Review: Season 4 of ‘The Expanse’
An Underwhelming Step Backwards
The Expanse was cancelled by Syfy in May of 2018. Alcon Television Group, who finances The Expanse shopped the show around and to fan’s surprise, the show was saved by Amazon. After a long hiatus after season 3, season 4 is finally here — free of all cable-tv restrictions, time constraints and budget cuts. With a very notable increased budget, the ability to bypass language and nudity restrictions that hindered some character’s personalities and better talent behind an improved camera, the show still couldn’t make improvements in the writer’s room.
Season 4 covers the entirety of the book ‘Cibola Burn,’ which is the fourth book in an eight novel series (not including the seven shorter works). It picks up just after season 3 with the ring gates now being open and leading to 1300 new potential habitable worlds — specifically a planet called Ilus, where the crew of the Rocinante get stuck between two battling groups of an Earth mining corporation, led by Adolphous Murtry (Burn Gorman) and a group of settling Belters. Gorman, who seems to be being typecast as a villain, punches above his weight (and the scripts) in playing Murtry.
The season does a lot right. The budget increase is quite noticeable from the very beginning as the CGI looks crisp and immersive. The cinematography is heavily improved from previous seasons, giving Ilus a movie-like cinematic feel and look. The score by Clinton Shorter is still as great as ever and compliments the visual storytelling — something that seems new for the series. All these technical elements are a much needed and welcomed improvement.
Though these technical improvements are visually appealing, there’s still an underlying issue that has been in the foundation since season 1. The writing for the show — and most shows — is what makes or breaks a series. While The Expanse is just about the only competent sci-fi show of the past decade, it’s still a few steps away from being something great. And unfortunately, it looks like it may never achieve it.
Of the three main plot lines this season, only one is engaging and fulfilling. Drummer (Cara Gee) and Ashford’s (David Strathairn) plot line is surprisingly the best of the three. There’s character development, progression and character agency that actually drives the plot and story forward in compelling ways that subverts the obvious. A great performance by Strathairn is a treat to watch as he non-verbally showcases the remorse and regret of Ashford’s past actions.
Chrisjen Avasarala (Shohreh Aghdashloo) spends her time away from the other plot lines on earth preparing for an election. Though not an action heavy plot line, it’s still engaging. Avasarala actually has some development and goes through some change. The recast of Arjun Avasarala from Brian George to Michael Benyaer is a welcomed new addition as it seems they’ve completely rewritten the character, making him less subservient to Avasarala, giving him an opinion to create conflict. And remember, conflict is the essence of drama.
Conflict can stem from a number of things. Internal conflict created by fleshed out and developed characters is never a bad choice. External forces that press the morals, characteristics and quirks of characters forcing their hands can also get the job done. Unfortunately, The Expanse seems to only understand external forces that provide a route to the next plot point of McGuffin.
The plot line with the crew of the Rocinante of Ilus is… underwhelming to say the least. Through ten episodes we get almost no progression or development from anyone on the Rocinante. The crew is still overly passive, reacting to things happening around them from an external force, where the consequence is always mass death (spoilers: the whole crew doesn’t die).
Jim Holden (Steven Strait) does his best impression of a human participation award — void of all personality and characteristics. If there was an award for the world’s most bland character, he’d be a front-runner. And this isn’t a slight to Strait, who is doing fairly well for what he’s been given. Holden’s only purpose seems to be a vessel for which the plot can flow through. A ‘convenient’ and inconsistent moral compass that seems to only apply to other’s actions, lack of any personal stake or agency playing into flaws or characteristics nullifies any attempted emotion with Holden’s character. His sole purpose seems to be the generic good guy who uses his literal Deus Ex Miller to advance the entirely external plot.
Speaking of lack of emotion, Amos (Wes Chatham) still, for lack of a better term — is a murderhobo. While dealing with sociopath tendencies is part of Amos’ character, he’s another one where there’s no development or progression through the entire season and his entire purpose is to act as a one-liner machine and providing intimidation for Holden. His contribution to the season was to be slightly funny at times, and continue to play off the same tired singular characteristic.
Naomi (Dominique Tipper) and Alex (Cas Anvar, whose acting has improved quite a bit) are kind of on the back-burner here (are you noticing a trend?). Naomi just hovers around, providing moral support for things happening around her. She spends most of her time aboard the mostly grounded Rocinante with Alex, where they are just looking for stuff to do. When your singular characteristic is that you’re a pilot but unable to fly, you don’t really have a purpose.
Lastly, Bobbie’s plot line is laughably bad. Of all the interesting angles to explore with a former decorated Martian marine who was dishonorably discharged for actually having agency and making the moral decision to help the greater good and preserve lives, they found likely the most corny, unoriginal and uninteresting plot line imaginable. Bobbie gets involved with an underground criminal conspiracy that’s sole purpose is to be set up season 5 — and the payoff isn’t worth the tiresome and cliche setup.
With characters having virtually no influence on the plot and being equipped with some of the heaviest caliber plot armor, the show keeps the audience at a distance for the season’s entirety. The pseudo stakes and conflicts are easily resolved in eureka moments or new information that was never presented before. The hypocritical and contradictory paper-thin morals of Holden and members of the Rocinante will leave some audience members scratching their heads in final episodes.
While likely the worst season yet, it’s not doom and gloom from here. The season is still entertaining enough for current fans and potential new fans to find themselves enjoying. While the writing is severely dragging the show down to mediocrity, there seems to be a lot of potential upside.
The future is bright. Amazon renewed The Expanse for season 5 before season 4 aired. There’s a lot of hope for the loyal fan base in seeing the show excel to its potential.