Television

The Expanse’s Season 5 Finale Twist Was Shocking. The Reason Behind It Was Even Worse.

A star’s alleged sexual misconduct forced a major departure from the books.

A women in a radiation suit, her face showing signs of radiation burns.
Dominique Tipper in The Expanse. Amazon Studios

This article contains spoilers for The Expanse—the show and the books—including the Season 5 finale.

One-third of the way through the Season 5 finale of The Expanse, I watched through tears as Bobbie Draper and Alex Kamal saved Naomi Nagata from certain death. The show, based on a series of books by the writers Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck, who use the collective pseudonym James S.A. Corey, is a complex exploration of the nature of power that merits endless discussion from politics nerds, but it has at its emotional core a group of four people who fly on a spaceship called the Rocinante. Alex (Cas Anvar), a daredevil pilot, and Naomi (Dominique Tipper), a brilliant engineer, are two of the four, rounded out by the captain/moral compass James Holden (Steven Strait) and the loyal mechanic Amos Burton (Wes Chatham). Bobbie (Frankie Adams), a terrifyingly efficient Marine, is the foursome’s closest friend and ally.

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The way The Expanse has developed this group relationship, you know that when Naomi is in deep trouble, Alex and Bobbie won’t abandon her. And sure enough, as Naomi drifts in open vacuum, Alex puts the ship he and Bobbie are in through an extreme maneuver to get them into a position to rescue her. “Have you lost your mind?” Bobbie asks. “We’re already juiced to the gills,” a reference to the drugs people in the Expanse universe take to counteract the negative effects of maneuvers done at high gravity. “We could stroke out.” Sure enough, after Bobbie connects with Naomi to rescue her, Alex says to Bobbie over the radio, slightly slurring his words: “That was one hell of a ride.” Next thing, we see Alex sitting at his station, medical monitors sounding alarms, dead of a stroke.

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What the heck? I thought to myself. Not only did Alex not die at this point in the books—of which I have read every one, excuse me—but the way his death happened on the show was strangely abrupt. You’d think if one of the core four were going to bite it, the death wouldn’t happen in the first 20 minutes of the episode, and it would have greater impact. Alex’s death was heroic—“Making a choice to hold your ground to save your family? As far as last stands go, that’s the one I’d pick,” Amos says—but because of the way it’s written into the episode, it feels almost incidental. Aside from a few small moments between Naomi and her remaining crew members, James Holden and Amos Burton, Alex’s death passes almost without comment.

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Confused, I went to Google. Here’s what I missed, over the summer, when my mind was occupied with … [gestures at everything]. In June, a number of fans came forward to level accusations at Cas Anvar, the actor who plays Alex. The stories, collected in a Reddit thread, make for grim reading. They include harassment committed in person and on social media, over the course of years, and sometimes involving underage targets. Anvar allegedly pursued fans aggressively and vindictively tried to punish people who spoke out against his behavior. (Anvar has denied the allegations.) After the stories surfaced, the show’s production company, Alcon Television Group, conducted an independent investigation. Whatever it found, it was apparently enough: Deadline reported in November that the show had been renewed for one final season, and that Cas Anvar would not be returning for it.

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The show, a lot of coverage of this decision points out, is well-known for depicting a world full of diversity. The implication seems to be that this makes the allegations even more upsetting. The common description of The Expanse as “inclusive” only partially covers the degree to which this behavior feels so jarring when put up against the world the show has created. The three main groups of people in the Expanse universe—Earthers, Martians, and Belters (people who’ve physically evolved after living and working in space for generations)—are in constant conflict over resources and power. This is not a utopian world, and in fact, it’s often deeply grim. But the show features women in so many leadership roles, doing so many competent things, that the fact of it begins to fade into the background.

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Just in this last episode, we don’t only see Bobbie rescue Naomi, who herself has ended up in the position she’s in because she’s gone to great lengths to defy her abusive ex. We also see Camina Drummer (Cara Gee), a Belter captain and another ally of the Rocinante’s crew, step up to do the right thing at a moment of high stress. We see Chrisjen Avasarala, a complete and total icon of a politician and leader, played with gravelly voiced panache by Shohreh Aghdashloo, take control of the United Nations after an attack on Earth, and try to bring order out of chaos. The series not only passes the Bechdel test, but I’m pretty sure most episodes don’t even feature a single scene in which two women talk about a man. Why would they? The women have a lot of work to do.

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The character of Alex Kamal—a really good pilot with a cowboy affect that’s common, in-world, to people who grew up on Mars—shows one way that a person possessed of a certain degree of braggadocious masculinity might adapt to such a culture. Alex can have swagger, but he’s not a jerk. He rarely even hits on a woman. In Season 4, he seems to have eyes for a scientist who’s working with the crew on a project but retreats into the background when it becomes clear that she’s married. And in the book that formed the basis for the fifth season, Alex goes back to Mars to try to reconnect with his ex-wife, who he left in the lurch years before, choosing life as a pilot over domesticity on Mars. She pushes him away, seeing clearly that he only wants to talk to make himself feel better, and he accepts her choice. “It turns out,” he says to a bartender at a bar where he’s gone to drink away the pain of the encounter, “that sometimes I’m an asshole.”

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People who get into The Expanse in the future, and binge-watch all of its seasons straight through, may find Alex’s death weird: both heroic and a total nothingburger. I think The Expanse’s showrunners did as well as they could with this terrible situation. In a tearful scene in this episode that I can’t help but read as having a double meaning, Naomi—recovered and reunited—plays Holden, her lover as well as her captain, a voice message she sent for him to listen to in case of her death. “What we had together, our odd little family on the Roci, it was good. Truly good. People come into our lives and they go out,” Naomi’s recorded voice says, as she and Holden start to cry. “Families change. It can be hard and sad, but we bear it, as long as we don’t shut ourselves off from the new and wonderful things that come.” What an artful way to obliquely tell those fans who may be in mourning, like me, for the Roci’s original crew: This had to happen. On to Season 6.

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