If I were to list my favourite shows of all time, The Expanse would sit solidly in the top three, alongside Brooklyn 99 and The Mandalorian. Few stories are able to captivate me on the level that the story of James Holden and the crew of the Rocinante has. The writing is exceptional, the universe feels real and lived in, the action is engaging, and the intrigue always keeps you on your toes. These aspects alone would make the show stand out on a must-watch list, but what really sets it apart for me are the characters we meet along the way. The world of The Expanse is similar to our own in that it is cold and unfeeling – a hard place to survive on your own. And just like our world, the people in it make all the difference, turning the cold and darkness into warmth and light, or, conversely, making the darkness even darker by snuffing out any glimmer of light and hope they see. This piece will focus on those characters trying to make a difference in the world of The Expanse: Detective Miller, James Holden, Naomi Nagata, Amos Burton, Alex Kamal, and Chrisjen Avasarala.
Detective Josephus Miller
The first person we meet on this grand journey is Detective Josephus Miller. We find him on Ceres, a strategic shipping port in the Outer Belt officially under the control of the Earth. However, the majority of Ceres are Belters. There is a lot of pro-OPA sentiment and it feels like a powder keg ready to go off. Miller doesn't care much for politics, however. It doesn’t matter whose flag is flying; at the end of the day, he’s just trying to get by. A hard-boiled career cop, he’s been given a garbage assignment and an Earther partner, Havelock, that nobody else wanted. After going through a divorce, Miller has given in to his alcoholic tendencies, and his grasp on life has loosened. That's why he doesn't care who rules Ceres – no political party could help him get his life back together. When he is assigned an Earther partner, this is in essence his captain telling him how little he matters to the precinct.
Things quickly begin to change for him once he delves into a seemingly meaningless assignment. His mission is to find Juliette Mao, a missing Earth girl whose extremely wealthy father wants her back. The captain makes it clear that this isn't a solvable case. Miller's orders are to look so the precinct could say they did their job and proceed to wash their hands of the matter. It's just another assignment for Miller, the kind he has gotten used to. He is no longer an integral part of the force and had lost the right to any important cases. As Miller arrives at Julie's apartment, he's prepared to follow his orders. That is, until he starts to actually dig into Julie's life. Learning about her rejecting her place in society in order to pursue a cause she believes in challenges Miller's own world view. For a long time, he has accepted the label given to him by his peers and he has accepted that he is a failure and no longer a good cop. As the mystery of Julie Mao unravels, a piece of Miller's soul starts to be revived. The more he digs, the more he finds this young woman going against all odds because she believes in herself and her cause, and the more he starts to question his own life. Finally, this down-and-out cop decides that he is no longer happy with who he has become and starts to change his life to be who he wants to be. He stumbles several times, but now he is bolstered by a passion he hasn't felt in a long time. His mission is to find Julie, and he is fully committed.
Meanwhile on Ceres, events spiral out of control with news of an ice hauler being destroyed. The powder keg is ignited with anti-Earth riots springing up across the station, one of them injuring Havelock. Havelock is an outsider, but he is also the only person left on Ceres who shows Miller any kind of respect. That fosters a mutual respect in Miller for the Earther. With political tensions only rising, Miller knows what will happen to his partner if he stays on the force. Before Miller continues tracking Julie, he warns Havelock to leave Ceres to save his life.
Dawes quickly tires of this down-and-out detective and pressures his captain to make him drop it immediately. Miller refuses, and his captain promptly releases from the precinct. While it is a blow to Miller's funds, he is now free to retake his life and he jumps at the chance. This signifies that Miller has performed a complete about-face since the start of the show. When he is first introduced, he always swims with the current, being careful not to rock the boat. He constantly avoids the OPA and any potential threats to the status quo, until the Julie Mao case dares him to come back to life. Miller's strength of conviction is on full display when he stands up to Dawes and when he saves Havelock. When Miller tracks down James Holden only by the name of his ship, it's clear that contrary to what the precinct believed, he was a very good cop.
Next, we are transported to the Canterbury, an ice hauler providing water to the belt. Here we meet our main protagonist, Executive Officer James Holden, an Earther driven by conviction and a strong moral compass, with a genuine desire to do what is right. After trying several occupations, including a stint with the UN Navy, he ends up on the ice hauler. He doesn’t really have a purpose in life at this point other than making ends meet, but that all changes when a distress signal is picked up by the Canterbury. Holden is dispatched with a small crew in a shuttle to investigate. It's a trap, and the ice hauler is mercilessly slaughtered, leaving Holden in charge of the survivors.
Holden has to balance out his righteous rage with the survival of his crew, and initially, he fails to prioritise correctly. He plans on using his damaged shuttle and shell-shocked crew to chase down a fully operational warship that has just sent several nukes into a civilian ice freighter. He is so committed to making them pay now and figuring out how to survive later that he isn't thinking clearly and it takes his newly promoted XO to talk him down and flee to safety. Throughout the series, we see that this is what makes Holden an effective leader. He understands himself well enough to know when he isn't thinking clearly and knows when he needs to listen to his crew. He also understands that there are times when he must override them in order to accomplish the mission.
He never seeks to be a leader. In fact, as we are introduced to him, he is actively trying to dodge his promotion to XO, even though he is clearly qualified for the role. It's because he understands the responsibility that a leader holds, and he simply doesn't want it. As a child growing up in Montana, his parents raised him to be a leader to protest the actions of the government that was seizing land from the people. From a young age, he was taught the true responsibility of leadership, and it understandably frightened him. When he is voted in as the captain of the Roci, he finally stops running and begins to embrace his calling. It's no longer only his own life that he is responsible for now, but also the lives of his crew as well. But he is ready, and they have a mission to accomplish.
He may be an Earther, but he's been in the Belt long enough to see through the propaganda of his government and see Belters, Martians, and Earthers as equally human. His crew consists of all three, a reflection of his political views. Instead of pledging loyalty to just one faction or being a part of none, in time Holden becomes the mediator between all three. His purpose becomes serving the people that are represented by their governments, not the self-serving officials that run them.
While Holden is the protagonist and does try his best, he is still ultimately human and has flaws just like the rest of the crew. He tries to do what he genuinely believes is right, but he doesn't always make the right choices, and though he strives to be selfless, he still makes several selfish decisions that hurt both himself and the crew. One of his earliest and biggest mistakes is broadcasting everything he thinks he knows about the attack on the Canterbury before anything could be verified. This act nearly causes a war between Earth and Mars. On several occasions, he quarrels with OPA leader Fred Johnson, eventually getting the Rocinante kicked off of the only friendly port to them, Tycho Station. Some of his decisions are rash and ill-advised, but it is important to remember that he is not a saint, just a man trying to do his best.
Throughout the show, he's given many impossible scenarios where he must choose between the good of the solar system and the well-being of his crew, his love, or himself. He is asked time and again to risk his friends’ lives in order to accomplish the task at hand. At one point, things do get to be too much for him and we see that even someone as determined and driven as Holden can be overwhelmed. His response is to become callous and even cold blooded. He stops being who he is at his core, and even begins pushing Naomi and the rest of his crew away. Even as strong as Holden is, he isn't able to save himself from his downward spiral, and it takes the support of the whole crew of the Roci for him to recover and get back on his feet.
The more we get to know Holden, we see that he is the opposite to Miller. While Miller bases most of his decisions (even saving Julie) on his own survival, Holden tries his best to make the right decision for the sake of everyone around him, even at his own expense. Holden is an optimist, who tries to believe the best about people. Miller is a jaded realist who learned much earlier in his life to not trust anyone too much. This dynamic between the two drives much of the first season, and they balance each other well.
After the destruction of the Cant, Holden is ready to fly off the handle in a fit of righteous rage to avenge his fallen colleagues. That’s when Belter engineer and newly appointed XO Naomi Nagata steps in and keeps Holden from getting them all killed. When it comes to ideology and survival, she sits in the middle, able to judge the best course of action between the two extremes. She finds the compromises that keep them alive, but still stands for their cause. As a Belter, she wants the Belt to finally have its independence from the Inner Worlds, but she’s not driven by a blind hate for the Inners.
Prior to the events of the show and before she was the chief engineer of the Canterbury, she was involved in an OPA cell that she thought was standing up to the Inners and working to better the standing of the Belt. She wrote software to overload the engines of ships in port to immobilise them and cause panic, and to really show the Inners that the Belt wasn't populated by fools willing to live under the boot of Earth. To her horror, her software was used to detonate the docked ships instead of just disabling them, killing many innocent people in the process. When she learned the part she played had led to death, and that the group leader had used her to cause terror, she ran. She abandoned her old life, eventually landing a spot on the Canterbury. During the events of the show, she still wants the Belt to get recognition and to stop being seen as less than the Inners, but she understands that not all Inners believe the Belt are scum. The crew she now looks after testifies to the ability of Earth, Mars, and the Belt to work together towards a common goal as the survivors of the Canterbury continue to unravel a conspiracy that spans the entire solar system.
As XO she is the perfect counterpart to Holden, balancing out his idealism with her pragmatism. As his desire to chase after a warship illustrates, sometimes his idealism gets the better of him and she has to talk him down. Conversely, there are times when she needs his idealism in order to keep the Rocinante flying for a purpose and not becoming just another freelancer trying to make a buck while the universe implodes on itself. They complement each other extremely well, so it's no surprise when a romance starts to take shape. Politically, Naomi also balances Holden by being a Belter. Though they are both non-aligned, their backgrounds naturally influence them differently. Holden growing up on Earth makes him slant slightly more towards the Inners whereas her growing up in the space stations of the Belt has her more sympathetic towards the Belt. Their respective knowledge of the workings within their former factions helps them navigate the dangerous political waters that they soon find themselves in.
The next member of the Rocinante crew is Earther mechanic Amos Burton, the muscle of the team. When we first meet him on the Cant, the first thing we notice about him is that he is constantly looking to Naomi for guidance and orders. When the crew is finally out of danger, Holden asks him why he does that. Amos explains the reason he follows her directions is that he recognizes that she has good judgement and trusts her to always make the right call. After the crew are able to leave their shuttle and secure the Rocinante, he comes to recognize Holden’s leadership ability as well. While Amos admires Holden for his moral compass and looks to him for guidance at times, that doesn’t stop him from doing what he feels needs to be done to protect the crew. He grew up in Baltimore as an orphan until he was taken in by a woman named Lydia who felt compassion and pity for him. He learned how to survive on the streets and eventually got off Earth, determined to never look back.
Growing up on Earth was completely night and day for Amos and Holden. Holden was raised by a family commune and taught to lead, while Amos was raised by the streets of Baltimore and taught to survive. Holden grew up surrounded by love, while Amos grew up surrounded by fear and desperation. They both left Earth because they needed to. Holden needed to get away to try to find his purpose. Amos needed to leave so that he could find an actual life. And the life experiences that they both learned from their childhoods would ultimately prepare them for their roles in fighting the protomolecule, and those that wish to control it.
Amos does not associate with politics, leaving that to Naomi and Holden. His childhood taught him many hard lessons, but right and wrong and the nuances of morality weren’t part of his upbringing. As a child, attaching himself to Lydia was how he learned to survive. Now, even as an adult, he continues to attach himself to people he looks up to in order to develop skills he lacks, with Naomi and Holden being his latest mentors. His quest to improve himself doesn't cause him any indecision when life is on the line though. If a shot needs to be taken, Amos shoots first and asks questions later. The only metric of morality for him in those situations is if everyone he cares about is still alive.
However, Amos is not a brute. He doesn't use his strength to take advantage of the weak. This trait also originated in Baltimore on account of Amos knowing his life would have turned out a lot differently if Lydia hadn't been there to help him. Consequently, Amos is protective of those who can't protect themselves, especially children. While the team is on Ganymede searching for botanist Praxidike's missing daughter, Amos, not Holden, is the one constantly looking out for Prax. When even Holden is ready to give up, it is Amos that takes Prax to the side and sincerely promises him that they will find his daughter, giving the poor man enough hope to keep going.
What I admire most about Amos is that he is the best kind of friend anyone could ask for. He is completely loyal, but he isn't a yes man. The crew knows that he will have their back in any situation, but they also know he will call them on mistakes that he has perceived them to make. This trait causes him to bump heads with Holden several times early on when the two aren't ready to trust each other. The trust issues are resolved rather quickly though, with either man now willing to take a bullet for the other.
The final member of the Rocinante crew is former Martian Navy pilot Alex Kamal. The most laid-back of the group, he starts off as an outsider to the rest of the crew, but his friendly personality and Martian Southern drawl win them over quickly. Unlike Holden, Alex enjoyed his career in the Navy and became a skilled pilot. It was in the Navy he discovered his love of the stars – and flying through them. Unfortunately, this newfound love of his drew him away from his wife and son, and it was not long after that the divorce came. It wasn't that he stopped loving his family, it was that his love of the stars simply outweighed it. We can see how deeply he regrets how it all played out. But now as Holden’s pilot, he has no shortage of flying in his foreseeable future. Apart from Naomi, he is the most patriotic of the crew, deeply loving Mars, but not at the expense of the rest of the solar system. He leaves most of the politics to Holden and Naomi, unless he feels a moral obligation. His compassion also makes him the crew's peacekeeper. How he failed his family haunts him and makes him slow to judge others and ready to listen to them. When the crew has a falling out amongst themselves, he's always there for both sides to try to help smooth things over – particularly with a ship-cooked meal. His compassion is the counterbalance to Amos's violence. He prefers diplomacy and trying to talk things out. If negotiations fail, he knows Amos, and the rest of the crew, have his back.
The last character I wish to examine is Chrisjen Avasarala, the Deputy Undersecretary of the Executive Administration of the United Nations of Earth. She is a shrewd politician who knows how to play the game and isn’t afraid to take risks. Our introduction is watching her interrogate a Belter terrorist by putting him on gravity hooks to torture him. This is illegal and she doesn’t care. Her priority is the safety of Earth, and nothing else matters. Except, as we come to find out, maybe that isn't quite the case. Her son served and died in the UN Navy, and that sore wound is where most of her humanity went, slowly being covered by scar tissue and making her even more ruthless. This is until James Holden comes along with a broadcast that threatens to start a war in the solar system. She is no fool, and before making a plan of action, she studies Holden. In the process, she learns that he isn't the smartest with solar system politics, instead staying true to his cause and not playing the game. While she sees his political skills as lacking, she can't help but admire his foolish idealism. Seeing his desire to unite everyone in the face of a real and deadly threat even reignites some of the humanity that she had previously lost to her pain and her position.
Avasarala is a great character because of her complexity and how most of her motives remain hidden for a majority of the show. Because of that, I had a difficult time determining whether I should trust her. What eventually won me over is that unlike most politicians, she has feelings and empathy, and we see that fully on display when she invites Sgt. Bobby Draper to her staff following the annihilation of Draper's squad.
Avasarala's greatest characteristic, in my opinion, is her readiness to act. Her knowledge of the political climate lets her navigate the talking points with ease, and her verbal spars with Undersecretary Errinwright are enjoyable to watch. However, she refuses to sit on her hands and let events play out. She doesn't like to sit and react to events, she tries to make the events react to her. Her disregard for the rules and conventions was a red flag to me at first because a person in authority who isn't scared to flout it is a potentially dangerous person. But then I saw that her motivations were never about consolidating power. At her heart, she is a grieving mother who wants to save other mothers from having to grieve for their children as well.
This is just an overview of the core characters that we meet in season 1. They all are dynamic. None of them stay the same throughout the course of the series. As you meet them and learn about them, you really start to relate to them, and watching them grow is rewarding. Seeing the crew of the Rocinante grow from coworkers who survived a terrible attack into a found family is beautiful. Miller transforms from a man who has lost all hope and meaning in life into a man that once again has a purpose and a reason to live. Holden learns to stop foolishly chasing his ideals blindly and becomes a very competent leader. Naomi goes from someone who will never believe in a cause again, to learning to trust and help Holden. Eventually her dream of the Belt being recognized as its own political entity comes to fruition. Amos stops being a drifter because he has finally found his home. Alex finds his passion as he pilots the Rocinante through their increasingly impossible scenarios. And Avasarala regains most of the humanity that she lost from being a career politician. This is what makes The Expanse such a powerful story: because it shows you both sides of humanity, from the depths of the Protogen corporation who are willing to sacrifice 1.5 million people in the name of “science” to the heights of James Holden and the crew of the Rocinante doing what they can to save as many as they can. It’s not all black and white. There are many grey areas involved, just as with every event in human history. Some people are evil, some are good, but most are just trying to do what they can to survive. It’s a beautiful show because it never loses the humanity that is at its core.
Across all the characters, Miller is my favourite because I enjoy watching his redemption. When we meet Miller for the first time, he isn’t at his lowest point, but it doesn’t take long for him to get there. As his life spirals out of control he clings to this one mission, this one crazy goal, and he is able to find himself and transform through it. It doesn’t happen instantly, and he has many ups and downs, getting back on his feet just to get knocked back down several times. Yet he refuses to give up, and in the end he is rewarded for his tenacity and accomplishes his goal.
I really enjoy watching the Miller-Holden dynamic play out because it reminds of my own internal debates. I like to imagine myself as a Holden, someone who wants what is right and won't stop until it's achieved, but in reality I find myself more like Miller, just doing what it takes to get by and not caring about what is beyond my immediate control. When Miller is at his lowest, I can empathise with him, and seeing him gradually redeem himself gives me hope. With Holden, seeing him be able to take all the punches that come his way and bend almost to the breaking point and yet not break – that inspires me to not give up on what I believe in.
I’ve highlighted these characters specifically because they are what really made the show come together for me. However, I don’t want to leave any false impressions. This show is not just one heroic monologue after another followed by cheesy “power of friendship” moments. As much heart as there is on display, there is just as much darkness. From the clash of giant armadas in the silence of space to the screams of innocents following terrorist attacks to extremely wealthy and powerful men sitting at a table deciding the fate of billions of people, there is much darkness and distress. At times The Expanse is as cold and heartless as the vacuum of space, filled with the deafening silence of ghosts. This darkness amplifies the struggles of the Rocinante crew, as they fight to find the truth and help everyone they can. Indeed, nothing makes a candle shine so brightly as when it is surrounded by complete darkness.
As long as we’re living and breathing, there’s more we can do. We just have to be strong enough
- James Holden.