The show takes its season-opening cliffhanger and pries the floodgates open even further, creating more jeopardy for the system.
The Expanse has always excelled at handling the sheer bigness of its stakes: events don’t just impact individual characters, but the entire system — and, I suspect, eventually the entire universe, given the underlying threat of the weapons that killed the Ring Builders. But as comparatively terrestrial as season five’s stakes have been so far, episode four of season 5, “Gaugamela,” leapfrogs off the last episode’s shocking final moments to shake up the status quo in literally seismic ways. As bad as things got in the final moments of episode 3, here we see an episode of chickens coming home to roost, setting up a whole host of problems for our characters to resolve in the latter half of the season.
After a half-season of teasing, Marco Inaros’ (Keon Alexander) plan has come to fruition: a stealth-cloaked asteroid has finally hit Earth, killing millions. The system reels from the news, including Avasarala (Shohreh Aghdashloo), stuck on Luna trying to reach out to Secretary-General Nancy Gao (Lily Gao) about the info she’s gathered on Inaros’ asteroids. It’s too late, of course; by the time she contrives a method of finally reaching Gao after being frozen out, a second asteroid hits, then a third, and Gao is killed. (One presumes Avasarala is going to be back in the hot seat.)
The asteroids hit home for Amos (Wes Chatham) too, who’s decided to close out his final visit to Earth with a trip to see Clarissa “Peaches” Mao (Nadine Nicole), returning from season 3, now holed up in a maximum-security prison deep underground in the Chesapeake Bay area. She’s in a special wing reserved for prisoners with body mods, doped up so she can’t use her super-strength enhancements. Still, they have a nice little moment before something suddenly cuts out the power. We don’t see much of them, but it’s nice to see the two reunited, especially considering how close they get in the books. This season has been about pairing like-with-like in terms of character dynamics; Alex and Bobbie are two Martian military grunts, Naomi and Marco are former lovers, and Amos sees something of himself in Peaches. They’re both killers looking for redemption, and Amos’ experiences mourning his mother figure on Earth have inspired him to be a similarly equalizing figure for her. We don’t see them again after the rock hits, but presumably, we’ll be following their escape from the crumbling prison next week.
The hits keep coming, even in the float: on Tycho Station, the other leg of Inaros’ plan comes to fruition, as a group of seditious Belters, including Sakai (Bahia Watson), the plucky engineer who was so charming in these first three episodes. Getting us so used to her makes her sudden betrayal sting all the more, especially when she takes her moment to send three bullets flying through Fred Johnson’s (Chad L. Coleman) back. At the same time, a Free Navy ship pulls off a daring heist to steal Fred’s protomolecule sample from his quarters, and they almost succeed in bringing Monica Stuart (Anna Hopkins) along with them — saved only by a last-minute save from Holden (Steven Strait). Still, it’s too late for the PM, which is now safely in Marcos’ hands; the only leverage they have is a captured Sakai. And now Fred Johnson is dead, which leaves the OPA even more destabilized.
The events of “Gaugamela” aren’t just destabilizing for the system, but for characters who still had some last vestiges of hope in the security of their institutions. Take Mars loyalist Alex (Cas Anvar), broken up by the revelation that his old Martian military heroes are in on the scheme to sell Martian military tech to the Free Navy. Bobbie (Frankie Adams), having long since internalized her cynicism, regales him with a story of a pet rat (named Mouse, natch), whom she loved but had to bury after it eventually died. Mars, the analogy makes clear, is the rat — something they both love, but which they feel responsible for eulogizing. “So we’re building a coffin for our dying planet,” Alex muses. Bobbie’s reply? “When we come out the other side of this, you’re going to want to be doing something that matters.” It’s small moments like these that contextualize the interstellar stakes of The Expanse, and make these unconventional character pairings so valuable.
It tracks that “Gaugamela” would close with us finally seeing Marco Inaros in the flesh for the first time now — on the eve of his great victory. Our window into his world is Naomi (Dominique Tipper), whose attempt to rescue her estranged son Filip (Jasai Chase-Owens) from his radicalism just gets her captured and sent to Marco’s ship. Unlike the bloodied face in an airlock we’re introduced to in season 4, he’s in his element here, a king in his own right on a fancy, well-equipped Belter warship, preening like the cock of the walk. (Still not a huge fan of how he delivers each line with a gruff whisper, but his intensity is still intimidating.) Naomi’s always been the heart of the show, so we’ll likely get to see Marco and Naomi’s family conflict over Filip’s soul as a microcosm for the grander conflicts happening outside their ship’s hull.
We close the episode with a classic Expanse montage-over-a-speech, seeing the fallout of Inaros’ chaos as he announces to the system that the Free Navy is now declaring the Belt an independent sovereign state, and Inners must leave on penalty of death. “The future of humanity is ours,” he says, with all the assurance of a true fanatic; his unerring faith to the cause is his most terrifying attribute, and feels like the end game of the political conflicts The Expanse has spent its lifetime building up to. Sure, the OPA had its share of terrorists and radicals, but Marco’s Free Navy finally calls the bluff of all Belters who wish they could just eliminate da inyalowda and live autonomously.
“Gaugamela” is a plot-heavy episode that sees many of the show’s most enticing dominoes fall, and the momentum finally feels like we’ve hit the end of the second act for the show’s story. Things have never been darker, which is saying something for a show this gritty and clear-eyed about mankind’s ability to destroy itself. If our heroes are going to save the day, they’re going to have to follow Bobbie’s advice: when grief runs out, just do something that matters.
- The episode’s title refers to the Battle of Gaugamela in 331 BC, the decisive battle for Alexander the Great in his invasion of the Persian empire (another conflict in which a small force — Marco’s Free Navy stands in for the Macedonians here — did immense damage to their enemies and won the day).
- Alex renaming the Razorback the Screaming Firehawk is very him, as well as a nice little nod to the legions of fans who saved the show after Syfy’s cancellation.
- Peaches recalls Amos’ advice to her at the top of season four about surviving prison: “Breathe in, breathe out, eat, shit, sleep. Take everything they give you. Give nothing in return.”
- Am I weird for thinking that big red robot Marco sends to steal the PM is adorable? Also, what are you doing hiding it under your bed Fred Johnson? (Guess he wasn’t worried about having kids in the future.)
- Avasarala Lewk Watch: love everything about Chrisjen’s costumes this season, including this week’s deep-blue high-collared coat with form-fitting leggings and giant gold necklace. The perfect ensemble to fight off a system-wide terror attack if you ask me.
- Few shows infuse their background players with as much verve and personality in as few lines as The Expanse, which we see from the guard who escorts Amos through the prison to the presidential chef who does a favor for Avasarala to get her message heard on UN One.