On ‘The Expanse,’ Failed Mothers Make Excellent Heroes

Dominique Tipper as Naomi Negata in 'The Expanse'

Technically, the main character of The Expanse is James Holden, the reluctant galaxy savior played with lots of furrowed brows by Steven Straight. But I can’t imagine watching the show because of him and I can’t be the only one. Thankfully, The Expanses’s fifth season focuses on where its strength really lies — in its women of color characters, specifically, its WOC mothers.

It was the season of Dominique Tipper’s Naomi Negata. We learn the details of her backstory as the show leans into her epic toughness, her heroism, and her relationships. Many years ago, Naomi abandoned her son, Filip, leaving him with his father, the terrorist Marco Inaros, that we knew. In the fifth season, we get the full details — how Naomi didn’t agree with Marco’s terrorist tactics, that she wanted to take Filip with her, that Marco hid their child from her in an attempt to keep her from leaving, that she contemplated suicide when she couldn’t find Filip, that eventually she had to flee without him. Naomi spends a lot of the season trying to finally save Filip, the literal prisoner of her former family. The Expanse takes pains to excuse Naomi’s past behavior, showing that even as she failed her son, she had no other choice. Marco, after all, is capable of great evil, committing genocide against Earth’s people and serving as the season’s big baddie.

What’s so compelling about Filip and Naomi’s story is its feminist stance — women can be failed mothers and excellent heroes. If that sounds obvious, know that parenthood is rarely portrayed that way for women — it’s supposed to be an all-defining experience, measuring your worth not just as a parent or caregiver but as a person as well. That Naomi can fail at taking care of Filip but still be the most engaging character on the show says a lot.

And she is the most engaging. No one else is badass enough to take that suit-less space flight, survive, and then engineer not just her own rescue but her friends as well. She does it with pure grit and it is thrilling to watch. You could argue that the physical test she has to endure is in some way a punishment for abandoning her son again but I don’t read it that way. It’s her heroes’ journey, evidence that what defines her is not having given birth but her broader contributions to, you know, saving the galaxy and humankind.

And if further proof is needed, look to Shohreh Aghdashloo’s Chrisjen Avasarala. Here we have another “failed” mother, another woman of color, and another of the most intriguing characters on The Expanse. Her son died before the show began while serving in the military, giving her a tragic edge, particularly when considering her role in the government.

Over the course of The Expanse, we see her rise to Secretary General, lose it, and regain it. What’s notable about her two ascents to power is that both times they were a bit accidental. She may have been angling to influence policy (how to handle the proto-molecule, whether to commit genocide — you know the usual) but she wasn’t necessarily fighting to be Secretary General. When she does make a direct power grab, she loses her way. Running for re-election in season four, she chooses her own needs over Earth, losing the election and her husband in the process. She even tries to use her dead son for political gain. It’s not a good look.

So does The Expanse punish its women for ambition? I’d say no. Because Chrisjen gets the top spot back. She learns and starts putting Earth first again. Working with martian-marine-turned-truth-teller Bobbie, she discovers Marco’s plot and saves countless people. Then she fights against the new Secretary General, giving up her newly gained institutional power to stand for what’s right. The season ends with her back in charge and leaving me feeling more optimistic about the fate of humanity because of it.

So like Naomi, Christjen is more than her familial relationships. In the end, it’s not about her son or her husband but her leadership. We’re used to seeing our female heroes as unattached from Katniss Everdeen to Wonder Woman. If they are mothers, they’re usually the good or at least avenging kind, like say Sarah Conner. So to see women (and women of color no less!) portray complicated, sympathetic heroes who literally save the species be (not particularly good) mothers and have it not define them, well, it feels like the future.

Seasons 1–5 of The Expanse are available on Amazon. A sixth and final season is forthcoming.

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