While The Expanse has always taken on issues that carry deep social and political relevance, the fourth season -- with its pointed exploration of colonialism, immigration, and a crucial political election -- paralleled current events more directly than ever. When stars Steven Strait and Dominique Tipper rewatched some of The Expanse's most memorable scenes as part of TV Guide's 100 Best Shows ranking, the actors were struck in particular by how the show's storylines feel as resonant now as when they first aired, if not more so -- particularly when it came to the complex journey of Tipper's character, Naomi Nagata, a Belter, former member of the OPA, and beloved member of the anti-tribalist Rocinante family.
"I think sometimes when we talk about representation we forget about the flawedness of humans," Tipper said. "The fact that we don't just want to see a strong Black woman trope. It's like, no, we want to see a Black woman who is ripped from her family and is navigating that and has privilege and that makes wrong decisions and does the right thing and you're still in love with her at the end of it. Because I think too often when we try to diversify in Hollywood or on shows, we try and portray the most wholesome version of that or the most palatable version of it, and that's where you run into problems."
The Expanse has seen Naomi torn time and time again between her identity as a Belter and as a member of the Roci crew. And in the fourth season, the Belters find their very existence threatened by the hundreds of potentially habitable planets on the other side of the Ring Gate. With all these possible new homes that provide free air and resources, the Belter colonists on Ilus are far from the only people who would like to leave the Belt behind and try their hand at living down a gravity well. This leads to the OPA becoming deeply fractured, as tensions rise between those who see the new planets as an opportunity to improve their station and those who see them as a death sentence to the Belter people as we know them. Even close friends like Naomi and Drummer (Cara Gee) find themselves on opposite sides of this issue when they discuss the Ilus refugees in the Season 4 premiere, with Naomi advocating for individual choice and Drummer fiercely championing the previously established image of what Belter sovereignty should look like.
But this disagreement with Drummer doesn't dissuade Naomi from going to Ilus to mediate on behalf of the U.N., and -- in a break from the books the Amazon series is based on -- she even chooses to go through the grueling process necessary to join Holden (Strait) on the ground. While watching the tender scene where Naomi takes her first steps in atmosphere, Strait and Tipper noted how this moment encompasses so much more than just what these new possibilities mean for Naomi as an individual or for her and Holden's future as a couple. It also taps into the hopes and struggles many oppressed people face on a daily basis.
"It very much speaks to the migrant situation, as well. I don't want to call it a crisis; I think it's only a crisis because it's been made one. But this hope that obviously people have, and why they go to new lands new places," Tipper said. "Even though me and Holden, especially Naomi as a Belter is quite privileged, there is still that symbolism of hope of a new land that is away from the oppressions of Earth and the tools of the oppression that they have."
"It is it is such an intimate moment between these two," Strait added. "And it also speaks to the fact that all of these thousand or so gates have opened up and all of this potential is out there, and the Belters once again, for most of them, can't take advantage of it."
"And just the parallels even to my own life of like, what makes you the right kind of Black person?" said Tipper. "Even when you look at the Belter side, Naomi is always in this place -- which also speaks to my own thing of being mixed race -- of like, are you for the Belt? Whose side are you on when you're part of both worlds and navigating that? … It's a really beautiful thing I've got to embody without it directly being about me being a mixed-race Black woman."
These questions of what it means to be "for the Belt" and to fight for Belter sovereignty take on an added urgency with the introduction of Marco Inaros (Keon Alexander), Naomi's ex and a radical Belter who seeks to prevent Belters from becoming the forgotten people of the future, by any means necessary. While Marco is seen by some as the altruistic savior of the Belt, whose violent actions are justifiable responses to generations of violent oppression by the inners, to others he's only a power-hungry narcissist, who seeks to control the world the way he once controlled Naomi before she escaped their abusive relationship. And the show doesn't encourage viewers to land on one side or the other, but rather to examine Marco's intentions and actions from all angles.
"I think a lot of people always want to paint him as the bad guy, but when you actually look at the way the Belters are oppressed and what he is doing to alleviate that oppression, you're like, 'Well, if I was a Belter, I don't know. Maybe I'd want someone fighting for me like that,'" said Tipper, noting the parallels between the horizontal hostilities in the show and ones she sees in her own life. "It's always a question for me being a mixed-race Black woman within the Black community: How do we alleviate our own oppression? Is it with radical measures? Is it with democratic measures? And I think what we get to see play out going into Season 5 is the investigation of that and where all the other Belters side with that and how they each want to … go about it."
The seemingly irreconcilable conflict between Marco's political radicalism and the inners, as well between Marco and the other factions of the Belt, comes to a head in the Season 4 finale when Marco and Filip (Jasai Chase Owens), his son with Naomi, execute Klaes Ashford (David Strathairn) before sending asteroids crashing into Earth, causing unheard-of devastation. In the heartbreaking scene, Marco diminishes Ashford's own legacy as a Belter pirate and later OPA loyalist who always fought for what he thought was best for his people. But in some of his final words to Ashford before floating him, Marco notes the ways in which Ashford's radicalism has always been out of step with Belters' true potential.
"There's a really poignant line [Marco] says there, where he says, 'Even our dreams are too small,'" Tipper explained. "A lot of oppressed people cannot imagine a system outside of the one that they are oppressed by. Say what you will about Marco, this 'one man's terrorist is another man's hero' -- there's a lot of that that plays out with him."
Everyone in The Expanse -- including Marco -- has a valid reason for doing what they do, and the show takes careful pains to present all the viewpoints fairly, which doesn't mean the series excuses anyone's actions. Rather, it's about finding the humanity in every character, and trusting the audience to navigate this world where, much like our own, few things are ever black or white.
"No matter who it is and where they're coming from, everyone feels like they're doing the right thing and there's a point on every side," Strait said. "It's such a strength of the writing that there isn't any kind of monolith in terms of being right about any of this. It just depends on where you're looking from."
"Everyone's flawed, everyone's gray, and you bounce in between who you like and who you don't like all the time, and whose values you take on and don't," said Tipper. "And I just love that about the show. It's one of my favorite things because I don't see many shows being able to navigate that well."
For more of Tipper and Strait's thoughts on The Expanse's most memorable scenes, watch the full video above.
The Expanse is available to stream on Amazon Prime Video.