The Expanse Review: “Gaugamela”

Every show has its own “Red Wedding” – or at least something that comes close to that. Technically speaking this is called a “plot point”. Plot points spin the story “around into another direction”. But the deeper reason for the success of such episodes lies not so much in the key scene itself, but in the inconspicuous buildup of story and characters in the preceding episodes. A meager buildup as in Game Of Thrones season 8 leads to vague episodes like 8.03 and 8.08, which left the viewers bitterly disappointed, because the events and character decisions were unrelateable for the viewers.

When I started watching The Expanse‘s season 5, I was immediately struck by how familiar the characters felt. Like most other fans, I came from an almost 1-year break and expected it to take a while to get comfy with the show’s various characters. The very introductionary scene had no obvious character development. The raid on the exploration vessel near Venus is merely an opening of the plot about Marco Inaros’ plan to attack Earth with his stealth-asteroids. But if we look a bit more carefully, we recognize that this scene reveals to us that Filip, Naomi Nagata’s son with Marco, has become a killer and a fanatic, even willing to sacrifice his own men for his cause.

All this is covered by action. The first scene to really strike me with the familiarity of the characters was the one in which Naomi tells James Holden that she wants to leave on her own, to go find her son.

The dialogue is so unclichéd, the words are so revelatory of the speaking character, that I became immediately aware that a dramatic evolution had taken place in the show. Not because seasons 1-4 were bad (although I found season 4 a bit tiring), but because the writing had improved by quite a bunch of levels, it allowed the actors to step up on it aswell. It’s almost like a reverse version of GoT, that began with brilliant, deep dialogue and ended up with unrelateable decisionmaking and a whole load of cliché-phrases who made it into the lofty ranks of widely popular memes.

The Expanse‘s S05.04 “Gaugamela”, the show’s very own “Red Wedding”, packed quite a punch.The events are so relateable because the characters, their intentions and their motivations are relateable. And that is because of the drastically improved dramaturgy overall in this fifth season.

Marco Inaros’ motivation for his attacks on Earth and Mars is deeply rooted not only in him as an individual, but as a Belter. We tend to forget that Demagogues don’t seduce the people against their will, but because they are the mouthpiece and the voice of the people’s desire.

Marco Inaros’ final speech in the episode is so impressive not only because of Keon Alexander’s incredible acting. His speech shakes us so deeply, because his motivations are so deeply rooted in the history and culture of the Belt, hence becoming instantly relateable to the viewers. This is the sign of great storytelling.

If we listen to his speech carefully, we become aware that he actually has a point. It is true that the Belters have been economically exploited by Earth and Mars. And in season 4 we could witness how especially Earthers treated Belters like second class human beings, displaying an attitude of Earth-supremacy towards them. We cannot simply judge him – or at least not his motives, although at the same time we are fully aware that he has just committed the biggest atrocity ever to mankind, by killing many millions of human beings within a couple of minutes.

In the tradition of Lord Byron’s Caine or Dostojewskij’s Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment, we have in Marco Inaros an example of the relateable antagonist. His speech is not only carried by the undeniable charisma of the character, but also by the undeniable truth of the reasons he gives to account for his attacks.

In the opening of this speech, he calls himself the “military arm and voice of the outer planets”, claiming responsibility for the “the retribution for generations of atrocities committed by the Inners against innocent Belters”.

These two factors represent the status quo he wants to disrupt. For the Belters have never been a united nation, but a loose conglomerate of factions who provided the inner planets with valuable resources and workforce. The political not so much, but the economic situation of the Belters is similar to that of modern days’ Third World countries. They become exploited for their valuable resources, to provide the First World countries a lifestyle which they, the Third World countries, cannot share.

But Inaros is more than just a Social Justice Warrior. His speech reveals an anthropologic ideology. He calls out “the savagery and the inhumanity”, with which “the Inners have been poisoning our species with”, and speaks of “a new humanity”. For Marco the Alien Gates represent a chance to call forth a humanity shaped by the culture of the Belt, which he claims to be free of the oppressive, exploiting traits of the Inners. And by confining Earth and Mars to their respective atmospheres, his goal is to seize the Ring Gate to colonize the new worlds without the corruption which the Inners, as he says, “could not transcend”.

Marco’s accusations against the Inners are very reminiscent of the Bolshevik ideas that lead to Russias October Revolution of 1917. They, too, were convinced that certain immoral ideas were owned only by a certain group of people. And like the Bolsheviks, Marco believes that these immoral traits could be transcended. The Bosheviks believed that the immoral societal system of their times could be altered by giving the power to shape that society to another class of people, to the working class. In the same way, Marco believes that allowing only Belters to go through the ring gates would ensure the spread of humanity without being “infected” by the Inners’ vices of greed, exploitation and Inhumanity.

On the other hand, this thinking has also substantial similarities with other historical movements of independence, the creation of the United States as a sovereign nation that would not pay taxes to their British rulers. Aside from the flat tax during the Civil War, which was imposed by the Revenue Act of 1861, the federal income tax was introduced only in 1913, and many others followed as late as in the 1920’s and 1930’s.

These historical developments are only examples for something we’ve always known – that there is no part of the human condition that can ever be transcended by mankind. Marco Inaros is ignoring the fact that he himself promoted not only violence and mass murder, but also discrimination and oppression by forbidding the inner planets to access the Ring Gates. He is acting in the prefect tradition of ideologies, recurring to the use of necessary evil to change the world and start the new utopian era he dreams about. But we all know that the oppressed, when freed from their oppression, can just equally turn into the same kind of oppressors as their former tormentors, when given power and opportunity.

So, at the end of the episode, we are left with a couple of unanswered questions. The first question for me was, where did he get the money from to buy an entire fleet of warships from the Martians? As we learn in the later episodes, Marco has a deal with Mars involving the last sample of the protomolecule and Paolo Cortez, who had been researching on the protomolecule.

But is that all?

Why is Marco Inaros willing to hand the last sample of the protomolecule to Mars, if he hates the Inners so much? How does he intend to break the blockade of the Ring Gate, if it is guarded by a fleet that would require him to have “3 times the number of ships that Inaros has”? Is Mars planning to turn against Earth and help him at the Gate? Are Mars and Marco in bed with each other? This could be the reason why the attacks on Mars were relatively small in comparison to those on Earth. The conflict seems to be only between the Free Navy and Earth.

And my final and most important question: is Mars playing Marco, using him to attract Earth’s attention while scheming something behind everybody’s backs? I’m thinking particularly of Sauveterre’s lecture about the Ring Space allowing for the asymmetric exertion of power. Is there something we’re not seeing coming?

Whatever is coming, episodes like Gaugamela or S05.07 Oyedeng are showing us that with season 5, The Expanse has definitely raised the benchmarks. The following episodes have shown that the producers are more resolved to maintain their high standards. As of today, The Expanse is the best sci-fi show since Babylon 5. And if it keeps going like this, The Expanse may highly likely surpass it.

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