While watching the fourth season The Expanse, it's difficult to not be overwhelmed with gratitude toward Amazon for saving the series, which is an unrivaled achievement in modern hard sci-fi. The irony of this fact is that Amazon is precisely the type of large, monopolistic corporation that The Expanse seems pointedly wary of in its imagined future.
The dangers of corporate influences on political agendas has been baked into The Expanse since its inception, when Jules-Pierre Mao (François Chau) colluded with U.N. Undersecretary Errinwright (Shawn Doyle) to attempt to commercialize the protomolecule, leading to the fatal disaster on Eros. But after the world of The Expanse, well, expanded last season with the opening of the Ring Gates, Season 4 responds by presenting its most intimate examination yet of the tensions between corporations, politicians, and all the everyday people caught up in this web of power.
For the first time ever, the central storyline of The Expanse will take place down the gravity well, on one of the planets on the other side of the Ring. When a ship of belter refugees from Ganymede manages to cross through, the refugees settle on an uninhabited planet, Ilus, and discover the planet is ripe with lithium deposits. Although the belters have made Ilus their new home, the Earth corporation Royal Charter Energy is given a U.N. charter to conduct a scientific study of the planet, which they insist on calling "New Terra." While the public line is that RCE isn't there to evict the belters, it quickly becomes clear that the inners plan on claiming this planet as their own — and all the profits from the lithium.
The crew of the Rocinante, led by Holden (Steven Strait), is sent to Ilus by U.N. Secretary-General Avasarala (Shohreh Aghdashloo) to investigate whether the protomolecule is present and active on the planet, but also find themselves having to mediate the growing tensions between the belter settlers and the RCE envoy, led by the deliciously ruthless Adolphus Murtry (Burn Gorman). By locking the majority of the show's main characters in a single location — and one that none of them quite understand — the season is able to slowly strip away all the protective crutches they typically rely on to maintain any semblance of control over their environment. And as they soon come to understand Ilus, and all the dangers lurking beneath its surface, can't be controlled, it's up to them to either adapt or perish in this terrifying new world.
The Expanse's fourth season has a decidedly western vibe, something filmmakers lean into by adjusting the aspect ratio to be even wider on the ground, showcasing Ilus' stark horizons and otherworldly landscape (which is, in reality, a stunningly surreal quarry in Ontario). But even more so than the gun-slinging drama, alien threats, and impressive special effects, what drives the fourth season of The Expanse is the complex character dynamics that these circumstances expose. Amos (Wes Chatham) and Naomi (Dominique Tipper), in particular, will find themselves faced with problems that they can't solve using their typical means; for Amos, that means he runs into obstacles violence doesn't solve, and for Naomi it's ones that she can't think her way out of. When these tools are taken away from them, what's left will reveal their hidden vulnerabilities and the remnants from their past that helped shape them, for better or worse, into the people they are today.
While the fourth season is largely defined by the events on Ilus, The Expanse doesn't forget about fan-favorite characters such as Avasarala and Bobbie Draper (Frankie Adams), both of whom get engrossing storylines of their own. In a plot that feels far too reminiscent of recent political discussions, Avasarala must run for office for the first time in her career — a situation which means she not only has to balance her campaigning duties with actively trying to save humanity, but also forces her to answer to public opinion, including calls for her to be more nurturing and motherly. (You don't need to see the new episodes to know that this storyline provides ample opportunities for the series to take full advantage of the unrestricted explicit language use being on Amazon provides.)
Meanwhile, Bobbie will have returned home to Mars, but it's far from the same planet she once dutifully served. Following the war, the once prosperous political power is crumbling, plagued by unemployment and a lack of purpose now that the terraforming project is largely irrelevant following the discovery of hundreds of potentially hospitable planets on the other side of the Ring. Having defined herself for so long as a soldier, Bobbie will have to search for her identity and learn how to command herself this season, but this journey will find the disillusioned veteran compromising on several things she once held dear.
Bubbling underneath the surface of all of this is the growing unrest within the OPA, which is more fractured, rather than unified, after striking a truce with the inners and gaining official control of the Ring space through Medina Station. The Ilus settlers aren't the only ones who hope to leave the Belt behind to try their hand at living on the ground, but not all belters are able to survive down the well and questions of what a prosperous Belt looks like now — or if that is even possible in the wake of the Ring Gates opening — come with no easy solutions. This will put Drummer (Cara Gee), who remains in charge of Medina Station, in a tough situation. As she does her best to lead her people, Drummer will have to grapple, both personally and professionally, with how belters can hold onto their culture while adapting to the new world order and still fighting the ongoing cultural and economic oppression at the hands of the inners — something which shows no signs of ceasing as evidenced by RCE's mission to "New Terra."
The Expanse's fourth season throws a lot of balls into the air, and in the six episodes released to critics in advance, it juggles them all impressively. That's because The Expanse is an extremely detail-oriented show. Everything that happens and everything you see, right down to the placement of the moon(s) in the sky, is firmly rooted in science. And while science isn't what drives the show, it is what keeps this world grounded, making sure the most exaggerated or otherworldly events never spin out of control. Even the parade of disasters the Roci crew faces on Ilus doesn't feel like a cheap plot device to put obstacles in their way, but a futuristic take on the real-life historical explorations that inspired it, such as the first English settlers' arrival in Australia.
All of this is why it's so fitting that this season marks the show's first on Amazon. As Season 4 finds its characters learning how to navigate this new world, the show is also entering into a new phase of its run, one that comes with its own set of complicated questions but also previously unimagined avenues of possibilities. And for the first time since The Expanse's debut in 2015, it feels as though the series might finally get the well-earned recognition it deserves.
TV Guide Rating: 4.5/5
The Expanse Season 4 will be available to stream Friday, Dec. 13 on Amazon.