Emma (Hilary Swank) is a former navy pilot and commander of the first mission to Mars. But once she’s embarked on the three-year journey, Emma begins to wrestle with the guilt of leaving her family on Earth, while her international team begin to question her abilities as a leader.
“Space is not about swagger or ego, it’s about resilience,” recites Hilary Swank’s Emma in a late episode of Netflix’s sci-fi family drama Away. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist (although there are a few to hand) to draw the comparison between this lesson in navigating through space as an astronaut with Emma’s experiences as a mother. Both take vast mental and physical tolls on women and both have been compared many times on screen already, although through pragmatic Emma we come closer than ever to seeing a fully-formed female character managing to succeed in both aspects of her life.
The recent Proxima explored similar themes, as Eva Green’s astronaut underwent rigorous physical training while struggling with the detachment from her young daughter. Away shares the same seed of a story, but whereas the former never left Earth, the latter begins on the surface of the moon, with Emma examining her home planet as if held in her fingertips. It’s a big-money series opener from Netflix, who brought Swank into their fold in 2019’s I Am Mother. With Emma, however, the two-time Oscar-winner has been given more room to flaunt her abilities as a lead than she’s had in years, and she runs with it, her performance lifting the show beyond a paint-by-numbers ensemble drama into a knottier study of leadership and morality. As a commander, Emma is as much the stoic decision-maker as she is in-house therapist and Swank moves between the two with agency and warmth. When portraying Emma as a wife and mother, the vulnerability that stems from her guilt at leaving her family is shown as empowering, and never demands sympathy.
One of the better balances of genre-infused character-study TV in recent memory.
Swank’s surrounding performers vary in quality. Through flashbacks, we learn the origin stories of Emma’s fellow crew members, of which Ray Panthaki’s gentle-natured surgeon and Vivian Wu’s secretly gay chemist are the most compelling. Back on Earth, Josh Charles is sometimes too stolid as Emma’s NASA-employed husband Matt who suffers from a rare vascular disease, while Talitha Bateman is a standout as the emotionally mature teenage daughter.
It’s within the family unit especially that the involvement of Friday Night Lights executive producer Jason Katims is most keenly felt. The high-school football series endured because of Kyle Chandler and Connie Britton’s rock-steady partnership, and their strengths seem to have been grafted onto the blueprint for Emma and Matt’s marriage with similar effect. If anything, though, Away suffers from Friday Night Lights’ tendency to litter its script with rousing monologues, and later episodes are overwhelmed with impassioned speeches that lack originality.
Space is secondary to Away’s focus on human drama but is used well in bursts, from a dazzling spacewalk to the crew drinking bubbles of vodka from syringes. Its spectacle never distracts from Emma’s inner battles, though, and Away proves one of the better balances of genre-infused character-study TV in recent memory.
One giant leap for women achieving a work/life balance on screen, Away effectively muddles interpersonal politics with outer-space theatrics and brings back Swank as a heavyweight leading actress.