The third season of The Expanse ended with a double triumph: the assurance that Amazon would be its new home, and a finale that teased the thrilling and dangerous prospect of interstellar expansion. Season four is finally here, and it’s indeed a leap forward for the outstanding sci-fi show on multiple levels.
While we’ll be doing our best to avoid spoilers (io9 was provided with the first six episodes for review), some plot discussion will be necessary—so for those who want to enter into season four untouched, we’ll drop one of these here:
Aside from a brief prologue that takes place not long after the Ring opened its gates—showing a Belter ship slipping past a blockade held by a historic, albeit tentative, alliance between Earth, Mars, and the Belt—season four picks up eight months after the events of season three. The Rocinante crew of James Holden (Steven Strait), Naomi Nagata (Dominique Tipper), Alex Kamal (Cas Anvar), and Amos Burton (Wes Chatham) are now the legitimate co-owners of their ship, which has been fully repaired after the battering it took in season three, with an enhancement: landing gear.
They’ll need it to touch down on a newly discovered planet, the first destination through the Ring to be settled. Earth and Mars call it New Terra, but it’s Ilus to the Belters who got there first—a reminder that despite the supposed peace, humanity’s intense divisions are still very much in place, something that season four frequently underlines in both overt and subtle ways.
Whenever there is trouble on The Expanse, the Roci crew inevitably becomes drawn into it, so we all know what to expect when UN Secretary-General Chrisjen Avasarala (Shohreh Aghdashloo) sends the gang to Ilus. Their task, she makes very clear, is not to get involved in the dispute between the Belters and Royal Charter Energy, a recently arrived Earth corporation that’s determined to take control of the planet’s abundant lithium deposits. Instead, Holden and company are to investigate the strange structures on Ilus that appear to be the work of the protomolecule—the dreaded “blue goo” that’s provided so much horror over the past three seasons.
Of course, they can’t help but get mixed up in the situation anyway. It plays out as both a Wild West tale (thanks to Burn Gorman’s trigger-happy, vengeance-obsessed RCE security chief Adolphus Murtry) and an immigration narrative, as the Belters—weary refugees from Ganymede, a moon of Jupiter left uninhabitable as a direct result of the Earth-Mars conflict—refuse to budge. They’ve never lived on a planet before, but Ilus is their planet, and they don’t care to give up its resources or their newfound freedom.
And there’s the woo-woo stuff too, as Miller (retooled last season by the protomolecule as “the Investigator”) nudges Holden into exploring Ilus’ billion-year-old ruins, trying to discover who annihilated the Ring builders. But unlike in season three, when his cryptic mutterings helped the Roci navigate the Ring’s physics-defying void space, Miller’s guidance starts to feel awfully self-serving. Always unpredictable, his reluctance to declare his motivations (and the terrifying phenomena that begins to happen on Ilus as soon as the Roci arrives) begins to shade him with something new: menace.
The Ilus storyline—which exposes us to such fresh concepts as Naomi, a Belter, pushing herself to the physical limit so that she can experience walking on a planet—introduces some intriguing new faces beyond Murtry. There’s a no-nonsense Earth scientist (Lyndie Greenwood) whose knowledge becomes crucial to the Roci’s mission; a passionate Belter (Rosa Gilmore) who learns that a single-minded approach to anything is rarely the best path; and Murtry’s second-in-command (Jess Salgueiro), a tough and loyal soldier who bonds with Amos, and who proves herself capable of telling the difference between her boss’ bad instincts and doing what’s actually right. The Expanse has long been known for its diverse casts and complex, layered characters, and all the new characters—even Murtry, who’s easy to loathe, but is still far from a one-note bad guy—hold true to that.
We really could spend all our time on Ilus with these people, grappling with the many themes their tangled storylines shake loose from the planet’s grey, rocky surface. But The Expanse has a few more characters it needs to keep up with, and season four somehow makes time for everyone.
Just outside the Ring, the Belt’s massive Medina Station—the re-rechristened Behemoth—has the plum gig of being “the gas station on the new frontier,” according to its captain, Camina Drummer (Cara Gee). This position has been assured by a treaty with Earth and Mars, though ships from the UN’s mighty fleet lurk irritatingly close by, poised to swoop in and undermine the Belt’s authority any time they feel like it. Drummer’s former OPA rival, Ashford (David Strathairn), is now more friend than frenemy, helping her thwart the rogue Belter pirates that target rich colony ships from Earth and Mars.
Why are colony ships stuffed with valuable goods putting themselves at risk by just hanging out at the entrance to the Ring? Well, there’s a blockade in place, and it won’t be lifted until Avasarala, who’s basically the President of Earth, gives the go-ahead—something she’s not going to do until she’s got proof there’s no protomolecule in those faraway systems, waiting for its chance to wipe out humanity. It’s an understandable position, but not everyone agrees, especially the idealistic young politician who’s challenging her in Earth’s upcoming election. It’s the first time Avasarala has ever had to run for office, and it’s also the first time we’ve really been worried for her. We all knew she’d survive Jules-Pierre Mao’s henchmen in season three—but what if voters decide to back the candidate who supports the reckless space gold rush?
The remaining Expanse plotline this season is the one that initially seems the most isolated from the others: the bummer life of Bobbie Draper (Frankie Adams), back home on Mars and trying to be a regular citizen after being dishonorably discharged from the military. It doesn’t go so well (you can read more about that in the interview below), but Bobbie’s story does eventually tie into the Belter pirate situation. There are some blurry boundaries in The Expanse’s postwar world that end up facilitating some surprising alliances, and this is one of them.
It’s not hard to see why the show’s writers make it a point to include all of these storylines—it wouldn’t be The Expanse without all of the characters we’ve come to love over the past three seasons, even if they don’t all pop up in the corresponding books. That said, there are moments when the inclusivity feels a little forced, especially with Avasarala. The election stuff is honestly kind of boring—even for the character herself, who’d much rather be keeping tabs on Ilus than prepping for debates—and maybe the biggest drawback of having The Expanse on Amazon means that everyone can (and does) swear a lot more, which kind of lessens the spicy impact of Avasarala’s signature f-bombs.
Having the show on Amazon also means that all the episodes will drop at once. A show that used to be weekly (with commercials) is now something you can binge uninterrupted in one sitting, if you are a true fiend. This may be the most fast-paced season yet (it’s only 10 episodes, as opposed to the 13 of seasons two and three), and even with the flexibility that comes with not having a set episode length, there is sometimes a feeling that things are ripping by too fast in order to make room for all the drama. There may be fewer quiet moments, but thankfully the show’s quirky humor is still intact; just keep an ear out for all the times Amos deliberately calls Murtry by the wrong name.
It’s really impossible to fully review season four having only seen the first six episodes—let’s not forget what happened in season three, when the show totally flipped the reset switch halfway through and made what was already a great season into something utterly phenomenal. There are no doubt some huge reveals yet to be seen—as well as some set-up for the already-in-the-works fifth season.
The Expanse season four hits Amazon Prime next Friday, December 13.
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