It’s hard not to be sentimental about space exploration. Rousing films like Apollo 13, The Martian or Apollo 11 — whether based on actual events or completely made up — speak to the extraordinary ordeal that traveling the cosmos entails, requiring mental, physical and emotional toughness, not to mention smarts and courage. America’s journey to the moon in the 1960s was, in large part, an attempt to boost our national spirits — if we can achieve that, what can’t we do? — and even intellectually chilly movies such as 2001 and Ad Astra are still awestruck by the mammoth, unknowable depths of the cosmos. Going into space, leaving the safety of Earth behind, is both incredibly daunting and undeniably stirring, pushing the limits of what human beings are capable of. No wonder the thought of it makes people a little mawkish.
If that last paragraph made you roll your eyes at any point, you are advised to avoid Away, a decidedly corny drama in which Hilary Swank plays a mom and wife who also happens to be the American commander of the first manned mission to Mars. This 10-episode Netflix series isn’t like Star Wars or Guardians of the Galaxy — it’s not action-packed or filled with talking robots or funky aliens. Rather, it’s mostly a domestic drama and a workplace character study, focusing on the sacrifices and interpersonal ordeals that affect the astronauts and their loved ones back home over the three-year journey that the crew of the Atlas will undertake.
Away is more about hankies than blasters, and it couldn’t be sappier — both in its optimistic depiction of the human spirit and in its portrayal of the characters’ frequent ups and downs. This show is full of feels, and although it can often be a bit much, I found myself slowly succumbing to — even respecting — its concentrated blasts of tear-jerking earnestness. But, to be fair, I get sentimental about space exploration.
The emotional fireworks get going early as Emma (Swank) nervously prepares to guide her crew from Earth to the moon before they blast off for Mars. Her team is meant to represent a global coalition — there’s veteran cosmonaut Misha (Mark Ivanir), Chinese chemist Lu (Vivian Wu), Iranian pilot Ram (Ray Panthaki) and Ghanaian-British botanist Kwesi (Ato Essandoh) — but there’s some internal debate about why the less-experienced Emma is leading the Atlas instead of Misha, who has spent more time in outer space than anyone alive.
Those tensions will only grow, however, after Emma’s loving husband Matt (Josh Charles), a NASA engineer, has a stroke right before she’s set to blast off from the lunar surface. Should she return to Earth to be with her husband and teenage daughter Lex (Talitha Bateman)? Or should she carry on with the mission that’s been her life’s dream? When Matt, freshly awake from his coma, finds just enough strength to mumble gallantly on the phone to Emma, “I need you to go,” you will be fully aware of the type of show Away is. Sappy, a little shameless, always seeking out the rah-rah moment that speaks to our better natures: Away is going to move you, damn it.
The 10 episodes consist of the Atlas’ voyage to Mars, cutting between life on the ship and the goings-on back on Earth. Out in space, Emma must contend with a crew that’s not entirely sold on her leadership — conveniently, a minor but still anxiety-inducing fire happened right before they left for Mars, which puts doubt in everyone’s mind that she knows what she’s doing — while Matt grapples with adjusting to a wheelchair because of the neurological damage inflicted by the stroke. Oh, and Lex has caught the eye of a cute classmate, Isaac (Adam Irigoyen), whose backstory will perfectly mesh with some of the issues Lex will soon be facing as she fears for her mom’s safety. Away doesn’t miss an opportunity to go for the narrative coincidence or well-turned dramatic irony.
It’s easy to be snarky about shows like this, which lead with their earnestness and insist that, fundamentally, we’re all good, decent beings capable of greatness when put to the test. That’s very much the same upbeat vibe that imbued Apollo 13 and The Martian, which were celebrations of humanity’s can-do attitude and our resilience in the face of seemingly impossible odds. When so much in the world is terrible, movies like that and Away offer a counter-argument: No matter how bad life seems, we can find it within ourselves to rally and be the selfless, heroic souls we’re capable of.
Depending on who you are, that’s either inspiring or terribly naive, but what makes such unblinkered optimism work so well in this type of space-exploration project is that, honestly, undertaking any kind of mission into the solar system requires a huge amount of faith. Sure, yes, it also requires hard science and logic and reason, but on some level, you’ve got to be a relentless cockeyed optimist to put yourself (or someone else) into a claustrophobic capsule, load up on rocket fuel and then hurtle into the unforgiving blackness of space, which has no oxygen or gravity. The whole endeavor is sheer madness, and the fact that humanity has done it on several occasions is a miracle. No wonder people get so weepy about space exploration.
Away is awash in such mouth-agape wonder, but it’s not the only way in which the show is moony about the human condition. Every character, whether on Earth or on Atlas, is a person facing some sort of Personal Challenge. Each of Emma’s crewmates gets his or her own special extended flashback sequence, where we learn all the important secrets and heartbreaks they’re carrying with them on this mission. (Like Gravity, the series’ astronauts will discover that what they were dealing with on Earth has metaphorically followed them on the trip to Mars.) Meanwhile, Matt and Lex must cope with Emma’s absence, which allows for plenty of moments of growth amidst big hugs and heartfelt words of wisdom.
And, of course, the Atlas will be bedeviled by all types of problems, as will its crew. Malfunctioning systems, space blindness, unrequited love, mononucleosis: Each crisis will test Emma’s team, and if they don’t have the answer then, doggone it, Matt and the folks at NASA will pick up the slack. We’re all good people going through things. We can get through this together.
I’m enjoying making fun of Away’s touchy-feely hokeyness, but the truth is, the damn thing ultimately works. Largely, that’s because of a very good cast, which invests the corn with deep feeling. Charles humanizes his character’s soap-opera plot — how will he deal with both the loss of his legs and the loss of his wife? — while Essandoh makes Kwesi’s ramrod nobleness incredibly endearing. Even some of the Atlas team’s more clichéd members end up being more multi-dimensional than they first appear. As for Swank — who won Oscars for Boys Don’t Cry and Million Dollar Baby — well, she’s made a career out of playing tough characters facing long odds.
Like everyone in Away, Emma is a bit too schematic to fully register as a human being — this series cares more about proving its central thesis than giving the characters fascinating complexity — but after 10 episodes, I admit I fell for the whole sappy endeavor. Which is good because, as we get closer to the end, there are some real emotional doozies thrown at us. Is it conceivable for a show to make you roll your eyes and get a little misty at the same time? Away is about characters who routinely pull off the impossible, so it makes sense that it’s able to navigate that nifty trick as well.