For real, though. Is anybody watching The Expanse? I don’t know a soul who is.
I guess not too many folks were, given that Syfy canceled it during its third season. But then Amazon swooped in to pick it up, so yay for me.
It’s tough to explain this show out in the wild. Often I go with the hook of “Game of Thrones in space,” with the immersive world, expanding roster of characters, and frequent plot twists. The Expanse is based on the novel series by James S.A. Corey (the pen name for Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck), and is set in a colonized solar system 200 years into the future. Hostilities among Earth, Mars and the Asteroid Belt boil over as an alien presence threatens the entire human race.
But what else is there? What gets this blerd going for The Expanse over other shows?
I’ve got 10 reasons, starting now.
1. It’s way more brown than most anything else taking place in the future
The Expanse may be among the most diversely cast shows on television, from major roles to small bits and extras.
The future is all kinds of folks! South Asian peoples, black peoples, aboriginal peoples, Middle Eastern peoples, East Asian peoples, Latin American peoples. And yes, regular old white folks, too. (A subplot involves Mormons.)
I’m just not used to seeing this level of diversity in, well, most anything.
2. The white male hero is … kinda awful?
Jim Holden, captain of scavenged Martian battleship the Rocinante, is a real pain in the ass. He spends a lot of time fighting for lost causes, running around trying to save everyone. A square-jawed, muscle-y, scruffy-faced white man so ding-dang moral that he’s always doing the right thing, especially when that right thing is the most difficult, in a solar system full of desperate people clawing to survive.
In the novels, I bet his total righteousness comes off as completely insufferable. It’s a credit to the show’s writers and to actor Steven Strait that Holden feels like a character at all. By the third season, even Holden comments on his quixotic nature.
Who’d want to share a beer with that guy? He probably doesn’t even drink beer, and not in that cool, I-don’t-always-drink-beer kind of way. He’s no The Most Interesting Man in the World.
So uncool, that guy.
3. Science fiction with class consciousness
The show sets up early on how, 200 years into the future, the human race is split among the bureaucrats and industrialists on Earth, the militaristic colonizers on Mars, and the poor underclass in the Asteroid Belt.
What we see of Earth is largely around Manhattan and the United Nations, which appears to be the governing body of the planet in the 23rd century. Humanity appears to be living, as we too often see in our world today, with most of the wealth concentrated among a few. There appears to be little work, or jobs, in a world of automated industry, and there’s talk of a basic income supplied by government. Those who aren’t on that basic income live in shanty villages with their own currency.
Is this a prequel to Wall-E?
You’ve got your pleasure palaces and vacation spots in the Belt, but mining is the key industry, and its working class is terribly oppressed. They do all the dirty work while Earth and Mars benefit, and scavenge whatever they can for their own. The entire Belt feels like Los Angeles, New Orleans, Mumbai, Shanghai and Rio, all rolled in one. All the good parts and rough parts.
It’s interesting, though, that many of the Martian military we meet are people of color. It begs the question of who all signed up for Mars, who all got to go, and who ultimately will benefit from the Martian effort once the dream of terraforming is realized.
4. I love the Belters, and so will you
You know who are cool, though? The Belters, man. Dispossessed, working-class people with a rebel spirit and a ’hood mentality of emphasizing loyalty, respect, and the use of violence to attain and maintain either quality. These are the people who left every nation on Earth to find work in the outer reaches.
And they adapt. Their bodies change to fit the gravity out there. They speak in their own creole language combining the world’s tongues, from English to Hindi to Slavic to Bantu. The lang Belta immediately marks a Belter just like the elaborate neck tattoos mirroring neck burns from pressure-suit helmets.
The underclass of the solar system, Belters hold heavy scorn and mistrust for “Inners” – the people from the inner planets, Earthers and Martians. And they have their own social, political, and at times terrorist organization known as the OPA. Many times, they’re not wrong.
I want to be on the show as a Belter just so I can address my fellows with the word I love most: beltalowda.
5. Thomas Jane’s performance almost makes me want to see his other work
I’ve read more than enough critics over time who said that Thomas Jane is actually pretty good. I pretty much know him as The Punisher, and that was good enough for me. I didn’t need a new Dennis Quaid-looking, ruggedly handsome white guy, right?
I heard he was good in The Mist. And that HBO series, Hung, in which he played a quirky, fell-into-it sex worker, like a male-prostitute version of Weeds. Everyone was good in Boogie Nights, and he’s there too.
In The Expanse, as hard-boiled Ceres detective Joe Miller, Jane couldn’t be any better. He carries himself as a grizzled ace who knows the system is rigged, but didn’t know just how far. Jane plays up all of Miller’s Earther affectations with great fun, such as his trilby hat to “keep the rain off” even though there’s no rain on Ceres.
6. Space is terrifying!
Remember that bit in the 2009 Star Trek movie when Bones is freaking out about going into space? After rattling off cracked hulls, solar flares and alien diseases, he calls the final frontier “disease and danger wrapped in darkness and silence.”
If you read Mary Roach’s Packing for Mars, most of the book can be boiled down to HOW THE HELL DO WE KEEP ANYONE ALIVE IN SPACE?!? WE’RE NOT SUPPOSED TO BE THERE! AT ALL!
On The Expanse, you see people pass out and nearly die from the g-forces of speeding ships. We see space stations and colonies run low on power and oxygen, people descending into chaos. We see people from the Asteroid Belt with deformed bones because human development evolved for Earth’s atmosphere and gravity, and a Belter spy be crushed under his own weight when transferred to Earth.
When someone is shot dead in zero gravity, the corpse just stands there, suspended in air, like a drunk. If there’s some kind of accident or disaster on a ship, corridors are littered with floating bodies and blood stains barely clinging to surfaces.
Any tools or parts left unsecured during a firefight, with changing trajectories and high speeds? The laws of inertia will turn an errant wrench into a throwing dagger.
Without gravity, an internal injury is a death sentence, because wounds need gravity to heal.
I AIN’T GOING TO NO SPACE!
7. When things escalate, they go quickly
I appreciate how this show produces fine episodic television while giving us big, arcing stories. Remember episodes in television, with beginnings, middles, and ends. Where, even in a larger multipart story, each episode felt discrete in its own right?
At the center of The Expanse, season to season, is a mystery. In the first season, it’s the mystery of missing socialite and space racer Julie Mao. In the second season, it’s the mystery of an alien substance known as the protomolecule, and what exactly it is. In the third season, as war breaks out amid the solar system, it’s the mystery of what the protomolecule has done and why.
But The Expanse doesn’t work as simply as that, teasing out one mystery throughout the season and unspooling it tiny, tedious piece by tiny, tedious piece. (Looking at you, Westworld). The show often packs season finale-level revelations and closings of arcs in the middle of seasons, opening up new possibilities and exploring them, only to uncover new questions.
If you went into this thinking that Joe Miller’s case of finding the missing Julie Mao would be wrapped up in the season finale, like I did, then you got knocked on your butt with how wrong you were. And how much deeper this all went.
The show is based on the series of books, but the show’s writers don’t adhere to doing a book per season. It’s allowed for this just-finished third season to be its most explosive, literally and figuratively, as desperate act builds on desperate act, battle upon battle, threat upon threat, to where the show ends up someplace else entirely. You know, like a giant portal in space that holds everyone in some kind of cosmic purgatory.
8. The women are great
You probably can’t find a better collection of diverse, complex, fun female characters to watch on TV. Determined, principled, slimy, angry, aggrieved, and singular.
Chrisjen Avasarala, the United Nations official with her game-playing and casual swearing.
Bobbie Draper, the Martian marine who won’t let duty get in the way of justice. Played by Frankie Adams, who looks as big and strong in a tank top and khakis as she does in her power armor.
Naomi Nagata, the crack mechanic with the freshest haircuts. She who just slays a jumpsuit.
Anna Volovodov, the minister with a heart of gold and will of steel. Elizabeth Mitchell pulls off heartfelt righteousness without sinking into buzzkill, virtue-signaling annoyance, but those Lost fans already know what I’m talking about.
Camina Drummer, who goes from OPA lieutenant and conflict generator to the baddest bawse in the Belt while wearing eyeliner as heavy and black as the eternal night of space.
9. I hope they never really give us Amos’ back story
Amos Burton is the Rocinante’s mechanic and resident heavy. Well, he’s beyond heavy, as he’s often sociopathic, almost cheerful in the face of violence, and is ready to kill at a moment’s notice. And, boy, does he kill.
But there’s a code to his violence. He sees himself as the necessary enforcer of violence against those who wish him and his crew harm, and even steps in to hurt and kill for people he thinks aren’t killers and shouldn’t ever become so.
All of this is helped by only getting glimpses of Amos’ back story. There likely was sex work, perhaps even his being trafficked as a child. There’s Baltimore and a patchy official record. He displays an ambiguous sexuality to the point that a pair of documentary filmmakers, one male and female, each credibly make a pass at him. (He declines both, but doesn’t flinch when touched flirtingly by either one.)
He’s also a crowd favorite with many of the best lines on the show. He often acts like a commentator on the show itself, sitting outside the other characters’ motivations and matter-of-factly assessing everything.
In an episode in which he is showing the fussy Avasarala how to use the magnetic gravity boots, he tells her it’s like walking in pumps.
She asks, “How do you know what it’s like to wear pumps?”
Amos blithely replies, “I didn’t always work in space.”
I want to know more about Amos’ life, but not much more. He may be better as a mystery. Though an episode from his POV could be great.
10. I’m glad we’re getting more of it
The Expanse is science fiction, drama, and a mystery all in one. And the end of the third season set us up for getting into the mystery of who the beings behind the protomolecule are, and what happened to them. And why Jim Holden is at the center of all this.
I can’t wait to see where The Expanse goes next.