In my review of “New Terra,” The Expanse‘s first episode as a streaming series, I noted how it didn’t feel like the show’s rhythms had changed it all, that its move to Amazon Prime hadn’t messed up the show’s well-established, occasionally subversive plot construction.
Once credits roll on “Cibola Burn,” it’s hard not to feel like The Expanse‘s fourth season has as many dangling threads as its universe has open Rings.
Unfortunately, the nine episodes to follow (the first four of which I covered here) slowly lose that familiar feeling; as The Expanse‘s fourth season splintered its characters between Mars, Earth, the Ring, Ilus, and the space in between, the more and more the strain of its narrative ambition could be felt, to the point the whole season feels like an incomplete thought when credits roll at the end of “Cibola Burn,” a cascade of Big Twists that feel undeniably hollow – which, considering The Expanse‘s legacy of building both character and story, makes it feel like something was lost in translation from cable network to digital service.
The Expanse was, is, and most likely always will be story built on bread crumbs; like the science is it always exploring, its ideas and stories a slowly-forming mosaic played out on a grand galactic scale. Season four, in that regard, mostly follows suit with previous seasons: whether Bobbie’s foray into the world of crime on Mars, or the strange, ancient machines on Ilus, much of The Expanse‘s first half is spent sprinkling all these different hints and ideas into the new, expanded post-Ring universe.
However, the conceit of this entire season begins to fall apart a bit after “Displacement,” the demarcation point of season four: once Holden, Murtry, and the other parties on Ilus are all trapped underground, The Expanse begins spinning its wheels in some confounding ways – most noticeably, shoving Belters and Inners into a confined space, only to repeat the same beats of cultural conflict we’ve spent three-plus seasons exploring. Belters feel they need to take something as their own to find an identity, while Earthers cling to the manifest destiny that anything they can see, should be explored and exploited to further humanity’s domain.
The most interesting part of this conflict – the idea that Mars, in the wake of the Ring revealing 1200 habitable worlds, is now a forgotten dream for humanity – is given far less attention than Murtry’s murderous rampage, which ultimately feels a bit of a cheap villainous ploy, a flaccid reflection of Amos’ worst tendencies (there’s also a whole subplot where Amos bangs Murtry’s second-in-command, a subplot whose conclusion can be seen from the moment they meet). While Bobbie (and by proxy, anything happens on Mars) is sidelined for entire episodes at a time, we get scene after scene of Murtry snarling, prattling on with his idealistic imperialism – a conflict that, I might add, is left completely unresolved at the end of the season.
“Lack of resolution” doesn’t just plague Mars and Ilus (save for Proto-Miller’s touching, if abrupt, sendoff): Earth and Medina Station (aka Tycho Station) are left with subdued arcs for their largest characters, continuing to form the disturbing pattern of The Expanse‘s stories ending, just as they are beginning to take off. Camina’s strength, Ashford’s suicide mission, and Avasarala’s election loss (following a botched military mission) all feel like half stories, arcs that take eight episodes to get moving, then rush through a series of bullet points in their attempt to line up every story of the season, to crescendo almost simultaneously.
Examining the ten episodes as a whole, it’s hard not to think season four feels, well, like half a season, a series of inelastic ideas forced to stretch themselves across 10 episodes, rather than six or seven. Rather than employ the wildly effective split-season arcs of the past, it took that format and spread it across two seasons (with the assumption the already-announced season five will do things like… oh, I don’t know, finish the goddamn scene with Amos and Murtry); while that may make season five a more compelling proposition, it does not make season four satisfying, in any sense of the word.
Yes, there are some small victories: but given how much attention was paid to Ilus, seeing the crew of the Rocinante (who spent about… four scenes together all season, which might be the single strangest part) just lift off and leave was as strange as Fred Johnson’s brief thirty-second cameo in “Saeculum.” Thanks to the slow opening hours, there are plenty of genuine emotions playing out, as Alex pulls off another piloting wonder, and Naomi begins to dream of having a relationship with her son again (not knowing he’s followed in his parents radical footsteps, of course).
Thanks to these strong beats, The Expanse season four is far from a complete waste: it is a season full of compelling moments and character beats, a series of intriguing reminders that The Expanse is one of the denset shows on TV, full of rich characters like Naomi, Amos, and Camina – just about every member of the main cast (save for the decidedly two-dimensional Murtry) has a powerful emotional moment at some point in the season, especially as the series ratchets up the tension in episodes like “A Shot in the Dark” and “Saeculum” (sorry, but “The One-Eyed Man” suffers from having a few too many interesting ideas, dulling the dramatic impact of them all).
The Expanse still has an uncanny ability to deliver a deafening amount of tension when it wants to: it’s telling the most dramatic scene of the entire season, revolves around a joining of cables between two space ships (ok, the fallout of one spiraling out into space at one point is pretty thrilling stuff -but they’re technically connected!). When The Expanse wants to, it can crank the fucking heat like nobody else on television: but with so many of those big dramatic turns contained to the season’s final 70 minutes, it is very hard to make any of those moments land with any lasting impact, even if the season does a good job springing forth interesting ideas about purpose, family, and the allure of the dangerous unknown to humanity (and, as it turns out, other ancient species).
But once credits roll on “Cibola Burn,” it’s hard not to feel like The Expanse‘s fourth season has as many dangling threads as it has open Rings, especially when the biggest pieces of its plot – that Naomi’s radical Belter ex-husband and son, are planning Mars-sponsored terrorist attack against Earth – are only brought to the surface in the final hour. Season four feels much like Naomi does in her (all-too-brief) time on Ilus; while it certainly feels the weight of its new streaming home, The Expanse‘s DNA struggles to comfortably integrate into its new ecosystem. For a series built on its ability to effectively meld plot development with compelling character arcs, The Expanse‘s move to Amazon felt strangely inept at doing either.
Again, once we have season five under our belts, the bitter taste left at the end of The Expanse season four will undeniably fade – there are more than enough compelling scenes and developments to keep me interested in another season, even if the poor plotting of this run made the whole endeavor feel a bit flat. As we see with characters like Felcia (newcomer Kyla Maderia) and Amos, The Expanse is still perfectly capable of building compelling arcs for small and large characters alike, without having to spend scene after scene preaching the parameters of every character’s journey (ok, they do that with Felcia a bit, but it still works, at least for this grizzled tv critic). More importantly, it is still capable of melding those arcs with the more superficially intriguing science fiction of the series – it’s why scenes of Proto-Miller and Dr. Okoye trying to shut down the ancient machines on Ilus are so strong, and give emotional heft to little-explored dynamics.
But it all leaves the viewer feeling like they want more, and not necessarily in a good way: “Cibola Burn” feels like it ends in the middle of a sentence, trailing off with a few platitudes and hints at plot twists (Avasarala lost! The asteroid falls! Bobbie’s boy toy leaves! Holden… is starting to feel old!), rather than offering anything meaningful to the journey that preceded it. The Expanse continues to be the most engaging science fiction series on television – but like the fusion shutdowns Naomi spends two episodes trying to solve on the Roci, the many careening plots, characters, and ideas of season four are mostly left suspended, kept isolated by invisible forces until it’s too late for any of it to matter.