On its final run, "The Expanse" serves a last supper for we who continue fighting for our humanity

The show signs off with a look at the senseless struggle between those who hate and those who simply want to live

By Melanie McFarland

Senior Critic

Published December 10, 2021 7:00PM (EST)

The Expanse (Photo courtesy of Amazon Studios)
The Expanse (Photo courtesy of Amazon Studios)

In the opening seasons of "The Expanse," Earth and Mars are at war with each other, placing Earthers James Holden (Steven Strait) and Amos Burton (Wes Chatham) and the asteroid belt-born Naomi Nagata (Dominique Tipper) in opposition to Martians like Bobbie Draper (Frankie Adams). Clarissa Mao (Nadine Nicole), the daughter of one of the solar system's wealthiest families, held more power than any of them and swore to kill Holden.

Years later, a moving scene depicts them sitting down together for dinner.

This is not some stately feast served at a negotiating table. It's a humble meal prepared by Clarissa, whom Burton has nicknamed Peaches, and it's a remarkably convivial and calm pause before the crew heads into what could be a suicide mission.

RELATED: "The Expanse" shows the dangers of treating extremism as a joke

Last suppers are a common before expansive battles with enormous stakes. Still, this one impresses upon the audience its hard-earned significance. These people met as enemies, but they're ending this story as a family, the crew of a neutral vessel called the Rocinante.

Past seasons of "The Expanse" emphasize the political machinations contributing to tensions between Mars and a United Nations-governed Earth led by an increasingly powerless Chrisjen Avasarala (Shohreh Aghdashloo). Now, as the story makes its last stand, showrunner Naren Shankar steers us back to the basic plea for all of us recognize our shared humanity.

The interpretation of family in James S.A. Corey novels is key to that, since the term has specific and legally binding meanings. Blood relations are a main definition, of course. There are also a marriage co-ops, blended units of choice made up of people who form a unit to gain financial security for themselves.

Pirate fleet commander Camina Drummer (Cara Gee) assumes the lead of a polyamorous family that crews her ship, the Dewalt, lending an extra weight of faith and trust to everyone's duties.

Conversely Naomi's regrettable bond to the solar system's greatest threat, the Belter terror Marco Inaros (Keon Alexander) is genetic. Their son Filip (Jasai Chase-Owens) allies himself with his father, who shows off his heir while treating him as a hostage when it suits the situation.

Finding parallels between Inaros, Filip and corrupt families grasping for power in our own reality isn't difficult. Indeed, the sixth season amplifies Inaros' despotic, abusive nature and the way he twists his son's psyche.The same dynamics play into the relationship between the 45th president and his inept, dull-witted children.

But Shankar is drawing from a fictional history established before that leader took office, following the playbook of any number of charismatic dictators along with storylines drawn from Corey's 2016 novel "Babylon's Ashes." At the same time, the season examines the puzzle of trying to do the right thing in the face of raging evil.

"Was I trying too hard to be good when I should have been ruthless?" Avasarala wonders. Surely viewers will have their own opinions about that. We're not in the room with her – Bobbie is. "I still think we're the good guys," Bobbie bellows, "and I'd rather do a little less soul-searching and lot more fighting back!"

Thoughtful, gorgeously rendered sagas like this don't come along often in the realm of science fiction TV, not when streamers are trying to replicate the success of speculative works like "Squid Game" or land the next "Game of Thrones."

The irony is that the TV adaptations of Corey's novels were supposed to achieve that for Syfy, which launched the show as its attempt to recapture the magic lost by the departure of "Battlestar Galactica" before it moved to Prime Video. That show has Cylons; this one has a protomolecule that transforms space travel and leads to a mad rush for control of resources and police the network of gates to other parts of the universe opened by its discovery.

Each is plain machinery. Mars and Earth wage war, then find a common cause in defeating the extremist threat posed by Inaros and his Free Navy. Inaros' faction weaponizes asteroids, firing them at Earth, Mars and the Belter colonies under those planets' control, murdering millions.  

Avasarala watches her grand plans to feed the Earth's population crumble as the same defenses preventing asteroids from hitting Earth contaminate the air with toxic debris, degrading the environment. Inaros writes off anyone who isn't with him as enemies loyal to the "Inners," and in the way of all autocratic goons he abandons sworn allies when it is convenient.

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This returns "The Expanse" to its core vision as a parable about humanity's resilience and the insurmountable flaws in our coding, something Marvel Cinematic Universe tales swipe at broadly but rarely manage to tap with such concision.

Inaros brings out the worst in those he claims to be avenging and encourages his followers to view his opponents as less than human. Aghdashloo's regal world leader knows she has blood on her hands too, but can't entirely subscribe to the wisdom of remaining on the high road.

One exhausted civilian points out that the battle isn't between the Inners and the Belt. "It's the who want more hate and the ones who just want to live," he says. "I'm so tired of the hate. Just tired. I can't even wash my hands. There's no water."

"The Expanse" maintains the poetry in its scripts and plotting even as the last episodes wrap up too neatly, climaxing by solving of an impossible conundrum with a strategy that strains credibility. Shankar also makes the odd choice to splice in a subplot that adapts the novella "Strange Dogs" which never logically integrates with the main plot. Perhaps its an attempted backdoor pilot for a sequel, or a bit of fan service, but it plays out as the narrative equivalent of a vestigial limb.

Happily even this is unnecessary detour is a treat for the eyes and doesn't take anything away from the main action on the Rocinante, or Drummer's ferocious rebellion, or Avasarala's chastening.  

Politics will always be what they are, but the final lesson of "The Expanse" is an old one. Salvation doesn't come from governments or industry, but from individuals standing together against the darkness, for a simple chance to sit together at a table and share a portion of peace.

The sixth season of "The Expanse" premieres Dec. 10 on Prime Video, with new episodes debuting on Fridays until Jan. 14.

Watch a recap of seasons 1-5 on YouTube:

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By Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's award-winning senior culture critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

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