Netflix’s new series, “Away” tries to show us both the tedium and the temptations of the long-term assignment away from our home base, Earth, with a hop over to moon before a leap to Mars. Five nations work uneasily together for a three-year mission and this is bound to cause socio-political tension, but other social issues are raised to make this not just a discussion about the dangers of space travel, but also about the current problems we face on Earth. The ten-episode first season released today, 4 September 2020.
There is some minor foul language (sh*t, fricking and God d*mn), usage of foreign languages (Russian, Hindi, Mandarin Chinese, Hebrew and Ghanan) with English subtitles and tasteful sexual situations (as early as the first episode). This might be slow moving for action fans although so many things go wrong to keep the dramatic suspense level dialed high and to emphasize the fragility of life in space.
The focus of “Away” is on Emma Green (Hilary Swank), the commander of the Atlas. She met her husband, Matt Logan (Josh Charles), while both were training to be on an astronaut on the Mars team. They have a daughter, Alexis Logan (Talitha Bateman). A hereditary health issue keeps Matt from going forward on the program but he remains as the chief engineer at Mission Control. The first season covers the eight months it takes from the Earth to Mars, although it starts after the Atlas Mission crew have landed on the moon. In 1969, Apollo 11 took four days to reach the moon (16 July 1969 launch and 20 July 1969 landing on the moon). While Apollo was the sun god, in Greek mythology, Atlas was a Titan who was condemned by Zeus to hold up the heavens for eternity after the fall of the Titans. He was supposedly skilled in math and astronomy and is sometimes credited with the invention of astronomy. That Atlantic Ocean derives its name from him.
Season 1, Episode 1: Go
Written by Andrew Hinderaker.
As the mission launches, Emma finds her mettle as commander tested by an onboard accident, a divided crew and a family emergency back on Earth (57 minutes).
We begin with Emma on the moon at and around Lunar Base Alpha, 35 hours before the launch to Mars. She is, at first, outside, observing a marble-sized Earth in the sky and when she goes inside the base, she is being questioned about a crisis. The contrast is stark between the black, white and grey that predominate on the moon and the vivid colors that characterize life on Earth where two weeks earlier Alexis and Matt attend their daughter’s soccer game.
Emma has been chosen captain over not only a White male American astronaut, but also an older Russian cosmonaut with more experience in space, Misha (Mark Ivanir). Emma will be leading a team that together represent five nations (US, Russia, China, England and India), but, for interest and diversity, more specific groups are given representation here.
The rest of the crew are grizzled Russian grandfather Misha, the British botanist Kwesi (Ato Essandoh), the humorous and handsome Asian Indian Ram Arya (Ray Panthaki) and the cold Chinese Communist chemist Yu Wang (Vivian Wu). Kwesi has had no experience in space, but the five have trained together for two years.
Matt will be the chief engineer at Mission Control and Emma’s special endearment to him is: “I love you, shithead.” Emma has left her friend, an astronaut program dropout, Melissa Ramirez (Monique Gabriela Curnen), to be a surrogate mother to Alexis. We’ll learn more about Melissa and meet her daughter, Cassie.
At the press conference, Emma is asked the question that plagued the Apollo missions. Could the monies be better spent on social imperatives here on Earth such as education and health care.
“Of course we should care about social imperatives,” Emma responds to the reporter. Yet she points out that mission’s cost is only a fraction of budget for the military of all five nations. Most of the war budget is spurred by the possibility that the five nations might attack each other and this mission is “repurposing those same tools of destruction for discovery.”
Group Captain Ram adds, “And not to mention, one hell of a ride.”
Back at the current time, the crew readies for the launch, but the concern on Earth and on the moon, is an incident that occurred before they made it to the moon.
Here we get a Rashomon scenario. The overall mission supervisor, Darlene Cole (Gabrielle Rose) talks via a monitor about the alert less than 10 hours from touchdown on the moon. Lu and Misha tell different stories, but their assessment is the same: Emma isn’t fit to be their leader. Misha says she froze. Lu claims Emma was “hysterical and reckless.”
Kwesi feels she saved him. Ram Arya wasn’t there, but remains fully supportive of Emma. George Lane confronts Darlene about the complaints from the Chinese and Russian factions at Mission Control. George suggests that Jack Willmore, who helps man the “gas stop” on the moon replace Emma.
Helping Emma get through her first command crisis is therapist Dr. Michael Patrick Thornton
Just before the launch, Emma is again confronted with the pull of Earth, the gravity of emotions because there’s an incident involving her family.
Matt is at home preparing dinner when he faints. The medical problem, CMM (Cavernous hemangioma, also called cavernous angioma, cavernoma, or cerebral cavernoma), which prevented him from becoming an astronaut and didn’t affect his father until much later in life, has resulted in a stroke. Matt has surgery with Melissa stepping in to take care of Alexis.
On the moon, Emma pauses, thinking she should to Earth to help her family, but in the end, Matt, post-surgery, and her daughter tell her to go to Mars.
With Lu and Misha uneasy, the team remains intact. Darlene says, “There is no better word in the English language than ‘go.'”
At the end, we are left with some puzzles to unravel. Yu has a ring that wasn’t given to her by her husband, but she holds dear. It’s inscription is “Women hold up half the sky.”
Kwesi brings with him a Torah “to tether me to the earth.” For Ram, he can’t take the things he loves with him: sun, oysters, women, long walks and live music. Misha brings with him puppets, “entertainment for his grandchildren.”
Emma tells the world, “Getting to Mars might be the hardest thing that humankind has ever tried. It requires the best of us from all of us and maybe it’s not our nature to work together, but the future demands otherwise and we will come together now in pursuit of a dream once thought impossible. If we can do this, we can do anything.”
Episode 2: Negative Return
Written by Jessica Goldberg.
When a ship malfunction threatens the voyage before it’s barely begun, Emma works with a wary Misha on a high-risk repair operations (48).
At this point, Matt is still in the hospital. While he is getting strength back in his upper body, his lower left side is compromised. In Atlas, the crew takes time for some official and personal communications. Ram, speaks Hindi, and makes an address to India. Kwesi, reminds his audience that he was originally from Appam in Ghana, which is near Accra, even though he represents the UK. Yu speaks to her husband and her son Lei.
A problem with one of the arrays (panels which provide solar power) requires that Misha and Emma take a space walk and trust each other. The space capsule needs full power to make its journey. From his hospital bed, Matt tells Mission Control about a solution. The array problem is made more dangerous because of some other damage to the exterior of the space ship.
Before his space walk, Misha speaks to his daughter via a monitor, but she knows he is superstitious. Before a space walk, he always asks for her forgiveness and yet their relationship is obviously frosty.
There are times when Emma asks Misha to switch to a private channel. What happens is risky and angers Ram because he considers her actions irresponsible and insane. We learn more about Misha; he is a widower. In a flashback, we see a young Misha returns after his wife has died. He hugs his daughter and tells her that he regrets that he couldn’t come home to say goodbye to his wife and be there for his daughter. He asks her to forgive him. She asks, “Promise you won’t ever leave me again.” Misha promises, but we know that’s a promise he has broken more than once.
Episode 3: Half the Sky
Written by Andrew Hinderaker.
A staff change at the Mission Control upsets the usually unflappable Lu, and the fallout undermines Emma’s command. Matt encourages Lex to return to school (48).
My husband says that there’s always a Chinese woman named Mei in US shows with Chinese and Chinese Americans, and in this drama, it’s no different. Houston Ground team member Mei (Nadia Hatta) gets transferred and Jack replaces her. While playing cards with Ram and Kwesi, Jack can’t resist spreading some gossip about Lu and Mei. Kwesi considers it inappropriate conversation.
Lu appeals to Misha, asking if he can re-configure the communication software so she can have a private conversation with someone. Misha tells her, “Before you, I never met my equal in space.” He adds, “I will not help you cheat my husband” and everyone knows.
Lu is both angry and concerned. Mistakenly thinking that Emma spread the gossip, Lu confronts Emma in front of Kwesi and Ram. Kwesi and Ram object, but Lu is too angry to listen.
Through flashbacks, we learn that Lu learned to speak English with the help of Mei whom Emma characterizes as “she speaks it better than most Americans.” The way Mei helps Lu learn English is through country karaoke. In this case, Lu’s language lessons include Billy Ray Cyrus’ “Achy Breaky Heart.” Mei discovers that Lu practices traditional Chinese calligraphy. Lu teaches her. This sequence seems somewhat disingenuous because at least in Japanese schools, some calligraphy brush work is taught and so Mei should know how to hold the brush.
Back on Earth, after almost a month, Alexis goes back to school and now chums around with Cassie. At lunch, she finds herself too serious to become taken up with childish chatter, but she does show interest in a junior who is known to be a loner: Isaac Rodriguez (Adam Irigoyen).
While Alexis is at school, Matt learns the bad news: He may never walk again. So for now, the hope is that he’ll be able to use his left hand again so he can play the piano.
Emma asks Jack if he can make some arrangements that is not NASA-approved, but Jack is a more “ask for forgiveness” after the fact kind of guy. Lu tells Mei that after they land on Mars, she’ll have two years on the Atlas Mission, but when she returns, after the parades are over, after her son is grown, Lu intends to find Mei. Fittingly, we hear “Claire de Lune” playing as Lu and Mei have their last phone call and as Matt and Emma talk about his news.
The irony here is that the saying, “Women hold up half the sky,” (妇女能顶半边天) is a quote from Mao Zedong. Because of the strict Communist control and the suppression of homosexuality, Mei was removed from her position.
Episode 4: Excellent Chariots
Written by Ellen Fairey.
Emma puts herself in harm’s way when Ram unwittingly endangers the lives of everyone on the Atlas. Matt must make a wrenching decision about this future (44)
It’s night on the Atlas space ship and Ram appears to be walking in his sleep. Jack sees it at Mission Control and alerts the crew. Emma, Misha and Kwesi are forced to fight and finally restrain Ram because he’s attempting to open the door to outside.
Misha thinks Ram has cracked up, commenting that someone always goes crazy, but he thought it would be Kwesi. Emma notes that Ram has a fever after they have, thanks to Lu, sedated Ram.
The crew discovers that Ram has tested positive for the Epstein-Barr virus or, as you might know it, infectious mononucleosis or “mono” or “glandular fever.” So what happens when the doctor on board gets sick? In this case, Ram begins to see delusions and reverts to speaking in Hindi. Attempting to follow his brother, Ram falls and badly cuts his back. Misha helps stop the bleeding using a staple gun, but Emma is talked through stitching it up from a more lucid Ram.
During his feverish dreams, Ram flashes back to a time when he had typhus and his older brother brings him a mango and tells him the epic poem about Vimāna. Vimāna are flying palaces or fiery chariots. Ram’s older brother reminds him that the evil king Ravana takes Sita away in a fiery chariot. Sita is the daughter of the earth goddess Bhumi. She chose Rama to be her husband because he proved his heroism. When Rama is exiled, Sita joins him, but she is kidnapped by Ravana. Rama became friends with Hanuman and together they defeat Ravana and save Sita. His older brother (Rohti?) promises that he and Ram will take a fiery chariot to the moon and Mars.
Ram reveals to Emma, his brother never left his side and later died. Ram wishes to find a woman who would never leave his side, just like his brother and Emma. After his brother’s death, Ram’s family fell apart and Ram feels he lost his family at that point. His admission makes Emma uncomfortable.
Matt has a moment of elation during his support group: He woke up with an erection. Yes, I warned you there would be penis talk during this series. Later, one of the other support group members, Travis Parker (Jamie Nieto), who was best bronco rider in Texas for two years running, introduces himself to Matt. He advises Matt to choke on the tests so he can continue the 24-access to rehab equipment as opposed to a few hours a week. “This is a system, man. You’ve got to learn how to work the system.”
Initially, Matt is tempted because he is determined to get better. However, having arranged for Alexis to re-take her chem test (because she got a C), Matt learns from a phone call that Lexis bailed. She asked to use the restroom and took off with Isaac. Isaac takes her with him to the course where he practices riding motorbikes and introduces Lexis to riding bikes.
Episode 5: Space Dogs
Written by Jason Katims.
As Christmas approaches, the crew prepares to make their final calls home before communication grows spotty. Matt and Lex adjust to their new normal (55).
This episode begins with Emma speaking with her therapist about the tension between her and Alexis as we hear Elvis’ rendition of “Blue Christmas.”
Matt returns home and attempts to make things normal, but what can be normal in world where your mother is in her first year of a three-year mission to Mars and your father is wheelchair bound?
Besides the emotional toll of the mission, there are physical ones. Kwesi, who has no space experience, feels a slight discomfort and when he rolls down his sock, his heel floats off. Even for the experienced, life in space is no picnic. Ram tests Misha and it becomes apparent that Misha’s left eye is in trouble. He was 20/40 and now he is 20/70. Misha leaves before Ram can complete his exam on the right eye. Ram is forced to report this to Emma, noting that there’s no explanation for what causes space blindness. “That is not a normal decline.”
Ram is worried that Emma is shutting him out since his fever dream. “I was having a fever dream; Give me some slack,” Ram tells her. She makes it clear that her professional life and her personal life are compartmentalized.
Kwesi is being directed by Misha about the puppet show. Misha wants Kwesi to speak “more like a man and less like a school girl.” Misha tells Kwesi that this is the most important thing that Kwesi will do in his life. Kwesi begs to differ and tries to get Lu to take his place. Lu says her son isn’t interested in puppet shows and agrees with Misha, that Kwesi needs to project. When queried about Misha’s mission for a Christmas puppet show, Misha explains to Emma that “Every time I’m in space I assume I’m not coming home.”
Misha has a private conversation with his daughter. Misha sent his daughter to Kazan to be raised by her Uncle Lev and Aunt Masha and she considers them her parents. She feels Misha forgot about her and she forgot about him, too. Time didn’t stand still and she is no longer that little girl that Misha forgot.
Emma applies lipstick and dresses up for a private video chat with Matt. She asks him to play her something on the piano. Kwesi’s private call is to his widowed adoptive mother. He thanks her for everything as he celebrates the first Hanukkah in space. His mother worries about him eating. Lu’s son shows her drawings he’s made of her in space. This is the last reliable close to real-time transmission and so the underlying theme is last words to loved ones in case they do not come back.
The puppet show explains why a dog from the streets of Russia agrees to join the space program and is performed for Misha’s three grandchildren. “If you stay, you’ll grow tired of begging for scraps on the streets,” a person tells the dog. “In space you’ll be a great dog, respected by the Motherland.” The space dog, Tishka, goes into space despite his daughter Sashenka’s pleas for him to stay. Once Tishka went into space, he could not return to Earth, even though he wanted to be an Earth dog again.
Misha has a tense exchange with his daughter Tasha in front of the rest of the crew.”It wasn’t for the motherland.” He attempts to explain to her what it was like. He would drop her off at school and then go home to drink vodka and think about ways to die. He understood she would be better off with her aunt, so now he tells her, “I’m sorry for ruining everything. I ruined everything.”
Tasha tells him, “But I’m glad you found your home.” Although Misha asks for her forgiveness, she tells him she doesn’t know how to forgive.
On Earth, Alexis confides in Isaac that everyone is trying to make things seem normal (decorating the tree, smoking the brisket), but by doing so, it only emphasizes how far from normal things are. Isaac tells Alexis that he wants to show her something that night. Alexis and Matt watch “It’s a Wonderful Life,” and Alexis pretends she is going up to bed after Matt tells her that she should speak honestly with her mother and not to bottle things up inside.
Alexis gets dressed up (lipstick and a black dress) and climbs out of her second-story room via the window and joins Isaac. He takes her to midnight mass where she meets his mother. While she is gone, Matt has a mishap in the garage while attempting to get holiday decorations. After Isaac drops her off, Matt opens the garage door to come face-to-face with Lexis.
Emma and Alexis have an emotional exchange with Alexis crying, a bit angry. Emma warns Alexis that boys are “wild bucks.” , After telling Alexis, “You are the best thing that ever happened to me,” Emma freezes her image and ends the call because she has started crying. That leaves Alexis distress, but Matt comforts her.
Emma asks Lu, “How do you cope?” Lu always seems “so stalwart” to Emma. Lu tells her that if she thought about the three years she’ll be without her son and that she may never see Mei again, her heart begins to break apart. What keeps her going is the thought that “we’re going to be the first human beings to set foot on Mars.” She then advises Emma, “You’re looking in the wrong direction Commander Green.”
One of the delights of the Christmas celebration is Kwesi has harvested greens from his greenhouse for the crew to eat and that is better appreciated than Misha’s brew of space vodka. Lu and Kwesi end up dancing in space together surrounded by the others.
On Earth, Matt and Alexis join Melissa and Cassie for Christmas dinner at their house because Matt made brisket for about 40 people. So we see parallel holiday celebrations with only Matt seeming isolated, looking up to the sky. We then see Emma through the window of her pod.
The episode ends with Joni Mitchell’s 1971 song, “River.”
Episode 6: A Little Faith
Written by Janine Nabers.
Tempers flare on the Atlas over a water-system glitch and an act of betrayal. As Matt works on the ship’s issues, he accidentally meets Lex’s new friend (49).
The song “River” that ended the last episode leaves us thinking about being away from loved ones. This episode begins with Kwesi watering his plants with Ram. In a flashback, we see Kwesi as a child because, as he explains to Ram, his adoptive father was a gardener. Back in the present-day, Kwesi notices a problem with the water supply.
Lu and Misha are playing chess in Misha’s pod. From the last episode, we know that both of Misha’s eyes are bad. He eyesight leads him to make a mistake in chess. The games ends in a draw because Misha needs to check the water reclamation system.
Misha tells the assembled crew that the “distillation assembly is the heart of the ship,” and although they have a backup, the backup won’t give them enough water. Misha needs to “operate” on the heart of the ship, but Lu wonders about his eyesight. Misha has been spending more time in his pod and the eye test he took a few days ago made it seem as if his eyesight had improved. Lu questions that.
Ram gives Misha another eye exam which, in front of the rest of the crew, he mysteriously aces. Still, because of Lu’s objections, Kwesi becomes Misha’s assistant. Ram and Emma shut down the prime system with 10 liters of water–enough for two days with the expectation that the repairs will take two hours.
“I have faith in you Misha,” Kwesi tells him. Kwesi remembers his mother and Seder. His adoptive father is black. His mother tells him that each Seder starts with a question–Why is this night different from all other nights?” His adoptive mother tells him that they are commemorating the freeing of the Jews from slavery in Egypt. At the time, Kwesi speaks mostly Fante to his adoptive father. His adoptive father translates for his wife: “He asks why we get to have God and his family did not.”
Matt, without Darlene’s advisory, returns to Mission Control; he had been on medical leave for five months. He attempts to work on the water system problem, but he isn’t even aware of personnel changes–one engineer, Trevor, left to work in Silicon Valley. Darlene calls him into the conference room. Matt tells her, “We need to get ahead of the game,” but Darlene tells him that they are concerned that he is too emotionally involved.
At rehab, Matt learns that Travis Parker got discharged, but he’s now in the acceptance stage and he’s found adaptive equipment that allows him to ride horses again.
Back in space, Misha removes the “heart,” but he discovers contaminants got stuck in the pumps and pipes. “We must replace or fix everything that was damaged,” Misha tells them. Misha wants to take parts from the backup to fix the system, but if that doesn’t work then they would have to replace thousands of parts. When a screw flies past Misha’s face, the crew realizes that Misha is nearly blind. “I can do it by feel,” Misha tells the crew. “I know this ship like the back of my hand.”
Lu holds up four fingers and asks him how many fingers she’s holding up. When the rest of insist he tell them, he says two.
Lu tells him, “You betrayed us.”
Misha is forced to stand down. Ram ends up being the lead on this because he’s a medical man and this is the “heart” of the space vessel. Things get heated and the crew argues. They can’t ask Ground Control for every move because it would take too long to get a response to every move and every question.
Kwesi breaks up the argument, saying, “Can’t you see what’s happening? We’re being tested…We’re all angry and scared…but I believe that God intends for us to survive.” He believes, “We have everything we need right here” and that “it’s not about having faith in God; it’s about having faith in each other.” This advice is echoed in a flashback of a young Kwesi listening to his adoptive father, who was also a refugee, explain that he and his wife, Miriam, are telling him important things and he can decide what he wants.
Working together, the crew attempts to repair the system, and although at first it seems to work, it only provides half of what the backup was supposed to provide. Emergency rations go into effect and that means Kwesi’s garden will be sacrificed. Kwesi remembers the tree his adoptive father planted with him as a boy that grew into a fine tree and under which his adoptive father Sisi was then buried.
On Earth, Alexis is spending time with Isaac and Isaac tells her she’s a natural on the motorbikes. She hasn’t told her father that she was with Isaac on Christmas Eve and he doesn’t know she’s riding motorbikes. While Isaac is driving her home, she gets a call from her father.
A swerving driver, makes Matt swerve and he ends up with his car in a ditch. He’s waiting for AAA, but Alexis asks Isaac to drive her over there. It’s raining and Matt records the rain for Emma to hear later. Lexis introduces her father to Isaac. Matt learns Isaac is a junior and he’s 17. He also learns that Isaac’s father was a medic and while on patrol his Humvee was hit by an IED and killed immediately. Boys weren’t something that Alexis told her father about; she talked about those things to her mother. After they take Matt home and Matt goes into the house, Isaac and Lexis kiss.
On Atlas, with the backup system compromised, the crew knows the plants will soon die. Emma comes to take one least look at the plants. Ram joins them, followed by Lu and then Misha. Kwesi tells them they will wilt in a week. Ram reminds them they are surrounded by water, in the walls to protect them from radiation. They are like the sailors who are in the ocean, but die of thirst.
Alone in her pod, crying, Emma gets Matt’s message about the rain and that he will be working on this problem. She listens to the rain. She imagines water hitting her face and soaking her wet.
Episode 7: Goodnight Mars
Emma’s behavior becomes a cause for concern, Kwesi and Lu team up on a plant mystery, and Lex makes an impulsive decision with far-reaching consequences (51).
A month later and with two months to go, Kwesi and Lu are intrigued that one plant is thriving although all the rest have died. They agree to investigate. We were warned in the last episode of the dangers of dehydration: headaches, dizziness and irritability. On earth, Matt is working behind Ryan’s back with his team, coming up with suggestions.
Matt talks with Alexis who notes that Emma’s emails have become weird and that she signed the last one from three days ago, “Commander Green.” In her reply, Alexis explains that she’s found something that makes her feel she can move now instead of holding her breath for three years.
In a flashback, we see Emma with Matt. She is sick. For the last three months, they have been running and swimming but also mixing that up with tequila and sex. Emma wants to break up. Matt realizes she’s pregnant. Emma contrasts her future with Melissa who no longer flies. Emma goes to see Melissa and talk. While there, Emma remembers how she grew up in Montana and her mother bought her a “piece of crap” telescope. At the time of this conversation Melissa was eight months pregnant and with a man who in the present (Scott), is no longer around.
In the present day, when Matt goes to Melissa for advice on Alexis and we learn that Melissa hasn’t dated in 15 years since Scott, presumably her ex-husband left. Melissa reassures Matt that he has what it takes to be a good father to Alexis for three years. On his own, Matt directly contacts Misha about Emma.
Ram is responsible for evaluating the crew. He evaluates Misha Popov and they end up having a heated discussion that Emma interrupts. She believes the communication system is down because she hasn’t received a response from Alexis. Emma seems very emotional during her eval because she’s not there to help Alexis with her new relationship. Emma’s concerned that she’s not there for either Alexis nor Matt.
On earth, Alexis has a motorbike accident and Matt is with Melissa when he’s called to the hospital. They both go to the hospital, but Melissa had promised to inform Emma if something happened. She sends a message to Emma which further upsets Emma.
Emma’s emotional state further deteriorates until Kwesi and Lu realize that Emma has been using part of her water rations to keep one of Kwesi’s plants alive. It wasn’t a miracle or a spontaneous adaptation to extreme drought conditions.
On Earth, Alexis is recovering from a minor concussion. She had lied to Matt and not told him she was riding motorbikes. Isaac is left in the cold for now.
At the end of the episode, both Alexis and Emma are at rest–Alexis in the hospital and Emma in her pod. Ram gives Emma saline and leaves her in her pod and she remembers being a young girl excited to fly a crop duster early in the morning. She remembers declining a flight during training because she was pregnant. And she remember when she made the decision to have the baby. Matt was there to support her.
Episode 8: Vital Signs
Written by Chris Jones.
A problem with Atlas’ supply ship jeopardizes the mission and sparks questions about Emma’s commitment to landing on Mars (49).
In mainland China, a husband is disappointed that his wife has given birth to a girl. He tells the physician that he told his wife it was a mistake to choose a boy’s name before the child was born. He tells the doctor, the baby will be named Lu.
Back in the present-day, the crew is looking forward to landing on Mars, and opening up the supply ship, Pegasus. Lu doesn’t want to talk much about it because it would jinx it. On Earth, Alexis is at home, and Matt has made her a big breakfast as part of their good luck ritual. Because she can’t eat it all, Alexis packs some of it up. Alexis hasn’t talked with Isaac since the accident. She does mention being worried about her possibility of having CMM.
At Mission Control, Darlene orders the public feed to go live. Pegasus, an unmanned space vessel, should have a new support system for Atlas. Pegasus was sent after Atlas and because it flies faster, will arrive at Mars before them. The message delay between Mission Control and Atlas is about 20 minutes. Mission Control is buzzing. Pegasus has disappeared.
Without Pegasus, the Atlas Mission is doomed. Mission Command has decided that Atlas should slingshot around Mars, return and dock with Pegasus II in transit.
Lu distrusts Emma because during her dehydration-fueled delirium, Emma expressed a desire to go home and be with her family. Ram while treating her also heard her express this desire. The crew bypass Emma and with Ram taking charge, they use the protocol codes only known to Ram and Emma, to provide access to the old rovers. They attempt to hear from an old Mars Rover to see if InSight “heard” anything. InSight had seismic equipment to detect earthquakes on Mars. They do hear something and listen to it over and over again.
During this episode, we get flashbacks for more insight into Lu. Now her father who had been disappointed in having a daughter, is too senile to even realize his own daughter’s achievements. Lu is able to advise Misha that what his daughter really wants to hear is that he is proud of her.
Episode 9: Spektr
Written by Jessica Goldberg.
Emotions run high as rapidly dwindling water rations on the Atlas leave the crew and Mission Control scrambling to find a fix before time runs out (47).
Two weeks before landing on Mars, we see Atlas at “nighttime” with Misha sleeping while floating in air. Matt is awakened by a phone call. Alexis hears and asks him: Did the water system break? Out of all 16 chambers 24 ounces which is, according to Ram, not even enough for two days. They have 72 hours to solve this problem, Kwesi surmises. “I have an obsession with water,” Kwesi explains. His parents died of dysentery. The most likely source of water would be the protective bladders within the walls of the space ship Atlas which is supposed to protect them from radiation.
On the ground, Matt explains there’s a 50-50 chance that the crew won’t hit the protective water bladder and instead hit space. When the ground crew attempt an experiment, the result leaves things in flames.
This episode is named after the fifth module of the three-person Mir Space Station (English: Spectrum). Spektr was designed for remote observation of Earth and contained atmospheric and surface research equipment. It had four solar arrays that generated about half of the electrical power of the Mir Space Station. Spektr was launched in 1995 (20 May) and docked in June of that year.
In 1997, an uncrewed spacecraft, the Progress M-34, crashed into Spektr during an experimental docking maneuver. This damaged one of the solar arrays, but also punctured the hull, resulting a slow leak. The crew was able to seal the module off to prevent depressurization of the entire Mir station (or as Misha describes here…the exploding of their brains). and Spektr was left isolated and depressurized for the remainder of the Mir space complex. Mir re-entered Earth in 2001 (landing in the South Pacific Ocean).
Lu is the person who undertakes most of this operation with Ram assisting and Emma checking her work. The attempt fails. Space is hit instead of the water bladder. The crew evacuates and close off that section. Then they report to Mission Control that they have lost crew quarters until the vacuum can be resealed.
Misha is ashamed to admit that instead of grabbing vodka when they evacuated, he grabbed a puppet. Kwesi tells them that dying of dehydration isn’t the worst way to die since one gets light-headed and delirious.
On Earth, Matt has an idea of using the space suits to attract space ice that can be collected by a second astronaut. This has never been tried in space but is, Matt says, essentially a fourth-grade science experiment. Emma will be astronaut A and Ram will be astronaut B.
One of the visual changes is that because now the astronauts have been reduced to sending text messages and have no “face time,” the director and script writers have chosen to show conversations between Matt and Emma with the actors together on the space ship. So we see Emma reading the words where Matt tells her he loves her and then see him speaking to her in private and cradling her face.
Elsewhere on Earth, Alexis is comforted by Isaac, who first takes her to a church where he prays, and later they talk about his reaction to his father’s death. Alexis remembers that her mother always told her that whenever she’s down to look up at the sky and remember how big and beautiful the world is. She says this in the back of Isaac’s truck and they make out. Matt calls Melissa to warn her of the situation on Atlas.
Before Emma and Ram go out, Lu shows them the last words she has crafted and they join hands as Kwesi says a prayer. Ram and Emma go into the airlock with special encouragement from Misha. Since you know there will be another episode, you can guess that this experiment works. In their moment of elation, there is also awkwardness because we realize that Ram is very much in love with Emma.
Episode 10: Home
Written by Andrew Hinderaker.
With only hours to go before Atlas’ planned touchdown on Mars, Emma is confronted with everything that could go wrong, while Lu receives new orders (49).
Emma is having nightmares about a disastrous landing. She wakes up to see her fellow crew members sleeping afloat. They are landing in Utopia Basin and Pegasus should be 300 meters away from them. According to the international agreement, Lu gets to touch down on Mars first to become more famous than Neil Armstrong.
Alexis, who is 15, is now having secret sleep overs with Isaac. That’s possible because Matt sleeps downstairs now in the living room. The bedrooms are on the second floor. We already know that Alexis can climb up and down the roof. Isaac takes the back door this time because outside is a media mob. Matt decides to get Melissa to drive Cassie, himself and Alexis to his friend’s place (Travis Parker) where they ride horses. Melissa admits to Matt that Cassie spent the night with Isaac during the last episode.
Ram and Emma are having issues because Ram has obviously crossed the line. Kwesi is saving all of his dead plants so that the organic matter will help build better gardens on Mars. Kwesi suggests that Misha, having lost his vision, is “ahead of the curve” because “we will learn to see in a different way.” Misha can only see patches of color and light, like an out-of-focus painting which is both frightening and beautiful. Lu asks Kwesi to say a few words before they begin to descend.
Lu is given an update from Emma: new instructions for the photo. CNSA (CNSA head Fiona Fu) wants Lu to stand proudly and salute the flag, but also to keep her reflective visor down, making her faceless. Lu comments in Chinese, “Only the motherland exists.” Emma suggests she use her leverage in making the most famous iconic image ever and ask for something that she really wants. “I want Mei to be reinstated at Mission Control,” Lu replies.
Before she lands, Emma gets a message from Alexis that she is not positive for CMM. Emma also imagines having a private conversation with Matt, second guessing her decision to go ahead with this mission. The crew wanted to go to Mars, but ultimately it was her decision and she can only hope that Pegasus will be there and none of the other problems have compromised the spacecraft enough to cause disaster on landing.
At Mission Control, the immediate family of the crew are waiting in a special lounge. Kwesi’s mother meets Misha’s daughter. Lu’s husband and son notes that over 40 attempted landings were made and 28 failed. This is when knowing the stats can be problematic. Matt lets Alexis invite Isaac to join them.
When Lu gets a vague response from CNSA, she, like Misha, knows what that means: No. She makes a decision on the landing photo. As Lu helps strap him into his space suit, Misha gives her advice: “The motherland is just an idea. Borders don’t exist. The only thing that matters is the people you love. Whatever you owe them, you’ve already paid and if they’re not proud of who you are, they’re just stupid fools.”
Ram encourages Emma to acknowledge her fears and try to enjoy the moment. Kwesi checks in on both of them. The last words are Kwesi’s heartfelt prayer from this “crucible of fire” for “a better world a world beyond division and confusion and fear. Let us discover a world beyond fear.” They are all strapped into their seats and advised to send their last words before the landing.
The families are led into special seats at NASA Mars Initiative Mission Control. We hear Emma’s message to Matt and Alexis. Kwesi speaks in Hebrew and thanks his mother for giving him faith. Misha tells his daughter she is his hero and names his three grandchildren. Lu tells Lei, her son, that she loves what she does and she hopes he finds something he loves to do. Ram’s words are to his dead brother.
A lot of research went into the scripting of this production and there’s care to both portray negative gravity and cultural and personal conflicts between intelligent people. It’s easy to forget that real astronauts are the best in their fields. They are brilliant scientists and engineers and exceptional athletes. This series takes care to portray them as such, slowly revealing their rich emotional lives and what has driven them to get to Mars.
They do, of course, land on the red planet. On Mars, the director chooses to show us what Misha sees. One of those things is, indeed, Pegasus, which Lu confirms for him. And Lu makes her choice about the photo op of the century.
There is not a false note in this ensemble cast as we see them slowly grow into a team, one that was not forged by the two years of training, but through hardship and near death experiences during eight months in Atlas.
Created by Andrew Hinderaker who wrote three of the scripts (“Go,” “Half the Sky” and “Home”) this is fiercely intelligent dramatization of what could happen in a real expedition to Mars in our future. In the casting, and consideration of each of the five members of the Atlas crew, this production managed to hit all the diversity notes while avoiding formulaic pitfalls. Yes, there’s White, Black, Asian, African, Jewish, lesbian and women in non-traditional roles.
For those who followed the recent celebration of Apollo 11’s 50th anniversary, you’ll also be elated to see the diversity represented at Mission Control–men and women.
“Away” is a thoughtful, well-researched look at mission to Mars and a respectful look at the astronauts and their families. If its theme is truly about international communities reaching to find “a better world, a world beyond division and confusion and fear” then it seems like this is, in spirit, the promise of TOS Star Trek. With that in mind, I hope that it will have future seasons and during these COVID-19 times, let us discover a world beyond fear.