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As we stand on the precipice of The Expanse Season 6 I have been reflecting on the most influential character in the series – Chrisjen Avasarala.
Chrisjen Avasarala, played with poise by Shohreh Aghdashloo, flys the feminist flag for all viewers of The Expanse, plus she boasts some of the most memorable one-liners in the whole series. Avasarala is a refreshing change from predictable female sci-fi tropes and she has made me fall in love with the genre all over again. I would go so far as to say that she is the epitome of pure grit and grace amongst political intrigue and adversity.
When I grow up I want to be Avasarala. Or at the very least, dress like her.
The Expanse is set a few hundred years in the future in a universe where resources are scarce and people are divided. Two superpowers, Earth and Mars, are fighting it out in an arms race for possession of q biological weapon/alien intelligence, the Protomolecule, that changes everything. Add to that the growing discontent of the disillusioned – the Belters who reside on space stations and chafe at their second class status, and the frustrated lower-income Earthers who are drawn to the possibility of gateways to other worlds. A refugee crisis ensues as people are desperate for a better life. The Expanse tells a story that feels eerily familiar and relevant in our time and it is a possible future for humanity, that we could find ourselves in, a lot sooner than we realize.
[See also: Foundation | Should You Be Watching Asimov’s Sprawling Saga? by Clint Worthington]
Amongst the drama, there is political intrigue. Avasarala takes her role as a United Nations official very seriously and influences at every level. She is refined, clever, and ruthless in equal measure, she flexes her own authority and influence behind the scenes on Earth. Avasarala started out as a character I didn’t especially want to like. In the opening episodes of Season 1, I spent a lot of time pondering her decisions. It hadn’t dawned on me at that point that Earth and, God forbid, the United Nations could be the actual bad guys, but her ruthlessness drew me in nonetheless. There is a reason behind this perceived ruthlessness, the need to protect Earth and ensure that her world survives. In the aftermath of an attack on Ganymede in ‘The Seventh Man’ (S2, Ep7), Avasarala is asked by Secretary-General Gillis (Jonathan Whittaker), “Why didn’t you ever run for office?” To which Avasarala quips, “I like getting shit done. And I like to keep my head attached to my neck.”
Avasarala is not a perfect character. She is flawed and human and she knows others are too. Avasarala endures betrayal by her mentee, Undersecretary Errinwright (Shawn Doyle), the second most powerful individual on Earth, as he collaborates with Jules Pierre Mao (François Chau) in the creation and distribution of the devastating Protomolecule. Despite being betrayed she gives him the option to stand up in the court of law and give his side of the story despite them both knowing he will almost certainly go to prison and face execution for his crimes against Earth and humanity.
She is not without compassion and as the seasons progress, we begin to see a lot more compassion and vulnerability. Her speech at the memorial service commemorating the twelve soldiers who died in the failed mission to capture the Belter insurgent Marcos Inaros (Keon Alexander) in ‘The One Eyed Man’ (S4, Ep8) revealed a human and more emotive side to Avasarala, to us as viewers, and her people. We see her as a mother who has lost her son in military service but she is still driven to do her best to protect Earth.
I know each of these marines was special to you, but I don’t know why; only you do. So nothing I say to you today matters, and it shouldn’t, because there are no words for what these people meant to you.
My son, Charanpal, was a marine. He was also killed by the OPA. When he died, all I wanted to know was, who was responsible? Who was the person I could hate? But there was no one.
The OPA killed your husbands, your wives, your parents, your children, but it is my fault that they died. My job is to keep the people of this planet safe, and I failed to do that for your loved ones. I failed all of you, as a mother and as a leader…
So know that I am to blame. And I understand how all of you feel. And all I can say is, I am truly sorry.Chrisjen Avasarala, ‘The One Eyed Man’ – S4, Ep8
Here we find some of the most gently subversive – and refreshing – qualities of the character. Female leaders, in life as well as fiction, are held to a different standard. Many studies have shown that the expectations of them as mothers and wives – from both media and voters – is far higher than the expectations for powerful men, and this often bleeds over into science fiction.
A man in a similar role would be expected to put their job first and agonize in their own time over their failings as a husband or father, whilst a woman is held publicly accountable for her perceived failures as a mother. Meanwhile, a lack of children is used as code for ‘cold’ and ‘unfeeling’. If a female leader has a family, they’re depicted as a weakness, and if she doesn’t, it’s seen as symptomatic of her lust for power.
We meet Avasarala’s husband, Arjun (Brian George and from Season 4, Michael Benyaer), daughter Ashanti, and grandson on screen, but they are never shown to cloud her judgement in the way they might in a less sophisticated drama. We’re given no reason to doubt her love for them is sincere, but she is able to compartmentalize and keep her private life incredibly private. When they do surface in the political area they’re an instrument of soft-power – the traditional role of the ‘political wife’ – or encouragement from the bleachers.
Even though she loses her election for Secretary-General of the United Nations against the rival Nancy Gao (Lily Gao) following the fallout in ‘The One Eyed Man’, Avasarala owns her mistakes and carries on with that steely tenacity that I admire most about her. She has plenty of room for self-criticism and reflection, but inaction is an indulgence that is unforgivable when time and time again she is given cause to believe she’s the only intelligent person in the Solar System.
[See also: The Expanse | ‘CQB’ – The Brutal Science of a Space Battle by Peter Ray Allison]
Strength in Defeat
There are always people who remain loyal to Avasarala even when those around her are in doubt. Avasarala spends most of Season 5 on Luna as Marcos Inaros unleashes a ruthless asteroid attack on Earth. The whole government cabinet is wiped out during the attack. Avasarala’s suspicions have been confirmed during this act of terrorism and the new Acting Secretary-General, David Pastor (Sugith Varughese), soon recruits Avasarala to his new cabinet. In Season 4 we see a fall from grace and determination to prove that her instincts are right. She is vindicated. The Expanse still needs Avasarala.
She exerts her influence as an orator and as an experienced visionary politician. Over the course of the series she rises from Undersecretary to acting Secretary-General to exile in-all-but-name, but it was never about titles. They’re the means to an end, the end is getting things done so why should the waning electoral fortune throw her off her stride?
The speech delivered in ‘Nemesis Games’ (S5, Ep10), where she commends the crew of Rocinante for being everything Marcos Inaros resents, demonstrates her persuasive influence in the public sphere as she knows Rocinante’s crew are influential across the whole of The Expanse. The characters in The Expanse all have an element of imperfection, which makes their individual stories resonate.
I want you all to take a good look around. This is what Marco Inaros hates. This is what he is afraid of. Why he tried so hard to destroy you and your ship. All we have to do now is turn every Belter, Martian, and Earther into this. This how we win.Chrisjen Avasarala, ‘Nemesis Games’ – S5, Ep10
Finally, whilst embroiled in political intrigue and saving Earth on numerous occasions, she takes the concept of power dressing to a whole new level. She wears decadent jewelry paired with bold saris. We even see her learn to walk in anti-gravity boots for the first time onboard Rocinante, as she is forced into space on an escape mission from Jules Pierre Mao’s ship with Martian marine Bobbie Draper (Frankie Adams). During this mission, Avasarala loses a strong ally in Cotyar Ghazi (Nick E. Tarabay), her security guard, and a follower of the Avasarala family who served with her son. Avasarala is no stranger to loss, and despite facing potential death in space she is still a formidable leader.
As an older woman, she is a rarity in the sci-fi genre but you never once think that she is incapable of doing her job. Avasarala is a truly strong woman and commands the respect of those around her whilst constantly adapting to every dangerous situation. She cleverly uses her image as a symbol of her power as well as her intelligence and determination. She has earned her crown as one of the most influential and unforgettable characters in The Expanse. We definitely need more women like her in sci-fi.
The Expanse | ‘CQB’ – The Brutal Science of a Space Battle
Stargate | Sam Carter – A Role Model for Courage and Compassion
Amy is writer and linguist who has written for Wired and The Independent. She enjoys wandering in game worlds and asking life’s big questions.