EXCLUSIVE: Syfy's The Expanse Showrunners Talk About Chad L. Coleman's Big Character Reveal

(Photo: Syfy)

SPOILERS for tonight's episode of The Expanse, "Back to the Butcher."

The first major piece of backstory for any character on The Expanse wasn't for one of the survivors of the Cant, or Detective Miller, or even Chrisjen back on Earth. Instead, it was for a character who thus far has only had a cursory introduction in one episode: Col. Fred Johnson, played by Chad L. Coleman.

The reveal was sudden, it came early for a show that plays these things very close to the vest thus far, and it was major: Johnson is better known as the Butcher of Anderson Station, citing an event from about a decade prior when he ruthlessly killed an entire space station worth of belters - who were trying to surrender and were trying to protect the welfare of their children (that were on the station with them).

It certainly paints the character in a drastically different light going forward. So why tell his backstory so early, and in such a dramatic and graphic fashion (we literally saw a man, holding his daughter, floating dead in the void of space)?

"It's an interesting question. You could certainly argue that we could've held onto that for a very long period of time," writer/producer Naren Shankar told ComicBook.com in a phone interview. "I think the reason we went with it was, what we needed to do was, we're introducing a character who has great notoriety in the world. Everybody knows what this guy did out in the Belt, and yet we were making a big point of our crew having great reservations about throwing in with this guy.

"We felt it was an interesting way to come into a story with just this slice of life from the past - you don't even know why you're really watching it - and play it off in the end in parallel with our crew wrestling with going to a guy who, on the surface is offering something that seems really good, and you're talking about people who have done terrible things in their past and they've changed. It gave weight to it and allowed us to explain it without a scene like the following: 'Fred Johnson, the Butcher of Anderson Station? Isn't he the one who slaughtered all of those poor Belters in that station ages ago?' 'Yes, I think he's a very bad man.' (laughs) Nobody talks like that."

Instead, they showed the act itself, and gave build up in short flashback scenes throughout the episode.

"It would've been boring to just show it and, like Naren said, out of context without warning you're showing this thing and you catch up to it throughout the episode, oh, this is why they're afraid to go to this guy," added the show's co-creator Mark Fergus. "It's such a beautiful little story, in and of itself. Just to let it have its screen time, we don't have to talk about it, we don't have to do a bunch of exposition."

The scene is heartbreaking, with fans tweeting immediately after it aired on the West Coast "thanks for making me cry, Expanse" and other such lamentations, but that presentation was important to the producers.

"That was one of the biggest struggles of our entire season," Shankar said. "Just to give you a little backstory about this, I'm happy to talk about it, because we initially thought, when we were talking about this story, we were actually going to play it from the first person as: imagine you're inside Fred Johnson's visor as he's coming into the station. It's basically playing the battle step by step, but it was from his perspective.

"As we worked through it we realized it was a real opportunity to, again, play into the actual plight of the Belters. We wound up telling it from the point of view of the people inside Anderson Station, with the end moment being ... Essentially it would've been like, years ago, the Time Magazine cover of the man standing on the battlefield on a heap of bodies, and the Butcher of Anderson Station is the headline."

Shankar said it was a "struggle" to pull the episode off "because it's a very unconventional way of telling that kind of a story." But now that they've pulled it off, Fergus said, "that's the kind of stuff we want to do more often.

And if fans are wondering about follow-up, they won't have to wonder long, as we'll see it in the next episode, Shankar promised.


"I think that when you watch episode 6, you might understand a little bit why we did it, because there are elements of the novella Butcher of Anderson Station that we actually used a little bit in working with Dawes and Miller. That formed the foundational basis of the storyline in episode 6," he teased.

The Expanse airs Tuesdays at 10pm on Syfy.