I’ve read the first four novels in James S. A. Corey’s The Expanse series. Nemesis Games, the fifth novel in the series, is sitting proudly on a shelf, at eye level, in my library closet, waiting for me to start reading it. I’m delaying gratification for the moment, making this science-fantasy space opera series last a little longer.
What this means is that my reading of the source material is lagging behind the story being told on the television series. That’s okay, though. I didn’t begin reading the novels until after I began watching the SyFy/now-Amazon streaming series, and it’s never affected my enjoyment of the books.
I can’t compare Season 5 to the story told in the book series. In some ways, I think this increases my enjoyment of the streaming series. Otherwise, I’d always be comparing this show to my memory of the books. I can only imagine that this would make me like this beautifully-produced show less than I do.
How often have you said, “The movie was better than the book?” Not often, I bet.
There are exceptions that prove the rule. I thought Frank Darabont’s The Mist was better than the Stephen King novella it was based upon. It had an ending, even if it was a tragically dark one. I recall that King left the end of the novella vague and less-than-satisfying.
That’s the only example I could come up with on short notice. But, I digress—
The point I was trying to make is that I had no foreknowledge of the events in this season before I watched it. I finished watching the season the first or second week in February this year, which has given me a couple of months to think about what I watched before writing this review. Season 6 has been announced as the final season of the series. This is unfortunate, because there are already three additional novels in the book series past Nemesis Games, with a ninth—and possibly final—volume scheduled to be published sometime this year. There is no way that four novels worth of story could be shoehorned into one final season. It will be interesting to see how this plays out.
Upon some serious reflection, I’ve decided that I didn’t like this season as much as I did Season 4. Upon even deeper reflection, I’m not sure if I liked it as much as Season 3, which was my least-favorite before now, with a Firewater Report Card grade of A-. I’ll spend the remainder of the time that I’m writing this to make my final decision.
Don’t get upset with me. I still like this series. I just said this season may possibly be my least-favorite. One of them has to be, doesn’t it?
I talked with you before about the concept of found family. Sometimes known as family of choice, this is a common television trope. It’s defined as a group of people who are a family in every important way except DNA. Usually, this applies to characters who are estranged or separated from their real relatives, but join a team of like-minded people for shared adventures and events.
I’m currently completing a rewatch of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (and having a blast, in spite of the present Joss Whedon drama). This series provides an excellent example of found family in the Scooby Gang. Buffy Summers, Rupert Giles, Xander Harris, Willow Rosenberg and, sometimes, Cordelia Chase have teamed up to fight the forces of darkness.
On The Blacklist, the found family is the FBI task force, which sometimes changes but always includes Harold Cooper, Elizabeth Keen, Donald Ressler, Aram Mojtabai, and, of course, Raymond Reddington and his factotum Dembe Zuma.
During the first two seasons of Stargate SG-1 (which I’m also watching), the family of choice is the planet-hopping team SG-1 itself, comprised of Col. Jack O’Neill, Capt. Samantha Carter, Dr. Daniel Jackson and the alien Teal’c. I’d also include Gen. George Hammond and Dr. Janet Frasier, but they’re more junior varsity found family.
I could continue on discussing this trope, which is one of my favorites, but I broached the subject only to point out that this idea applies to The Expanse as well. On the series, our family of choice is formed by James Holden (Steven Strait), Naomi Nagata (Dominique Tipper), Amos Burton (Wes Chatham), and Alex Kamal (Cas Anvar). Again, there are additions in various seasons—and Chrisjen Avasarala (Shohreh Aghdashloo) and Bobbie Draper (Frankie Adams) are always important characters—but this is our core “family.” I like this series the most when our found family are all together.
This season turns the trope on its head. Our family is broken apart. Temporarily, we hope. But, during this entire season I experienced an emotion I can describe only as homesickness. Too much change. Too many separate storylines unfolding at the same time. I was having separation anxiety and was tempted to begin gnawing my way through the couch cushions, like a nervous black lab left home alone.
I think the creative forces behind this wonderful series—including Ty Franck and Daniel Abraham, the two authors sharing the pen name “James S.A. Corey”—are intentionally ratcheting up the tension to increase my anxiety. Separating our Rocinante family into different—but connected—character arcs also gives us a further understanding of the individual characters, apart from the team.
I do think this is a good thing. I enjoyed all of the stories in this season. My one gripe—which I’ve already griped about—is that my favorite characters were all off on their own.
For good reasons. Alex returns to Mars in an attempt to reconnect with his real family, as opposed to his found family. I won’t spoil what happens with his personal mission, but I will tell you that he reconnects with Bobbie Draper and the two begin to investigate major smuggling activities apparently being carried out by high-ranking members of the Martian Navy. The discovery of the ring gate linking our solar system to untold other systems, many with planets capable of sustaining human life, has forever altered the political and economic landscape of the Sol system. Martian society is falling apart. Alex and Bobbie have to be there to witness it first-hand.
Amos heads to Earth, his home planet. Specifically, to Baltimore, to pay his respects for the recently-departed Lydia, who was his mother-figure. The novels, and the streaming series, have always revealed bits and pieces of Amos’ quasi-criminal upbringing, but this particular story arc sheds a lot of new light on his past. Amos Burton is no saint (it isn’t even the character’s given name), but he is a good guy. During a visit with Clarissa Mao (Nadine Nicole) at the maximum security prison she ended up in after her brief attempt at being the villain of Season 4, the planet experiences some cataclysmic events that I’m not going to spoil for you. Amos and Clarissa, whom he refers to as Peaches, end up on the run together in a strange post-apocalyptic Earth.
Naomi leaves to attempt to save her son Filip (Jasai Chase-Owens) from her ex, the radical OPA terrorist Marcos Inaros (Keon Alexander). Inaros is growing in power and influence in the system, filling the power vacuum created by the new possibilities offered in the Ring. He commits heinous acts of violence. He is, in fact, a chief agent of the changes that affect all of the characters in the show. Naomi’s arc is the most emotional and affecting of all the character threads in this season. While I’ve always liked Naomi, she emerges at the end of this season as my favorite character in the series. I feel like we’ve been through some heavy stuff together.
And Holden? He’s kicking back and loafing at Tycho Base while his crew is out gallavanting. Okay, he’s doing stuff, too, I guess. His story arc isn’t quite as engaging as the others this time. In the past, he’s been the main architect behind every significant plot point in the series. He always seems to be the prime agent of change, the post filled by Marcos Inaros this time out. This season, Holden takes a back seat to Amos, Alex, and especially Naomi. They suddenly seem more important than James Holden. Who woulda thunk it?
Of course, things still happen around Holden, even on Tycho. There is one thing that happens that I’m aching to spoil for you, but I will attempt to refrain.
There is a lot of story packed into the ten episodes that make up this season. I’ve barely covered the tip of the iceberg in this review. Avasarala and Drummer (Cara Gee) are also featured. I don’t feel like it’s a spoiler to mention that this is a redemption arc for Clarissa Mao as well.
The individual storylines seem to somehow converge into one by the season finale. Things weren’t returned to the preseason status quo, but the narrative of the overarching story that will eventually fill nine novels seemed to be pointed in a different direction. I look forward to seeing what happens in the final season.
In spite of the bellyaching I was doing about the destruction of the found family, I did like this season quite a bit. I’ve decided that I liked it about the same amount as I liked Season 3. So, you could say that 3 and 5 are tied for second place. That doesn’t sound as harsh.
I was bummed out that the series is coming to an end next season. I was equally bummed to hear that Cas Anvar will not be returning as Alex Kamal in the final season. Apparently he’s the latest celebrity to reveal that he has feet of clay, accused of sexual misconduct. At least it wasn’t a racist Tweet. I hope they don’t recast Alex, regardless of how it affects the expected character arc. Instead, they should give him a hero’s death in the first episode of the final season. The character deserves that, even if Cas Anvar may not (still, innocent until proven guilty? Anyone?).
Firewater’s Crunchy-Space-Opera-Goodness Report Card: A-
If you’re not watching this yet, you have some explaining to do.