The following contains spoilers for The Expanse S5E6 “Tribes” and assumes knowledge of all preceding episodes and seasons of The Expanse, but contains no book spoilers.
You don’t have to be a good person in order to live a good life. Amos’ words to Clarissa in The Expanse S5E6 (“Tribes”) could serve as a kind of thesis statement for his character, and of course Clarissa appreciates the sentiment, given what she has done, and her time as Melba.
We saw this moment of decision play out for Amos in “Churn” as he and Lydia decided when he was still quite young to pretend for one another to be the kind of people that they needed. Fake it until you make it…even if you never do.
If we take this seriously it’s clear that Amos does have a sense of morality despite all of the occasions that have made some fans of The Expanse speculate to the contrary. What he doesn’t have is what we might call a moral disposition. He isn’t a good person, if a good person is someone who does the right thing as a matter of course. He doesn’t even have the habit of thinking directly in moral terms, as we see at the end of S5E6 when Clarissa questions the fact that they have gone out of their way to trespass on a man’s property, killed him, and proceeded to take his resources. He was a creep, sure, but if he hadn’t been would things have gone any differently?
Amos recognizes the answer as he says he needs to get back to Holden: he needs someone to guide him. He needs someone to be his moral compass for him, but it’s not that our friend Timothy can’t see the hurt and the harm being done to others, and it’s not that he doesn’t care about that. Underneath it all Amos has a sensitive soul, it’s just been hardened by the realities of what he likes to call the churn. If we needed to kill this guy to survive, there’s no point in feeling bad for him—and he was a creep, after all. But we already know that Amos didn’t hesitate to kill the woman he was romantically involved with back on Ilus. She was on the wrong side of things, and it was as simple as that.
You don’t have to be a good person to live a good life, but it might be hard to know that you’re on that moral path when you aren’t one. What’s striking is how clear it is that Amos wants to be. And it’s clear that he has moral commitments. It was clear in S5E1 when he refused to pay the insurance on the ship he took to Earth, and also refused to let his cabin mates be extorted. And it was clear in his antagonism with Murtry—what bothered Amos most was the way this man looked down his nose at others. Amos’ morality, such as it is, is on the side of the exploited who are doing what they need to in order to survive. Where he struggles is in seeing any limit to that, or any line that ought not be crossed in defense of oneself or one’s people.
This gets to the title of S5E6, “Tribes,” which signifies the thematic unity of the hour, from Amos’ story to that of Drummer and Inaros, Naomi and Filip, etc. And again Amos puts a point on it as he talks to Clarissa. Human beings are tribal, he claims, and the only question is about the size of your tribe. When things are going well, it can get quite big, but other times in the churn, well right now, Peaches, we’re a tribe of two. All bets are off when it’s me and mine against you and yours in a zero sum game, and that’s fundamentally how Amos views life. It’s just a question of how big the sides are.
It’s tempting to believe that he’s wrong about this and that human beings are capable of some kind of universal moral regard for the lives of others, but there is little evidence of this in human history, and not much more of it in our present day. On the contrary, we have seen over the past years a clear uptick of what can only be called tribalism. And on the other side of things even someone like Peter Singer describes morality as an expanding circle, very much along the lines of what Amos says here in The Expanse. It gets bigger and bigger, hopefully, until it includes everyone, but we all know it can’t include everyone to the same degree. We all know that we have our tribes.
Tribes are not determined by blood, necessarily, as we see all too starkly in the dynamic between Naomi, Filip, and Marco, though I am tempted to suggest that the writers of The Expanse may have made missteps in the characterization of Filip here, perhaps overly guided by the episode theme. Or maybe Filip is just a stupid kid, because that is how he seems to me in S5E6—particularly when he almost blurts out to Drummer that Naomi is on the ship, but more or less throughout. It makes sense that he cares about his mother despite the fact that he has hardly known her his whole life, but it is hard to fit these scenes together with those where he was being hard and severe in carrying out his father’s plan. I understand why Marco is disappointed in him.
And then there is the question that Drummer and her #PolyAmBelterFam faces in “Tribes” as they rendezvous to parley with Marco: do they join the Free Navy, or not? Do they really have a choice?
I suppose it’s true that they do not. Inaros has made all of the Belters the enemy of the Inners through his attacks on Earth and Mars, along with the message we saw broadcast at the end of S5E4. Whatever happens next, it is hard to see the UN or the Martians distinguishing between Marco and those Belters who decide not to join his cause. So, join him and secure his protection or die truly does seem to be about the gist of it.
And yet, on the flip-side of things it does seem to be the case that despite his heinous tactics Inaros is achieving what many before him had attempted and failed to achieve: a united Belt. And when Belters of the world unite, it’s easy to see the power that they can wield against those who have for so long exploited them. Their own economic basis (including such necessities as food, water, and air) may be precarious at the moment, but the groundwork is there for a future where they can sustain themselves, free of the dependence on the Inners and free of their oppression.
This is a laudable goal, and I’ve asked before whether Belters like Drummer should now align with Marco in pursuit of carrying it through to fruition, despite what he’s done in the past. Thankfully, The Expanse seems to be taking that question head on, as we see in the discussions between the members of Drummer’s crew family. At the end of the day they decide that what is best for their tribe is to join with Marco’s. That doesn’t mean they have to like him.
And so we can draw a parallel here back to where we started, with Amos and Clarissa. If you don’t have to be a good person to live a good life, perhaps you don’t need to be one to be on the side of justice either. Of course what Marco has done is colossally immoral. The enormity of it might really stand in the way of thinking through how he has nonetheless created an opening that Belters need to seize. It’s not that he was justified. When the revolution is over he should be the first up against the wall. But it’s not over; it’s only just begun.
We were already at war. You just couldn’t see it because they were killing us slow.