Season three, on paper, shouldn’t work. It takes what really was the biggest structural weakness of the second season (the fact that it was the act three of one story followed by the first two acts of another) and doubled down on it, with the most jarring episode-to-episode narrative shift in the series, halfway through the third season. This year features the end of the second book, Caliban’s War, and then, halfway through, the entirety of the third book. The episode that ends the plot of book two is action-packed and narratively thrilling enough to be a season finale. It probably should have been. In a perfect world, season one wouldn’t have ended till Leviathan Wake’s plot was concluded, the way Game of Thrones first season told the whole of the first Song of Ice and Fire book. In a perfect world, season two would have told the whole of Caliban’s War, leaving season three to focus wholly on book three, Abaddon’s Gate.
Instead, the hangover from season one caused a hangover in season two, which meant only seven episodes were available to devote to book three. Why not keep spilling over, you may ask? Why not let book three’s plot bleed over into season four the way prior books and seasons did? Because book three is really the end of the first act of the book series. It ends with such a new frontier being opened that it only made sense to start a new season with the new world (literally) opened up.
So, while season three was forced to be two very different stories smashed together, the end result absolutely works.
The only complaint I have is that I can see the seams in the second half of the season (the hurried-adaptation of book three). I can tell there are plot elements in the book that are touched on here because the plot demands it, but not explored in depth because there’s simply not enough time. There’s a case of mistaken/stolen identity that barely scratches the surface. There’s a character that goes from villain to redeemed in the span of ten minutes when, ordinarily, whole episodes would have been devoted to the change. In a lot of ways, it had the same problems plaguing the last two seasons of Game of Thrones, only with much better writers there to hide most of the shortcomings.
When taken as a whole, the third season is stuffed full of plot, action, surprises, really heady sci-fi stuff, and some great character work. The standouts this year are the tension-packed pairing of Drummer and Ashford, the Belter leaders of the warship Behemoth. Drummer (played by Cara Gee) is immensely mesmerizing every time she’s on the screen, and the way Ashford (David Strathairn) goes from someone who we suspect is a villain to someone who proves his loyalty and virtue makes their scenes a joy to watch. In terms of action, neither is given much to do, but in terms of character acting, they are given plenty of scenery to chew, and do so marvelously.
10/10 – With a rapid pace, a dense and intriguing plot, plenty of stunning sci-fi visuals, and a fabulous ending that (literally) opens up a bevy of new possibilities, The Expanse’s third season finally feels like a show that hit its stride.
No need to dig too deeply into season four; you can read Joe Allen’s reviews here.
I will say that, while I think the season as a whole was a storytelling step back from season three, I have a hunch that I’ve just watched a sort of “second” season one. As said, the first act of the Expanse series concludes in season three. That means this year represents the beginning of act two. If Leviathan Wakes and season one are any indication, the plot is intentionally slow-burning. It’ll probably be another year or two before the diesel engine revs back up to top speed.
What we had this year, though, was something akin to a western.
Season one was basically “hard sci-fi meets hard-boiled noir.” Season two was “hard sci-fi meets Game of Thrones.” Season three (the book three portion) was “hard sci-fi meets The Oregon Trail.”
Season four is a western. Specifically, it’s a “rival settlers compete over who can claim ownership of a new gold-rich town in the wild west.” There’s a crazy sci-fi backdrop, due to this wild west town being a far-away world called Ilus, but the human element of the story is something you might see in a John Ford movie a generation ago.
In the Belt, Drummer and Ashford search for an OPA terrorist who rejects the new peace between the “inners” and “outers” (which came about as a result of the new planets being discovered) and plans to throw the inner planets into cataclysmic chaos to keep them out of the affairs of the outers. On the home front, there’s an election campaign for UN Secretary-General (essentially President of Earth), whose central issue tie back into the A-plot on Ilus. On Mars, Bobbie Draper wrestles with her life post-military and stumbles upon a plot that ties into what’s going on in the Belt.
There’s a lot happening this season, but everything is connected, one way or another, making for a tight and engaging season, albeit one that lacks the excitement of the “act-ending” third year. If nothing else, the possibilities teased in season four make me excited to stick with the show into season five (slated to release on Amazon Video later this year).
The Expanse has earned my patience.
9/10 – Always attention holding, and occasionally very thrilling, fun, and surprising. It also tells the whole of book four, Cibola Burn, giving it a neat and tidy feel from beginning to end.
My primary thought after binging The Expanse is that it’s a show that probably won’t instantly hook you, but it does enough things right to keep you watching until—if you’re like me—you start season four realizing that, while you might not be as superficially invested as with some shows, you can’t get the show out of your head, and you just have to know what happens next. If that’s not the mark of a winning series, nothing is.
9/10 – The show so far earns high marks for its technical achievements, its great cast of characters, incredible world-building, and (mostly) engaging stories.
Here’s the season five, based on the acclaimed fifth book, Nemesis Games!