The fifth season of The Expanse ends on a more muted note, giving beloved characters rushed-by-real-life exits and setting up bigger stakes for the end.
The fifth season of The Expanse has at once felt like a return to form for the show and a set of episodes fraught with potential energy, particularly in its latter half. The first four episodes are a slow-building escalation to Marco Inaros’ (Keon Alexander) master plan — the destruction of Earth via a cluster of stealth-coated asteroids, meant to decimate the Inners who’ve oppressed the Belt for so long — with the rest of the season exploring our characters reeling from the aftermath of that decision. Apart from a laser focus on Naomi’s (Dominique Tipper) and Amos’ (Wes Chatham) stories, the latter of which was closed out in the exciting, albeit predictable, previous episode, much of the show’s characters have been in a holding pattern for several episodes, waiting on their next move or in transit to some other place.
Here, in “Nemesis Games,” we get the kind of season finale the show used to get before they went to a one-book-per-season model in the Amazon era; a miniclimax, resulting in a small regrouping before setting up the real stakes in season six. It’s also a case study in ‘what should have been,’ as “Nemesis Games” visibly suffers from the awkward consequences of having to write out a character (and actor) in the wake of Cas Anvar‘s sexual misconduct allegations. So it’s oyedeng to Alex Kamal, Texan-drawled Martian pilot, and hello to a new status quo.
The first twenty minutes of “Nemesis Games” offer up the real goods, as the varying threads of the splintered series finally converge on the Chetzemoka, where Naomi has been hammering away at a water pipe for as-yet-unrevealed reasons. We know it’s got something to do with keeping her friends away from the ship, given that Marco’s rigged it up to bombs and set a trap for them — the Razorback is on its way with Alex and Bobbie (Frankie Adams) in tow, and Naomi is desperate to keep them safe. Eventually, she knocks enough ice off the valve to show us what she’s been up to; it’s a water pipe connected to one of the ship’s reaction control thrusters, which she manages to open just enough to send the ship into a slow spiral (making it difficult to dock).
But before the Razorback can get to them, they’ve got to get through the small fleet Marco has sent after the Rocinante — including Drummer’s (Cara Gee) ships and a couple of recovered Martian ships. It’s a hefty task for Holden (Steven Strait), Bull (José Zúñiga), and Monica (Anna Hopkins), who are low on fuel and ammo already. “Getting killed before we get to fight really sucks,” Bull grumbles. But Holden gets one of his classically-Holden last stand plans: buzz past them at full speed and full-on broadside the Free Navy ships. They’ll die for sure, but at least they’ll give Alex and Bobbie time to rescue Naomi.
What Holden isn’t counting on, though, is Drummer’s season-long anguish at the pain of being under Marcos’ bootheel — and her loyalty to Naomi and her friends — finally causing her to snap. Now down to the moment where she must choose to fire on the Roci, she makes the right decision, holding Inaros loyalist and her keeper Karal (Olunike Adeliyi) at gunpoint while she shoots out the drive of Oksana’s (Sandrine Holt) ship to keep her from maintaining the pursuit. What follows is a solid dogfight in the annals of The Expanse, director Breck Eisner conveying a more long-distance fight than we’ve seen in the past — hyper-zooming from one ship to the other across incredible distances, spiraling clusters of missiles launching from torpedo bays, the Roci strafing another Tachi-like corvette with its railgun. By the end of the fight, the two Martian ships are destroyed, the Drummer-controlled ships are standing down, and Karal suffers a fatal blow to the head courtesy of Drummer poly-am-fam member Michio Pa (Vanessa Smythe). She’s been one of the youngest and most innocent members of the Belter polycule at this point, and her decision to do that feels like a bridge crossed for their family. Her decision — and Drummer’s — will have consequences.
Meanwhile, back on the Chetzemoka, Naomi recognizes her only real shot at keeping the Razorback away from the ship and getting rescued: jump out of the ship in her suit (which, I remind you, has no oxygen tank, only the air in her suit) and tumble away from it while making the Belter hand signals to indicate the ship is an explosion hazard and that she’s low on air. Luckily, they slow down and catch her in time, but it’s a long, tense sequence — Eisner smartly keeps us focused nearly exclusively on a close-up of Naomi’s panicked, hyperventilating face as the stars spin in the background. It’s immensely claustrophobic and effective: if you weren’t shouting “Alex! Get her! Pick! Her! Up!” at the screen, you weren’t Expanse-ing right.
Then, lights shine on her face that couldn’t possibly be coming from the stars, her suit clanks against something. Muffled words in a Kiwi accent and the hiss of an air tube later, and Naomi’s saved by a well-timed maneuver from Bobbie in her Martian marine armor. She brings her back to the Razorback, but something’s wrong, as we see: Alex is slumped in his seat, blood floating out of his nose.
That was one hell of a ride.Alex Kamal’s final words
And here’s where we get to the difficult part of discussing this episode: From here, “Nemesis Games” feels somewhat rushed, scrambling not just to offer a cap to a season that offered no climactic revenge against Marco Inaros, but to pull offstage an actor the show had to jettison because he’d come under investigation for alleged sexual misconduct of several women at fan events and conventions. Before the season had aired, the show’s producers had already announced they’d be moving forward with a sixth and final season without Anvar, which meant the specter of the actor’s departure hung over our heads all season. It was compounded, of course, by the feeling that Alex didn’t get much to do all season: after the first few episodes, where he played detective with Bobbie on Mars, he’s spent the bulk of season 5 sitting in the Razorback heading from one destination to another. And now, this week, he simply strokes out after a series of slightly-difficult maneuvers, dying offscreen with a couple of ADR-ed lines to send him off. It’s a disappointing end, to be sure, especially for a character who’s been part of the show since the beginning. One wonders if we couldn’t have just recast Alex (something The Expanse is hardly averse to doing; see Arjun) or simply written him out in the following season instead of killing the character off, especially considering that Alex is still alive and well in the books.
But I also understand the difficult position the producers and writers were in; they likely didn’t want to offer up the possibility of Anvar returning. But as presented, the episode has the telltale smell of reshoots and hasty re-editing to work in a death for Alex into the show’s fabric. And to its credit, despite the clumsy handling of the death itself, its aftermath is deeply felt in the scenes with the Roci crew, particularly Naomi and Holden’s reunion in the ship’s med-bay. Reeling from the death of Alex and everything they’ve been through, Naomi plays the message she left for him when she left to pursue Filip — the one Holden never could bring himself to play (“It would have meant you were gone”) — and it’s a strangely fitting sentiment for this moment of transition for the show and its cast. “People come into our lives and they go out… Families change. It can be hard and sad but we bear it, as long as we don’t shut ourselves off from the new and wonderful things that come.”
It’s an appropriate moment of mourning, not just for the audience saying goodbye to a beloved character, but for a cast who’d bonded with him over these last several years. It’s a horrible fate for a character who, while he often felt like the least important member of the Roci crew, was often the show’s heart: kind, earnest, deeply principled, and more than a little goofy. But given the real-world circumstances of his exit, it’s something that needed to happen. Alex Kamal was ripped from us the same way he was ripped from Holden and crew, unfairly by the cruelty and (if true) monstrous behavior of Anvar. The circumstances are far from ideal, and the actual death itself feels abrupt and unsatisfying, but at least it lends a sense of bittersweet pathos to the Pyrrhic victory of the season finale. Our heroes may not have come closer to stopping Marco Inaros, but they at least dealt him a personal blow: Naomi lives, and so does her family.
This sense of melancholy extends to the Rocinante‘s trip to Luna, where we catch up with Amos, who made it there from their suborbital shuttle they took off in last episode, saying goodbye to Earth for one last time. He’s also reconciled with Erich (Jacob Mundell), who sees new opportunities in the Ring colonies; he asks Amos to come along, but Amos sees the Roci docking and says, “I got my own thing now.” He reunites with Naomi and Holden, sharing a tight hug — it’s nice to see them together again after such hardship — and Amos reassures Naomi that Alex died a heroic death: “Making a choice to hold your ground to save your family? As far as last stands go, that’s the one I’d pick.” It’s a very Amos response, as is his rationale for convincing Holden to bring Peaches (Nadine Nicole) — who Holden last saw trying to kill him at the Ring — into the fold: Amos and Holden beefed at the beginning of the show, but they’re like family now, so the same should happen with Peaches. The two are like excited kids coming on to the ship, breezing past Papa Holden with a shy “hi” as Holden grazes a finger against Alex’s name on the Roci‘s dedication plaque. It’s a reminder that family members come and go, but the unit lives on.
That warmth continues into a swanky party on Luna, hosted by now-Secretary-General Avasarala (Shohreh Aghdashloo), who welcomes them with open arms and a suitably stunning outfit. (Bobbie, now Avasarala’s advisor, also serves style with a utilitarian but gorgeous navy blue top, as does Tipper’s gorgeous purple dress; it’s a reminder that the cast of The Expanse can pull off more than just a jumpsuit.) “This is what Marco Inaros hates,” Avasarala says, beaming at the Roci crew and Bobbie gathered together. “All we have to do is turn every Belter, Martian, and Earther into this.”
Season 5 was a slower, more contemplative season of the series, one that mixed the intergalactic politics of the show’s provenance with more personal stories for some of the show’s more underdeveloped protagonists.
This moment of celebration, however, is dampened by a heaping helping of dark, overwhelming revelations, one after the other. First, Monica lets slip to Holden that she figured out where the protomolecule sample is (the one they thought they destroyed on the Zmeya): the ship fired it off in a torpedo away from the fight before they blew up. “You must always have a knife in the darkness,” we hear Marco say ominously as he attacks the UN and MCRN ships guarding the Ring gate with the help of a turned Medina Station; even in victory, our heroes have only scratched the surface of Marco’s plans.
As we see alongside a horrified Avasarala, Holden, and Bobbie, those plans involve a deal with a more militant faction of Martians to allow them to settle and develop protomolecule on a distant planet called Laconia, where they’ve secreted PM scientist Cortazar. On Admiral Sauveterre’s ship (remember him?), we see him report back about receiving the sample and beginning “third phase construction,” with similar spires as the ones we saw in Ilus behind him, along with a strange floating, ship-like structure obscured by wispy clouds. As he and his subordinate (the one who Alex pumped for information back on Mars) discuss the new, more militant society they’ll have to be in order to achieve greatness, they pass through the Ring — and are suddenly torn apart by the mysterious wisps of energy we associate with the creatures that killed the Ring builders.
It’s an abrupt ending to the season, one as horrifying as it is slightly rushed? These last five minutes feel like heaped revelation on top of heaped revelation, with nary a moment to breathe. Then again, with the understanding that season 6 will be the show’s last, it tracks that the status quo will need to be established posthaste so they can hammer through a satisfying conclusion to the series in ten episodes flat next year.
Season 5 was a slower, more contemplative season of the series, one that mixed the intergalactic politics of the show’s provenance with more personal stories for some of the show’s more underdeveloped protagonists. Some characters got fantastic focus, like Naomi, Marco, and Amos; others, like Holden, Alex, and Bobbie, got short shrift. And the finale had to juggle a lot of donkey balls, even before they had to work in the seemingly-unplanned death of one of their lead characters. But for all the bumps in the road, season 5 still felt like a return to form after the formal experiment of season 4, and I can’t wait to see how we wrap things up for one of the best science fiction series on television.
One Hell of a Ride:
- Much as they’re trying to build up Bull, the “skinny” racial slur conversation between him and Holden feels a bit forced by now. If he’s truly the new pilot for the Roci (like they’re setting him up to be), they’re gonna have to work on some of that chemistry, as fun as Zúñiga has been in the role.
- Chekov’s tequila bottle finally fires with Amos accidentally knocking it over the railing, slowly falling to the ground with the Moon’s lower gravity.
- Season 5 leaves Drummer without the bulk of her poly-am-fam, as Oksana and Bertold choose to depart in the wake of Drummer’s actions to betray Marco, and the subsequent spacing of their partner Serge (sent to them by Marco in a recording) for their actions. “There’s no what we can hide from this now, but we can still stay together,” pleads Drummer; but given Marco’s evident domination of the Belter state, her actions have made them fugitives. And given Drummer’s unilateral decision for all their sakes, Oksana replies, “We have nothing to stay together for.” Oksana and Bertold leave in the Mowtang, leaving Drummer, Pa, and Josep behind as well. The fam is split, thanks to Drummer’s decisions — made at least partially because, as Oksana suspects, Drummer will always love Naomi more than them. It’s an interesting position to leave Drummer in for season 6; I just hope we can incorporate her more into the action of the rest of the season, rather than siloing her off in her own storyline.