The Expanse recently wrapped up its third season with a thrilling two-part finale, making fans even more excited that the show survived its brief cancellation scare. Season four will surely bring awesome new stories, but season three - the sci-fi standout's strongest to date - will be hard to beat, and here's why.
Joe Miller returned... but he wasn't quite himself. Photo: Rafy (Syfy)
Naomi and Ashford are both Belters, but rarely see eye to eye. Photo: Rafy (Syfy)
1) It perfectly balanced two giant plots over a 13-episode season
In the final moments of "Abaddon's Gate", the last episode of season three, we got a quick montage that checked in with all of the main characters as they prepared for their next adventures.
We'd seen most of them just moments earlier, making sure that humankind didn't get obliterated thanks to a slight misunderstanding with some very powerful alien technology.
But there was also a quick cut to UN Secretary General Chrisjen Avasarala (a fan-favourite character played by Shohreh Aghdashloo) to remind us that yeah, the elegant yet foul-mouthed diplomat played a huge part in the first half of the season, but had necessarily vanished from the story as it moved far from Earth.
The Expanse writers have taken a creative approach to adapting the James S.A. Corey novel series, foregoing what would seem like the expected "one book per season" structure.
The fact that season three stretched across two books was definitely obvious, but it didn't take away from the enjoyment of the series. It just meant that we got six very solid episodes that tied up much of the drama that consumed seasons one and two - and then, in a choice that felt completely natural, jumped ahead several months for a total recharge (and seven more equally solid episodes).
Instead of spending any time dithering around, guiding characters toward the next exciting point in the story, The Expanse quickly dove right back into the action, fully trusting that its viewers would be able to keep up.
Anna, the quiet badarse. Photo: Rafy (Syfy)
2) It introduced some intriguing and valuable new characters...
In the first half of season three, Anna Volovodov (Elizabeth Mitchell) witnessed first-hand the corruption that sparked Earth's war with Mars, and she helped an exiled Avasarala expose the truth and bring a tenuous new peace to the system.
In the second half, she joined the UN delegation that entered the Ring, where her unique strengths (including being a hell of a great speechmaker) played a very important role when it came time to save the human race.
Anna's a Methodist pastor, but she's spiritual without being preachy - and somehow manages to be both gentle and badarse.
What's more, while The Expanse has always been diverse, the show's nonchalant portrayal of Anna's loving relationship with her wife back on Earth was particularly refreshing. She happens to be gay, and that's no big deal, the way it should be.
Season three's other pivotal new characters were both introduced in its second half. Ashford (David Strathairn), a grizzled Belter with his eye on becoming the captain of the OPA's Behemoth, was a dicey fellow who made some spectacularly crappy decisions - and, uh, committed at least one cold-blooded murder - but in his mind, at least, he always believed he was doing the right thing in the service of the Belt.
He never quite crossed over into being the full-on baddie that he seemed destined to be. In fact, he could be pretty charming in spite of himself.
Far more traditionally villainous was Clarissa Mao (Nadine Nicole), whose laser-beam pursuit of James Holden (Steven Strait) created a lot of collateral damage, and not just innocent deaths: Her sabotage set the events in motion that forced the Roci to flee through the Ring in the first place.
Eventually - and it took a lot, including a slap in the face from Anna, the kindest person in outer space - she realised how much she'd screwed up, and aligned her agenda, and her artificially-enhanced superstrength, with the good guys in the nick of time.
Clarissa's father - cruel billionaire Jules-Pierre Mao (Francois Chau) - might be beyond redemption, but Clarissa's arc showed that even a dangerously reckless character on The Expanse is capable of transforming into a hero.
Alex and Amos deploy their version of frontier justice. Photo: Rafy (Syfy)
...But it also gave familiar faces room to shine and evolve
It would be impossible for The Expanse to give every character his or her own storyline. If there's a main character in this perfectly-calibrated ensemble, it's Holden; he's captain of the Roci, the guy who's always at the right place at the wrong time (or vice versa), and "the patron saint of lost causes".
He also went through some heavy internal struggles this season; his unique connection to the protomolecule, which speaks to him in the form of dead cop Joe Miller (Thomas Jane), sent his mind into a cosmic spiral.
But The Expanse's other characters were also given room to explore their backstories - especially Naomi, who felt called to serve on the Behemoth thanks to her Belter loyalties, but later realised her true place was with the crew of the Roci, and Amos, a man of few words who still managed to reveal a lot about his troubled past on Earth.
He also forged some unexpected bonds, first with Prax (Terry Chen), a character who - like Avasarala - exited the story after the first half of the season, and later with Anna.
Meanwhile, Alex (Cas Anvar) got something resembling closure with his family back on Mars, and Bobbie (Frankie Adams) followed a path that ended up resembling Naomi's, first returning to her once-beloved Martian military before realising the Roci was where she needed to be in the end.
Naomi and a mech-enhanced Drummer. Photo: Rafy (Syfy)
As previously noted, we got to spend more time with Miller this season - an unexpected bonus, since he was presumed dead after crashing a protomolecule-fuelled asteroid into Venus back in season two. Of course, it wasn't really Miller, but a spacey riff on him filtered through alien technology and Holden's brainwaves, but it was still great to have him back.
But Drummer (Cara Gee), the fiery Belter lieutenant who captains the Behemoth, was probably the biggest revelation. In previous seasons, her character wasn't really developed beyond her loyalty to OPA leader Fred Johnson.
That all changed in the second half of season three, where she had some fantastic moments opposite Ashford, who challenged her authority the moment he came aboard, as well as Naomi, who might be the only person in the galaxy she truly understands and trusts.
The rousing speech Drummer gave as the Behemoth prepared to pass through the Ring was truly stirring - and, as has been pointed out before, her bold eye make-up looks were consistently inspiring.
Naomi charts a course for the Roci, AKA "home". Photo: Rafy (Syfy)
3) More than ever, it's a science fiction show that loves science
The Expanse is oft-praised for paying attention to real science, but season three really showed how it was able to balance that appreciation with bonkers, no-holds-barred science fiction.
The ever-evolving protomolecule-hybrid child soldiers that we met in the first half of the season certainly pushed some boundaries - but nowhere was that sense of adventure more evident than with the Ring, a structure that called the very fabric of reality into question.
How did it build itself? What was its purpose? Why did it have such a strange interest in controlling the speed limit within its borders?
For a show that puts so much value on science, it was both fantastic and freeing to see its characters challenged by (and often frightened by, as any human would be) an environment that made no sense.
That situation looks to continue onward into season four, now that the Ring has opened up over a thousand portals leading to other habitable systems. What kind of weird scenarios that break all known rules of physics will appear once the Roci starts exploring them?
It wouldn't be The Expanse if the season didn't end on something resembling a cliffhanger, but - appropriately enough, as the show prepares to shift from Syfy to Amazon - this ending felt like a new beginning more than ever before.