Wednesday, June 19, 2024

Sci-Fi Watch: "The Expanse" ReWatch, Season 5

One of the most insane things you can do is recommend someone watch multiple seasons of TV more than once.  But here we are.

The first time I watched The Expanse, I watched it entirely by myself* as a binge-watch.  I think I made it through the first five seasons in about three weeks (the sixth had not started yet), which is simply not a thing I do.  

Spoiler - my least favorite season of the show was the fourth season, which I still liked, but felt like the one season where I felt I'd seen this same sort of thing elsewhere.  On a rewatch, I better appreciate how the Western-like settlement and tensions between moneyed and non-moneyed pioneers informs the overall arc of the show.  

The Fifth Season, which brings the character, political and story arc threads of the show to a head, while simultaneously splintering our Rocinante-based space-fam, was one I'd quite liked the first go-thru.  On a second viewing, I liked it even more.  

The issues our characters brought into the series at its start finally have time to get some spotlight, all against a backdrop of the inevitable consequences of the centuries of exploitation of the Belt (for whom you can apply a dozen real-world analogies) coming to bear.  

The Ring has opened new frontiers to be exploited, and it looks like, despite assurances, the Belters will lose out on this as well (as Season 4 ably illustrates).  But, also, Mars has realized it may be irrelevant.  Why make a dead rock habitable when you can move the family to a garden planet?  Earth has just seen an election that was a referendum on the potential for colonization, and on the vastly overpopulated, under-funded Earth, the chance to start over is no less enticing.

Meanwhile, Alex has returned to Mars to try to rekindle the lost family ties he had. And Bobbie Draper is working covertly for Avasarala, trying to figure out what is happening with the Martian Navy as it seems materials are going on the Black Market (and sold to whom?). Amos heads back to Earth to pay respects to the mother-figure in his life, who seems to have saved him from his traumatic childhood.  Camina Drummer  has fallen in with a polycule aboard a ship that has not yet joined the Belter Free Navy, while also grappling with the loss of Ashford at the hands of Inaros, whom she was part of setting free.  And, Naomi gets a lead on the location of Filip, her son by Inaros, and goes out to meet him.

Over the course of prior seasons, we've seen the existential state of The Belt and Belters who feel abandoned and exploited by Earthers and, to a large degree, Martians.  They can no longer move back to Earth as their physiology has changed, and they rely on the begrudging good graces of Earth for air, water and soil in which to grow their food.  Out of sight from Earth, they mostly live in tough conditions, performing dangerous work that benefits the Earthers more than the Belt.  
That some Belters would dream of hurting the people they've seen as their oppressors and who would hurt them, and now take from them the thing they've made possible in The Ring is entirely logical.  That the worst among them would do so with acts of terrorism that ignores that it's just a few Earthers making the decisions, and not the millions Marco Inaros kills with his attack is - from the perspective of the humiliated Belters - the right response for the millions of Belters living poorly every day.

I mentioned I liked this season, because it does push all of the story and character elements forward, but without ever stopping to say "look, we're doing character work".  It feels tied up in the overall events as they've been unfolding since Miller got assigned the Julie Mau case (which now seems like ancient history).  And I think with the benefit of a rewatch where you can better see the early cues and seemingly innocuous dialog that *is* tied into what's to come in this and next season, you can better appreciate everything the show, writers and actors achieve here.

Occurring a few episodes into the season, the attack on Earth changes the trajectory of life for everyone on the planet, and widows Avasarala, who was unable to track down Inaros and watched a permissive government fail to respond to potential issues.  Avasarala's arc is epically tragic - with personal losses, professional losses (and some humiliation as she tries to work under people she knows dislike and will not listen to her), and - of course - the loss of millions even as she managed to save far more.  
Holden, curiously, has much less of an arc.  It's significant, but he's sidelined as action hero in this season, pushing the narrative forward, but no longer the main focus.  He's the witness to things unfolding around him, but he doesn't have the same range of change as a character the rest of the cast enjoys - even as he's there for Fred's assassination, etc...

Alex and Bobbie's witnessing of the swift collapse of the Martian dream impacts them both differently, but they also know they can't do much to save a planet that's willing to fail.  After a season chasing ghosts, Bobbie's kick-ass demeanor is utilized well despite her limited screentime in the last half of the season.

Meanwhile, Drummer's ability to compromise is pushed to the breaking point as her polycule family vacillates, Marco threatens them if they don't join up, and no one gives a shit about Naomi and Ashford - seeing them as traitors and fools, unable to see the bigger picture (or that they're siding with a homicidal maniac).  

Naomi's storyline is the one that's going to deservedly get the attention and actor Dominique Tipper should get her flowers for this season sometime.  She's been good up to this point, but what she's asked to do here, digging through her own personal wreckage that may have doomed not just the millions on Earth, but the life of her son, and to still want to survive - is amazing.  And unlike 99% of TV shows, its delivered entirely in action, not with her monologuing about what she wants, etc...  

While I *liked* Amos' arc the first time, the one I felt was most... human was Amos's, and maybe pays off the most on a rewatch.  We're all probably aware of his growth from monosyllabic killing machine to friendlier killing machine by the end of the series.  But this season got to see him actually wrestle with his past and what it made him, both good and bad, and put on the table the question of whether a bad person who acts like a good person is still a bad person.  And we get to see him echo the relationship he had with his Baltimore-based mother figure, and then Naomi, as he sees a chance for both he and Clarissa as he becomes the caretaker for someone who is lost.

Once you're aware of Amos' background and get a chance to rewatch those early seasons, a whole lot more of what he drops as exposition bears a lot more weight.  And the button at the end of the season of bringing Clarissa/ Peaches onboard makes a world of sense from Amos' perspective. 

Overall, though it's absolutely bleak and normally we'd skip over the immediate aftermath of a world-ending event and jump right to the dystopian world in most live-action sci-fi, I deeply appreciate how we see how it unravels things in big and small ways.  When the only livable part of Earth is the Moon, we got problems.  

But, mostly I appreciate that a sci-fi show exists in this complex and often morally gray space where just because our hero champions something, it may still be wrong or have implications and consequences.  Or what actually seems like a perfectly rational hatred for your oppressors can be turned into something that makes you far worse, and doesn't just mention your origin in a few expository lines, we get the full picture of the world that made you.  But the benefit of seeing the realities of the world you also don't know that you hate.

It's rich stuff.  For all the attempts to keep the science real on The Expanse, it's the human stuff that often feels the most grounded.  And, yeah, it all feels a *lot* richer this go-round.  If it's been a while, I recommend you check it out again.

This season also saw the death of Alex, which was the actor Cas Anvar being written off the show after some impropriety a lot of impropriety.  I think the show did a good job of handling the death - it could have been a sudden explosion, but they allowed Alex, if not the actor playing him, to go out saving someone he loved, which seemed entirely in character.  And - frankly - it finally paid off the show's ever-present concern about "juicing" to pull high-G maneuvers and the toll it takes on the body.  

A glance at Wikipedia and plot synopses will tell you the show deviated from the books quite a bit here and there, but I am sure losing Alex was a challenge.  Still, that challenge was met.

*Jamie only popped in once, at the end of Season 3, I think, and asked what was going on during the climax of penultimate episode, and I just sort of blinked at her.

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