The first episode of Away features Commander Emma Green, played by Hillary Swank, clad in a spacesuit, reaching towards a faraway Earth. Waiting on NASA’s moon base, Emma is about to embark on a perilous three-year mission to Mars with a crew of the world’s best scientists: engineer and seasoned astronaut Misha Popov, renowned botanist Dr. Kwesi Weisberg-Abban, the chemist Dr. Wang Lu, and co-pilot and medical officer Ram Arya. I’ll admit that the first episode didn’t grab my attention right away—it was bogged down by exposition and too many flashbacks—nonetheless, I kept watching with the assumption that the plot would pick up. Swank’s portrayal of Emma, in particular, brings the character to life with both strength and human fragility, and, above all, compassion. This is what kept me watching.
One thing I thought Away did very well from the beginning was portray Emma’s conflicted feelings; the mission to Mars would be a culmination of years of preparation and study on her part, but there would always be a chance that she would never make it back home to see her husband, Matt and daughter, Alexis. Emma’s conflicted feelings deepen throughout the first season of Away, and we can clearly observe how her need to be with her family is at odds with her duties as captain. In fact, Emma is not the only person with conflicted feelings or unresolved issues on Earth; each of the other crew members has their turn to be fleshed out and shown to have rich histories and inner lives. Whether it’s Misha’s complicated relationship with his daughter, Lu’s forbidden feelings for a colleague, Kwesi’s trauma and recovery in childhood, or the ghost that has followed Ram all the way to space, these depictions are handled delicately and generously.
There are times when the crew members, after months of isolation together, have disagreements and fights among themselves—in an extreme situation like space travel, it’s bound to happen—the pressure between the five astronauts mounts, and Away shows what happens when loyalties are tested and relationships strained. The brusque and blunt Misha and no-nonsense Lu doubt Emma’s ability to lead; the religious Kwesi is at odds with his secular colleagues. Pressure from NASA, their countries of origin, families, and friends add a believable layer of stress to the already frazzled crew.
Unfortunately, a few narrative clichés muddy the waters of the plot of Away: whether it’s a close call with the ship, Emma’s teenage daughter rebelling, or a love triangle, the series often toes the line between sci-fi and melodramatic soap opera. The earnest emotions of the story can sometimes be excessive, with too much emphasis on having faith and staring in awe out the windows of the ship and not enough exploration of space or the objective of the mission itself. Consequently, certain plot points are predictable, and knowing that everything will turn out fine lowers the stakes of dramatic and dangerous moments.
Would Away benefit from a few more unpredictable plot twists and in-depth space exploration? Certainly. Does the predictable nature of the plot make it less enjoyable to watch? Somewhat, but likeable characters, sleek production (typical of Netflix), and memorable performances from a stellar cast makes Away worth watching, despite its weak points.