Monday, May 6, 2024

Sci-Fi Watch: "The Expanse" ReWatch - Season 4

Season over season, The Expanse manages to use genre changes to better expand its world and fill in the ideas the novels were trying to communicate - I assume.  I mean, this is what the show does, and the show follows the basic beats of the novels.

Season 4 is essentially broken into 4 separate storylines, with two of those storylines having sub storylines.  

In the wake of the Ring Gates opening at the end of Season 3, humanity is ready to see what else is out there as the gates seem to be opening onto mostly human habitable worlds.  Ships full of eager settlers have begun heading towards the ring in our solar system, hoping to make claims on the 1300-ish other worlds out there.  

While Earth, Mars and the Belt ponder how to manage the almost magical occurrence and ponder the inherent dangers of worlds that have never known human kind, there's also the vast wealth that seems just on the other side for the bold willing to risk it all.

Desperate Belters are rushing blockades in hopes of staking a claim before official channels screw them out of opportunity.  Meanwhile, Avasarala has been made Secretary General of the UN and is now sort of President of Earth - and with her experience has no interest in moving too fast.  She's already barely avoided a cataclysm with the Eros incident, and who knows what's on the other side? 

And after generations of Mars trying to terraform and do this the hard way, Martians see 1300 perfectly livable planets suddenly available.  And the dream of Mars suddenly seems... not worth it?

The four stories follow
  1. the crew of the Rocinante sent by the UN to Illus (aka: New Terra) to see what's going on as a group of Belters has arrived to mine Lithium, and a UN private company is also en route, waving a legal claim to the planet - but issued by the UN.  
  2. the concerns in the Belt over the renegade Marco Inaros, Naomi's former lover, who is now stepping up aggression against colonizing ships.  Drummer and Ashford are not necessarily at odds over Inaros, but there's conflict among the Belters as Earth and Mars are weak, post-war
  3. Avasarala's former advisor runs against her for the Secretary-General position, running on opening up the Ring, and giving the people of Earth a chance
  4. On Mars, Bobbie is retired from the MCRN, and a bit of a social outcast.  She discovers things on Mars may be falling apart, and leading to *crimes*
There's minimal crossover of the four stories.  And in many ways, this season is table-setting for what's to come - which, no kidding.  But as I have previously watched those seasons, yeah, it kinda matters.

Essentially the Ilus story is, maybe, one of the few semi-predictable (to me) narratives in The Expanse.  It works like a Western, with powerful, armed forces thuggishly threatening locals just trying to scrape by, and the Rocinante crew in the middle.  That said, I think for the points the show is trying to make about "so, what horrible thing will people do even on a frontier in a new part of the galaxy?" we once again look to history to see how things can play out badly (or Shane, which... we should all watch Shane).  

Individually, the Roci's crew have their own arcs.  Jim is trying to keep the peace, because this fighting is dumb.  But also he has Miller's psychic projection in his head.  Alex is seeing shades of how he f'd up his family in one of the colonists.  Naomi wants to go planetside with Jim, but the medical procedures don't quite take - so she's in space when it counts.  I prefer Amos' storyline, figuring out how to do the right thing (and ultimately rejecting the idea he's a hired gun).  

I've seen online some folks found Avasarala's election storyline dull, but not I.  This chapter is about the ramifications of something as gigantic as The Ring, and in a democracy, we elect the people who promise us shiny things, like the chance to start again on a new planet instead of slowly dying on this one.  There's a move or two that seem a little telegraphed and I'd assume Chrisjen would see the angle for why this was a bad thing to bring up to attack her opponent.  

Bobbie has a seemingly pointless but gritty storyline, but it's really there to point out "wow, Mars sure fell apart fast".  Frankie Adams does a great job with the many things Bobbie is going through - from her shame at what happened with the MCRN to feeling exploited by Chrisjen, to the boiling rage at what she keeps uncovering.  

But the Belter stuff is almost "squirm in chair" uncomfortable to watch go down, and is carried well by David Straithairn as Ashford.  Drummer is in most of the season, and Cara Gee is great, but we can see how an old pirate has learned some things, and hopes to employ them before its too late.  

All in all - the season really does dig in.  We're not worrying about protomolecule anymore, we're worrying about what comes with a sea change for all of humanity.  And we have a big enough cast and enough going on that we get myriad perspectives and impacts.  Sci-Fi can work as an analogy for real-world events, or it can apply what we know to novel concepts and reveal something universal.  And I think that's what this season really does.  

We'd have the magic of new planets to explore that optimists would love for about a week before the business-minded folks looked to make a buck off this for themselves, and enjoy the chaos the unknown provides to exploit the opportunity.  Politicians would promise a colony in every pot, and people would bite.  It might mean that some dreams die, badly, as new opportunities arise.  And certainly old feuds would not necessarily be forgotten.

If memory serves, this is the last season where I felt like the money thrown at this show was insane.  I have no idea how they filmed this thing, bringing us vast Martian causeways, loading docs, dozens of locations, etc...  There's a huge number of extras.  Costuming.  FX everywhere.  There's honest-to-goodness design.  So you'll forgive me if folks are saying She-Hulk, which had one CGI character, cost Marvel $25 million per episode and I'm suspicious of that number.  This show *looks* like it costs $20 million an episode, so I'm betting it's half that with some smart stuff happening behind the scenes.  

And the acting on the series is still really f'ing good.  You may hate him, but you never doubt Burn Gorman as Murty for a minute.  It's a stellar performance.  Just as Rosa Gilmore is terrific as Dr. Luica Mazur, and Jess Salgueiro as Wei.  And I've watched plenty of hour-long shows that are FX heavy where the talent was unable to bring what the actors brought to this season.   

There's probably room to discuss Holden as a main character in further depth, because my reading of some forums and whatnot years on here tells me some viewers didn't love the character, and that's fine.  There are no rules for how you watch the show.  I'd made a stray remark in the comments on a prior post about Holden being "cypher-ish", but I want to walk that back.  He really isn't.  He has flaws, he has passions.  But he also tends to blurt them out in bits and pieces.  He isn't perfect, but because of where he was at certain points in the story, he is the focal point not just for our show, he's the focal point for the protomolecule in this chapter, and it puts him in some awkward positions.  

But he's the one man in space who doesn't mix political maneuvering, brand loyalties, wealth, or zealotry with just trying to make sure humans of all stripes stay alive in a solar system that is cold and unfeeling.  And I think that's a hard thing to put into dialog, so they sometimes put it in the mouths of other characters, but seldom does Jim Holden say what he wants beyond the next thing that will keep people alive. 

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