The crew of the Rocinante - in dry dock at Tycho Station for repairs - have split up: Amos is headed back to Earth to see to some outstanding business, whilst Alex is heading to Mars to see his family. Also on Mars is Bobbie Draper, who has uncovered a possible criminal conspiracy involving elements of the Martian military. Naomi has also left for Pallas, hoping to find her long-missing son. Former UN Secretary General Avasarala is on Luna, finding it hard to adapt to her new role away from the centre of government power. Drummer has found a new crew and a new family, but her old Belter loyalties are being tested. When a massive terrorist strike on an unprecedented scale takes place, the scattered crew of the Rocinante have to find their way back together across a Solar system suddenly plunged into war and fear.
Ever since the Expanse TV series launched in 2016, fans have been hoping it would make it as far as the events of the fifth novel in the series, Nemesis Games. Widely-regarded as the best book in the series, Nemesis Games manages both a large-scale, epic story combined with much more personal stories tightly focused on each of the crewmembers of the Rocinante. This allowed it to effectively cover a huge storyline from multiple vantage points located all around the Solar system.
The TV show, fortunately, more or less nails the landing. The first half of the season is tense and taut, delivering a countdown to Armageddon, exploring the event as it happens and then the immediate aftermath. All of the actors do good work, with Wes Chatham in particular turning in a great performance as Amos finds himself effectively the disaster relief coordinator for a small band of survivors of the disaster. The first half of the season is an unabashed triumph and might be the best run of episodes in the show's history.
The second half of the season is still good, but less effectively-paced. Having gotten the good stuff out of the way early on, the rest of the season feels locked into a holding pattern: Naomi is in a prison cell; Amos and his band of fellow survivors are trying to find a ship to escape; Bobbie and Alex are sitting in chairs on a spaceship; and Holden and a bunch of newer and older characters are sitting in chairs on their spaceship. Amos's storyline at least allows for more dynamic action and character interplay, even if the "will humanity hold together after an apocalypse or turn on one another?" question feels a bit redundant after decades of post-apocalyptic shows, books and movies, but everyone else is spinning in circles for much of the second half of the season.
Still, The Expanse is decent in its quieter moments as well as the loud ones and we get some good stuff here, particularly for Naomi as she has to embark on possibly the chanciest escape plan you'll ever see. Dominique Tipper gives a reliably outstanding performance as she has to guide Naomi through the toughest test she's ever faced, this time without the backup of her crew. Amos has his own mini-finale in the penultimate episode, including the show's most ambitious ground action sequence (which unfolds via what appears to be a single, long, continuous shot) to date, which is handled very well.
Things come together in the season finale, one of The Expanse's strongest episodes to date, setting things up for next year's final season. In fact, it's a bit bewildering that they're still following the books so closely (including material which is setup for Books 7-9, which are not being adapted in the show, or at least in this show) when it feels they should be closing things down for the final run of episodes.
Season 5 of The Expanse (****½) isn't quite the show at its best, but it's damn close. The flabby pacing at the end of the season is a problem which could have been resolved by bringing in more elements from the sixth book, Babylon's Ashes, but otherwise this is an outstanding season of television. The Expanse's position as the best space opera TV show currently airing remains unchallenged. The season is available to watch worldwide now on Amazon Prime Video.