In Season 3, viewers saw many villains both old and new. The major villains in the first half of the season were Jules Pierre Mao, Dr. Lawrence Strickland, Admiral Nguyen, and Sadavir Errinwright. Jules appeared to be driven by greed, while Errinwright appeared to be motivated by the need for power. Admiral Nguyen appeared to be motivated by his hatred of the Martians. Strickland, on the other hand, seemed to be a sociopath who was willing to do the bidding of his master, Jules Mao, even if it meant hurting children. However, a closer review of the actions of Jules and Sadavir revealed that they were more complicated and their motivations not strictly two-dimensional.
For Jules, it was more than simple greed. On Io, when he befriended Mei, viewers saw the father who truly loved Julie. But, later as the opportunity to unlock the secrets of the Protomolecule presented itself, Jules was ruthlessly willing to sacrifice Mei to unlock the secret. This followed his earlier actions when Dresden told him how Julie died. Jules remarked to Errinwright that he was willing to sacrifice his daughter to develop the potential of the Protomolecule. Jules only respected true power and the Protomolecule represent the potential for unlimited power. Also, Jules was only loyal to Jules Pierre Mao and to no one else. This was apparent when he went to the Martians to sell them the Protomolecule hybrids. At least, it seemed that Errinwright was loyal to Earth.
Errinwright, as an Undersecretary of the UN, was a government official who originally had been seduced by Jules Mao’s promises of a new weapon that Earth could use to defeat Mars and the Belt. Initially, viewers saw Errinwright in the same light as he saw himself: as someone who was working to save Earth. However, it eventually became apparent that Errinwright was in it for himself and the power he would have if he secured the Protomolecule for Earth.
In Errinwright’s quest for power, he threw the system into war, betrayed Avasarala, murdered the Martian minister, and tried to have Avasarala killed. He had no respect for Secretary-General Sorrento-Gillis and only saw him as a means to an end. Errinwright was Iago, whispering lies in the ear of Othello. Errinwright’s perfidy was responsible for more than a million deaths on Earth. Jules had killed over a hundred thousand people on Eros. It would seem that Dr. Strickland could not possibly match Errinwright’s level of death. Strickland did not match the number of deaths but he betrayed children and the trust they placed in him.
Doctor Strickland was in many ways more despicable than either Mao or Errinwright. He used children, who suffered from a devastating disease, to further his research on the Protomolecule. When he was confronted with the Rocinante landing party, he murdered his own assistant and claimed that he was trying to rescue the children. When Amos put Strickland down and saved Prax from himself, the viewers cheered. While all of these men were very complicated, Admiral Nguyen was not a complicated man.
Admiral Nguyen saw obtaining the Protomolecule for Earth as a win-win. He would finally have the ability to destroy the hated Martians, as well as gain military superiority over them. But, in some ways, like Clarissa, he was blinded by his hatred. He killed a crewman on the Agatha King and ordered the destruction of a UN warship. He directed the firing of the hybrids towards Mars in a last-ditch effort to win. He never sought redemption and died a very bitter man.
While these gentlemen were great villains in the first half of the season, the second half of Season 3 provided an even more subtle brand of a villain with Ashford and Melba Koh/Melissa Mao. In the novel, Abaddon’s Gate, Ashford was the captain of the Behemoth instead of the first officer (Drummer and Naomi were not on the ship in the novel). Reasonable people can argue whether or not Ashford was a villain in the television series; however, there was no doubt that he was a villain in the novel, Abaddon’s Gate.
When Ashford was first introduced, it was clear that he and Drummer had a history together. Ashford continually and subtly made comments and actions which undermined her authority. Both Drummer and Naomi believed that Ashford’s long game was to foment a mutiny. However, Ashford’s final goal was far more complicated.
In the scenes where Ashford and Drummer were trapped by the farm machinery, viewers saw a very complex man who really wanted a better future for the Belters. When he made the decision to destroy the Ring, which meant his death as well, he was willing to make that sacrifice. However, his efforts to undermine Drummer and his later attempt to kill Drummer, Naomi, and Holden, squarely put him in the villain camp. He, like Errinwright before him, could not admit that they had made a mistake and did not care who died in the process of their orders being carried out. Ashford hoped that this final sacrifice would absolve him of his past sins. Perhaps this was why he was deaf to any arguments against his decision to destroy the Ring.
Unlike Ashford, there was no doubt that Melba/Clarissa was a villain. Clarissa Mao saw her world destroyed by the incarceration of her father and the confiscation of all of their assets. Instead of choosing to make her own way in the world, she chose to exact revenge on the person she held responsible for the destruction of her life: James Holden. Any reasonable person would realize that Jules-Pierre Mao received what he deserved. In fact, there were some who believed that the death penalty would have been appropriate for his crimes. But in her delusion, Clarissa blamed James Holden for destroying her father.
Throughout the episodes where Melba/Clarissa interacted with other characters, she killed those people who tried to help her. This was very telling since, in the scenes which showed her relationship with her father and sister, she was always trying to curry favor with them. Only a deeply disturbed person would kill those who tried to help her (Tilly and Ren), while she sought revenge and validation from her father, who only saw her as a person who was fit to plan parties. But even Melba was a bit more than just a crazed person seeking revenge.
Melba did feel guilt over what she had done to Ren but the guilt did not stop her vendetta against Holden. She finally came to her senses when she was in lock-up with Holden. As she listened to Naomi and Holden talk about his need to stop the station, irrespective of the cost to himself, Melba finally began to realize that Holden was not the monster who had caused her father’s destruction. Earlier, when Anna stopped Amos from killing her, Clarissa finally had to face the reality of what she had done. But Anna also offered her a chance at redemption. Clarissa did redeem herself when she stopped Ashford from destroying the Ring in the finale. This probably saved everyone within the Ring and the Solar System. It also opened the stars to humanity.
Clarissa and Ashford were the major villains of the second half of Season 3 but there were lesser “villains” as well. There was Cohen, who unknowingly sabotaged the Rocinante but later died aboard the Martian vessel. There were the Martian marines, who commonly used racial slurs about the Belters and unfairly blamed Holden for something he did not do. Finally, the former fan favorite Diogo was a young man seduced by Anderson Dawes into supporting the more radical elements of the Belter society.
But what about the Protomolecule? Isn’t it the greatest villain of all? The simple answer is no. The Protomolecule, as Holden explained, was a builder that used whatever raw material it found. The Protomolecule was simply a device used to connect the galaxy together in a massive ring system. Humanity was the agent that wanted to twist the Protomolecule into something nefarious. The Protomolecule only wanted to build the Ring system.
The Expanse achieved what DC failed to do and Marvel consistently failed to do; it created complicated, multidimensional villains. Mao, Errinwright, Ashford, Clarissa, Strickland, and Nguyen were all complex villains in Season 3. For those who have read books 4 and 5, Season 4 promises an equal caliber of complicated, multi-dimensional villains.
At the time of the writing of this article, Season 4 is slated to have 10 episodes. Season 3 reached into book 4 for some elements of Proto-Miller’s dialogue. There are interesting elements in book 5, Nemesis Games, which involve Naomi and which could be interpolated in Season 4. This would also introduce perhaps the greatest villain of the series at the same time. Stay tuned for season 4 to determine how it will be played.