Leaving home is, for many of us, an inevitable rite of passage. But what happens when home follows you wherever you go, and all you want is to collapse the thousands of miles between you and the person you love, crying inconsolably on the other end of the phone? This is the emotional crux of Netflix’s Away, a sprawling, ten-episode space drama about a crew of astronauts experiencing unfathomable personal hardships--all while millions of miles apart from their loved ones. As the coronavirus pandemic scythes through public life, separating us for months on end from everyone we love, near and far, many of us have never felt more like an isolated astronaut, hurtling ever further away from our friends and families with no end in sight.
Set in a not-so-distant, much more globalist future, Away follows the first (wo)manned mission to Mars, a massive international undertaking by five powerhouse nations, designed to span three long years. The Atlas Mission is captained by Commander Emma Green (Hilary Swank), a tough, brave, and selfless NASA veteran who has long dreamed of leading the first mission to Mars. Joining her for the long haul to the Red Planet are Misha (Mark Ivanir), a grizzled and recalcitrant Russian cosmonaut; Ram (Ray Panthaki), an empathetic medic from India; Lu (Vivian Wu), a stoic Chinese chemist; and Kwesi (Ato Essandoh), a British-raised Ghanaian refugee charged with bringing his botany expertise to Mars. All goes according to plan until, at the outset of the mission, Emma is keelhauled by a personal tragedy: her husband Matt (Josh Charles), a NASA engineer with a rare neurological disorder, is paralyzed by a stroke, with a long hospital stay ahead of him. Their teenage daughter, Alexis (Talitha Bateman), already uncertain about being apart from her mother for three of the most formative years of her young life, steps up as needed, but finds herself pushed to the emotional brink--and acts out as a consequence.
Based on “Away,” a 2014 Esquire story about astronaut Scott Kelly, who was midway through a record-setting mission on the International Space Station when his sister-in-law Gabby Giffords was shot in the head, Away is the brainchild of playwright Andrew Hinderaker and producer Jason Katims, the tear-jerking mastermind behind memorable cryfests like Friday Night Lights and Parenthood. Away has Katims’ signature stamp all over it, with each episode mining deep emotional heft out of the astronauts’ checkered pasts and day-to-day hardships. The show explores their formative traumas, diving into the myriad familial and romantic entanglements (and disentaglements) that led the crew of the Atlas to make the ultimate sacrifice. Some critics have called the show mawkish, equivocating it to This Is Us, but in space. Yet in these isolated times, there’s something rewarding about giving yourself over to the comforting melodramatics of Away, where every emotional crisis can be managed in a tidy 45 minutes, all thanks to a heartfelt video call home.
With sky-high production value, the show is often breathtakingly beautiful, steeped in the splendor and scale of outer space. In one unforgettable sequence, Emma and Ram are inundated by frozen droplets of water during a spacewalk, with shards of crystalline ice drifting around them in a starlit ballet. Earthbound scenes about Matt and Alexis fall comparatively flat, with the ups and downs of Alexis’ angsty teenhood--boys, dirtbikes, tantrums--making for frankly snoozy television. But those scenes, while less exciting than the high-wire drama of surviving in a tin can, serve their purpose in building the emotional core of the show: Emma’s imperfect but striving family, all of whom always find their way back to one another.
Yet for all its lofty visions about space, Away’s greatest success is in depicting the constant pain of what it’s like to miss someone you love, and to be absent when that person needs you most. Swank is excellent in inhabiting the agony Emma experiences as she hurtles ever further away from a hospitalized husband and her confused, angry daughter. In Emma’s darkest moments, an imaginary Matt appears to her in her claustrophobic bunk, providing words of encouragement to keep her going. Many scenes feature a frustrated Emma struggling to communicate with her family over a wonky comm link, reflecting the Zoom trials and tribulations we’ve all experienced this year. In a time when so many of us are so far from the people who feel like home, Away makes for a dazzling show about the final frontier, to be certain, but also a welcome parable about the matters of the heart that matter most, even in the face of unprecedented human progress.
If you take just one thing away from the show, let it be this: call your mom. No matter how close or how far she is, she’s probably dying to hear from you.
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