The Expanse season four dropped last week on Amazon Prime, so we figured now was the perfect time to talk to showrunner Naren Shankar about some of our favorite things about the new episodes—as well as gently prod him for a few tidbits, however vague, about season five.
Some very mild spoilers for season four follow.
io9: Season four’s been out for a full week now! What’s the feeling over at Expanse headquarters?
Naren Shankar: Everybody’s delighted. The reviews have been great, and everybody’s been so nice to the show. It’s just great to see that the fans are responding to it. It’s so weird, this all went into motion close to, what, 18 months ago? We’re like, writing the tail end of season five, shooting it, so it’s kind of weird to suddenly have both things happening at the same time. But honestly, more than anything, it’s so exciting that people are finally able to see it—especially how we came back, it’s nice for the fans to see what they brought back. So that’s cool!
io9: Between Earth, Mars, Ilus, and Medina Station, season four is split into four mostly separate stories and settings, though some connective tissue does emerge along the way. What were the challenges you faced in having to divide up the story like that?
Shankar: It was a tricky season to adapt. As readers of the books will know, book four is basically entirely set on Ilus. It has nothing to do with the solar system; it’s really just like a prologue and epilogue that kind of touches on it. We didn’t want to be stuck with that version of the story, in the sense that there’s so many interesting characters that didn’t go to Ilus, and we didn’t want to just abandon them for an entire season.
What we ended up doing was bridging the events of books four and five with new storylines that kind of fill in some of the gaps. So by its nature, it has to be a little bit disconnected, but as you see by the end of the season, the threads actually do connect. There are important ripples that go through it, especially to set up the events of season five. And these things are ultimately connected to the larger, geopolitical situation in the system.
io9: How far were you into working on season four when you found out you were going to be getting a season five?
Shankar: We didn’t. [Laughs.] Look, you know, with the book series, [authors] Ty [Franck] and Daniel [Abraham]—they’re telling a story and this is the movement that we were in. We knew what we wanted to do for season four; we wanted to set up the events of season five. Obviously, the end of season four is a pretty ominous portent of what’s going to happen in season five. We had that planned from the very beginning. But we didn’t know that we’d be getting a season five, so you just make it as good as you possibly can, and you hope!
io9: From Beth Elderkin’s set visit, io9 did a post talking all about Bobbie Draper’s career shift; no longer in the military, she’s now kind of stuck on Mars with limited options, and she makes some surprising choices. I’m interested to know what kind of planning went into the production design for Mars itself, to visualize the idea of a formerly prosperous planet that’s going through some tough post-war changes.
Shankar: Beyond the notion that the bulk of Mars was going to be underground habitation, we kind of started with a blank slate. We wanted to capture sort of the classic, red-stone look of Mars, but also show a society that was very well-run and very safe, in the sense that sort of pseudo-authoritarian regimes can be very safe because all the cops are undercover and you’re constantly being surveilled, and there’s not a huge number of people like there are on Earth.
So everybody’s got a job. Everything’s well-ordered and efficient and you’re constantly being exhorted by advertisements to do your patriotic duty. We wanted to create that sort of tidy, well-ordered, efficient [world]—a society that was really in contrast with the messier way things are back on Earth. What you’re seeing in the story of season four is that society beginning to fray at the edges, and what the ramifications are going forward. That was the mission of season four. It was a great opportunity to kind of get into a place that we’d talked about, but we’d only seen really through people and through military, largely on the ships out in the solar system.
io9: There are a few different incarnations of Miller this season, something that slowly becomes apparent to the viewer over time. How did you approach the visualization of his character?
Shankar: One of my favorite things in book four is the interludes of Miller when he’s, like, breaking free of the protomolecule. That was a question: How are we gonna do this? How are we gonna show that? If you really think about it, it’s a terribly esoteric thing. This idea that going through loop after loop after loop after loop, this program achieves a certain level of independence and sentience. You start with this base concept that the protomolecule is a learning system, so it can evolve, it can change itself. So the question is how do you capture that extremely esoteric idea.
Well, the answer, or at least our answer, was: By going into the point of view of the protomolecule, which you see in the first episode for the first time, when Holden is saying, “Hey, wait, wait! Miller!” You actually go to how the protomolecule views the world. In a heartbeat, as soon as he comes through the Ring on the Ilus system, Miller is able to look at Holden and suddenly be at Ilus. Then he starts turning things on. You see at the beginning of episode two how Miller is looking at the world.
Then in episode eight, after Miller’s been gone for a very long time, we do that opening of episode nine where you see the loops that he’s gone through, and you’re seeing the moments where he’s actually able to reach out and help Holden. In the background, we did a visual protomolecule version of the world, [with] sound design where Miller’s voice becomes more and more human as you’re listening to it, until he’s finally there in the room with Holden. And he looks different. He’s no longer the Investigator, he’s just Miller in his regular clothes.
That was a way of showing that he had changed what the protomolecule had, up until that moment, been projecting into Holden’s head. And the hat was the Investigator. And Miller without the hat was the man. And there’s some transitional elements in there between those two, but it was a really interesting idea, switching the clothing around—I think our director, Sarah Harding, for episodes seven and eight had that idea. It allowed us to kind of get a visual shorthand for what was going on with Miller, which I think would have been harder otherwise to pull off.
io9: Amos was a breakout character this season. What do you think it is about him that makes him such a fan favorite?
Shankar: I think he has the inherently attractive quality of someone who’s dangerous but good. Someone who’s a little broken that we almost want to fix, and that we hope for. Wes Chatham has those big, soulful eyes, and he’s very subtle with his face, so you can see a little hurt on him easily. You can see a smile on him. Even if it’s small, he kind of lights up. I think there’s a lot of qualities there that human beings are naturally attracted to. It’s a lost puppy, it’s the bird with a broken wing, it’s Pinocchio wanting to be a real boy and you want to help him, right? I think it has a lot of classic references in literature and film, and I think it’s just an inherently attractive idea. I think that’s part of the reason you’re drawn to him.
[But also,] the inherent volatility of the character, and the fact that he still is quite dangerous. Wei makes a mistake—she thinks he’s in love with her, and it isn’t that. If you really track through, Amos keeps telling her, “I’m not gonna lie to you. I’m this way.” And she just doesn’t believe it. That’s why what happens at the end, happens. I think it’s in that moment when he’s like, “I’m gonna go through you,” and she’s like, “Oh…you’re serious!” It’s a revelation to her. But he was never kidding around about it. She just didn’t think it was true.
io9: When The Expanse was at San Diego Comic-Con, there was a certain amount of reluctance to call Murtry a villain. Now that the season is out there, don’t you think many people will see him that way? He’s greedy, he kills people...
Shankar: His acts are certainly villainous. There’s an interesting thing, I think it’s in episode five, where he goes, “But I’m the bad guy?” And he kind of lists all the things that have happened [to him] and you kind of go, “He’s actually right!” He gets attacked when he comes down [to Ilus]—whatever his motivations are or his job description was when he was sent, [the Belter settlers] attack him first, then they lie about it, then they cover up for people who are doing it. Then he gives them a chance to let the guilty parties come forward, and they don’t; instead, they plan to murder him. He only beats them to it.
You could say that shooting at the end of [episode two] is certainly a provocative and very, very angry action. Only a person who has that kind of level of cruelty or callousness in them could do that, I would agree with you 100 percent. But in terms of being greedy, it’s like, OK. Think about the guys who were sent out to do the shittiest of the shit work possible, and they got a pat on the back, and the people who were far away bankrolling things collected all the money. Talk about a guy who’s like, “This is my opportunity to get my due.” He’s not a sweet man. He’s a very, very, hard man.
And I think Amos’ characterization of him in the third episode is actually kind of on the money. He says, you know, you got off on shooting that guy. And I think Murtry kind of does. He’s got that streak in him that when the controls are off it lets you kind of bloom into your worst self. That is kind of what he’s saying at the end when he’s talking to Holden about [how] taming the frontier needs people like me, and I’m willing to do it.
io9: Is Marco Inaros in that same category?
Shankar: That’s a good question. It depends on how you analyze Marco a little bit, in terms of how you truly believe he views the world. There is a political element of Marco that I don’t think is the same with Murtry, and the political agenda is different. I think Murtry is apolitical, but very focused on himself. Marco certainly likes to have it perceived that [he’s more about his cause than himself]. There is a huge part of Marco that is about himself that I think you could not deny, but how he expresses it is, I think, significantly different than Murtry. Murtry wouldn’t pretend to have a political agenda.
io9: Speaking of Marco and his agenda, season four ends on a cliffhanger. When will season five pick up with the story, and where are you at with season five right now?
Shankar: There’s gonna be a time gap. There’s a time gap in the books, between book four and book five. We see what Marco puts into motion at the end of season four, but even given how he’s put something into motion, it does take time to travel from point A to point B. That rock doesn’t have an engine, so, you know, it’s gonna take a little time to get where it needs to go. And also, I generally think it’s a nice thing when you have breaks between seasons to reflect some of that in the storytelling because it doesn’t feel like you’re picking right up at the end of the moment.
We’re just about to finish filming [season five] before the holiday break. We have a little bit of a break starting the 20th. Then we’re done with principal photography by the end of February. So we’re in kind of the last chunk of it.
The Expanse season four is now streaming on Amazon Prime.
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