Feature Article

The Expanse Season 4 Explores A Bloody New Frontier

The Expanse hits Amazon December 13.

When last we left the crew of the Rocinante and The Expanse's other characters--a full year and a half ago, in June 2018--humanity was united in wonder at the opening of the "ring gates" and the expansion of the accessible universe to include countless previously unknown, fully habitable planets. That's a giant leap for mankind, but in The Expanse Season 4, the characters we love will take just one small step: They'll explore a single new world on which much of the new season's story will hinge.

Humanity may have access to thousands of new worlds in The Expanse Season 4, but Ilus (or New Terra, depending who you ask) is highly contentious new territory due to the bountiful deposits of lithium the planet hosts. In the Season 4 premiere, two separate groups make landfall there and stake their claims: a group of Belter refugees searching for a new home, and representatives of an Earth corporation with a UN charter that they believe gives them dominion. When the crew of the Rocinante arrive in both groups' wake, they're forced to play sheriff and try to keep the peace.

The Expanse executive producer Naren Shankar calls Season 4 a "blood-soaked gold rush."

"For the first time in the history of the solar system, there are other habitable Earth-like planets on the other side of the ring, and that is a hugely destabilizing element in the world of The Expanse," Shankar said during a recent visit to the show's set in Toronto. "Think of it as the discovery of the 'New World.' Suddenly everybody knew that that was a place that they could go and make their fortune. How do you control that? How do you put a finger in the dike? How do you keep that thing from bursting?"

Read more: How Being Saved By Amazon Has Changed The Expanse

This may sound like a story that could be plucked out of space and dropped into the wild west, and that's because it is. Whereas The Expanse Season 1 borrowed gleefully from the noir detective genre, Season 4 is as much a space western as it is hard science fiction.

"The show is set in the future, but it's not really about the future," said executive producer Andrew Kosove. "In a way, it's about the past, and human history, and how human desires, hopes, and foibles repeat themselves--humans' desires for a better world, more wealth for themselves and their children, a better life, so on and so forth, has always driven humanity to try new things and to take risks--to visit new frontiers."

Kosove, who's the co-founder and co-CEO of The Expanse production company Alcon Entertainment, said Season 4 is stylistically unique compared with the first three seasons. Season 4 is based largely on Cibola Burn, the fourth novel of the Expanse book series by co-authors Ty Franck and Daniel Abraham, who write under the joint pseudonym James S.A. Corey. The authors are heavily involved with the show, practically omnipresent in the writers' room. During GameSpot's set visit, Franck told reporters that the writers' inspiration for book four included historical context like the American gold rush and the European settling of Australia, as well as concepts like manifest destiny and eminent domain.

"It's pretty evident that we pull a lot from that history of the Western expansion in North America, how damaging that was to the people who already lived there," Franck said. "This idea that it doesn't matter what you have, if I think I have a good enough reason to take it, I can just take it. The railroad going across the West just got a hundred yards on either side of the railroad tracks--that was just theirs. It didn't matter that you had a farm or whatever, if they rolled through, they just owned that now."

One of the main new characters in Season 4 is Adolphus Murtry (Burn Gorman), the head of the security team that arrives on Ilus/New Terra with the UN charter claiming the planet. Murtry quickly comes into conflict with the Belter settlers who arrived there first.

"That's the colonization conflict played over and over and over throughout history," Franck explained.

Naturally, this being The Expanse, it's nowhere near as simple as "Murtry=bad guy" and "Belters=good guys." The Expanse loves to play with moral archetypes and expectations, and Season 4 is no exception. Murtry has plenty of justification for the actions he takes on the new frontier, and although the Belters may be right in some ways, they're not always sympathetic.

And the planet itself is no paradise. Franck referred repeatedly to the book The Fatal Shore by Robert Hughes, which describes the founding of Australia by unwitting British convicts.

"Everything in Australia wanted to kill [them]," Franck said, from the spiders and snakes to the shellfish they tried to eat. "Dropping people into that alien biology...you're a big bag of moisture with high-energy atoms in it--something's going to try to eat those, because that's delicious, right? Of course that's how it's going to work. We didn't have to make much up; we just borrowed from the real world."

The Horrifying and the Mundane

The Rocinante's crew has their work cut out for them on that new frontier, but they aren't the only characters with problems in Season 4. Back on Earth, Avasarala (Shohreh Aghdashloo) contends with a threat she's never had to face before: a political rival who forces her to run for office for the first time. This is a storyline that's not present in the books, but that Franck and Abraham have considered exploring, according to the former.

"The whole election of Chrisjen Avasarala was a thing we had always talked about for the books, but had never done," Franck said. "She is a politician who's never been elected; what is that like, when somebody who has never been elected has to run for office for the first time? We talked about that many times, so we got to do that here, and that was a lot of fun--just watching her put up with the indignities of having to answer to anyone."

Aghdashloo said she's frequently amazed by how topical the show is. "I wish it was a daily show, so we could work in the morning, show it to the people in the afternoon, and they would see how timely and relevant this show is to what is going on, especially now," the actress said during the set visit.

"When I was 11, I saw Alien, and it was like, 'I'm a janitor on a spaceship, oh, and then an alien ate me.' I've been trying to write that story ever since."

Meanwhile, disgraced Martian marine Bobbie Draper (Frankie Adams) has her own storyline set on Mars. When her nephew gets involved with some shady dealings, Bobbie finds herself being swiftly dragged into the criminal underworld that's flourishing on Mars (the new worlds now accessible through the ring gates have made the planet's multi-generational terraforming mission irrelevant). This plot, too, is not from the novels--not directly, at least.

"We had a novella called Gods of Risk that Bobbie Draper appears in, and we used that as the launching point for a Bobbie story this season, which was a lot of fun to write," Franck said.

"I read Gods of Risk, but it's kind of all about the nephew, and then [Bobbie's] not in book four," Adams said. "So I sort of was like, 'Oh, maybe I'll just do like one episode, who knows?' And then I read [Season 4] and I loved it. I was like, 'Oh, this is exactly what we should do with the space.'"

And, of course, it wouldn't be The Expanse without the protomolecule. The driving force behind much of the show so far may have been largely explained in Season 3--it's an ancient alien creation designed to build the ring gates and fight some still-unknown threat--but its presence is still felt during Season 4, especially as Holden and crew explore Ilus/New Terra.

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"We've seen how we view the protomolecule. We've never seen how the protomolecule views us," said Shankar, one of the executive producers we spoke with.

On the new planet, the characters quickly discover a set of mysterious structures that appear to be ancient alien ruins somehow connected to the protomolecule. As they explore the ruins, bad things start to happen.

"One of the things Daniel and I like to do, and winds up being in the show a lot too, is take the awe-inspiring and mix it thoroughly with the mundane--that you're in billion-year-old alien ruins, and that should be amazing, except they're really just kind of dark caves, and your eyes are getting eaten by monsters," Franck said, half-joking (we think). "There's a lot of that kind of thing--we take sort of the awe-inspiring and the horrifying and the mundane and mix them all together.

"It's because when I was 11, I saw Alien, and it was like, 'I'm a janitor on a spaceship, oh, and then an alien ate me,'" the author continued. "I've been trying to write that story ever since."

The Expanse Season 4 is available on Amazon Prime Video starting December 13.

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Michael Rougeau

Mike Rougeau is GameSpot's Managing Editor of Entertainment, with over 10 years of pop culture journalism experience. He lives in Los Angeles with his wife and two dogs.

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