Perhaps the most obvious change in the latest season of The Expanse is the show’s move from SYFY to Amazon. And yes, that move does come with a lot of changes: the show is now bingeable versus a weekly watch; episodes are streamed uninterrupted versus being broken up by commercials; and the characters throw out swears like they’re going out of style instead of the mere sprinkling of F-bombs when it was on SYFY.
These are all significant changes. A whole article could be written just about how the move from SYFY to Amazon impacted the show. But for this non-spoiler review of the fourth season’s first six episodes, the changes that are most important are the ones to the story, of how the activation of an ancient alien ring station opened portals to thousands of planets that could support human life.
“It’s something that no one thought was possible, even with the technology of The Expanse,” showrunner Naren Shankar explained to /Film when describing the starting point for Season 4. “They’ve colonized the solar system, they’ve spread as far as they can go, but it was always a struggle for resources, for air, for water…and now suddenly, a door opens up and there’s thousands of worlds for people to go and find a fortune, find land, and create cities. What we’re describing is a Gold Rush; it’s the discovery of the new world and what happens to the old structures and the old world when that occurs.”
It’s this exploration—both geographically and politically—that sets the dynamic for Season 4. The tone of the show is different as well—more of a Western tale than the Space Opera vibe of earlier seasons, and we spend most of the time planet-side rather than on ships or stations in the solar system. Despite this different perspective, however, fans of The Expanse will love this season because the core the show remains the same: a superb science fiction series that explores grand philosophical ideas while staying grounded in the small, personal travails of characters we know and love.
It’s the Wild West, With Parts of an Ancient Alien Civilization Waking Up and Wreaking Havoc For Good Measure
Much of the season takes place on a newly discovered ring planet, a dusty-yet-habitable piece of rock named Ilus or New Terra, depending on whether you’re talking to the Belter refugees who settled there or the Earth-funded research group who have legal claim to the land. These two groups, as you can imagine, aren’t getting along very well, and so the OPA and Earth send Holden and the rest of the Rocinante crew to act as mediators.
I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say things go terribly for everyone; things going from bad to worse is another constant of the show, after all. And then there’s the protomolecule, represented by Holden’s constant companion, the proto-reconstruction of Detective Miller, who wants to wake up Ilus’ ancient alien tech in order to phone home, even though there might be disastrous consequences for the humans trying to settle there. But even without the protomolecule’s help, humans—as we’ve done time and again throughout history—do a decent job of creating violence and death all on their own. There’s wrongdoing on both sides, and the show does a decent job exploring what drives good people to do horrible things.
For those not looking for nuance, however, the show also provides us a straight-up villain, one that is deliciously delightful to hate.
Back in the Solar System, Others Are Having Their Own Problems
Humans are creating more problems for themselves back in the old solar system as well, and we experience the geopolitical machinations going on there through those who didn’t make the trip to Ilus. First there’s Bobbie, who is trying to adjust to civilian life on Mars at a time when many Martians are realizing their planet will become obsolete in a universe where people have access to thousands of worlds with breathable air. Then there’s Avasarala, who has her own issues on Earth. She finds herself in an election she never wanted to be part of, but one she desperately wants to win. And finally there are Ashford and Drummer, reunited after their showdown last season by their shared goal to make the OPA an entity on par with Earth and Mars. Other factions in the OPA, however, have different, more violent ways to achieve that goal.
The build-up of these other storylines is a real strength of the season, and not only because they provide appreciated screen time to fan-favorite characters; each character arc is a fully contained, standalone story in its own right, but they are also all intertwined, all impacted by the activation of the ring gate and the all-too human desire to determine the fate of one’s own life.
It’s this balance, this weaving of not only the large and the small issues characters face, but also how the storylines impact each other in major and minor ways that continues to make The Expanse so compelling. And with Season 5 already in production, fans who spent the first three seasons praying for the show to be renewed can rest easy and confidently count down the days until they get to spend even more time in the world of The Expanse.
All ten episodes of Season 4 of The Expanse will be available on Amazon Video starting December 13th.
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