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The Expanse | Trauma and Violence: The Psychology of Amos Burton

A psychotherapist explains how Amos Burton’s childhood abuse shapes the actions and relationships of The Expanse's most compelling character.

Warning: This article contains spoilers for The Expanse episodes ‘The Big Empty’ (S1, Ep2), ‘Safe’ (S2, Ep1), ‘The Seventh Man’ (S2, Ep7), ‘Immolation’ (S3, Ep6), ‘Intransigence’ (S3, Ep9), ‘Dandelion Sky’ (S3, Ep10), ‘Guagamela’ (S5, Ep4), and ‘Tribes’ (S5, Ep6).

This article deals with abuse and trauma. We’d encourage anyone affected by the subject matter to make use of the resources offered by the UK charity Mind

During the early episodes of The Expanse, Amos Burton (played by Wes Chatham) is portrayed as the resident muscle; Canterbury’s hardened mechanic who is unafraid of violence. In the second episode of the first season (‘The Big Empty’), Amos threatens to throw James Holden (Stephen Strait) out of an airlock for putting them all in danger:

“I can take a core apart and put it back together with my eyes closed. But ask me whether or not I should rip your helmet off and kick you off this bucket, and I couldn’t give you a reason why I should or shouldn’t. Except Naomi wouldn’t like it.”

However, as the series progresses, we learn more about his backstory and discover that Amos is not merely a psychotic thug. Instead, Amos is a survivor of child abuse, who is striving to overcome the mental trauma.

The Use and Abuse of Violence

One of the first things we learn about Amos is that he is comfortable around violence and familiar with its application. This is exemplified when Miller (Thomas Jane) confronts Amos about a friend’s death, in the second season Expanse episode ‘Safe’ (S2, Ep1). Amos repeatedly warns Miller to walk away, but as soon as Miller attacks, Amos does not hold back and almost beats Miller to death. What is most terrifying in that scene is not the violence, but that Amos appears completely emotionless. It was only the intervention of Naomi Nagata (Dominique Tipper) that prevented Amos from killing Miller.

Amos’s disturbing familiarity with violence becomes a theme for the character, as the layers of seeming sociopathy are peeled away to reveal a deeply traumatized character. In an interview with CBR, Wes Chatham explained that “There are circumstances that happen [when Amos] completely loses control of that defense mechanism, then you see straight into his heart and the thing that he has been trying to protect the whole time.”

Amos understands at a fundamental level that he is not like other people. He can also recognize others who share his lack of empathy. For example; in The Expanse episode ‘The Seventh Man’ (S2, Ep7), Amos is able to extract vital information from Paolo Cortázar (Carlos Gonzalez-Vio), the scientist found at Thoth Station. Likewise, in Season 4 it is Amos who quickly realizes that Adolphus Murtry (Burn Gorman) is the greatest threat on Ilus.

Amos. illuminated by two flashlights pinned to his jacket stands inside the alien structure on Illus. Its walls are grey and patterned. Chandra Wei stands behind him slightly out of focus.
Chandra Wei (Jess Salgueiro) and Amos Burton (Wes Chatham) inside the alien structure on Ilus in The Expanse episode ‘Saeculum’ (S4, Ep9). Salgueiro already has some pretty decent chops, having appeared as Hughie’s partner Robin in The Boys, Jacinda/Shockwave in Jupiter’s Legacy, Christine Flores in Y: The Last Man, and Sherry in The Strain. | Amazon Prime, 2019.

Amos and Murtry have much in common. Both rely on fear to get their way and are familiar with violence. However, Murtry, unlike Amos, is in command and does not have the moral compass of his crew to temper his brutality.

Yet, Amos is aware of the brutality of violence and how it sullies him. When Praxideke ‘Prax’ Meng (Terry Chen) is going to shoot Dr. Strickland (Ted Atherton), it is Amos who intervenes. Amos understands that Prax is not a killer. This is not to save Strickland’s life but rather to save Prax from becoming a killer.

Amos: “You’re not that guy…”
Strickland: “Thank you, thank you…”

“I am that guy,” says Amos to Strickland, before shooting him.

Amos Burton’s Childhood Trauma

Amos is not completely uncaring, as he is extremely protective of children. There is a telling moment during The Expanse episode ‘Immolation’ (S3, Ep6). The crew has returned to Rocinante with the children they rescued from the research station. It is Amos we see caring for the children. Unfortunately, witnessing the ring gate being formed, Amos swears loudly in front of them. That scene encapsulates much about his character; Amos is someone who will care for and protect children but does not realize the ramifications of his behavior.

Similarly, in The Expanse Season 4, Amos befriends Chike (Nathaniel McParland), a recently orphaned child who is now blind. Although Chike is surrounded by his people, it is Amos who holds the boy’s hand and promises to see for both of them.

In the aforementioned interview with CBR, Wes Chatham explained: “There’s a book called The Body Keeps the Score, and it’s just a book on trauma and how trauma manifests in people’s lives. You read this book and the great thing about this book is there’s case study after case study after case study and you’re like, ‘Oh, that’s interesting.’

“And you start to see these common things of people that have gone through similar situations and how they have similar defense mechanisms and how that manifests. And then you tie that all into the choices of what you make [as the character].”

Moral Decisions and Relationships

Many of Amos’s actions are guided by his companions. Just as Amos seeks to protect the crew, he looks to the others for moral guidance. Amos can recognize those who are ‘good’ or ‘bad’ but struggles to make ethical/moral decisions. Instead, Amos focuses on the needs of the moment, without considering the wider consequences or how they impact the community.

Amos Burton is holding Cohen by the scruff of the neck and speaking to him, whilst Monica Stuart watches.
Amos Burton (Wes Chatham) confronts Elio ‘Cohen’ Casti (Brandon McGibbon) in The Expanse episode ‘Intransigence’ (S3, Ep9). It’s strongly implied that Cohen doesn’t survive his trip out of the airlock, although Monica Stuart (Anna Hopkins) does and reappears in The Expanse Season 6 as part of Chrisjen Aversarala’s retinue. | Syfy, 2018.

A prime example of this is in The Expanse episode ‘Intransigence’ (S3, Ep9) when Amos calmly forces a documentary team to take a spacewalk to the nearby spaceship after Monica Stuart’s (Anna Hopkins) cameraman Elio ‘Cohen’ Casti (Brandon McGibbon) sabotaged Rocinante. Amos recognizes Cohen as a threat to the ship, and thus Cohen must leave. However, as Cohen was blind, Amos also spaced Stuart with him, so she could help Cohen into a spacesuit and guide him to a nearby spaceship.

However, Amos’s loyalty to the crew is not absolute. After Naomi betrays the crew of Rocinante, Amos realizes the danger of relying on another for making decisions for him. At first, Amos attempts to make his own decisions, and becomes increasingly emotionless, but is visibly shocked when a child accuses him of being a bad man in The Expanse episode ‘The Seventh Man’ (S2, Ep7).

It is at this point that he starts to look to others for guidance. At first, this is Holden, but he later includes Prax and Anna Volovodov (Elizabeth Mitchell). These are all people he has identified as being ‘good’, in that they will care for others.

“Amos appears to apply the principles and knowledge he has learned as a mechanic to improve himself,” observes psychotherapist and counselor Sharn Waldron. “He understands his machinery is damaged and needs to change over the part that no longer works and, if necessary, improvise a replacement.”

Amos’s lack of empathy has resulted in him simplifying his relationships with others. There is the crew, who he follows, those who need protecting, like Anna and Prax, and the bad ones, like Strickland and Murtry.

These classifications are never immutable; for example, we see Amos’s evolving relationship with Chandra Wei (Jess Salgueiro) in The Expanse Season 4. At first, Amos appreciates Wei’s company, often going out of his way to warn her about Murtry. However, as soon as Wei threatens Amos and prevents him from helping Holden, he immediately shoots her. Amos makes no attempt to reason with Wei, as she had initially tried to do with Amos. At that point, as far as Amos was concerned, Wei had become one of the bad ones.

An inverse of this was Amos’s relationship with Clarissa Mao (Nadine Nicole). Clarissa went from one of the “bad ones” to “one you need to protect.” This went as far as Amos recruiting her to join the crew of Rocinante.

Amos sees Clarissa as someone who needs his protection, but not necessarily someone to follow. As they struggle to find help following the devastating attack on Earth in Season 5, Amos becomes increasingly worried about his decisions. As Amos says in The Expanse episode ‘Tribes’ (S5, Ep6);

Holden would’ve never approved a move like that. I need to get back to my crew…”

Dissociation and Trauma

It is in The Expanse Season 5 that we learn the most about Amos Burton’s past and psychology, as he returns to Baltimore following the death of his adoptive mother. It is interesting to note that although Amos has no direct connection with Charles (Frankie Faison), the person whom Amos’s adoptive mother Lydia (Stacey Roca) married after Amos had left, he still takes steps to protect Charles’s home. Amos can see that Charles cared for Lydia, and so he takes it upon himself to ensure Charles is similarly cared for. Again, although Amos struggles to be empathic, he parcels the world into bad people, people who need protection, and people you follow.

Amos Burton stands in front of an apartment block in Baltimore. He has a rucksack over one shoulder.
Amos Burton (Wes Chatham) returns to Baltimore to confront his past in The Expanse episode ‘The Churn’ (S5, Ep2). The storyline, a major part of The Expanse Season 5, is drawn from James S.A. Corey’s 2014 prequel novella The Churn and the fifth book, Nemesis Games (2015). | Amazon, 2020.

Throughout The Expanse, it is evident that Amos has survived horrific trauma. Due to several comments alluding to his past, it seems most likely that this was child sex exploitation. Amos seems to know how sex trafficking gangs operate and is understanding of sex workers, even going so far as to warn them about potentially dangerous clients.

In The Expanse episode ‘Dandelion Sky’ (S3, Ep10), Amos reveals that the last time he felt fear was when he was five. Alex Kamal (Cas Anvar) reacts with admiration, wishing he could go through life without being afraid, but Amos disagrees. Amos recognizes that being unafraid is a weakness; although he may not feel fear, he has likewise cut himself off from feeling anything and connecting with other people.

“Dissociation is at the root of trauma and is the way the of the psyche’s survival, this is particularly so with individuals who have experienced early childhood abuse (sexual, physical, etc),” says Waldron.

“Dissociation is thought to be a self-protective survival technique in which a child (or adult) slips into a dissociative state in order to escape fully experiencing trauma that is unbearable.”

Yet, there remain chinks in Amos’s emotional armor. When he is rendered blind in the structures on Ilus (‘The One-Eyed Man’ – S4, Ep8), Amos descends into despair. Although it is never shown, Amos seemingly has a flashback to his childhood, lashing out in terror.

Amos later recounts to Holden, in the same episode, living in a basement and waking up from his nightmares to complete blackness, before chillingly stating “That’s when they came in.” As a child, he believed he was dead and powerless to do anything about it, and now all he can do is sit in the darkness and wait for death.

For Amos, having lived through that once was more than enough, and he will do anything to avoid it happening again.

“Dissociation can initially be a coping strategy that allows a person to manage severe stress and personal threats. Problems occur when dissociation occurs in situations where the real danger is not present,” explains Waldron. “Since dissociation usually occurs without conscious awareness, people do not usually realize that they are using it as a coping strategy.”

The Psychological Cost of Survival

Amos may not be the nicest person to be around, and he may not know how to care for others, yet he is constantly striving to change. He is determined to overcome the demons of his past and become a better person, but that will only be possible once he is capable of opening himself to others. But for Amos, that will mean letting go of everything that had previously protected him; something which he may never be entirely comfortable with.

As Amos says to Clarissa in The Expanse episode ‘Guagamela’ (S5, Ep4); “People like us, the things we do, it’s not just on us. This world is messed up, and it can mess you up. I was lucky. I had somebody to help me.”

Amos may not be a good or kind person, but he is desperately trying to become one, and just maybe that act of trying is sufficient to make him the good person that he so desperately wants to be.

This article was first published on December 10th, 2021, on the original Companion website.

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