All the reasons The Expanse’s “Gaugamela” was a complete masterpiece in storytelling

The Expanse Season 5 -- Courtesy of Amazon Prime Video
The Expanse Season 5 -- Courtesy of Amazon Prime Video /

The Expanse’s season 5 episode 4 shocker should be required viewing in every screenwriting class.

The awe-inspiring cliffhanger from The Expanse 503, “Mother,” yielded dividends in the fourth episode, culminating in one of the best installments the series has ever produced, if not the best in sci-fi. The fourth episode, “Gaugamela” — a reference to Alexander the Great’s impressive victory of the Persian Empire in 331 .B.C when he was outnumbered — was as close to a perfect episode as one will ever get. It was glorious, for many reasons, and not just for Christjen Avasarala’s (Shohreh Aghdashloo) magnificent ability to push the drama along with each splendiferous curse word.

Executive produced by Naren Shankar and Ty Franck and Daniel Abraham (original writers of the novels), The Expanse’s 504 delivered on every level, thanks to a tight, inspired script written by Dan Nowak and directed by Nick Gomez. It weaved in various plot points, giving each equal focus, without taking away from the intensity of the drama unfolding. All of the main characters are tackling their own stories in the fifth season, and this episode demonstrated the emotional weight of each of their separate tales, in one cohesive episode that really should be shown in every screenwriting course.

Bobbie and Alex uncovering the web of conspiracy

The developing bond between Bobbie Draper (Frankie Adams) and Alex Kamal (Cas Anvar) on The Expanse has been fun to watch. It’s clear they’re both helping each other deal with family issues and disappointment over Mars’ corruption. Although their plot didn’t pack as much of an emotional punch as, say, Christjen Avasarala’s quest to save the entire universe, their secret mission to uncover Mars’ collusion with the “free navy” of Marco Inaros’ (Keon Alexander) is an integral component of Inaros’ astounding success where other “belter” rebels have failed before.

The shocking twist at Tycho Station

The success of Marco Inaros’ spellbinding terrorist plan was further illustrated by how deep the belter spies had infiltrated what seemed like a meticulously managed Tycho Station run by earther Fred Johnson (Chad Coleman). The stunning events that took place on Tycho were also a direct attack on what Johnson was trying to build, a man who tried to atone for his past UN atrocities by working towards the betterment of belter conditions in the OPA.

As the first stealth asteroids strategically hit earth and wiped out millions, Jim Holden (Steven Strait) realized that the investigation that journalist Monica Stuart (Anna Hopkins) had gotten herself mixed up in had a much deeper footprint. Just as soon as Holdin realized that the docking ship they thought they were going to arrest was actually a trap, Fred Johnson had been shot by his own chief technician Sakai (Bahia Watson) in Red-Wedding fashion, who had been conspiring with her fellow belters to infiltrate Tycho from within. As Johnson was bleeding out from his injuries, the shocking twists just kept coming as a chill-inducing, terrifying spider-like bot (reminiscent of those scary robot dogs in The Black Mirror episode, “Metalhead”) managed to make off with the only remaining sample of the protomolecule (crap!). With Fred Johnson’s death, Marco Inaros was able to take out a symbol of cooperation among the interstellar planets.

I also realized that the excitement I felt about Chad Coleman’s larger role this season is the second time that his death heralded one of the best episodes of whatever series he tends to guest on. His death as Tyrese on The Walking Dead still haunts me, and his untimely end here occurs in one of the best chapters this incredible show has ever produced. One thing you can say about the actor is that he really knows how to make an exit. There were a lot of shocking moments on Expanse‘s“Gaugamela,” but Fred Johnson’s death shocked me the most.

Amos and “Peaches”

Amos Burton’s (Wes Chatham) backstory on The Expanse has been a highlight of this season, as we’ve seen him deal with Lydia’s (Stacy Roca) death, connect with her partner Charles (the always wonderful Frankie Faison), and visit Erich (Jacob Mundell), who was like a brother to him and is now the head of Baltimore’s crime world. But the fourth episode elevates his roots narrative by having the brute fighter draw from his relationship with Lydia, which motivated him to connect with Clarissa Mao (Nadine Nicole), “Peaches.” Their relationship will continue to have reverberations for Amos as he grapples with his attitude towards the use of violence in an increasingly lawless landscape.

Avasarala is always right. Always.

At the beginning of the season, sure, you were thinking, how the hell will The Expanse put Christjen Avasarala back on top (where, like, she obviously belongs)? After suffering her humiliating loss to Nancy Gao (Lily Gao) last season, she’s further disregarded (and ignored) by the chain of command at the UN. Being the brilliant mind that she is, of course she’s right about the growing threat from Marco Inaros. It’s always a mistake to doubt queen Avasarala, and unfortunately, this time the secretary general and much of the senior staff pay with their lives, also fortunately right after Gao grasps the truth of what Avasarala’s been trying to convince them as the rocks start hitting targets on earth.

How the fourth episode gets to that moment transpires in breathtaking fashion, effectively demonstrating everything we love about Avasarala’s tenacity. First, we get the frustrated Avasarala, cursing her way through bureaucracy. Her perseverance paid off as she found the only way to get to the secretary general in time to light the beacons. (“You fattened me up for years with macaroons!” she screamed to the UN One chef, who brought her call to Gao.) Just as the secretary general was apologizing to Avasarala for doubting her, the third rock hit, taking out UN One with it, as Christjen and UN Admiral Delgado (Michael Irby) watched on in horror. The fast-paced action simply took my breath away.

Avasarala is back, but after much sacrifice. Rebuilding has taken a personal toll for the skilled politician as well since it’s likely that someone in her family has not survived one of the targeted asteroid hits.

It is about time that Shohreh Aghdashloo nabs an Emmy nomination for one of the best characters ever created, just saying!

Naomi’s devastating family reunion

Naomi Nagata (Dominique Tipper) has found her son Filip (Jasai Chase Owens), but what was already a tense reunion has now become a complete nightmare, with the talented engineer kidnapped by that very son and brought to the belly of the beast, right in time to witness the violent lengths Marcos Inaros is willing to go to establish his new “free navy” by taking out targets on Earth and Mars. The final scenes establish the guilt Naomi feels for having to abandon her son (in order to get away from her terrorist husband Marcos), her son’s conflicted feelings, and also the skillful manipulation Marco deploys, which makes him such an effective leader (calling out his son for still needing his mother, “just a boy” while still retaining Filip’s allegiance).

I often get sick of unkillable villains in shows, but Marco Inaros is nothing like that on The Expanse. He’s ruthless, sure, but he’s a charismatic leader with the ability to inspire belters who have felt like second-class citizens, empowering them to join his cause with a brilliant show of strength, and even more important: strategic vision.

This episode sets up a harrowing storyline for Dominique Tipper, who shines this season in a narrative that is absolutely devastating.

The Expanse sets the standard on TV for sci-fi (just look at how much Star Trek: Picard copied it and you’ll know what I mean), but “Gaugamela” was as close to a perfect episode as you’ll see on television. I’ve been fortunate to see the screeners for the rest of the season (except for the finale) and I can assure you that the storytelling remains very high throughout. Watching The Expanse this year makes me grateful that we have one more season left of this glorious show.

The Expanse season five is streaming on Amazon Prime Video, with weekly episodes airing Wednesdays.

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Were you blown away by “Gaugamela”? How excited are you for the next episode? Do you think Amos and Clarissa will get out of the prison? And didn’t Christjen Avasarala have her moment? How much will you miss Fred Johnson on the show? Tell me your favorite events from the fourth episode in the comments below!