The Expanse's Best Season Yet Begins With a Three-Part Thrill Ride

Holden (Steven Strait) in his usual state of deep concern.
Holden (Steven Strait) in his usual state of deep concern.
Image: Amazon Studios

The day is finally here: season five of The Expanse has begun. Since Amazon dropped three episodes at once—“Exodus,” “Churn,” and “Mother”—our first weekly recap is a three-parter. We tried to be succinct, but honestly, we’re excited as hell and these episodes are epic. Here comes the juice!

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As the “previously on The Expanse” montage reminds us as “Exodus” begins, season four ended with Belter extremist Marco Inaros (Keon Alexander) flinging a bunch of asteroids in the direction of Earth. We pick up roughly six months after that launch and watch as one of the rocks breaks apart around Venus. A UN science ship happens to be nearby, and its crew reacts with nerdy delight at their front-row seat to a “bona fide space oddity.”

The thrill of discovery takes a grim turn when they’re boarded by a well-armed party of Belters, who rip out all the data recorders, shoot all the scientists, and blow the ship for good measure once they’re all clear. Well—almost all clear. One Belter is stuck as the clock ticks down, and he’s left behind to die after very minimal hesitation from the mission’s youthful leader. The teenage “boss man” is someone we met briefly last season: Filip Inaros (Jasai Chase Owens), the product of the long-since-bitterly-ended relationship between Marco Inaros and Naomi Nagata (Dominique Tipper). Given his ruthless display here, it’s not hard to guess which parent he takes after.

After that chilling opening scene, which manages to flip every available emotional switch while serving up dazzling space mayhem—welcome back, Expanse!—we must do a bit of catch-up, reconnecting with the characters we’ve come to know over the past four seasons. That includes the Rocinante, since the battered ship is getting some much-needed repairs after its most recent ordeal. The upgrades don’t come cheap, and Naomi and Belter mechanic Sakai (Bahia Watson) get into it a little bit with Tycho Station’s second-in-command, an Earther named Bull (José Zúñiga), over the fact that the Roci’s co-owners enjoy a hefty “good-guy discount” courtesy of Tycho boss Fred Johnson (Chad Coleman). Fred and the Roci crew go way back—and at this point, Naomi and her friends are basically solar-system celebrities—but Bull, a salty but likable grump, doesn’t care.

Speaking of Fred Johnson, he has some important info for Naomi, who’s been trying to track down her estranged son in light of Marco’s increasingly dangerous rise to power. Turns out Filip has been spotted on Pallas, another station in the Belt, so Naomi decides to go find him there. In a touching scene that illuminates just how strong their relationship has become, she explains to Holden (Steven Strait) why she must make this journey alone. She knows he means well, but his presence would distract from the thorny family matter she’s trying to address. He’s reluctant to let her go but doesn’t stand in her way.

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Amos (Wes Chatham) takes a trip.
Amos (Wes Chatham) takes a trip.
Image: Amazon Studios

Thanks to Holden’s news feed, we also get a little update on current events: colony ships and mining crews from Earth and Mars are now making regular trips through the Ring Gate...and finding more spooky protomolecule ruins (like we saw on Ilus last season). Holden can’t shake the uneasy feeling that whoever or whatever wiped out the entire civilization of protomolecule builders might not appreciate thousands of humans breezing around through their gates. That feeling gets worse after he encounters investigative journalist Monica Stuart (Anna Hopkins). She caused Holden some trouble back in season three, but they’re not enemies, and his interest is piqued when she reveals she’s got intel about an off-the-books protomolecule research facility operating in the Belt.

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Given all he knows about the protomolecule, an alien substance humans have been trying and consistently failing to control since The Expanse began, Holden tries to warn Fred—who’s still got his protomolecule stash, thanks to Naomi back in season two. But Fred shrugs him off, then takes the opportunity to give Holden some fatherly advice: “You’re not responsible for the world; do something meaningful with the time you have in it. Believe it or not, the world will go on without you.” That would apply to most people...but perpetual world-saver James Holden? We do kind of need that guy on the front lines.

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Fans of the Expanse books have long been waiting for Amos (Wes Chatham) to return to Baltimore—but before he can get there, he’ll have to land on Luna and cross paths with his old pal, former UN Secretary-General Chrisjen Avasarala (Shohreh Aghdashloo). She’s well familiar with his hot temper, so she demands to know why he’s going to Earth; he calls her “Chrissy” and assures her he’s just visiting on personal business. (Their odd-couple flirty energy is everything.) En route to his Earth-bound shuttle, Amos passes by a memorial for the deadly Augustín Gamarra disasteran Earther ship explosion that’s one of Marco’s most notorious crimes to date, as well as what inspired Naomi to leave her Belter outlaw life behind. The camera lingers, making sure we take in the gravity of what it all represents.

Speaking of Avasarala, though she’s as glamorously attired as ever, that “former” appended to her title weighs heavily. Newly elected UN Secretary-General Nancy Gao (Lily Gao) has all the power now and has passive-aggressively tasked her rival with a job Avasarala is ideologically opposed to: helping Earthers immigrate through the Ring Gate. Avasarala’s only sorta-ally in the new administration is Admiral Delgado (Michael Irby), and he gamely indulges her when she shares her hunch: the science ship that “accidentally” blew up near Venus might’ve had something to do with Marco Inaros. After all, he’s plastered across the news feeds, hinting at a massive plot to strike back at the inner planets that have repressed his people for so long. He’s literally yelling stuff like “Because they believe we are weak, we have the power to be audacious!” Avasarala is deeply concerned, and in the name of dramatic irony, so are we.

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Monica (Anna Hopkins) makes us hope for the future of journalism.
Monica (Anna Hopkins) makes us hope for the future of journalism.
Image: Amazon Studios

Alex (Cas Anvar), meanwhile, has flown the Razorback to Mars, ostensibly to iron things out with his estranged wife and son, though things appear far beyond repair in that department. He gets an equally frosty reception from Bobbie Draper (Frankie Adams), who—long since fucked over by the Martian military she once dedicated her life to—has been toughing it out with her own one-woman undercover operation. With financial backing from Avasarala, she’s become determined to puzzle out who’s been selling weapons to the Belt. There’s a melancholy feeling on Mars that furthers what we saw there in season four. It’s a planet once driven by its military power and planetary pride, now filled with depressed people who can’t wait to flee and settle someplace where they can actually breathe the air, drink the water, and build a peaceful new existence.

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“Exodus” showed us the tight-knit Roci crew spread across the system. Episode two, “Churn,” checks in with that other key player we’ve been curious about since she quit her plum gig running the Ring Gate-adjacent Medina Station in season four: Drummer (Cara Gee). These days, she’s got a small fleet of her own, with a crew that makes a decent enough living scavenging and bossing around the pirates who prey on the many new colony ships full of “inners.” But like almost everyone this season, Drummer is haunted by her past, and her focus changes when she encounters the abandoned vessel that until recently belonged to Ashford (David Strathairn). Her rival turned very close friend was on the brink of figuring out Marco’s grand plan when he was coldly murdered (by Marco, of course) in the season four finale.

“Churn” is named for the Amos-centric Expanse novella that offers a deep dive into his dark past, and we get a wonderful exploration here. Amos trudges to the apartment once occupied by Lydia, the troubled woman who helped raise him, and whose passing is the reason for his reluctant return. The first time Amos spots a woman tending to a boy with a bloody nose on the street, we think it’s a coincidence; when he spots her again, we realize it’s a flashback. It’s very rare that The Expanse gives us any flashbacks, and the vignettes in this episode, including a later memory of Lydia giving young Timothy some tough-love advice, are gracefully deployed.

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Amos’ complicated grief finds a purpose when he learns the kindly man Lydia had been sharing her life with, Charles (the great Frankie Faison), is being evicted by someone Amos—who everyone in Baltimore calls by his real name: “Timothy” or “Timmy”—once knew very well: Erich (Jacob Mundell), a fellow former street kid who’s built a comfortable life as a criminal kingpin. (This is the closest we’re gonna get to an Expanse crossover with The Wire, especially considering Faison was actually on The Wire, and I am here for it.) They have a fraught but oddly tender reunion; these are two guys who grew up together in bad circumstances and are forever bonded by that, but whose lives are now literally worlds apart. Plus, you can tell Erich is more than a little intimidated by his old pal. But he agrees to let Charles stay in Lydia’s home—in fact, he’s pleasantly surprised that’s all “Timmy” has come to see him about—before brightly warning him never to visit Baltimore again.

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Meanwhile, on the other side of the solar system, Holden’s rattling around on the still-being-repaired Roci when he gets a mysterious message from Monica saying she has actual proof that “someone is going after the protomolecule.” He doesn’t want to get involved, but he’s Holden—he’s in the world-saving business, after all—so he grits his teeth and heads to meet her, only to discover an empty room and signs of a struggle. With Fred and Bull’s help, Holden’s able to determine no ships have left the station since her abduction. But where is she (in a shipping container with a dwindling oxygen supply, as it happens; fortunately, Holden finds her just in time), and what’s this information that someone desperately wants to keep under wraps?

Ladies and gentlemen, Fred Johnson (Chad Coleman, who’s coincidentally also a Wire alum).
Ladies and gentlemen, Fred Johnson (Chad Coleman, who’s coincidentally also a Wire alum).
Image: Amazon Studios
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On Mars, Bobbie explains to Alex what she’s been up to, and while he’s shocked by her stockpile of illegally acquired weapons (including a suit of power armor), he’s even more taken aback when he sees the list of military leaders she suspects are in on the scheme. When he goes to speak with a military hero he’s long considered a mentor, he’s rudely brushed off—until the man’s pretty assistant asks him to meet for a drink, a “date” that’s just an excuse for them to try and pry information out of each other. It’s mostly a bust, but Alex does learn the name of a ship the woman says she’s taking on a “routine supply mission.” That sounds like code for “something fishy with dangerous weapons,” especially after he’s jumped by ex-military thugs on his way back to his room, so he and Bobbie make a plan to take the Razorback and follow behind.

Avasarala’s daughter—it’s season five and we’re finally meeting her daughter!—shows up to tut-tut her mother about her strained marriage. (As we saw at the end of season four, Avasarala’s college-professor husband, weary of his wife’s larger-than-life political persona, stayed on Earth rather than join her on Luna.) And while Avasarala still has hope she can patch things up with her husband, it seems she’ll never have a pleasant relationship with Nancy Gao, who smirks at her when Avasarala raises her suspicions about the links between Marco Inaros, the doomed science ship, and those reports (which Avasarala is, of course, getting directly from Bobbie) about Belters buying weapons from Mars. Even if Avasarala is onto something, Gao doesn’t want to hear it. Talk about audacious.

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With all those pieces positioned on the board, we really start to get into the story in episode three, “Mother.” It’s directed by Expanse cast alum Thomas Jane, and is perfectly titled—it references both erstwhile mother Naomi, and good ol’ mother Earth.

Delgado is midway through his “a Belter, a Martian, and an Earther walk into a bar” joke when he and Avasarala are interrupted by a civilian scientist they’ve summoned outside of official channels. Studying a schematic of the asteroid that broke up near Venus, he points out the fragments all have a higher return signature on one side—evidence, Avasarala feels, that they’ve been coated in Martian stealth tech. She insists Earth should reposition its special stealth-penetrating satellites to watch for more incoming rocks; pointing them anywhere else serves no purpose anyway, since “Mars does not give a fuck about blowing us up anymore!” But despite her past heroism, Avasarala—who fully admits she’s burned every bridge available to her at this point—has little luck getting anyone to listen.

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Bobbie (Frankie Adams) hasn’t been slacking on her workouts.
Bobbie (Frankie Adams) hasn’t been slacking on her workouts.
Image: Amazon Studios

In the Belt, Drummer’s team prowls Ashford’s cold, dark tomb of a ship. We know he made a recording of his final moments with Marco and was able to transmit it before he died, so it’s just a matter of time before Drummer finds it. When she does, her grief and guilt (remember, she could have executed Marco last season, but she let him go) turn to white-hot fury. Her first instinct is to go after Marco and collect the hefty bounty on his head, though her crew is hesitant; you can’t really blame them, since that sounds a lot like a suicide mission. After some reflection, and some counseling from the level-headed Oksana (Sandrine Holt), she changes her mind, sends the intel she’s gathered from Ashford’s files to Fred Johnson, and declares “this is not my fight.”

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Another piece of hidden information comes to light on Tycho, where a lucky-to-be-alive Monica reveals her hard-won scoop. Seems Holden’s old pal, scientist Paolo Cortázar (Carlos Gonzalez-Vio), the sole survivor from the original protomolecule research team—who was already kidnapped off Tycho by Fred’s rivals at the end of season two—has been snatched yet again, this time by a Belter strike team who could only be working on behalf of you-know-who.

In a Pallas dive bar, Naomi runs into two members of her old gang—and since we saw them both in episode one, we know that Cyn (Brent Sexton), who’s actually sorta glad to see Naomi, and Karal (Olunike Adeliyi), who’s ready to spit in her face, are still very much in league with Marco. Word gets back to Filip; he’s curious enough to seek her out, but as expected it’s not a happy reunion. As Naomi had feared, he’s full of hostility, wondering why she abandoned him and why she’s bothered to come back now. “I came to help you,” she insists, but he ain’t having it.

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In the last 10 minutes of “Mother,” some very significant dominos start falling. Fred decides they should sit tight and wait for the ship that’s coming to collect the empty container that Monica was being held in, then detain and question whoever’s aboard. Filip barges onto the ship Naomi bought for him—she’d hoped, however foolishly, that he would use it to escape Marco—and takes her prisoner. (A lot of kidnapping so far on season five of The Expanse!) On Luna, Avasarala has just finished leaving her husband a hopeful “call me” message when she gets an incoming missive from Fred Johnson; it contains Ashford’s recording of his last conversation with Marco, and it’s all Avasarala needs to know she’s right about Marco’s attack plan.

Unfortunately, it’s too late. The last scene shows us the first giant rock hurtling toward Earth—and making a successful hit.

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Drummer (Cara Gee) in fierce mode.
Drummer (Cara Gee) in fierce mode.
Image: Amazon Studios

Assorted Musings:

  • Amos’ travel bag was obviously season four gunslinger Murtry’s bag with his name crossed out. Murtry’s in jail now, so—finder’s keepers!
  • Of course Alex wanted to meet Bobbie in a bar called Los Compadres—a Western-themed joint with saddles instead of stools. And of course, Bobbie was far from amused.
  • “First of all, I didn’t start it. Second of all, they were all alive when I walked out.” “Float to the top or sink to the bottom. Everything in the middle’s the churn.” Amos is definitely getting all the good lines so far this season. He is that guy, after all.
  • There were a few drinking scenes on Luna, and each time you could tell The Expanse was having fun showcasing the way gravity alters how liquor pours and how ice is scooped.
  • Jasai Chase Owens looks so much like Dominique Tipper I’d believe it if they were actually related (they aren’t).
  • The dynamics of Drummer’s crew—they’re like a family of best friends who all make out and sleep together naked—reveals an intriguing (and sweet) side of Belter culture we have not seen before.
  • The hallway carpet outside of Alex’s room on Mars looked awfully familiar...was he staying at the Overlook Hotel or what?
  • The guy who’s standing on the beach watching the first asteroid hit is wearing “Fishfinder 500o” goggles, giving us a peek at what to expect from 24th century hobby tech.
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DISCUSSION

By
Pontifex (G/O Fuck yourself, Spanfe||er)

they’re like a family of best friends all make out and sleep together naked

They’re not like a family, the are a family. Drummer’s inherited Michio Pa’s story from the books here, where her crew forms a group marriage (sort of like Holden’s parents). Funnily enough, the subtitles indicated that a character named Pa is also on the crew.

Some quotes I loved:

What crew you with?
Rocinante.
Never heard of ‘em!
You probably have, I’m out of context here.

What a great Amos line.

There was a button. I pushed it.
Jesus Christ. That really is how you go through life, isn’t it?

The context for this line was different in the book, but I’m glad a version of it made the show.