Away isn’t just a space drama. It is a Space Dramaaaaaaa. The space part you were probably expecting, what with this being a series about the inaugural joint global mission to Mars. The Dramaaaaaaa, however? Oh, there is so much drama, you guys! Intense and highly risky space-mission drama! Floating workplace drama! Romantic drama! Medical-crisis drama! Family drama! Teen drama! Chemical-reaction drama?? Just all the drama you could ever want. Honestly, being trapped in a tin can hurtling through space for a three-year round trip as part of a mission that has a 50 percent chance of death is like the least of our five astronauts’ worries.
Just kidding! That’s a huge worry the entire time, as it should be, because, hi, hello, have you heard? Space is scary as hell.
Before we embark on this mission to boldly go where no one has gone before, let’s meet the team of five brave astronauts who have trained for years to man the Atlas I.
Our commander, representing the United States, is Emma Green. A former Navy pilot and supremely talented astronaut, she was selected to lead this prestigious crew, thereby fulfilling her lifelong dream of being on the first mission to Mars. Emma’s husband, Matt, is also a NASA employee (no pressure, teen daughter, Lex!) and was in the running for a spot on the Atlas I until he was diagnosed with cerebral-cavernous-malformation disorder, or CCM, a rare disease that can cause seizures, brain hemorrhages, strokes ― just, like, a whole bunch of awful things that you wouldn’t want to happen anywhere, let alone in space. Matt pivoted and became the chief rocket engineer for Atlas I and is extremely proud and supportive of his wife and everything she’s accomplished. He’ll be down in mission control alongside her every step of the way. But let’s be real: We’ve all seen TV shows before, and you don’t give one of your main characters a rare and possibly fatal disease and not deploy it at some point in time. Someone keep an eye on Matt, okay?
Emma’s second-in-command is India’s representative on the Atlas, Ram. Ram is, I guess, the closest thing to a “bro” you could probably get with astronauts: He loves food and talking about how much he loves women and also has spectacular facial hair. He spends a lot of time heaping praise on Emma, which on the one hand is something you probably want in your second, but on the other hand … I have some suspicions.
Misha is Russia’s cosmonaut pick, which makes sense, since out of the five people on Atlas, he has clocked the most time in space and he’s highly skilled on the engineering side of things. At the big press conference, he claims he remains unbothered by the fact that he has more experience than his commander, but we quickly learn that’s not the case. Oh, and he brings puppets to space for his grandkids, so you know he’s going to reveal a softer side at some point.
Next there’s Lu, a brilliant chemist from China, who, thanks to some major negotiations on her home country’s part, will (should the Atlas make it) be the first person to actually step on Mars. She’s leaving behind a husband and a young son and a mysterious “friend” who gave her the ring she keeps with her. She and Misha seem to be the closest out of the crew members, and she’s 100 percent on team Don’t Trust Emma Green.
Finally, meet our botanist from England, Kwesi, who has spent absolutely zero time in space but is braving it all to grow plants on Mars. Honestly, all the high-stakes space and emotional drama is great, but I would watch a show simply about Kwesi trying to get stuff to grow in space. I know I could “read” a “book” about it (and yes, I’ve read and watched The Martian), but I’d rather defer to Kwesi on all things plants. He seems nice and kind and I hope three years in space doesn’t ruin him.
And that’s our Atlas I crew! The women and men willing to risk death ― and spend three years in space ― all in the name of discovery and exploration. Inspiring, no? But the premiere episode of Away is about much more than just introducing us to the crew and the pressure of this international feat ― it is very much about testing Emma’s ability to be the crew’s commander, both by way of problems in space and back on Earth, because nothing can be easy. Not one thing.
Away doesn’t even bother showing us the launch of the Atlas I as it goes from the Earth to the moon for its fueling pit stop, because we’ve been there, done that, ya know? We do, however, get to see Emma’s last night at home. She gets honest with Lex about the reality of how dangerous this mission is, and, honestly, Lex seems pretty cool for being a teenager whose mother is headed off to space for three years. I’d probably just be crying and puking the entire time, but we all deal with parents leaving for space differently. Emma and Matt also partake in a good ol’ fashioned prelaunch lay, as mandated by NASA, probably.
But just because Away skips over Atlas I’s first leg doesn’t mean it goes smoothly. In fact, most of the episode is dedicated to piecing together some “incident” that left Emma questioning her leadership and Misha and Lu asking for Emma to be replaced by backup commander Jack Willmore (who is on the lunar base) ahead of their next launch as they begin the eight-month journey to Mars. Misha thinks Emma completely froze; Lu thinks Emma acted recklessly and endangered everyone’s lives; and everyone has a different story of what went down.
When Emma finally tells the story, we get the full picture: There was a chemical leak. When Emma goes to the panel with the leak in order to stop it, she finds Kwesi there opening the panel, which is a huge no-no because it lets the chemical leak out into the ship. (Kwesi is a newbie, remember?) To stop the giant chemical balls from causing damage, Emma uses her shirt to try and stifle them, not realizing her sweat will act as an accelerant, which turns the floating chemical balls into floating fireballs. Luckily, Lu, being a chemist, is ready with the fire bag, and she and Misha are able to catch the fire before it does any real damage. Well, physical damage. The whole incident has certainly damaged crew relations. Emma blames herself for being impulsive, but her therapist tells her she was trying to act fast and save her crew. She’s only human. Some of her crew members don’t see it that way.
Misha and Lu are already questioning Emma’s ability to lead this mission when she gets a call from the ground that only makes them question it more: Matt’s had a stroke. Were you guys watching him? I told you to watch him!
Matt collapses while cooking dinner for Lex, and we soon learn that one of his cavernomas bled. He’s rushed to the hospital where Lex and Melissa, Emma’s on-ground crew support, alert Emma to the situation while her entire crew is watching. She pulls the “I’m going to Mars!” card and gets the best doctor she can find to get Matt through his emergency surgery. Lex is appropriately terrified and all she wants is her mom to come home, but that’s, like, a truly insane commute.
Still, with just hours to go before the Atlas I takes off for Mars, Emma could step down and take the next bus (rocket ship) back to Earth and be with her family who definitely need her. Even after being reminded that she knew this job would demand great sacrifices and no astronaut has ever abandoned their mission and that, yes, there is extra pressure since she is a female commander, Emma decides she wants to go home.
Fortunately for all of us already invested in this show (it happened fast, didn’t it?), when Matt gets out of surgery, Emma tells her husband and daughter the news, but even groggy and in pain, Matt will! not! stand! for it! He has to whisper everything he wants to tell Emma to Lex, who relays the message, and I am here to tell you that even though this moment is fairly predictable, it is extremely emotional. This is who Emma is, and they’ll all be okay, and she has to go. He needs her to go. By the end of it, even Lex is telling Emma she can’t come home.
And so even though tensions with the crew, worried about Emma’s focus, are at an all-time high ― Misha outright tells her that he doesn’t trust her ― Emma is, as they say, go for launch. With one last message from the Atlas crew on the surface of the moon to the people of Earth, one about coming together to achieve the impossible and the promise that they will reach the surface of Mars and return home, our astronauts blast off as the entire world watches.
• I laughed so hard at the part when Emma calls Dr. Madigan in the middle of the night to demand he save her husband and is like, “Hello, I’m Emma Green, and I’m calling from the moon.” There’s no real phone etiquette for that situation, but there must be something better than that, right?
• Anyone else irrationally annoyed watching all of these surface-of-the-moon-to-Earth crystal-clear video chats when sometimes I can’t even get a good connection when talking to someone ten miles away? I know it’s NASA and all, but still.
• Away was inspired by astronaut Scott Kelly’s yearlong expedition aboard the International Space Station in 2015 and the Esquire magazine piece (also called “Away”) that chronicled Kelly’s story ahead of his launch, should you be interested in supplemental reading. For me, there is never enough space content.
• Josh Charles saying “Go, you fucker, go” quietly but emphatically is really the kind of energy I need right now, bless.