510: Nemesis Games

Plot points

  • As they were headed against the Roci, Drummer turns against Karal and forces her family to strike down the Free Navy ships.
  • In retaliation, Marco has Serge (the exchange husband on the Pella) killed; Drummer’s family splits.
  • Naomi manages to warn Alex/Bobbie about the proximity bomb on the Chetzemoka and gets rescued; Alex dies in the process.
  • Holden, Naomi and Amos reunite on Luna.
  • Marco’s Free Navy takes over the Sol Ring, Medina station and Ring Space from the Inners.
  • It is revealed that in exchange of stealth coating technology and MCRN ships, Marco gave Cortazar and the last protomolecule sample to the breakaway MCRN faction.
  • The Free Navy gets control of the Sol side of the Ring; the breakaway MCRN fleet gets control of the Laconia system, where they are investigating mysterious protomolecule Builder structures.
  • An MCRN ship in transit through the Laconia Ring is annihilated by the protomolecule Destroyers.

Continuity

  • Naomi uses Belter sign signals to inform Alex that the Chetzemoka might explode if they approach. We’ve usually seen those used inside pressurized spaces, like when Havelock is learning the language and the signs in 102, but here we see them used in the real context they were developed for: to be able to communicate while wearing space suits without radio.
  • The danger of dying because of high-G maneuvers is something that is established from the very beginning of the series, with the juice. In 101, we get our very first scene with a flip’n’burn, juice injection and fast deceleration — like the Razorback does here. Among other things, the juice relaxes blood vessels to prevent blocking or disruption, which might result in a stroke.
  • In terms of sudden deaths in the harshness of space, Alex is right up there with Shed in 104!
  • When he tries to prepare him for sneaking Clarissa onboard the Roci, Amos refers to Holden threatening to kill him: this is a callback all the way back to 102, when the MCRN Donnager was boarding them!
  • In 507, Marco was studying his display of the Sol Ring and a trajectory marked “MATEOx20K” was crossing that space; we now know that he was looking at the projected trajectory of the rain of stealth-coated micro-meteorites that badly damage the ships protecting the Ring. This is a call-back to 106, where the Belter rock-hopper Mateo, Diogo’s uncle, threw rocks at an MCRN ship in frustration against the Inners. “MATEOx20K” is revenge time multiplied 20,000-fold!
  • MCRN Admiral Emil Sauveterre (last and first seen in 502) congratulates Marco “on behalf of Admiral Duarte”. The name Duarte also popped up furtively in 410, in a display of Bobbie’s terminal during her investigation of the black market on Mars: Commander Winston Duarte. Congratulations for the promotion!
  • The defection to Laconia must be what that MCRN black marketeer was referring to when he was a prisoner of Ashford in 410: “The dream of Mars isn’t dead, it’s about to be writ large”!
  • With the destruction of the MCRN Barkeith at the end of the episode, this is the fourth time we see the “black dragons”-like protomolecule Destroyers (or their technology): first in 313 when the Roci crosses the Ring Holden perceives them as if they were “scanning” the Roci; in 410 when Elvi fell into the orange “bullet” on Ilus; and in 501 with Elvi’s holographic reconstruction of what she saw.
  • The Barkeith might not be the first ship destroyed like this. In 502, the UN SG cabinet discusses ship transit figures to the new systems: “We should take that number with a grain of salt. […] There are some discrepancies within those reports. The OPA denies it, but there is the possibility of some ships making the transit without being officially recorded.” They assign these discrepancies to the OPA and possible piracy, which might also be happening, but some of them might also have been “eaten” like the Barkeith. But why these ships, why the Barkeith specifically?

Analysis

  • Opening credits changes: after crossing Uranus, Marco’s Free Navy is shown against a sky of stars — as we will see, they are close to the Sol Ring.
  • There are fewer ships at the Sol Ring entrance; inside Ring Space too, much fewer ships left around Medina station.
  • The space battle between the Rocinante, the two Free Navy ships (Koto, Serrio Mal) and Drummer’s three ships (Tynan, Dewalt, Mowteng) is as complex as it is impressive! A freeze-frame review makes things clearer. First, Drummer on the Tynan torpedoes the Dewalt (where Oksana and Josep are) and disables its drive so that they can’t be part of the fight; then the Tynan throws everything it’s got at the smaller Koto, which occupies it sufficiently so that the Roci can approach sufficiently to use its rail gun and disable it. Then, Josep on the Dewalt and Bull on the Roci throw all they got on the Serrio Mal; while the Serrio Mal‘s rapid-fire PDCs are busy with the torpedoes, the Roci‘s rail gun disables it and even punctures its core, which causes the whole ship to explode.
  • After Oksana disarmed Drummer in the previous episode, here Drummer essentially does the same by disabling the Dewalt‘s drive — both actions were done with good intentions, but both actions were effectively removing the freedom to choose and agency to act. It’s difficult to rebuild trust after such actions.
  • It’s a #polyambelterfam divorce! Serge is dead; Michio and Josep stay with Drummer; Bertold leaves with Oksana. Drummer will have to hide from the Free Navy and might seek allies elsewhere; Oksana will have to convince Marco that Karal’s death was not her doing, or go into hiding as well.
  • After killing Ashford and Fred Johnson, Marco has now killed Serge too; things between Marco and Drummer are very, very personal.
  • Even to her last breath, Naomi tries to resolve her situation and put her friends out of harm’s way. By momentarily using that thruster, she put spin on her ship, putting it on a corkscrew trajectory, making it very difficult for Alex to park the Razorback next to the Chetzemoka.
  • Alex is dead! Wow! He never got to really reconcile with his ex-wife and reconnect with his son. Last words, fit for a pilot: “That was one hell of a ride.” Amos’ tribute: “Making the choice to hold your ground to save your family? As far as last stands go, that’s the one I’d pick.”
  • Alex’s death was sudden but the season seems to have been building Bull as a potential replacement — Bull even uses Alex’s coffee cup as he pilots the Roci! Bull just needs to work on his prejudices and racism against Belters (“skinnies”).
  • We get to hear the message that Naomi left to Holden in case something would happen to her and it is a very emotional scene. Naomi talks about the fact that what all four of them had on the Roci was special and about moving on after a loss. She might have intended it to be about her but in the context of Alex’s death it takes a wholly different meaning: her words become a mourning for Alex’s passing.
  • On Luna, no one can hear you scream about that slow-mo falling tequila bottle! Amos has been trying to drink that brand of tequila all season long.
  • Avasarala has grown a lot as a character since her “Earth first” days in season 1. Seeing the diversity around her, she states what could be the show’s statement against tribalism: “I want you all to take a good look around. This is what Marco Inaros hates. This is what he is afraid of. Why he tried so hard to destroy you and your ship. All we have to do now is turn every Belter, Martian, and Earther into this. This how we win.” Well, that’s good, but she did place Earth and Luna under martial law.
  • Marco: “You must always have a knife in the darkness.” With the Inners distracted and pulling their forces to protect their planets, the Ring is left relatively unguarded and the Free Navy is able to take over with a relatively small force, with help from Free Navy sympathizers on Medina station. Filip watches, amazed.
  • Marco: “You have your system. We have ours.” It looks like Marco doesn’t see the exploration and colonization of the 1300 systems as a priority for mankind, given that the Ring and the exodus is what precipitated a feeling of uselessness and existential threat among Belters and gave rise to Marco.
  • The breakaway Martians have already been hard at work on Laconia, which is an Earth-like planet with breathable atmosphere (no terraforming required!), with some “tiller” megastructures like on Ilus. Cortazar, wearing an MCRN uniform, talks of construction, structures, control patterns… These orbital structures are protomolecule Builders technology, which, thanks to the protomolecule sample and Alex’s info on what happened on Ilus (obtained by Babbage when they were “casually chatting” in 503), have been reactivated.
  • In this way, the tease in the opening credits ever since 501 pays off: the MCRN ship transiting through the Ring labelled “Laconia”, the structure labelled “?” in orbit around Laconia, now we know what all this is.
  • Closing credits changes: instead of the menacing slow zoom in into the Ring, we see the menacing structure on the orbit of Laconia, which glows with the blue of the protomolecule at the end. Using the protomolecule and the information Alex graciously provided them, the MCRN rebels have activated the structure.

Behind the scenes

  • Title note: like all season finales so far, this episode is named after the book it was based on, Nemesis Games: Marco is definitely Earth’s nemesis at this point.
  • Yes, Alex’s death is a result of internal deliberations at Alcon (the production company) following accusations of sexual misconduct against Cas Anvar after the season wrapped shooting, while Alex doesn’t die in the book. I don’t like it when real-world circumstances impact story-telling so drastically, but everybody has the right to feel comfortable in their working environment; and Arjun’s recast in season 4 was quite jarring. All things considered, the way they dealt with the situation was quite successful.
  • Reshoots must have been very limited (Covid!) yet things do fit well with the rest of the season, with Bull’s presence and Naomi’s message at the end.
  • The writers discussed how the main characters develop invincible “plot armor” as the story goes on, and how killing off someone is more realistic, adds tension and shows that the dangerous situation they are in has a cost and can have consequences for anyone.
  • Spoilers for book 6 Babylon’s Ashes for events already passed in season 5 (highlight to read):
  • Not Alex nor Fred Johnson die in book 5. Fred died in book 6 further in the story, but in the same way that Alex died in the show, of a stroke following a high-G maneuver.
  • A very powerful sequence: Naomi jumps off ship, is moving against the background with her inertia, then the camera moves to show her rotating against a still background; Naomi’s point of view with the stars moving and the reflection of her face on her helmet, with the sound of her heavy breathing; the camera right next to Naomi, showing her face against a madly rotating background. This whole sequence reminded me of Gravity, which must have served as an inspiration to director Breck Eisner (the space walk bit in 409 as well, I believe). The making of the scene is quite incredible!
  • “Laconia” is the region in which Ancient Sparta was, in Ancient Greece (still exists today!). A fitting name for what promises to be a military utopia of people obsessed with order and dedication to the cause, if Sauveterre asking Babbage to remove her bracelet is any indication. Greco-Roman imagery is often found in military insignia, but here it is relevant that in the Martian War College where Alex met Sauveterre in 502, there was Ancient Greek or Spartan heraldry on the walls.

Plot lines: the season in review

  • Marco Inaros, the Alexander the Great wannabee, propels the Belters from a disparate fringe group of groups into a major force that controls a large part of the Sol system, the Ring and beyond. In the process, Marco is forcing those Belters that stand in the middle ground to either join him or be destroyed, while making any Belter a potential target for retaliation from Earth. He also becomes a mass murderer.
  • Marco’s plan to bombard Earth is revealed to have been only part of the story, a means to an end. Control of the Ring is what Marco was after.
  • The ascendant powers, the Free Navy and the Laconians, have shared the universe amongst themselves. The mass exodus to the 1300 systems has been put on hold.
  • Earth appears weakened. The whole season only covered the span of a few weeks; so it is still unclear what the extent of damage Marco’s rocks caused to Earth. I could have used a UN briefing where this is given more clarification.
  • Mars is very weakened. Mass exodus of its population, mass defection of a branch of its military. We did not hear more about the situation on Mars since 504, when the Martian Parliament was destroyed in an explosion: probably the doing of Sauveterre and the MCRN breakaway fleet in was coordination of Marco’s attack on Earth and Tycho.
  • As soon as the new status quo is established, we are reminded of how provincial all internal human affairs are. The protomolecule Destroyers still lurk, a potential menace for Humankind.
  • With every season, The Expanse reinvents itself, or rather it continues the story but uses a different narrative form each time. Season 4 was the Western/Frontier genre. Season 5 was the family/relationship drama. The season remained true to keeping the point of view strictly to the characters we follow, reducing the scope (despite the very wide scale of the events) but deepening the emotional connection with the characters.
  • Overall, this season is structured a bit like season 1: certain elements are put in place, a mystery builds, and the last episodes reveal what the season has really been about, giving new context to earlier episodes.
  • The storylines of Naomi and Amos were very rich; by contrast, Alex and Holden’s storylines seemed at a standstill for most of the second half of the season. Amos’ storyline showed the devastation of Marco’s attack from the ground, while Avasarala’s showed the high-level political reorganization. Drummer’s storyline stood for the entire Belt, showing how reformist centrists (Fred Johnson, Drummer’s season 4 storyline) can fall prey to radical action.
  • The Expanse is often about moving on after trauma or at least striving for change to better oneself. In this season this is illustrated clearly. Naomi deals with her dark past, her gaslighting ex; she doesn’t convert her radicalized son and only manages to just survive. Amos remembers his abused past and builds a new family unit of sorts with Clarissa. Alex doesn’t manage to make amends with his estranged family and dies in the process of trying to keep his new family together. Holden, left alone by the rest of his family, fails to contain the protomolecule. Drummer loses a dear friend and mentor and sees her family torn apart. Uh, might season 6 end on a more positive note?

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