[Editor’s note: The following contains spoilers through the Season 6 finale of The Expanse, “Babylon’s Ashes.”]
Years on, it still feels like a miracle that The Expanse managed to live long enough to end on its own terms. The cult hit sci-fi show, which enjoyed critical acclaim (if not exactly high ratings) during its first three years on Syfy before being unceremoniously canceled, was the beneficiary of a staggering, ambitious fan campaign that was just as notable for its scope (fans sent a model of the show’s hero ship, the Rocinante, into space!) as its success.
Now we’re here, three Amazon-funded seasons later, with the finale of a shortened sixth and final season of the show that had a lot to wrap up in just six short episodes. And short they were, the show rushing to close as many loose ends in the plot as it could, while curiously opening up new ones from the James S.A. Corey-penned source material, threads they couldn’t hope to tie up in time.
But even inside that shortened runtime, and with the commensurate flattening of character and momentum that entails, The Expanse ends the only way it could have: a hail Mary play for hope and unity, amidst the dark forces of hatred and division.
By the end of Season 5, The Expanse had a lot of ground to cover for its remaining hours. Most immediately, of course, was the war with Marco Inaros (Keon Alexander), the Free Navy Belter who kickstarted an all-out war with the Inners by chucking a huge asteroid at Earth; in the short time between seasons, he’s thrown even more rocks at the planet, pummeling the biosphere and essentially fast-tracking a total ecological collapse.
When we’re reintroduced to Shohreh Aghdashloo’s Secretary-General Avasarala, all the piss-and-vinegar bio we associate with her vanishes as she looks over the desolate wasteland where a thriving agricultural center used to be. She’s in mourning, not just for a slowly-dying Earth, but for the woman she used to be — the kind of person who likely provoked such animus against Earth from the Belt in the first place.
Chrisjen isn’t the kind of person who would hang a Belter up by hooks to torture them in Earth’s gravity anymore; she’s grown wiser as a leader, more diplomatic. This season saw her struggle to reconcile those two halves of her personality.
That sense of entropy and loss pervades the season, particularly its first episode, “Strange Dogs.” Even the victorious Belters of the Free Navy are running into issues of long-term survival: There is simply not enough food and resources to go around, decimated by both the war with Earth and the Belters’ own infighting. Then there’s the crew of the Rocinante, still mourning the loss of Martian pilot Alex Kamal last season (actor Cas Anvar’s alleged sexual misconduct led to a last-minute stroke for the Roci‘s moral center).
The vibes, as they say, are off on our favorite piece of Martian salvage: James Holden (Steven Strait) does his best to fill the pilot’s seat, while Naomi Nagata (Dominique Tipper) wrestles with the guilt of Alex dying to rescue her and her PTSD from her dangerous ship-to-ship EVA without a suit last season. As for Amos Burton (Wes Chatham), he’s his usual unflappable self, though he struggles to help Season 3 villain-turned-repentant new recruit Clarissa Mao (Nadine Nicole) find a place on the ship. As Kurt Russell once opined in The Thing, they’re all tired, and nobody trusts each other.
Existential crises don’t just extend to the Roci or their nemeses, either. Belter rebel Camina Drummer (Cara Gee), trying desperately to hold onto the remnants of her polygamous family of space pirates, forges an uneasy alliance with other Belters who have yet to be squashed under Marco’s bootheel. She’s lost so much at this point in the series: Fred Johnson, Anderson Dawes, Klaes Ashford, even Naomi Nagata in a way.
And with every heavily-mascaraed stare or growled outburst, Gee signposts all of Drummer’s brittle fragility. She’s tough, but so much of her power comes from the white-hot fire of revenge. “The universe has no place for me,” she spits at Naomi late in the series. What little justice she’ll get for her people, and humanity as a whole, comes from the momentum of all of that loss. It’s probably the thing that she and Avasarala have most in common, which is what gets them to finally break bread, shake hands, and unite Earth and the Belt.
That pervading sense of hope against all odds becomes The Expanse‘s broader thematic thrust in its final episodes. Just as all seems lost, hope springs from a few unexpected places: Clarissa’s open-hearted quest to earn her place on the ship; Bobbie Draper’s (Frankie Adams) full integration into a member of the Roci‘s crew (finally!); Filip (Jasai Chase-Owens) hitting rock-bottom and finally starting to question the radicalism and ego of his father’s crusade. Slowly but surely, the tide begins to turn due to a few vital battles, lovingly rendered with all the teeth-clenching tension and high-G maneuvers the series has perfected at this point.