Syfy's space opera The Expanse is often compared to Game of Thrones, and while there are obvious cosmetic differences between the two, it's an apt, surface-level parallel with the twists and shocking deaths on both series. Plus, not for nothing, one of the writers of The Expanse novels, Daniel Abraham, has his own history with Westeros.
But if The Expanse was a Game of Thrones pastiche, that would make its head protagonist, James Holden, played by Steven Strait, the House Stark equivalent. At the start of the show, he's an idealist who sets about doing the right thing when the opportunity presents itself. It's this virtuous attitude that actually gets the crew of his original ship, the Canterbury, killed in a mysterious attack when he elects to answer a distress call, to the dismay of the ship's captain. Much of Holden's journey in season one is that of a traditional protagonist — he's still a pretty good dude, despite all the chaos surrounding him and the surviving members of the Canterbury, who are now aboard a Martian attack ship called the Rocinante (or Roci, for short).
However, at the end of season one, things for Holden begin to change. He witnesses firsthand a mysterious blue organism, the Protomolecule, essentially wipe out the population of an entire asteroid station. The Eros attack is the first of several brushes with the Protomolecule for Holden and the Roci crew, and with each encounter, Holden becomes more obsessed with destroying it. In turn, he loses a bit of his humanity. In one of his most indicting moments of season two, he blows up a ship comprised of Doctors Without Borders who attempt to help the people on Eros. Suffice it to say, that's a far cry from the Stark heroism we're used to on HBO.
In a phone interview, Strait discussed Holden's transformation in season two, which member of the cast he'd love to spend more screen time with (hint: of course it's Shohreh Aghdashloo) and what to expect in season three.
Mic: As a viewer, one of the biggest differences I saw going into the second season was how you guys widened the scope of the show, such as introducing that new Martian perspective with Bobbie Draper. What did you see as the biggest differences between seasons one and two?
Steven Strait: In the most macro level, in season one we're really building the world and setting up the story and in essence the plot is happening around a crisis. They're responding to this crisis on every side. There's Avasarala, Miller and the Roci crew are all responding to someone that's been imposed onto them.
In season two, the difference, just looking at the overall narrative, is the characters are in the driver's seat of what's going on. They're the ones pushing the plot forward. Seeing the Martian perspective is really important to convey in that, because it shows you can't really tell the entire story without it. And then having Bobbie Draper, this incredible, powerful character — and I was a big fan of the books before we started season one — she's one of my favorites as well.
Of all the characters this season, I think Holden had the biggest evolution. Whereas his season one arc was more of a traditional protagonist, he has a darker side to him this season, where the mission — destroying the Protomolecule — comes before individual lives. How would you describe Holden's transformation?
SS: I think Eros changes him. I did a lot of research on post-traumatic stress disorder through a couple of psychologists who worked in the military and in specific reference to peacekeepers who were in genocidal zones, like Rwanda and Bosnia, who came back with their own personal traumas.
I think it's really important to show Holden move through his trauma this season in a very real way. For him, when you meet him, he's such an idealist and he's a slacker and kind of a fuckup. He's consciously chosen to not have responsibility, he even turns down promotions on the Canterbury, which is where we first meet him. Between the Canterbury and Eros, and his execution of Kenzo on Eros and then executing the Doctors Without Borders ship and then Miller passing away — the only other person who shared his experience on Eros — he attempts to execute another scientist. He actually does execute another one, who is testing the Protomolecule on children.
That pushes him over the edge. He is not equipped when you first meet him to deal with all this stuff. For Holden, he becomes distorted and he's consumed by trauma and fear. He's too obsessed with [the Protomolecule] to see that this mission has become less about the overall good and more about himself.
But he's personalized it to the point that it's almost become his white whale. This is his — it's haunting him. He's the only one who survived on the ground on Eros, where hundreds of thousands of people died in this horrific way, and it literally irradiated him. He can't even have children anymore. This is a huge thing for Holden. It's only towards the end where he has to choose between his white whale and literally the wellbeing of his family — the Roci crew — that he loves, that that finally snaps him out of it.
I think the Holden we see at the end of season two is probably more aligned, morally, with Miller. That Holden probably would've pulled the trigger on the Protomolecule scientist, Dresden, in the premiere — or at the very least, totally understood where that reaction was coming from.
SS: Absolutely. I think he actually even does it in executing — he essentially watches a scientist who was testing the Protomolecule on children bleed out. He doesn't try to help her, and that is the moment where Naomi sees that the Holden that she fell in love with has disappeared. At least, it's not there, you know? She sees him as a guy that's lost now.
Not only do I think he would agree with the execution of Dresden in the beginning of the second season, but he actually does the same thing at the end. So yes, the development for Holden becoming this — by the end of the second season, his values didn't fully break. He's still trying to do the right thing. He finally gets taken out of this obsession of his, of trying to stamp this thing out that he feels somewhat responsible for. But what happened is that through these experiences, he understood his limits and the limits of other people.
His idealism has become more gray, and I think that the ethical compass is now definitely more in line with Miller. And that ethical line really starts to change with Miller on Eros when he executes Kenzo, I mean he essentially just leaves him there to die. There's a little bit; the tail end to that scene is Miller watching him, and Holden almost trying so hard to step up to the plate on what is necessary here. That, for me, that was the joy of playing Holden these last two seasons is that it's not a traditional story arc. He is an antihero, but he's not a grizzled kind of antihero that everyone's trying to pull back into the fray. No, he's unprepared.
I had the chance to talk to [co-star Dominique Tipper] before season two, and she talked about how she stopped reading The Expanse novels because she didn't want to know what happened to Naomi, and it would be more difficult to separate her character on the show versus the book. There's always going to be those little differences. Is that a problem for you, where you're reading the source material and there might be some changes to Holden onscreen?
SS: No, not really. I haven't read too far into the series. I've read through book three. There's a concern if you move too far out into the character arc that it hinders you being present while you're performing. For me, having this architecture for Holden and learning them through the books and mining his history was incredibly beneficial to me.
Obviously having the authors in our writers room is this incredible benefit. Because if you have any questions about anything, you can just ask them what research and character work they did themselves. I have questions about Holden's family or the whole intricate situation where he was born to keep his family's land. He was kind of born into a sense of responsibility that he didn't choose as well — and that didn't work out so well, either. That's why he's in the middle of nowhere in the first place, on the Canterbury.
Those kinds of details that come from the books, that come from the authors, are incredibly helpful and you put those in there and for me it's really important to have every step of Holden's arc be justified. There has to be a reason for it.
Because there's so many characters and settings on The Expanse, you aren't able to share the screen with all the major characters. Is there anyone in particular you'd love to have more screentime with? I feel like I'm just inviting you to talk about Shohreh, who's dropping incredible F-bombs left and right.
SS: (laughs) I was so happy about that. In the books she's got such a mouth on her. Yes, I mean the answer would be Shohreh. Shohreh is such a powerhouse of an actress. I have been a huge fan of hers most of my life. I mean, I remember seeing her in House of Sand and Fog and just being so moved by her performance, and then seeing her on 24, years later.
She brings such a gravitas to her work and she balances that out on set by — you know, Shohreh in real life is really very playful. She has a young spirit, and she's so game to jump into these scenes. The truth of the matter is that everybody acting with her benefits from that. These scenes end up becoming these beautiful things and she's the gravity in the middle that everybody orbits — not to use another space analogy. But yeah, I would absolutely love to spend some screentime with Shohreh.
I adore her as a person, but she's — as an actress, what is there to say? She's singular that way.
The last we see of Holden this season, Naomi's just admitted to not just keeping the Protomolecule sample, but putting it in the hands of OPA leader Fred Johnson. How do you think Holden will react to this news?
SS: (laughs) Ah well, you know Holden does have a bit of a temper, obviously. But at this point he's going to have to weigh this out. I think on a personal level, the fact that she lied to him about something so important is probably the biggest hurdle for Holden. He's been pulled back from the abyss of his obsession with the Protomolecule and then believing that he can singlehandedly stop it by himself. But I doubt that he is going to be game for having the OPA have a sample of the Protomolecule. It doesn't make the situation better for Holden.
But he loves Naomi. And this is the push and pull of having greater responsibilities and having personal relationships and personal responsibilities. We've seen the Roci crew over these past two seasons really grow together into a family and they didn't even really know each other that well when they answered that distress call [back in the pilot]. This group is the most important thing to each of them. In many ways, they were all running from something when you meet them on the Canterbury and what they found eventually was each other. Not to be cheesy about it, but, it's how it actually happened. But for Holden, he's becoming more measured in his philosophy and in his way of being.
I'll be curious to see how our amazing writers tackle it and move to a point in season three where he's more grounded and more measured. So we'll see. But it's definitely going to cause some friction, there's no doubt about that.
So The Expanse has been renewed for a third season. I understand if you can't get into too many details, but what can you tell us about season three?
SS: Having been a fan of the books myself, you kind of don't think the world can get larger or crazier or more in-depth — and it always does. The Protomolecule has changed everything. All the rules of the game no longer apply.
I would say to expect the unexpected in season three. The Protomolecule has no rules that we know of so far. It follows some of the laws of physics, but nobody knows for sure what it's capable of. I'm really excited to portray a couple different pieces of it that I know you know about. There's gonna be some really cool stuff coming up.
Obviously, Holden's journey continues on — if you've read the books, you know that there's some really, really amazing things coming. I'm really jazzed, man, I'm really jazzed about it. We're going to be going back pretty soon and I can't wait to dive right in and get it on its feet.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
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