarala getting back in charge (Eh, no climax to speak of)
- How do we rescue Naomi (Here we go)
The “Naomi” storyline, which includes Marco and Filip, as well as Drummer and crew tangentially, takes up the bulk of the runtime of the season. And there’s never really any doubt that she’d be rescued; it feels like a foregone conclusion pretty quickly. Sure there’s a bit of a question as to “how,” but for all that we see Naomi struggling on the Chetzemoka, the season builds up to… something. Don’t get me wrong, I was extremely happy to hear Bobbie’s voice and have her save Naomi, but we didn’t see any of it happen. We don’t get a clear picture of what Alex and Bobbie do to rescue Naomi, nor do we see Naomi and Bobbie return to the Razorback; just a cut to the Roci’s medbay where Holden explains that Alex apparently stroked out (more on that later). It’s all very anticlimactic, and it feels like a lot of time invested for not much payoff.
The Drummer faction stuff also just ends weird. So this all was a story of a family that was put under stress and then finally fractured at the end of it? Jeez, that’s not much fun. The one thing that felt right to me was Marco spacing poor Serge, which just proves what a dick and a liar he is; of course Serge was a hostage to Drummer’s good behavior, and so he’s executed purely for the actions of other people. I don’t know, I suppose in the end, the show was telling its story with these six people, and I just didn’t like the story overmuch, based on how it ended.
Know what to drop, know what to keep, know what to add.
Remember how in the book, Elvi had a crush on Holden? (If you’re not a book reader, yeah that was a thing in CB) the show very smartly left that whole characterization on the cutting-room floor, and with it at least one problem with the book got streamlined out, and the season better for it with Elvi sticking to solving the problem of everyone going blind and then helping Miller put Ilus back to sleep. Meanwhile, to add some meat to Bobbie’s story, they folded in her nephew’s storyline from “Gods of Risk,” which provided some drama to the happenings on Mars. Maybe giving Bobbie something to do in S4 wound up costing the show in S5 though, because it came at the expense of Alex’s investigation into the Martian side of things, which means Alex had not much to do.
Invented in whole cloth for season four was all of the business with Klaes Ashford, who wins the “most improved character from book to screen” by a country mile, and shows that when you’ve got a world-class actor on your roster, you ignore the source material that would kill him off after a single season, and give him time to shine. I don’t know how this would work, but I’ve said a few times that I’d have loved to have had Anna Volovodov appear to give a worm’s eye view of what was happening on Earth. Hell, give us some scenes Elizabeth Mitchell and Shohreh Aghdashloo together and make Pastor Anna this season’s Ashford.
For yet another alternative (and again, not saying I’d have volunteered to screen write this),I have to wonder what the show could have done with some more screen time devoted to Lara Jean Chorostecki and the Martian side of things.
But that probably would’ve had to involve more Cas Anvar, which brings us to the big change: The show killing off Alex Kamal. I have to wonder, as others have here, if the season was edited in such a way as to lessen Anvar’s screen time and ease the transition going into the last season. I don’t know if that ended up truncating Alex’s storyline throughout earlier episodes, but it very clearly led to his fate in episode 10.
Alex’s death actually mirrors the book-death of Fred Johnson, who dies of a stroke under high-g, rather than getting shot. But it’s obvious that this writing-out of Alex was accomplished after the fact. It’s fine that, rather than dying while under high pressure, apparently his blood vessel waited until the pressure had vanished to blow. I’m no doctor so I can’t judge the realism there. But if a show’s going to do something like that on television, it generally telegraphs what’s coming. All we got from Alex on-screen was a little head-shake. Beyond that, a line-reading by Bobbie which was clearly done in post-production, and a zippy CG shot of the Razorback under thrust. All of this makes the death of Alex, including the reactions of the other characters to it, feel a little surreal.
This wasn’t an altogether bad season of the Expanse, really. But I think it’s the weakest yet. Marco Inaros and Filip don’t really stack up as worthy antagonists as much as Jules-Pierre Mao, Ashford and Murtry did. The pacing was off for much of the season, and we got stuck coming back to Naomi gasping for air again this last episode.
But this section is called “What worked,” right? And there was a lot that did. Dominique Tipper was great in a season which demanded a lot from her. It’s not really her fault if the show didn’t balance her story with others as well as it could have.
From beginning to end, Amos’ story was pretty damn outstanding. The barely-controlled violent rage as he shuttled back to Earth; the “you look like shit” “you look amazing” scene with Avasarala (sorry, “Chrissy”); everything in Baltimore, with Clarissa and Erich, Tiny and Hutch; and that last scene where he somehow guilelessly tricks Holden into having to be okay with his would-be assassin coming on board the Rocinante. The success of this storyline, and it was easily the best of the season, can’t all be laid at Wes Chatham’s feet. A lot of it can: His is the best performance this season, wonderfully subtle for the most part, and with a greater range than Naomi got to play. (Which is weird for such an understated character, but it makes sense to me)
The writing, the shooting, and the acting of his fellow actors also made the Amos scenes such a treat. I especially liked Amanda Cordner as Hutch, and was pleased that they were confirmed to be alive.
Bull was a welcome addition to the cast this year, and will be a fine replacement for Alex if that’s the way they’re looking to go; Monica was a fine returning support character, and these two and Holden did good work together.
Lastly, of course Shohreh Aghdashloo was amazing. Don’t even.
And we end off with our heroes on Luna considering their next move in the fight against Marco Inaros, while the rogue element of the Martian fleet passes through the ring gates to their new homeworld and system of Laconia. Well, most of them do. The ship containing the only two we know, Sauveterre and Babbage, gives us one last reminder that there’s a whole other plot that’s been left dangling this season. We’ll see what S6 holds.
Thanks for coming along for the ride! I’ll ask the mods to pin this for the weekend since one of them offered for the season finale, and it wound up being a bit more of a season retrospective than I thought it would. What did you all think? About the episode, the season?