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“The Expanse” makes its interstellar stakes more personal in season 5

The Expanse Season 5

Amazon Prime Video’s sci-fi series returns for another season of intergalactic intrigue, with a greater emphasis on its characters.

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With the announcement last month that Amazon Prime Video’s The Expanse will end after season six, it’s bittersweet for many fans (including myself) to see the true end of the show in front of us. Still, it’s a miracle we got three more seasons of the show at all, considering Amazon’s hail-Mary save after Syfy’s cancelation of the show post-season 3. Season 4 (the first after its move to Amazon) was an ambitious, if slightly slower and atonal, adventure; if the first three episodes of season 5 are any indicator, The Expanse is back to what it does best, expanding its scope while getting more personal than ever.

The system looks far different now than it looked at the show’s beginning: a mysterious alien Ring at the edge of the solar system provides humanity with easy access to a host of new worlds, rife for exploration and plunder. The ensuing gold rush leaves the Earthers, Martians, and Belters with little choice but to adapt or die. Fortunately for humanity, James Holden (Steven Strait) and the crew of the Rocinante put the rest of the protomolecule to sleep on the alien planet of Ilus (at least for now). But with that out of the way, new threats loom, particularly in the form of OPA rebel Marco Inaros (Keon Alexander), a fanatic who wants to destroy Earth and secure the system for his fellow Belters.

The Expanse has long been touted as the successor to Battlestar Galactica, with its complex interweaving of interstellar political intrigue, semi-realistic space physics, and richly drawn characters, and season five really leans into that mix. Don’t expect many merry adventures with the Roci crew as a unit; the stolen Martian gunship lies in dry dock on Tycho Station for much of the season’s early goings.

The Expanse Season 5
The Expanse (Amazon Prime Video)

But this gives our heroes time to split up and face down some more personal demons, which in turn rope them into disparate pieces of a broader system-wide puzzle they’ll have to solve throughout the season. Alex Kamal (Cas Anvar, who’s as compelling to watch as he is uncomfortable, given the circumstances of his looming departure next season) returns home to Mars to visit his estranged wife and son, only to get dragged into Bobbie Draper’s (Frankie Adams) lone-wolf investigation into Martians selling surplus arms to Belters. Naomi Nagata (Dominique Tipper) searches the Belt for her son Filip (Jasai Chase-Owens), son of Marco, to wrest him from her former lover’s radical plans.

Holden, meanwhile, ever the goody-two-shoes crusader, hunts down evidence of continued protomolecule research on Tycho with OPA leader Fred Johnson (Chad L. Coleman, a welcome return after sitting out the last couple of seasons). Elsewhere, Camina Drummer (Cara Gee) hunts for Marco and the ship belonging to her missing friend, Klaes Ashford, while a now-deposed Chirsjen Avasarala (Shohreh Aghdashloo) buries herself in investigations of Inaros’ plans to distract from her now-reduced political capital.

But the most intriguing subplot involves the Roci‘s resident bruiser, Amos Burton (Wes Chatham) returning Earthward to close up some affairs with a recently-passed friend in Baltimore, which drags him back into the criminal past he ran away from as a child. Chatham has long been one of the show’s aces up its sleeve, imbuing Amos with a wild-card unpredictability and penchant for brutal violence that makes him a justifiable fan favorite. Shades of The Wire abound, of course, given his movements throughout Baltimore’s criminal underworld. But showrunner Naren Shankar and the writers (including the writers of the book series, Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck) know exactly how to peel back each new layer of Amos’ persona, and give Chatham plenty of chances to arch his eyebrow or let a nugget of vulnerability through his sociopathic facade.

The Expanse Season 5
The Expanse (Amazon Prime Video)

While season 5 feels like a return to form after the terrestrial concerns of season 4 (which spent most of its time on an alien planet), it also places a new focus on the inner workings of its characters in ways we haven’t seen to date. We know and like these people at this point, so this is a stellar chance to split the team apart and see what they’re like without the comforting energy of the ensemble. To a person, each of The Expanse‘s main characters explores the personal costs of their various crusades: after four seasons of saving the universe, we’re finally seeing them take stock of what’s truly important to them. That it happens to dovetail elegantly with the broader implications of the show’s overarching story, is the icing on the cake. Both our characters and the system at large are in a battle for their very souls, which makes for compelling potential energy for the rest of the season.

Predictably, the show looks as gorgeous as ever, from its cold interstellar vistas to the near-future production designs of its interiors all over the system. We don’t get the massive on-location vistas like we did last season, but at least the show’s cinematographers carry their aspect-ratio-shifting conceit into season 5 — this time, whenever you go Earthside with Amos or hang out on the Moon with Avasarala, the frame tightens to a more cinematic 2.35:1. It doesn’t have the same awe-inspiring impact as it did on Ilus, but it does allow us to keep the geography in place amid a complex web of 7-8 warring storylines across different moons, planets, ships, and stations.

(Read: Interview with The Expanse‘s Naren Shankar on season 4)

Despite these narrative and aesthetic curveballs, season 5 feels more like The Expanse than ever before. By breaking up the fellowship and giving each character their own personal piece of the puzzle, the season maintains its sense of ambition. Even without the specter of alien influence, season 5 proves that the humans we follow are just as interesting as the rocket-fueled adventures they undertake. And if the shocking end of episode 3 doesn’t get you excited (and slightly resentful of the season’s weekly release format, which worked so well for The Boys this year), you’re nothing but a welwalla.

The Expanse season 5 spins up to Amazon Prime Video with a three-part premiere on December 16th, and runs weekly after that.

The Expanse Season 5 Trailer:

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Clint Worthington

Clint Worthington is the founder and editor-in-chief of The Spool, as well as one of the founders of the website/podcast Alcohollywood in 2011. He is also a Senior Writer at Consequence of Sound, as well as the co-host/producer of Travolta/Cage. You can also find his freelance work at IndieWire, UPROXX, Syfy Wire, The Takeout, and Crooked Marquee.