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SPOILER ALERT: Read on only if you have already watched the season 3 finale of The Expanse.
The Ring gates have been opened. And while James Holden may have just saved civilization — again — he also has a protomolecule Miller running around in his head and just had a burst of energy shoot out at him as he traveled through the Ring. So stuff is still pretty… weird.
It was a tense and turbulent season 3 finale of The Expanse. Ashford tried to destroy the Ring to save humanity, not realizing the act would actually doom it. Holden knew the solution, but had to engineer a mutiny and storm the Behemoth to see his plan through. And when all seemed lost, Clarissa Mao of all people — the same Clarissa Mao whose mission was to destroy Holden at all costs — saved the day in the hopes that one true good act could make up for the terrible things she had done.
But so many questions about what we just saw remain, and we have even more questions for what will be coming up next when season 4 moves over to Amazon. We spoke to showrunner Naren Shankar to get all the inside scoop about making some major changes from the book series on which the TV show is based, as well as big plans for the future.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Let’s start right at the very end: What is the meaning of that last shot where the Roci goes through the Ring, and as Holden passes through it, there is a burst of energy. What’s going on there, and what are you setting up for season 4?
NAREN SHANKAR: When Holden was in that vision with Miller, he learns the beings that built the Rings, they’re gone. So what killed them? Because he had a vision of these things, he had a vision of something destroying the Rings and shutting them down. And Miller says, “I kinda wanna know too.” And so when the Roci goes to the Ring at the end, it comes to kind of an ominous little harbinger of things to come. That there is something inside that Ring space, in places between the Ring gates, that’s gonna come into play at some point as the series goes on.
We’ll talk more about what you have in store for season 4 in a bit, but let’s get into what happened this season. First off, you really sped through book 3, Abaddon’s Gate, doing the whole thing in seven episodes — much faster than the first two books. Why the accelerated pace for what is, in my opinion, one of the best books in the series?
Book 3 was a challenging thing to adapt. What was tricky about Abaddon’s Gate was that it starts with an entirely new cast of characters. It kind of builds up to getting them through the Ring. It’s more philosophical than intellectual. The space where they go into, it’s sort of the most… I don’t want to use this term disparagingly at all, but sort of science-fiction-y thing we have done in the run of the show. Which tends to be sort of more like science-realistic, or at least tries to achieve that. So for a lot of reasons, we felt like we had 13 episode seasons, we were gonna finish off Caliban’s War mid-season. We took the approach that we compressed it and we launched Anna, who was the character, really kind of the focus character in Abaddon’s Gate, early in the season, which we did because she is not actually in the second book at all.
Yeah, you gave her a prequel, basically.
That’s right, we gave her a history, we gave her a connection to Earth and the government, and we changed her backstory, but that would enable us to get through the end of that because it was such a great season-ender. It was such a momentous thing and such a huge game-changer for the world of The Expanse. We always felt like that would be a great place to end the season. So I think it was all those factors together that led to the decision to compress that narrative into seven episodes.
So in the interest of not introducing too may new characters, is that why Drummer — who has a huge role in book 7 but not in book 3 at all — took on the characteristics of Bull and Michio Pa?
Yeah, we combined that into her narrative, and I think that people who know the book sort of see where we’re going with Drummer a little bit. That’s definitely her trajectory, and I think it’s just something that naturally happens. You have to make these choices as you go along, because otherwise you’re just changing the cast wholesale season to season.
Cara Gee is so good in that role of Drummer, and I really thought you were going to kill her off because I know what happens with Bull in the book in that elevator shaft, and when she’s got those grenades I thought you were about to take her out!
That’s exactly what we were hoping people would think. We wanted to keep Cara in the show because we just think she’s a great character. She’s really made Drummer her own, and we couldn’t be happier with how that’s playing out for us.
One of the most interesting things you did on the show was your treatment of Ashford. He’s a pretty detestable character in the book, but you made him much more layered here and turned him into a guy who, while on the wrong side of things, does think what he’s doing is right and is admirable in the way he is willing to sacrifice himself for that. How did that character evolve for you?
Part of it was when we got this point in the narrative, it was about Fred and Dawes and their dueling agendas. But when we got to the Behemoth, it would be kind of weird to have Fred and Dawes on this ship. And so, it led us to this idea of their lieutenants. So Drummer was a logical one to take it for Fred Johnson, and then we were like, “Who’s the guy who worked for Dawes?” Then that was the starting point for Ashford, because he doesn’t have really that backstory in the book. And we asked ourselves, what would a guy who worked for Dawes have done before?
And so we crafted that character and built a backstory around him. And then, as we understood what he was going to do, we had the opportunity to reach out to David Strathairn. He was older than we thought initially the character was going to be, but that actually allowed us to give more layers and more depth to it. And so what you saw in the final product was kind of the aggregation of all of those different things. I think that it’s one of my favorite things in season 3, honestly. He just gives a terrific performance, all over.
Let’s talk about season 4. What can you say about where the story goes next?
One of the things that seems pretty clear, and we set it up at the end of the episode 13 with Holden’s thing, it’s going to be another blood-soaked gold rush. That’s about to happen, because you’ve got an entire species and several societies that have defined themselves on the fact that the solar system is all they’ve got, that those resources are what they have. But suddenly that all changes. It’s like the discovery of the New World — suddenly there’s land, there’s resources, there’s the potential of making incredible fortunes right there. What’s going to happen? Well, readers of the book know that these are things that that destabilize societies, and that’s what you are going to see the beginnings of in season 4.
The fourth book, Cibola Burn, takes place pretty much all on the planet Ilus, or in orbit of that planet. Will that be the same deal here? Is that going to be the battleground and the space version of expanding west?
[Book authors] Ty and Daniel often refer to the story of Ilus and Cibola Burn as kind of a classic Western in many ways. The book Cibola takes place entirely on Ilus. We are there for one complete novel. We are going to tell that story in season 4, sure, but we’re not leaving Earth and Mars and the Belt behind. They’re part of the story, and both of fans of the books and fans of the show are going to see something really interesting and new in season 4.
And obviously the mystery of what threatened and killed this alien civilization that built the protomolecule is still going to be front and center.
What about some characters that don’t play a big role in the next book and what your plans may or may not be for them? Let’s start with Bobbie: Are you going to accelerate her becoming a crew-member on the Roci?
Well, Bobbie is most definitely in season 4. I don’t want to give too many spoilers about what happens with her, but there are novellas that Ty and Daniel have written as well that we’ve built to the narrative. There are things that we can explore because, again, the idea that these new habitable worlds that have opened up through the Ring gate, that destabilizes Earth and the Belt as well as Mars. We’ve never been to Mars, really. We’ve never been to the planet Mars in the course of the series. I’ll leave it at that.
What about Avasarala, because you know how much we all love her? Obviously she was not a big presence in the second half of season 3, and the fourth book, as you mentioned, all takes place far away from her. So can we expect to see Shohreh Aghdashloo in season 4?
You are absolutely going to see Shohreh in season 4. She’s a big part of what goes on, and we’ve got a great story line for her on Earth and other places as well.
What are you generally thinking for book 4 in terms of how long it will take you to get through it? Is season 4 going to be all book 4? Or is book 4 going to go into season 5? Do you have a sense of that yet?
We do have a sense of it. I don’t want to tell people too much because I think it surprised people that we were able to get all the way through Abaddon at the end of the season because it didn’t fit our pattern so far. The way we approach it in the room is we try to tell the story that we want to tell over the course of the season, irrespective of where it lands at the end of the book, the middle of the book, two-thirds of the way through the book, or a whole book. We’ve often pulled materials forward from later novels and to earlier novels, building novellas into it. It changes kind of season to season. We certainly have a long-term plan of what the show is over the next several seasons, but I don’t want to give too much away to people.
Finally, how does the show change now being on Amazon as opposed to Syfy?
There are some things that are amazing that we don’t have to worry about: restrictions on nudity, restrictions on language, and restrictions on length to some extent. It’s like we don’t have to jam the episodes into 43-minute boxes if they’re going to spill over into a 50-minute box. There were times in season 3 where I wished that I had been able to put another four or five minutes into certain shows, it would have been great. And we certainly would have done it, and that’s the beauty of being on another platform like this, is that if the material demands it, you can make the story a little bit longer to accommodate it.
We never wrote it going, “Oh, God, it’s going to be on basic cable so we’ve got to tone this down.” I think we did some pretty drastic things when we needed to. None of that’s going to change, and I hope that as we get into it more, we’re going to find more and more opportunities to really make the platform work for us, because it’s a great way to watch the show. When you can stream this thing in 4K and it’s seamless and there are no commercial breaks — we don’t even go to blacks — it’s a different experience when you watch. It’s incredibly engaging, and every time I show it to people that way, they go, “That’s a completely different experience than watching it on basic cable.” So we’re really excited to be on Amazon.