OK so I need to review ‘The Expanse’ Season 2, 3, and 4, together because I landed up binge-ing them all. However, this is no mean task as they’re all excellent seasons and develop the story, the characters and the world, really well. So to do so, I think I shall engage in a longer discussion. Oh and - Spoilers ahead.
Part 1 looks at Adaptability of genre
What do I mean when I say Adaptability of genre? It refers to how ‘‘The Expanse’’ is a sci-fi show that can also be a noir murder mystery, a political thriller, and a western.
‘The Expanse’ manages to do all while still feeling like the same show because it ties the genre to locations and characters. For example, Season 1 looks at the missing case of Julie Mao. The key plot progression for this happens on Ceres and is led by Miller. Thus whenever we cut to that location, we automatically reset our expectations to that of a murder mystery.
Season 4 on the other hand has strong resemblance to the western genre. But this is specifically true for Ilos, the newly discovered planet. So while this ‘discovery’ is true for the whole galaxy, the story only manifests the characteristics of a Western (bad sheriff / new cowboy, corrupt authority vs civilians, gold rush, dangers posed by natives of the land) when in Ilos. For the characters on Earth, a political drama is in motion, as for those on Mars and Ceres, they are concerned with the complete upheaval of their identity and ideology, similar to what post-USSR Russia and its former states felt like.
The other reason the show manages to weave through these various genres is because it sets a very clear through line for the show at large. May it be a western, or a socio-political drama, the show at its core follows the crew of the Rocinante as they try to uncover the mystery of the protomolecule.
This brings us to the second part, themes and characters.
The show covers a range of themes and a diverse set of characters while working to ensure that they are all intricately interconnected.
Thematically the show consistently holds to the idea that a few good people can change the direction of the universe no matter the odds. Thus we see Miller, Draper, Holden, all trying to do the right thing despite their unique narratives.
The second theme that connects everything is the revolution of class due to technology. Technological advancements change society. The invention of the wheel allowed us to travel further, the Epstein drive did the same for ‘The Expanse’ universe. The Internet brought about and still allows for cultural revolutions and in some cases even political ones. In the same vein, the protomolecule, up-heaves the chessboard setup in ‘The Expanse’ and by doing so sets in motion a variety of events. All of these events then are connected to the protomolecule and thus even the most casual viewer becomes interested in the western or the political drama because they need to know how that unfolds to better understand the larger events at play.
Apart from overarching unifying themes, there are also themes explored through subplots and side characters. The show shines because it has a range of characters who are constantly at odds with their context. For example, in season 3 we see Chrisjen and Draper team up. A political leader from Earth and a marine from Mars are an odd duo and this leads to a natural conflict that is interesting to watch but is particularly enhanced by the fact that they share the same goal.
In season 4, Amos and Wei’s relationship allows us to further explore Amos’s internal workings. We get to see a romantic side of him which is entirely new from what we have seen in the previous seasons. Therefore, for a character who is unperturbed by his external context (Amos responds to being in a warzone to being a fugitive, in the same manner) a shift in his interpersonal context is new and refreshing. Testing well established character’s foundations and beliefs keeps the audience interested as we get to see them tackle new challenges.
The characters are also compelling because they are so well-rounded. Each one exemplifies the setting they are raised in but has just a sprinkle of something unique in their past that separates them from everyone else in that setting. For example, Draper is a martian through and through however her experiences lead her to question the core beliefs Mars ingrained in her. So we know that she can express more than the blind hatred for Earth the other martians might practice.
By the same logic, Naomi is a Belter and a former OVA member. But she’s left that life behind so we expect her initial loyalty to be to the Rocinante. However, when she does betray them for a short while, we also understand her motivations. It makes her more believable that she feels torn between these alliances.
Aside from its excellent range of characters, witty dialogue, gripping central conflict, and imaginative world building, the show excels because of beautiful cinematography, conservative but effective CGI and a well placed OST.
I am tempted to go read the books but at the same time I want to enjoy the series as it unfolds. This is one of those rare Sci-fis that maximizes everything its genre allows it to. It takes what masters suchs as Asimov or Philip K. Dick sets up and pumps it with a healthy dose of adrenaline. (Do not take this as a cue to compare the two sets of writers, that is not my intent). Anyway, I highly recommend this series, it’s a lot of fun and ages like fine wine.