All season finales have an air of dread. These are the episodes where a beloved character may die abruptly, or learn a dark family secret. This is particularly true if you watch Riverdale. While the finale of Away, Netflix’s Hilary Swank-led space drama, doesn’t feature any serial killers or jingle jangle, it is still held together by just under 50 minutes of dire panic.
The closing chapter, “Home,” follows the crew of the Atlas spacecraft as they enter the most important phase of their mission: Actually landing on Mars. Everyone on board knows there is a chance the Atlas will burst into flames upon entering the Red Planet’s atmosphere. That’s why Commander Emma Green (Swank) starts the episode with a nightmare of one such fatal catastrophe. Following such an opener, TV law requires that the audience spend the rest of episode wondering which one of Emma’s crew members will die during actual landing. Because someone has to perish, right?
Wrong. The finale ends with everyone alive, well, and a little bit weepy. The closing shot of the episode pushes Away’s optimism over the top, making it the rare heart swelling season-ender. This is a show that has brought people together rather than tearing them apart — emotionally or physically — and its ending that speaks to the ultimate outlook of Away’s writing team on the awesome power of space travel.
“That's part of the dream of the show,” Away showrunner Jessica Goldberg began during a January visit to her series’ Vancouver set, “in a time where the world is so divided, to talk about a place where everybody is coming together to work together toward a common dream.”
Over Away’s 10 episodes, the drama's core astronauts — who come from five very different countries, spread out over four continents — all begin to put away their petty differences as they find themselves stuck with only each other in the vastness of space. The crew’s unity reaches its crescendo after they land on Mars in “Home’s” final scene. Chemist Lu Wang — China’s representative on the mission — is meant to be the first person in history to step on Mars. This detail is the lynchpin to the international agreement that was settled upon before takeoff. The geopolitical necessity of Lu’s primary status is repeated relentlessly throughout season 1, along with the importance of Lu taking the first photo on the moon — solo.
Then, as Atlas is about to land, China demands Lu take the photo with her visor down, making her a faceless body on Mars and forever erasing her astounding personal accomplishment. When China politely refuses Lu’s single demand in exchange for this massive sacrifice — reinstating Mei (Nadia Hatta), who was wrongly discharged for their queer relationship, to Mission Control — the entire crew is outraged. You can tell the fivesome has gone rogue when you realize Russian astronaut Misha (Mark Ivanir) is the first person off the ship. Lu is behind him as the second person on Mars. The rest of the crew follows the duo before Lu has taken her photo. This is all against the rules.
The final shot of Away season 1 reveals the full extent of the crew’s unity/revenge plan: The photo is a five person group shot — visors down all around. China’s NASA representative in Mission Control is aghast, but the crew is elated, and viewers should be too. As space travelers on a brand new planet, it is obvious they no longer see the national divides that would have separated them on Earth.
The “Home” twist reflects the research Goldberg and Away’s creator Andrew Hinderaker found while preparing for the series. “All the astronauts that we've talked to and have spoken so beautifully about two things,” Hinderaker told journalists while sitting next to Goldberg in Away’s production offices. The first is the feeling of zero gravity. “The other is looking back at earth and they all talk about that sort of moment of, 'Oh right, borders don't actually exist. They're a thing people made up,'" he continued.
“We're both playwrights and I feel like [our work] is not always this bright and hopeful. But what I love about the story that space tells is not a totally naive hope.”
While Netflix has yet to officially renew Away for a second season, Hinderaker and Goldberg confirmed they have a three-season plan for their series. Looking into Away's immediate prospective future, it is likely the Atlas crew will have to rely on each other even more due to earthly drama and physical limitations. Misha is rapidly losing his sight. Lu has alienated her government with the group photo. Emma’s husband Matt (Josh Charles) notices an intimate moment of — technically appropriate — physical touch between his wife and Ram (Ray Panthaki). Even Kwesi (Ato Essandoh) has the gargantuan task of creating botanical life on a desert planet like Mars.
Yet, when you listen to Hinderaker speak, it seems inevitable that the Atlas crew can get through anything if they continue to support each other. That message is a much needed emotional balm during our divided times. As Hinderaker said in Vancouver, “There's a deeper truth that they're tapping into. That has been achieved, and that's what the show aspires to be.”