Skip to main content

The Expanse has threatened nuclear war for two nail-biting seasons — now, it’s pushing the button

The Expanse has threatened nuclear war for two nail-biting seasons — now, it’s pushing the button


TV’s most relevant sci-fi show finally uses its weapons of mass destruction to a catastrophic — and pointed — effect

Share this story

Image: Syfy

The Expanse kicked off its third season last month on Syfy, continuing the story of the crew of a spaceship in an inhabited solar system that’s set centuries in the future. In its first two seasons, the series has established itself as one of the most politically relevant stories on TV right now, with the onset of a system-wide war always lingering on the horizon. Now, its third season is underway, and the war is on, bringing massive casualties, the very real possibility of mutually assured destruction, and a sobering view of where we could end up if we make the same mistakes.

Spoilers ahead for show and novels.

In the series, humans have colonized the major bodies in our solar system, coalescing into three factions: the United Nations that governs Earth, the Martian Congressional Republic that oversees Mars and its terraforming efforts, and the Outer Planets Alliance that represents a loose coalition of the working-class inhabitants of the various asteroids and moons of the other planets in the system who call themselves Belters. None of these governments particularly like or trust one another, which has led to a long-simmering cold war. Though relations among the factions have been cool for decades, a new wrinkle has heated things up: an alien substance known as the protomolecule. Though the protomolecule’s alarming transformative nature has far-reaching implications for every aspect of human life, it can also be wielded as a weapon, a fact that now threatens to upend the balance of the solar system.

In the first two seasons of the show, the protomolecule was used against people experimentally by a company that intends to sell it to the highest bidder. First, the company runs a test on a vulnerable Belter asteroid called Eros that kills tens of thousands. Then, a hybridized version is deployed on Ganymede, where it kills a team of Martian soldiers. The crew of the ship the Rocinante — the stars of the series — had their own sample for a while, until one of its crew, Belter Naomi Nagata, passed it on to the head of an OPA faction, who wants to use the weapon as a way to legitimize his organization.

Where the first two seasons have helped to establish a world on the brink, this latest season is all about what happens when we go further, and when nations lose the rational voices that hold back these destructive impulses. In the season premiere “Fight or Flight,” the highly proficient UN undersecretary Chrisjen Avasarala is on the run with Martian Marine Bobbie Draper after trying to apprehend the people responsible for the protomolecule attacks. Her absence allows her rival, Sadavir Errinwright, to frame her for the attack on Eros and push his own aggressive agenda.

He warns the UN general secretary that Mars’ recent actions demonstrate their plans to declare war. In the third episode of the season, “Assured Destruction,” Earth launches a first strike against Mars’ weapons platforms, effectively destroying their first-strike capabilities — but not before the Martians can get a shot off, killing millions with a stray warhead. It’s a horrific scenario that we’ve come close to on Earth, during the Cold War. (Thankfully, we backed off at the last second as cooler heads prevailed.)

The Expanse author Daniel Abraham tells The Verge that he and his co-author Ty Franck both grew up during the tail end of the Cold War, when the “fear of nuclear annihilation was pretty much a background constant in my formative years. My friends and I played a card game in high school called Nuclear War, where the point was to rack up the fewest millions of deaths. It was pervasive.”

The Expanse’s politics reflect that anxiety, Abraham says. The issue isn’t that people are dealing with forces that they can’t control; it’s that this alien technology could become a game-changer to all of humanity, yet, “the real significance of it is lost to a kind of geopolitical tunnel vision.” They can only imagine using the protomolecule as a weapon in an escalating war. In the novels, some of the threats to the survival of the species aren’t even as complicated as nuclear warheads or exotic alien technologies. There’s the ever-present threat that someone will simply use an asteroid to attack Earth.

These parallels are even more chilling considering that these anxieties have resurged in recent years, as tensions between the United States and Russia tighten and a series of nuclear weapons tests from North Korea heat up political rhetoric across the world.

Stockpiles, both in our time and The Expanse’s, are inherently dangerous, whether they’re a new technology, rich with non-lethal possibilities, or more garden-variety weapons. On the show, Earth and Mars have both acquired vast arsenals and armies ready to move at a moment’s notice, running with the idea that just having these forces ready to go will be an effective deterrent against action. While that has worked up to this point, that logic breaks down when strategists push past deterrence and into open warfare. The tools are already at their disposal — all they have to do is push the button.

Until now, The Expanse has held a mirror up to where our violent base tendencies lead us. Now, by diving headfirst into the real consequences of those tendencies when they go unchecked, it doubles down on that commentary. The show’s new atrocities illustrate in no uncertain terms that unless we get our act together here on the ground, we’ll continue to carry these problems with us, wherever we go.

“It seems to me that the threat of nation-states engaging in war is now and will always be a threat to the individuals living in them,” says Abraham, no matter if the weapons are nuclear or an imagined alien technology. In the end, it’s all the same: “The gears or war are greased with blood.”