The following contains spoilers for The Expanse S5E4 “Gaugamela” and assumes knowledge of all preceding episodes and seasons of The Expanse, but contains no book spoilers.
The title of The Expanse S5E4—“Gaugamela”—is presumably a reference to the Battle of Gaugamela, which saw Alexander the Great win a decisive victory over the Persian Empire despite his forces being significantly outnumbered. This tracks with the victory that Marco Inaros scores over the Inners over the course of the episode, at least in the broad strokes, if not in the details. I’m not an expert in Hellenic history, so perhaps there are correlations that are eluding me at a finer grain, but the big picture analogy strikes me as sufficient. Gaugamela led to the end of the Achaemenid Empire. Does “Gaugamela” thus portend the end of the hegemony of Earth and Mars?
It would certainly seem so, despite the fact that for much of S5E4 I’ll admit that I felt a little under-whelmed. Sure there were references to millions of people dying, but the destruction Marco’s asteroids wrought about Earth felt a bit abstract in its presentation. S5E3 ended with a stunning image on the beach of Africa (I think I got the precise location wrong, by the way, as there is a mention of Dakar on one of the news reports here in S5E4), but what we get in “Gaugamela” has a way of feeling more symbolic than sublime.
It’s huge that UN One goes down, killing Nancy Gao and all of the other governmental officials onboard, such that they can’t even figure out, apparently, who is up in the line of succession. And we see on a news report that New York is basically underwater. But we don’t see the death and destruction up close. Perhaps this is intentional—our view of events parallels that of our friends, the protagonists of The Expanse: a view from Luna, Tycho, or a ship somewhere in the Belt.
Except, of course, that Amos is on Earth, visiting Clarissa Mao at The Pit. Their scene ends as the second asteroid hits in Pennsylvania and alarms sound at the prison. I wonder what will happen there, with all of these prisoners who are being held in an extra high security basement (with more guards than inmates). Will they all break free at this point? And is Amos going to make it off Earth? I’m still wondering if he might be on the outs with Holden for killing Murtry, or if he did kill Murtry, or if we’ll find anything more out about that.
It’s interesting that the prisoners have the right to keep their mods if they choose, or that these cannot be removed against their will. This is a natural extension of the notion of informed consent, which generally applies in any case involving invasive surgery, but at the same time the rights of prisoners are often not respected in the world we live in at present. Or some might say prisoners do not have at least certain rights—voting rights come to mind—because of their crimes. How you think about this depends in part on how you think about the very notion of a right: does it depend on the law, or does it make sense to talk about moral rights? Human rights that exist whether they are recognized or not? If so where do they come from? Of course in the world of The Expanse the UN rules the globe, so we could just refer to their list.
But have these universal human rights been consistently applied to those human beings who live in the Belt and beyond? It seems clear that they have not, as the whole existence of the Belters has been predicated on their exploitation. They have been viewed as less than fully human—as Other—and treated as such. The further we proceed into Season 5 the more the story of Ilus in Season 4 takes on significance. Even beyond the Ring, on an alien and novel planet, the Inners were predisposed to look down their noses at the Belters. Murtry practically calls them savages.
So Marco has a point, and as much as we should be aghast, like Naomi is, at the destruction he has brought down upon Earth—millions of people died—Inaros is not wrong to view this moment as a great victory for the Belt, if we view it simply in terms of a play for power.
Perhaps others put together that the plot of The Expanse on Tycho connected to Marco’s overall scheme, but I have to admit I didn’t until it became apparent here in S5E4. And I certainly didn’t see it coming when Sakai (Bahia Watson) pulled out a gun and shot Fred Johnson. It makes sense, though, and this actually strikes me as the most important part of Marco’s plan. At the end of “Gaugamela” he threatens to unleash the protomolecule on Earth and/or Mars if they try to extend their power beyond their own atmospheres. The point of the asteroid attacks lies, then, not so much in the damage they caused, or their death count, but in the way that they show his willingness to do such a thing. And we all saw what happened to Eros. Gaugemela, indeed.
If this holds, the Belter “empire” would extend throughout the outer planets and the rings to all of the planets that lay beyond. Inaros claims them all for the Belt. Of course this won’t sit well with the Inners who have been planning to colonize, or those who have already set off to do so. Mars in particular has seemed to shift its focus in the direction of building beyond the Ring. What happens to Mars without its traditional sense of purpose? Is it really just a matter of building a coffin for a dying planet like Bobbie did for her childhood rat, Mouse?
I imagine there are people who watch The Expanse and don’t root for the Belters, but my sympathies have always tended to lie with them, perhaps even more so than with the crew of the Rocinante. Coming out of S5E4, though, things are a bit of a mess. Fred Johnson is dead, and so is his vision. He wanted to put the Belt on equal footing with the Inners, whereas Inaros is much more radical. Beyond killing millions on Earth, he is now responsible for our friend Fred’s death and he threw Klaes Ashford out of an airlock at the end of Season 4.
But it would be too simple to think of Marcos as a bad guy. He raises the question as to whether extreme methods can be justified when it comes to a fight for freedom. I don’t think they can be, but Inaros would likely call it naïve to think that there was any other way for the Belt to gain the Inners’ respect, and I’m not sure he’d be wrong about that. So the question we now face is parallel to the one I see Naomi facing moving forward, in terms of her politics. It’s not a question of forgiving Marco. Of course we can’t do that. I can’t forgive him for Ashford or Fred Johnson, if nothing else. No, the question is whether the right move now is to align with him nonetheless. I can’t help but think of what Murtry said to Holden on Ilus—was he perhaps right about the need for brute force? The post office comes later.
Murtry wanted to justify that brute force, and it’s clear that Marco thinks it is warranted as well. But this is no longer the question. The deed has been done. The Free Navy has struck their blow and given their terms. At this point, if we’re committed to universal human rights, and to freedom for the Belters, where should our allegiances lie? The Expanse makes no bones about the Earth and Mars each being corrupt in their own way.
I suppose the problem is that the Belt is corrupt as well. Marco flies the flag of anarchy, but it’s not clear whether the future he envisions will be one where the bounty of the universe is shared by all without need of a government, or one rampant with violence where power is King.
The only thing that is truly clear at the end of The Expanse S5E4 is that everything has changed. We don’t know who is in charge of Earth, though I would wager Avasarala will find a way to take control. Alex and Bobbie are on the track of proving the corruption that led Mars to provide Inaros with stealth tech, but it’s not clear how much that will matter at this point, beyond putting a nail in the coffin for a dying planet.
Holden is left to clean up on Tycho after Fred Johnson’s death, and he’ll surely want to do the right thing moving forward, but that probably means going after the protomolecule on a mission that is sure to have unintended consequences. Holden’s problem has always been that he doesn’t care enough about interplanetary politics. Granted, this is also what’s appealing about him, when he seems to stand above the fray, only concerned with what is best for humanity (which is usually to stop people from accidentally causing species extinction via the protomolecule). But that can keep him from being able to see the big picture, or ask the right questions.
Here’s one that lingers: what does “someone” want with Monica Stuart?