Television’s relationship to a world beyond Earth has created a symbiotic relationship for decades. It was on television that most Americans watched Neil Armstrong’s first steps on the moon. Not long after, Gene Roddenberry explored the universe aboard the U.S.S. Enterprise. As special effects have improved, so too have the ambitions of storytellers. Even in a landscape with Space Force and The Expanse, Netflix‘s latest series, Away, paints a grueling picture of space travel. With undeniably emotional highs, Away suffers from pacing issues and tangential storylines that hold it back from true greatness.
Created by Andrew Hinderaker, Away follows astronaut Emma Green (Hilary Swank) as she leads the Atlas space mission to Mars. While the American astronaut commands the ship, the crew is both multinational and diverse. Botanist Kwesi (Ato Essandoh) grew up in the U.K. but was born in Ghana. The ship’s engineer, Misha (Mark Ivanir), has logged more time in space than any cosmonaut. Yu (Vivian Wu) brings hard science and reason to the mission at every turn. Ram (Ray Panthanki) completes the crew as the crew’s doctor and psychologist. Meanwhile, Emma’s husband Matt (Josh Charles) and daughter Alexis (Talitha Bateman) must handle the distance from their loved one and their own health problems.
Perhaps the most shocking aspects of Away are the unintentional aspects that relay on this moment. The isolation and focus on mental health speak to a world ravaged by Covid-19. It’s nearly impossible to not sympathize with characters stuck in limited space as they consistently grow sick and tired of each other. Tensions rise and fall, but throughout the series, the theme is impossible to ignore. The series explores the isolation from those in space, but also those on Earth attempting to recalibrate their lives. This isolation manifests itself sexually, mentally, and physically, allowing “Away” to explore the nuances of the topic through its character’s mental health.
With political divisiveness and bad faith rhetoric at nearly every turn, this diverse cast feels radical. While the show did not intend to wade into discussions of isolationism versus inclusivity, the series hinges its most emotional moments on cooperation and trust. We are a mere eighteen months since an all-female spacewalk was canceled due to incorrect suit sizes. Even though films like Gravity, Interstellar, and The Martian have displayed women in positions of power, Swank’s character directly faces opposition to put a man in charge. Her role, and Swank’s performance as Emma, realize the weight on her shoulders at every turn.
Every performer also inserts subtle tendencies toward monomania as they sacrifice love, life, and more in pursuit of greatness. Swank and Wu go on to steal the show from under their co-stars. Each of the actresses approaches their material with nearly oppositional fervor. The quiet and reserved Yu (Wu) is a marvel to behold. Wu will rip your heart out with her wildly subdued yet emotional turn. It’s a stunning portrayal of subtlety, and Wu should return to the mainstream after this performance. We’ve seen Swank perform variations on this character, but the extended time that a television creates allowed the Oscar-winner to pull out nuances of Emma. Each actress draws your attention to their position in-frame, making it even more frustrating when Away chooses to focus on any other characters.
This focus actually spawns an issue for Away. Simply put, the Mars-bound portion of the series is extremely interesting, creates tension, and creates interesting character moments. Meanwhile, the time Earth with Emma’s family can be bland and repetitive. Charles adds emotion to every scene, and his struggle to recover from a stroke forces him to reevaluate his purpose. He continues to work at NASA, becoming their “man-on-the-ground” for most of the season. It would have been interesting to have a disabled actor in the role, but Charles finds some great emotional beats.
However, the storylines with Bateman are a complete non-starter. Juxtaposing teenage rebellion against a crew fighting for life has never been more jarring. The series further undercuts Alexis’ storyline with Orange Is the New Black style flashbacks of the crew. The essential backstory of the team reveals tragedy and obstacles that would crush lesser individuals. These moments build emotion and connection to our crew, while Alexis’ story completely kills the momentum of the story.
Perhaps the most frustrating aspect of Away is how it relates to other content in its genre. Comparisons to The Martian and Gravity are inevitable, even if the medium is different. Away can often match their emotion, and even their humor at times. Yet to fill the episode order, we are pulled away from our heroes multiple times per episode. A smaller episode order, focused exclusively on the crew after they leave the moon, would undeniably raise the upside of Away. It is aboard the Atlas I that the best moments of the series take place, and every moment away from the ship feels like a letdown.
Netflix scores big with Away as an emotional and character-driven drama. However, some pacing and storytelling choices harm the final product from rising into TV’s stratosphere. With a surprising amount of relevance to a COVID world, Away offers something important to say. The characters inhabit a peaceful world, built on cooperation between nations and rival political factions. It’s a message that we can reach for the stars if we reach together, and it rings true in 2020.