The Expanse Just Delivered an Explosive, Game-Changing Episode

Fred Johnson (Chad Coleman) and his helmet art wall.
Fred Johnson (Chad Coleman) and his helmet art wall.
Image: Amazon Studios

The Expanse—one of the best sci-fi shows ever, and one of the best TV shows (full stop) of 2020—dropped the first three episodes of season five all at once last week. This week, we just got one as the Amazon series switches to a weekly release format. But damn, what an incredible episode.

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“Gaugamela” picks up immediately after the doom-laden events of “Mother,” and it advances several key plot threads that are all interconnected, despite taking place on different planets and other points across the solar system. We also see the return of a character who’s quite changed since we saw them last—and get a re-introduction to someone very important who’s been lurking around the fringes of the story for some time now.

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Though we’re, of course, dying to see what happened on Earth since episode three ended, “Gaugamela” (named for a pivotal Alexander the Great victory; you can probably guess the equivalent character on The Expanse) instead begins aboard the Razorback.

Alex (Cas Anvar) and Bobbie (Frankie Adams) are tailing the Barkeith and a handful of other MCRN ships on a “routine supply mission,” which our Martian detectives are certain will actually involve a rendezvous with Belters for black-market weapons sales. Alex is horrified that members of the once-proud Martian military would be involved in this kind of business, but Bobbie—well, she’s been at this for a while now. Her disillusionment with Mars has evolved, much like she has as a character. (It’s been a long time since she was that fiercely patriotic Marine we met back in season two.) She launches into a story about how she dealt with the death of her childhood pet rat: she cried until she was exhausted, then she made the conscious decision to put her energy into something more constructive. “No matter how traumatic the loss is, you only have so much emotional stamina. Even grief can get used up,” she tells Alex. “When you come out the other side of this, you’re gonna want to be doing something that matters.”

This philosophical conversation is interrupted by a strange message from the UN’s emergency alert system—something about Earth-centric flight restrictions amid relief efforts. Team Razorback flicks on the news to discover what we already know: an asteroid that somehow went undetected by orbital spotters has hit the Earth; what’s more, there was also an attack on the Martian parliament at almost the same moment. You can tell by their expressions that both of them are wondering if their own mission has something to do with what’s going on.

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Meanwhile, Earthers not living in the vicinity of the hit believe the asteroid was just a freak disaster. There’s definitely no sense of alarm at the UN penitentiary where we find Amos; seems he’s following up on that favor he asked “Chrissie” for last week. “Civilians aren’t usually permitted down here,” officious prison guard Rona (Natalie Brown) tells him as they weave through a cement maze 10 stories below the surface. Security is high because the detainees all have body modifications that give them super-strength. That includes, of course, the person Amos is there to see: Clarissa Mao (Nadine Nicole), aka “Peaches.”

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Daughter of protomolecule-tinkering billionaire Jules-Pierre Mao, sister of the martyred Julie Mao (original owner of the Razorback), and would-be James Holden (Steven Strait) assassin, Clarissa was a villain in season three who eventually recognized that her daddy issues were small potatoes in the grand scheme of things—like, say, alien gates opening between universes.

Unfortunately her realization came after she’d already murdered a bunch of people, but when the dust settled she willingly answered for her crimes. That involved a long journey aboard the Rocinante from the Ring Gates back to Earth, where she used her skills as a mechanic to help Amos and a close friendship blossomed. We haven’t seen Peaches (Amos’ nickname for her presumably comes from her old nom de guerre: Melba) since their video call at the very beginning of season four, but here she is, hundreds of feet below the Chesapeake Bay, hooked into an intravenous drip of “blockers” so she can’t use her body mods.

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Peaches is loopy, but she can still muster surprise at the sight of Amos. After some chit-chat about what he’s been up to (Ilus was cool until “people started shooting each other, parasites began eating our eyeballs, and giant alien machines came out of the ground and exploded”), and a debrief on her miserable existence (“take what they give, give nothing in return”), she asks why he’s bothered to visit. Inspired by the late Lydia, who showed him how people who do bad things are often shaped by circumstances beyond their control, he’s hoping to help Peaches in the same way. She’s skeptical, especially given her current situation: “Not every stain comes out.” The moment is interrupted by a lockdown alarm—and an ominous boom that cracks the ceiling (10 stories down!) knocks the power out.

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Up on Luna, Avasarala (Shohreh) is in full-on crisis mode, which naturally involves plenty of vehemently deployed profanity. But her tirade is cut short when Admiral Delgado (Michael Irby) shares a fresh helping of awful news: another asteroid has just hit, this time outside of Philadelphia. (That explains what Amos and Peaches just experienced.) At this point, Avasarala and Delgado are the only people who know the rocks are arriving undetected because they’re coated in Martian stealth tech, courtesy of Belter terrorist Marco Inaros (Keon Alexander). Earth will need to utilize its stealth-penetrating satellites—currently and uselessly aimed at Mars—if it wants to prevent more attack-steroids, but UN Secretary-General Nancy Gao won’t answer Avasarala’s calls, and Delgado, blackballed for his Avasarala association, can’t get through either.

Fortunately, Avasarala is a genius and calls the one person aboard Gao’s official aircraft who will pick up: the chef, who helps pass along the life-or-death message. (Kudos to the actor playing the chef for delivering the line “Ma’am...this is Chef Casey...on UN One?” with such perfectly calibrated “Uh, do you know who you called?” disbelief.) Avasarala’s able to bark out the vital information just before a third asteroid hits, and the shockwave takes out Gao’s shuttle and everyone on it. Fuuuuuck.

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CHRISSIE!
CHRISSIE!
Image: Amazon Studios

While we’re still exhaling from that, the scene shifts to Tycho Station, where Fred Johnson (Chad Coleman), his security chief Bull (José Zúñiga), and Holden (Steven Strait) are feeling pretty confident about their plan to nab the Belters who tried to abduct Monica (Anna Hopkins) last week. Not so fast, guys. First, Fred receives a security alert regarding Tycho’s reactor control room, then Holden realizes something’s off about the Belters’ ship, the Zmeya, as it approaches. “They’re firing at us!” he realizes as a missile zooms toward Tycho—but just then, gunshots in the room! Fred! FRED! Fred has been shot multiple times in the back by one of his own staff: Belter mechanic Sakai (Bahia Watson). Fuuuuuuuuuck.

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Chaos ensues, and it soon becomes clear that the reactor disturbance and the Zmeya’s missiles are distractions ahead of the Belter insurgents’ real goals: one, Fred’s assassination and two, heisting his protomolecule sample, which he’s been hiding in his quarters, a fact he wheezes to Holden as he draws his last breath. Monica just happens to be in Fred’s apartment when all this is happening, so she gets an up-close view of the bright red, spider-legged robot (thanks, Mars!) that bursts in to grab the sample. When Sakai spots Monica, she lets her know she’s about to be kidnapped...again. “What the hell do you want from me?” Monica demands. “Nothing. But someone else does,” Sakai replies distractedly, not realizing Monica’s eyeball camera is recording the Zmeya’s flight plan, which she’s futzing with on her hand terminal.

Holden bursts in just in time to see the robot triumphantly holding the protomolecule canister aloft like Lloyd Dobler’s boombox, and though he tries, there’s nothing he can do to stop it from blasting off toward the waiting Zmeya. Left behind in the chaos, the baby-voiced Sakai giggles at Holden and Monica’s abject horror at what all has just transpired. She has just killed Fred and facilitated the theft of the solar system’s most destructive weapon, and yet she giggles. “Too bad, so sad. Bye-bye! You lose!”

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But not all is lost. On Luna, Avasarala is frantically trying to reach her husband in New York City when Delgado, feeling guilty over his initial reluctance to support Avasarala’s Marco-Mars theory, tries to come clean. “I know I didn’t fight hard enough. I know I was a coward,” he says, waiting a beat before thanking her for not disagreeing. Oh, you know what you are, Delgado. In the bar on Luna, the assembled Earthers get their first glimmer of hope after a day of terrible loss: thanks to Avasarala’s satellite strategy, communicated seconds before Gao’s demise, the remaining stealth rocks are being destroyed before they reach the surface.

In the last segment of “Gaugamela,” we finally check in with the man of the hour: Marco Inaros himself, whose moment of glory is dampened ever so slightly when Filip (Jasai Chase Owens) arrives with Naomi (Dominique Tipper) in tow. But only slightly. The first exchange between the bitterly parted exes is very loaded—she’s seething, he’s gloating, they both accuse each other of being monstrously selfish. When Marco admits it was Filip’s idea to bring Naomi along, there’s an instant where she considers maybe her son hasn’t gone full dark side yet—until Marco reveals the devastating news about what he’s done to Earth, with Filip’s proud assistance: “He helped make this dream a reality!”

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Marco (Keon Alexander) basks in his victory.
Marco (Keon Alexander) basks in his victory.
Image: Amazon Studios

It’s a lot to take in, and Naomi very reasonably looks like she’s going to scream and barf at the same time. Marco, meanwhile, looks annoyingly perfect, especially his hair. Not a curl out of place. He winds up for the most important speech of his career, taking credit for the asteroid strikes on Earth (and that attack on the Martian parliament) and introducing his Free Navy: “the military arm of the outer planets,” bolstered with all that Martian weaponry he’s been collecting. A manifesto follows as we cut to various other characters listening to his broadcast. As expected, the Free Navy is behind the attack on Tycho, and Marco plans to use the threat of the protomolecule as a way to keep Earth and Mars in line. (Marco doesn’t mention that secret lab Monica found out about—so we’re still not sure what he’s up to there.)

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The Free Navy’s main objective, other than commanding long-overdue respect for Belters, is securing control of the Ring Gates and everything that lies beyond. It should all belong to the Belt, and only the Belt, Marco says, especially since “already we are seeing how easy it would be to carry on legacies of exploitation, injustice, prejudice, and oppression into the new worlds.”

Technically, he’s not wrong—the Ilus plot in season four made that legacy of oppression perfectly clear—though it would sure be easier to agree if he hadn’t just masterminded the deaths of, as Naomi points out, millions of innocent people. But Marco’s not concerned with that. There’s no remorse, only a battle cry: “Citizens of the Belt, rise up now. This day is ours! Tomorrow is ours! The future of humanity is ours! Today and forever more, we are free!”

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I Would Like to Reiterate

  • FRED JOHNSON IS DEAD. Remember when he spaced that impudent Belter in season two? Or that time he risked everything to appropriate the Nauvoo, the biggest generational vessel ever built, from the snooty Mormons who’d funded it? All those crucial back-channel info drops he fed to Avasarala, or those 30 nuclear missiles he held onto for a while, you know, just for safekeeping? That time Drummer punched him in season four and he took it in stride because he knew he deserved it? His commanding presence, his willingness to call Holden on his bullshit, his rarely-seen but super-dry sense of humor? Ugh. Gonna miss the hell out of you, Fred.
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DISCUSSION

By
rezzyk

So, *book spoilers I guess* uh Fred was uh. Not supposed to die now (yes he does die in the books.. later). Um. Yeah. A nice curveball for book readers right there. No idea how this is going to shake out down the road.