We’ll Be Right Back (Series Review: “Away”)

A reflective, sobering and ultimately hopeful look deep into the inner experiences of five astronauts on a historic 3-year journey to Mars.

SnapShot Plot

The highly anticipated series Away, starring Hilary Swank as the commander of the first-ever manned expedition to Mars, delivers on the Science in its almost painstaking details of intricate engineering challenges as well as nailbiting sequences of emergency spacewalks during a three-year mission to Mars. Swank is Commander Emma Green, an intensely ambitious yet principled astronaut whose overwhelming, lifelong goal has been to travel to Mars and back. Her husband Matt, played with characteristic stoic resolve by Josh Charles, is a brilliant NASA engineer whose own dreams of space travel have been derailed by a genetic vascular disorder that puts him at greater risk for stroke. Their only child, Alexis (played by Talitha Eliana Bateman) is a straight-A high school student profoundly conflicted between feelings of pride in her mother’s accomplishment and a nagging anger at her mother’s abandoning her for her own footnote in the world’s history books.

The crew of the international Atlas mission (as it’s called) is made up of three other career astronauts (from India, Russia and China) and one Botanist, originally from Ghana but raised in England. Actors Ray Panthaki, Ato Essandoh, Mark Ivanir, and Vivian Wu are exceptional in their depictions of equally disciplined and ambitious professionals who, despite having trained for years together, find themselves splintering in their loyalties to their commander and to each other, once in Space. The mission involves a short trip to a staging base on the Moon, and from there a long expedition to Mars, where an unmanned craft will have landed shortly before their arrival containing the materials and resources to launch experiments and travel safely back to Earth. Total time away from our planet and everything they know and love: three long years. A feat such as this has never been attempted before, and the Joint Mars initiative is the biggest, boldest endeavor of humankind. The odds of success are a crapshoot. Surviving a prolonged existence in Deep Space, on the level of this magnitude both physically and psychologically, is a whole different thing entirely. And the fallout is felt not only by the crew themselves but also – and poignantly – by those on Earth left behind.

Parting Shot

Created by Andrew Hinderaker and co-produced by the acclaimed Edward Zwick (Thirtysomething; Glory) with majority writing credits to Jason Katims (Friday Night Lights; Parenthood; About a Boy), this series operates on two levels. As previously noted, Away is very much a wonky procedural on space travel, with zero gravity and exterior sequences that rival the verisimilitude of Alfonso CuarĂ³n’s 2013 film, Gravity (starring George Clooney and Sandra Bullock). But where it charts its own orbit is around the inner lives of its characters, both far away and on Terra Firma. Indeed, the emphasis on the relationships – as almost tediously detailed in endless video calls and written messages mostly between Emma, Matt and Lexi – veer toward the predictably sentimental. As well, Hilary Swank’s vocal cadence came to sound almost irritatingly controlled to the point that, when it finally became punctuated in a moment of ire, she herself became more real and that much more human.

As much as the narrative of the mission itself was a compelling reason to stick with Away, what pulled me into each of the 10 episodes was the interior narrative between these five crew members, as well as the furious efforts on Emma’s part to be an equal yet (very) long-distance parent to her daughter during a tough period in any kid’s life.

Nor does the writing in this deeply introspective series shy away from the sometimes cruel and unfair attitudes and assumptions waged against one another, exacerbated by time, isolation, and fear. As well, the occasional cultural prejudices emerge over certain situations onboard the spacecraft, forcing each member of the team to look into their hearts and minds for clarity and guidance.

I can’t help but look at a show like Away and see all those currents – of Fear & Isolation over a period of protracted Time – through another, more currently relevant lens. More than anything, the show seems to be telling a story of disparate parts coming together to form a new type of organic whole. A story about disconnected souls whose fierce individualism and confidence in their own abilities is put to the ultimate test, and who begrudgingly acknowledge that they are each other’s first and last hope for survival. . . and ultimately success. What better lesson as we struggle against an invisible threat that is testing the boundaries of our own faith in ourselves, our commitment to each other, and our hope for our future?

Away is presently streaming on Netflix.

Norma’s Streaming Picks is proud to partner on a fantastic site for Baby Boomers, Midcentury/Modern (presently known as Pandemic Diaries) as well as right here at home. I invite you to go there for more great content!

YouTube Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3f_REapPwio

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