Away Review (Spoiler-Free)

Netflix’s Away is a timely tale of isolation and hope, set against the background of a groundbreaking – and tension-filled - trip into space.

Photo: Netflix

This Away review contains NO spoilers.

Humanity loves stories about looking to the stars. Who among us hasn’t looked up and wondered what’s out there? Or what it might be like to explore worlds beyond our own?

Netflix’s Away is a fictional take on the obvious next step in the space race – a manned trip to Mars, complete with all the breathtaking awe and constant terrifying threat of death that will naturally involve. (Whenever we get there.) At the same time, it’s the story that will make you hope we do manage it some day, an aspirational tale about the best things we, as a species, have been capable of, and how far we are still capable of going together.

Whether it intended to be or not, Away is a remarkably perfect show for our moment, a drama that illustrates that something wondrous can come out of months of pain and separation, that beautiful things often have painful and difficult beginnings, and that humanity is stronger and better when we rely on one another than when we don’t.

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Also, science is awesome, and we should say so. A lot.

The series stars Hilary Swank as U.S. Commander Emma Green, an ace pilot and astronaut who has spent most of her life dreaming of being a part of the first mission to Mars. Emma is joined by a diverse group of international astronauts and scientists handpicked for their assorted skills, including a veteran Russian cosmonaut (Mischa), an Indian medic (Ram), a Chinese chemist (Lu), and a British botanist (Kwesi) who’s never been in space before. They’ve been brought together by a complex arrangement of international agreements that have hammered out things like who gets to be the first person to set foot on Mars first (Lu) or serve as second in command (Ram).

As is often the way in stories like this, the group experiences some initial friction and distrust, finding it difficult enough to work together that they wonder how they’re meant to survive three years with only one another for company. Mischa feels that Emma’s command undercuts his status, as he’s the man who’s logged the most hours in space of anyone, anywhere. Others, like Lu, distrust Emma for not being mission-focused enough, while Ram wants a more personal friendship than his commander is willing to give. And Kwesi, poor lamb, is struggling with the physical and emotional shocks of spaceflight. 

It seems worth saying upfront, that if you’re tuning into Away expecting a small-screen version of The Martian, which depicts what life for the first humans to visit the Red Planet might be like, you’re going to be disappointed. (At least until the show gets renewed for a second season, at any rate.) The bulk of its drama takes place aboard the Atlas, as Emma and her crew tackle more than their fair share of crises over the course of their eighteen-month long journey to Mars.

To be fair, creator Andrew Hinderaker, showrunner Jessica Goldberg, and executive producer Jason Katims manage to wring plenty of tension out of the trip, forcing the astronauts to navigate a variety of complex, unexpected, and potentially deadly situations and the audience to hold its breath while they do it. (Space blindness is a real thing, apparently!)

But at its heart, Away is a family drama, toggling between the triumphs and difficulties of the Atlas crew and the anxieties and problems facing the loved ones left behind. Since Emma is ostensibly the series’ main character, the Green family gets the most screen time but the show also includes flashbacks that fill in the personal histories of everyone else. 

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The series sings when it focuses on the diverse group of astronauts at its center, who must learn to trust and listen to one another in the face of a series of increasingly dire problems. That they ultimately do isn’t so much a spoiler, but a natural eventuality – a found family that forms when they each realize they have no one but one another to rely upon. Yet, Away manages to deftly convey the gradual nature of their growing bonds, as small gestures of kindness and patience in early installments bear emotional fruit in later episodes. The show’s Christmas themed hour is one of its most affecting, largely due to an intergalactic puppet show that Mischa puts on for his grandchildren watching from millions of miles away, with help from the rest of his crewmates. How far they’ve all come.

Swank’s performance is as good as you probably expected, ably balancing Emma’s obvious desire to make history on Mars with the guilt and anxiety she feels about leaving her family behind in order to do so. But her supporting crew is also excellent, particularly Mark Ivanir as the grizzled Mischa, whose enthusiasm for homemade vodka is only surpassed by his deep love for being among the stars. Every person onboard the Atlas has made difficult choices to get where they are, and the question of whether those sacrifices were worth it in the end – whether the prospect of Mars is worth it – is one that permeates the series.

Awayis a lot less interesting when it focuses on the stories of those left behind on Earth. Emma’s teen daughter Alexis (Talitha Bateman) struggles to adapt to life with her mom in space, getting involved romantically involved with an older boy and riding motorbikes to feel alive. Her husband Matt (Josh Charles) frets over being an absentee father as he’s repeatedly drawn back to Mission Control to solve problems that could result in his wife’s death if he fails.

These are certainly difficult problems, but they can’t help but pale next to the struggle to fix a damaged solar panel, and many of the Earth scenes leave us wanting nothing so much as to rejoin the Atlas crew. And though Charles is a capable actor who tries his best, Matt is generally a cipher stuck between two women who are more interesting than he is, existing primarily to react to Emma and Lex. An early health-related plot largely fades into the background halfway through the season, and the vague hints that the family crew counselor has grown too attached to the Earth-bound Greens are deeply uncomfortable, particularly given that she’s also Emma’s best friend.

But viewers’ eyes will likely remain fixed to the heavens, rather than stuck on Earth. That’s where the real point of this show is – going forward, looking upward, towards what’s next. For all of us, together.

All 10 episodes of Away will premiere on Netflix on September 4.

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4 out of 5