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The Expanse's fourth season hits a speed bump, in an hour of undercooked conflict and half-completed thoughts.


The Expanse Season Four Episode 5 Review: “Oppressor”

The Expanse’s fourth season hits a speed bump, in an hour of undercooked conflict and half-completed thoughts.

With “Oppressor,” there’s a growing feeling The Expanse‘s fourth season is stretching itself a bit too thin; if “Retrograde” can be considered as an incomplete though, than “Oppressor” feels like half a sentence, a brief episode with a fleeting sense of narrative momentum. Where its abrupt ending should feel like an ominous surprise, it feels more like a placeholder for an unfinished script than a moving, coherent bit of plot development – which, in turn, renders much of the dramatic excercise preceding it feel superficial and posturing.

With “Oppressor,” there’s a growing feeling The Expanse’s fourth season is stretching itself a bit too thin.

Though it may seem an impatient approach, consider the construction of The Expanse‘s second and third seasons, which bifurcated its story into two compelling arcs of their own. By doing so, it eliminated the need for episodes like “Oppressor,” where people stand around talking about what’s happening in the world; it makes The Expanse feel small and limited in scope, which runs antithetical to the series’ DNA, as a science fiction using human stories to convey the massive scale of humanity’s bound-to-be-troubled evolution.

Everything in “Oppressor,” from the brewing conflict on Ilus (and the impending un-natural disasters on it) to Avasarala’s political stumbles feel undercooked, turning some of the show’s most compelling material – bashing two morally curious ideas against each other, and observing the fallout – into middling fodder, rare moments where one can feel The Expanse laying tracks for stories to be told later, without anything compelling to make the present feel important.

The cataclysmic potential of the episode’s final image really works against the bulk of what precedes it; Holden’s right when he says the Belters and Inners have bigger fish to fry; “Oppressor” oddly works against itself in that sense, having each side of the Ilus conflict re-iterate the series of events to this point – and then, we get Holden doing the same as he explains the plot of season three to everyone (while also trying to explain to everyone the presence of Proto-Miller in his head). Necessary? Maybe; but how “Oppressor” goes about its business feels like thumb twiddling, which feels strange considering this season is only 10 episodes long.

It makes the final moments of the episode feel strangely rushed; “Oppressor” spends so much time, well, holding itself down, that its final twist feels rushed, and out of place among the meatier ideas it hints towards (that being the idea of self-definition, and how inherently subjective it can be). The thread is there – after all, everyone thinks Ilus is a home, when really it is some dangerous-ass alien machinery – but “Oppressor” spends too much time talking about its own past to ever capitalize on that thematic unity, much less use it is a coherent driving force to move the story forward.

The broader strokes of “Oppressor” are wildly disappointing, given how they lack purpose in pushing the narrative forward: but when it does make a bit of time for Lucia, reeling in the aftermath of everything that’s happened since the RCE arrived on Ilus, it briefly soars. Opening on a flashback to her abruptly-changed plan to destroy the landers, the one shining light of “Oppressor” is the story of a wife and mother searching for a home, whose attempts to protect it are abused and misled by a manipulative man. It makes a neat (if blindingly obvious) parallel between her and Naomi, which pays off in a major way when Naomi speaks to Lucia following her botched semi-suicide attempt.

In their conversation, Naomi speaks about her former life, when the father of her child used her work to kill over 500 people in the name of political revolution. It is easy for ideals to be warped by manipulative powers; it is even easier for families and communities to be torn apart by it, especially when those methods become violent and counter intuitive (as most political revolutions often do, particularly when they’re co-opted and neutered by the institutionalized structures of power they’re fighting… but that’s a conversation for another day). Lucia’s pain is the one breathlessly poignant moment of “Oppressor”; with her husband abandoning her, and her daughter missing, Lucia’s defeated resignation gives powerful contrast to Naomi, who understands Lucia’s journey in ways nobody else can.

Outside of the Rocinante medical bay, however, The Expanse struggles to do anything but leave interesting bread crumbs: ominous bits of dialogue about itchy guards, Belter’s protective fear of Ilus, Avasarala’s “tough call”, Murtry genocidal grin (and ominous “backup bomb” plan)… much of “Oppressor” is half-baked, even though it arguably has more space to operate, given the absence of Camina and Bobbie from the episode.

For large chunks of its running time, “Oppressor” feels like an unwelcome return to its first season, where glacially-paced storytelling and constant hint-dropping held the series back until its seventh or eighth hour. It is middling and superficial in ways I wouldn’t expect from The Expanse, an eyebrow raising development as it moves into the back half of its 10-episode order. We don’t need to ring the alarms yet (and no, Avasarala, we’re not nuking anything in space), but there are signs of The Expanse adopting the standard Peak TV-era playbook of narrative construction in those maddeningly rushed final two minutes, a worrying prosposition I hope season four quells post-haste.

Other thoughts/observations:

Who wants to bet Gao had something to do with the ship Avasarala had gunned down?

That explosion on Ilus feels… neatly placed in the middle of the season, doesn’t it?

So where is Felcia? Seems like her eyes were full of stars, and she may have snuck out the back when nobody was looking.

Boy, Amos is head over heels for Chandra… it may seem unexpected, but please let’s not forget his fixation on Naomi back in season one.

Holden trying to explain his connection to the proto-molecule is extremely amusing.

We get lots of space science on this show – it was nice to see some space medicine for a minute, like the world’s strangest ER spin-off.

Written By

A TV critic since the pre-Peak TV days of 2011, Randy is a critic and editor formerly of Sound on Sight, Processed Media, TVOvermind, Pop Optiq, and many, many others.

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