The following contains spoilers for The Expanse S5E10 “Nemesis Games” (the Season 5 finale) and assumes knowledge of all preceding episodes and seasons of The Expanse, but contains no book spoilers.
The stakes that set the stage of Season 5 of The Expanse could hardly have been larger: Marco Inaros sent asteroids hurling to Earth, killing millions of people. (And there was also an attack on the parliament on Mars that didn’t seem to get all that much attention, but more on that later.) By the time we had reached S5E4, this was something that had happened, and the title of that episode—“Gaugamela”—gave us a reference to Alexander the Great overcoming the Persian Empire, drawing a parallel with how Inaros had turned the tables on the Inners through this attack, and also by stealing the protomolecule, which he threatened to unleash on Earth or Mars if the planets didn’t stay within their own atmospheres.
This scenario posed some rather grand political questions that I considered early on in Season 5. The Belters would seem to be in their very essence an oppressed people, created even through the structures of exploitation and alienation. They have always relied upon their oppressors for their economic basis, down to the very air they breathe. And as such, I tend to find my sympathies lie with them, whereas the muckety-mucks at the UN strike me as full of hubris and condescension. Clearly they look down not only on the Belt but on Baltimore and places like it—for all the talk of human rights the conditions on Earth don’t seem to have changed all that much, comparing the future world presented in The Expanse to our own.
At the same time, of course, Inaros committed a truly heinous crime in slaughtering untold millions. He killed Ashford and also had Fred Johnson killed. Thus the question that faced Drummer and the #PolyAmBelterFam was whether the right move was to align with him nonetheless, and Season 5 did explore this question. But unfortunately the stakes began to feel small. The Expanse put the lives of virtually all of our friends into Marco’s crosshairs such that it became nearly impossible to maintain any sympathy to his cause.
It makes sense that he would target the Rocinante, but as this started to feel like the plot over the back half of Season 5 I began to feel that The Expanse was losing sight of the larger political dimensions of the problem it had opened up. From another point of view I suppose one might have to conclude that at the end of the day Inaros is really just a petty dictator—with his talk of a free an self-determining Belt all so much empty talk in the service of increasing his own power—but as S5E10 came to a close I couldn’t help but thinking of his closing line from the Season 4 finale: “Even our dreams are small.” But the object of my critique would be not the people of the Belt, but the writers and viewers of The Expanse if we can’t imagine another way for this story to unfold.
From the perspective of the finale of Season 5, it would seem that the threat of attacking the Inners with the protomolecule at least was empty talk on Marco’s part, as the real plan all along was to trade it to a certain military faction on Mars in exchange for weaponry and ships, with the deal further granting the Martians the world beyond the Ring while the Belters are left to control the solar system. At least I think that was the deal, as implied by the end of S5E10, but I am still less than clear on whether this involved the government of Mars itself or just some rogue actors, like Sauveterre and Babbage, who made a power grab. I think it was the latter, and perhaps we are to infer that the Martian government is in disarray or doesn’t even meaningfully exist in the aftermath of the aforementioned attack on the parliament, but one of the biggest things I find wanting in Season 5 of The Expanse is exposition pertaining to what has been going on with Mars.
This would not have needed to have even been from the Martian point of view, necessarily—it isn’t sufficiently clear, to my mind, what Avarsarala and the UN thought was going on with Mars prior to the end of S5E10. I guess they thought that everything was fine and that Mars was in the fight against Inaros with them, but the narrative structure of Season 5 ultimately seems to depend on Avasarala being significantly less savvy about figuring things out with regard to this than she was when it came to foreseeing the impending attack early on in the season. She had been getting reports and working with Bobbie, after all, so where did the inferences break down?
At the end of the day I fear The Expanse Season 5 leaves too much of this absent so that it can bring it back in the season finale as a twist, but at the same time I saw this all coming on the basis of the dangling threads I have noted over the course of the season, from the question of what happened to the protomolecule, to the abduction of Paolo Cortazar, the question of what Mars could be getting out of supplying Marco with ships, and even the elements of the story we do get on Mars when Alex visits early in the season, where it is clear that the dream of Mars has transposed itself to a dream about colonization beyond the Ring.
As such, I can’t help but feeling that the end of S5E10 is both a bit predictable and somewhat unearned—the elements of the development were there in the form of unanswered questions, but we’re left to fill in the Martian perspective for ourselves, which is a shame because I find it to be quite interesting to think about.
If you consider what kind of people would go to colonize Mars you can start to build a link to the ethos we have seen characterizing the inhabitants of the planet throughout the course of The Expanse. But this was a generations long project, and thus further required a firmly entrenched generational way of thinking. With the discovery of new worlds beyond the Ring, it is easy enough to see how this started to be undermined, and we saw plenty of evidence of this in Season 4 of The Expanse through Bobbie’s storyline. The dream of Mars begins to die insofar as it is a dream about Mars; its deeper aspect continues and extends to new worlds.
And thus I want to know to what extent the collusion with Marco S5E10 brings to a head involves the Martian government and to what extent it involves only a military faction. I want to know how the ordinary people on Mars feel about it and whether they all tend to want to get off the planet at this point in order to make a colony somewhere else that doesn’t need to be terraformed, or whether they feel such roots on Mars that they abhor the thought. One expects a mixed bag, and so it is not that The Expanse fails to provide the broad strokes of an explanation, it is that the details would feel compelling.
We further lose one of our connections to the ethos of Mars as Alex suddenly dies in S5E10. There are reasons for this that pertain to the real world, but it unfortunately feels like the reasons are offscreen, such that I wonder how this would strike someone who was unaware of the allegations against Cas Anvar. Does it feel too quick and out of nowhere, or does it perhaps strike us as precisely that but in a deep way that reminds us of our mortality? The fact is that death is always right there, as if waiting—it could come at any moment.
S5E10 sees the dissolution of the #PolyAmBelterFam as Drummer turns on Karal at the last moment (before they attack the Rocinante) and thus breaks ties with the Free Navy. In return, Marco kills Serge, which is another moment in The Expanse that tends to paint him as vile, but from another point of view seems completely fair. (What is the point of exchanging crew members if it won’t be the deal that you killing mine means that I kill yours?) But the stakes again have a way of feeling smaller than they should be, with the focus more on Drummer choosing Naomi over her Fam than on a moral reckoning. Perhaps The Expanse just wants us to frame the Rocinante as a symbol of intergalactic hope in a way that I can’t connect to.
As they assemble on Luna, Avasarala points to our friends as representing “how we win”—Earthers, Martians and Belters coming together…to have wine in a comfortable lounge? Her words ring hollow. As much as it is true that the Rocinante and her crew have staked out a position that does not align with any of the political factions in the solar system directly but rather with a commitment to humanity as such, one can’t help but note the setting of this utterance. It is practically a cocktail party.
So the politics at play in The Expanse have hardly changed at the end of Season 5 even if the power dynamics have. It is just shortly after Avasarala’s words that the UN ships guarding the Ring are successfully attacked and destroyed, allowing Sauveterre, Babbage and whatever Martians have followed them through the gate with the protomolecule. Marco, on the other hand, stands in a position of power in the solar system even if he has given the protomolecule away.
The Season 5 finale thus sets the stage well for the culmination of The Expanse in its sixth and final season. I can’t help but wonder whether the show will diverge from the narrative development of the novels (which I have not read, though I know there are more than six) in order to bring about its endgame. Regardless, we are left with two big problems as S5E10 concludes: that of Marco Inaros/The Free Navy, and that of the protomolecule.
On the former front I’m afraid that The Expanse has chosen to paint Marco oversimply as the bad guy. Of course he is a bad guy, but I feel that there is a real risk of the narrative falling prey to the view of Belters exemplified by Holden early on in Season 5 in talking to Sakai. She threw it back in his face and was right to do so. It’s not a matter of having benevolent masters, but of freedom, and we ought to side with Sakai in this sentiment. So there are in fact two parts to the Marco question, with one pertaining to the plot of The Expanse and the other to the politics of the show itself—what kind of message will this show present in terms of how we think of the Other and the exploited?
Of course this may be meaningfully trumped by the protomolecule question, or at least thrust into the background by it. The Season 5 finale leaves a large question as to what the Martians are up to in its details, and we already know that Paolo Cortazar has a screw loose. The man had his empathy removed, if you recall, so that’s not great.
There have already been indications that the creators of the protomolecule may operate in more than four dimensions—or if they aren’t around maybe we’re talking about whatever killed them. The Expanse has already made the move of having the alien threat dwarf interplanetary politics, resulting in a tentative peace at the end of Season 3 through Season 4, so it is hard to imagine that the writers of The Expanse have the same move up their sleeves again when it comes to Season 6. Though at the same time I struggle to think of another narrative move that would make sense…maybe our dreams are small.