THIS WAS SUPPOSED TO BE THE MOST WONDERFUL TIME OF YEAR for fans of The Expanse. The show’s fifth season on Amazon is just around the corner, and it seems as though the final novel in James S.A. Corey’s series, Leviathan Falls, will be out in late 2021. But instead, Expanse hype season arrived on a somewhat bittersweet note with the late-November news the show would end after Season 6. Fans of the series — Inverse included! — had hoped to see all nine novels in Corey’s series adapted for TV.

It’s a damn shame, too, because The Expanse Season 5 is the show’s most ambitious and exhilarating yet, with propulsive suspense, eye-popping action, and nuanced character development longtime fans will savor. It’s a forbidding place to dive into for curious newcomers — really, just start from the beginning — but for those who’ve followed the crew of the Rocinante throughout the previous four seasons, it’s delightful to see the stellar supporting cast get so many opportunities to shine.

Season 5 of The Expanse is airing on a hybrid schedule this time around, attempting to bridge the gap between the bingers and those who like to space out their sci-fi fix. After the first three episodes launch December 16, new episodes will debut each Wednesday on Amazon Prime. The Season 5 finale will air February 3.

The initial trio of episodes picks up right where the jaw-dropping conclusion of Season 4 left off, with Marco Inaros’ (Keon Alexander) plot against Earth inching toward a rolling boil. He’s taken it upon himself to avenge centuries of oppression against the inhabitants of the outer planets and Asteroid Belt, known in the Expanse universe as Belters. When the Rocinante’s Naomi Nagata (Dominique Tipper) learns that her abandoned son, Felip Inaros, is now Marco’s right-hand man, she’s determined to intervene. As one might expect when matters of interplanetary politics get tangled up with unresolved family feuds, things get complicated mighty fast.

The push-pull dynamics between these three, whether or not they’re sharing the screen, is consistently riveting. Their encounters and ruminations reveal unexpected insights into the tender, emotional underbelly of a charismatic tyrant, and a version of Naomi who’s far more imperfect — though just as admirable — than we realized. Jasai Chase Owens gives a sterling performance as Felip, coltish and imposing all at once.

Fans of the Rocinante’s brawny philosopher, Amos Burton (Wes Chatham), will also find much to enjoy in Season 5. We learn more about Amos’ past as he heads back to Earth on personal business. From an early, all-too-brief meeting with Avasarala (Shohreh Aghdashloo), he’s an enigma who’s every bit as fascinating as the mysterious protomolecule. Chatham’s take on Amos is consistently impossible to look away from, a live wire of barely restrained chaos that brings an understated power to every scene.

Other familiar faces have a bit less to do this time around, like Holden (Steven Strait) and Bobbie (Frankie Adams). Particularly in the first three episodes, they seem to be laying out the pieces on the chessboard. You’ll be happy to know what they’re up to, but just as eager to check back in with Naomi, Drummer, or Amos.

Alex Kamal (Cas Anvar) returns to Mars, partnering with Bobbie after a misguided attempt to patch things up with his neglected wife and son. His storyline comes off as especially awkward given the summer investigation into the actor’s alleged sexual misconduct, and it’s one of the few discordant notes in an otherwise virtuoso season. (Anvar won’t return for the show’s final season.)

As a show that’s so long been deliberately cramped and unglamorous in its portrayal of outer space — barring Avasarala’s enviably chic wardrobe, of course — Season 5 is the first arc of The Expanse to feel truly enormous and splashy. The stakes, the story, everything is on A Grand Scale. Between its dazzling Luna vistas and bombastic setpiece moments, it also lets us luxuriate in familiar company without whacking us over the head with MCU-grade lore dumps every 10 minutes.

It’s the most overused analogy in sci-fi, but Season 5 truly feels like the Empire Strikes Back moment for The Expanse. The show’s bigger and better than it’s ever been. You will come away from those first three episodes with an even more insistent, ravenous craving than when you started. So why stop now? There’s still three more books.

THE EXPANSE SEASON 5 DEBUTS WEDNESDAYS ON AMAZON THROUGH FEBRUARY 3.