You’ve seen the trailers. We know The Expanse crew makes it to Ilus, we know the evolution of the protomolecule has only started, and we know turmoil between the Belt, Earth, and Mars is far from over. All of these knowns play out in The Expanse’s season four premiere—which we got a chance to see at the recent New York Comic Con—and that’s actually what makes it perfect.
The big moment we’ve long anticipated is here: The Rocinante descends onto a new planet—Ilus—and Naomi, Amos, Holden, and Alex step off, admiring the unknown world with enthusiastic terror. Once again, they’re in the unique position of being the only folks in the universe who can prevent an all-out war. But that’s about the only thing that’s familiar here. Unlike seasons past, season four means letting the ghost (?) of a dead person (?) living in the protomolecule (?) within a ring in deep space (?) lead them onto a cold, grey, unfamiliar planet.
The premiere catches up with almost all your favourites, which is a rare accomplishment. In the past, The Expanse has taken long breaks in between showing characters who are integral to its story, sometimes in the plot’s favour and sometimes not. This could be a strategy to combat its new binge structure of 10 episodes all at once—but the point is to get viewers right into the next episode, which makes dragging out character arcs less memorable in the long run. The new format works in opposition to a weekly release structure, where viewers have no choice but to appreciate the big moments and interactions the creative team leaves for them. Plus, there’s a good chance we won’t see as much of some of last season’s supporting characters if The Expanse stays primarily on Ilus. If the premiere is any indication, that’s where the majority of the action is going to take place.
That said, the show’s “less is more” mentality and avoidance of general exposition early on is what gave it the momentum to get to this point. It’s what motivated famously passionate Expanse fans to fly a freaking Roci model into space. So while the quicker pacing is hard to get used to, it does succeed in making the show seem brand new. The quick cuts between space stations you can’t remember, ships blowing up Amazon-style, random characters you might not see again until God knows when, and glamorous Earth diplomat Avasarala saying “fuck” are indicative of a show remembering its past but establishing a new foundation. But hey, in true Expanse fashion, at least Fred Johnson is...somewhere that’s not in the episode.
Defining the properties of Holden’s relationship with Miller seems to be the most important mission so far. At the NYCC Expanse panel, showrunner Naren Shankar teased, “We may see a different shape of Miller.” Let’s just say we’re probably going to learn about this new shape at the same time Holden does, and the same time Holden’s beloved crew and now extended crew on Ilus do. It’s a high stakes relationship that could either put Holden a lot of danger, or raise his standing as the spiritual centre of the show—likely both. It also opens him up to be manipulated by Earth, Mars and the Belt...and he’s got personal attachments to all those places now, not to mention the mess of last season’s finale. And yes, the fallout of that is quickly addressed.
As for other important characters, there’s a good reason why Cara Gee, who plays Belter leader Drummer, was at the Expanse panel along with new cast addition Burn Gorman. We won’t go into detail, but their place on the press circuit with the rest of the OG cast is earned. Back at SDCC this summer, Shankar described season four as having some aspects of a Western, and that’s exactly what it feels like when the crew steps foot on Ilus for the first time. Amos is trigger-happy, everyone’s feeling vulnerable with new foes afoot, and there are no rules.
For the first time, the Roci crew is in a position to make their own rules instead of trying to play and win a larger game. For now, the politics within the crew itself seems almost too good to be true. But lord knows the survivor-mentality needed to actually live on Ilus will prompt inner-conflict that’ll eventually make its way to the rest of the universe, and those conflicts will be exacerbated by the many folks who are already ready to pounce on this new planet without bothering to figure out what the protomolecule is all about. Be damn sure, more wars are coming. But also be damn sure our not-so-ragtag-anymore crew of space cowboys will be there to try and stop it.