'Expanse' Season 4 review: A planet-sized storm is just the beginning

Something's very wrong on Ilus, but we're obsessed with Mars and the Belt.

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After a well-publicized near-death experience and what seemed like an interminable wait, The Expanse is back for Season 4. But is it, as series star Steven Strait toldInverse at New York Comic Con, the show’s “strongest year yet”? Well… that’s tough to say without knowing how it all ends, but it’s definitely the same Expanse that inspired devoted fans to fight so passionately for the show’s survival.

The first six of Season 4’s 10 episodes are both sweeping in scope and surprisingly intimate, giving long-time viewers plenty of meaty story and character development to chew on. But fair warning: you’ll be totally lost if you’re new to the show and start here.

Season 3 wrapped up with the protomolecule junkyard on Venus whisking its sentient self to somewhere in the vicinity of Uranus, where it transformed into the Ring Gate. Thanks to some unlikely help in the form of vengeance-hungry Clarissa Mao and the (ghost? replica?) of Detective Miller, the enormous device activated, allowing humanity to travel beyond the Sol system for the first time. With more than 1,300 new systems suddenly within reach, the balance of power among Earth, Mars and the Belt is thrown into question.

Season 4 picks up several months later, as U.N. Secretary-General Avasarala (Shohreh Aghdashloo) enlists Holden (Steven Strait) and the Rocinante crew to investigate a dispute between an Earth-based mining company and the Belter settlers — oh, and a possible protomolecule infestation — on the burgeoning colony world known as “New Terra” on the planet Ilus.

Light spoilers ahead for the first six episodes of The Expanse Season 4.

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The New Terra settlement on Ilus.

Our main four — Holden, Naomi, Alex, Amos — spend much of the first half of Season 4 on the planet’s surface diffusing the rancor between the hard-assed head of security for Royal Charter Energy (Adolphus Murtry, played by Burn Gorman) and the Belters who’ve made it extremely obvious they don’t want him — or Earth — anywhere near their new home. For the most part, it all works as an agreeably condensed version of the third book in the novel series, Cibola Burn.

The cramped confinement of the Roci easily gives way to a New Terra settlement that often feels claustrophobic and tense in its own right, wide-open spaces be damned. Just when it starts to seem like the factions are rehashing the same arguments, it’s time for Holden and the gang to spelunk around the billion-year-old ruins dotting the planet’s surface, prompted by some disturbing reports from the ships in orbit.

Dear blunt, brawny Amos (Wes Chatham) gets plenty of time to shine on Ilus, and his crackling animosity with Murtry is among the arc’s highlights. Chatham’s rendition of the character continues to be utterly fascinating, at once cheerful and grim, lunkheaded and immensely complex. Holden, meanwhile, is far more somber than we’ve seen him in the past, shifting suddenly between sleepwalking and shouting, clearly not quite sure what to do about the whole “man inside my head” thing. But he snaps into action as the Roci crew deduces the planet — or the protomolecule? — is essentially turning against them, unleashing a steadily worsening torrent of natural disasters.

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Stupid sexy Amos.

Meanwhile, Alex (Cas Anvar) and Naomi (Dominique Tipper) don’t have a whole lot to do this time around, keeping each other company and monitoring the suitation from the Roci after the latter’s experiment with gravity drugs goes awry. (With the exception of a rather out-of-nowhere amateur surgery interlude.) Hopefully that will change with the concluding four episodes of the season.

Tidal waves and robo-locust plagues notwithstanding, it’s when we move beyond Ilus that Season 4 of The Expanse serves up some of its most engaging plotlines. The Belters transform their commandeered Mormon church-ship for a second time: now it’s Medina Station, the last outpost for ships heading through the Ring. With Drummer (Cara Gee) and Ashford (David Strathairn) at the helm, they capture a very intriguing OPA terrorist we’ve heard a lot about in previous seasons, one with close connections with one of the Roci crew.

Drummer’s all better after that pesky spine-mangling back in Season 3, and she naturally strides into her role in the leadership vanguard of the Belt. The Ring presents an unprecedented opportunity for her people, and Drummer damn sure isn’t going to waste it. This is evident in her fascinating — and consequential — treatment of their enigmatic prisoner. 

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Bobbie enjoys a drink back home on Mars.

Meanwhile, Mars seems to have gotten the worst deal of anyone in the Sol system. The economy’s in shambles, leaving Bobbie, the red planet’s biggest badass, doing grunt work on the docks and crashing on her cousin’s couch. In a storyline lifted from the novella Gods of Risk — the character doesn’t actually appear in Cibola Burn — Bobbie finally, finally gets sick of taking shit for Mars and starts to look out for herself, though it means falling in with a shady crowd. It’s through Bobbie that we see just how much the Ring Gate has changed the world(s) of The Expanse. Now that there’s so many other planets out there, just ripe for the taking, why would anyone continue the project of terraforming the red planet?

If you’ve been on the fence about jumping on the Expanse bandwagon, do it. You’re not going to stop hearing about this show anytime soon. If you’re already on it, welcome back. You’re in for a hell of a ride.


The Expanse Season 4 comes to Amazon Prime Video on December 13.

Media via Amazon