Of course 2020 would be the year Hilary Swank went to space. In Netflix’s Away, Swank plays the conflicted Commander Emma Green, who’s leading the first-ever human mission to Mars, leaving behind her teenage daughter, Alexis (Talitha Bateman), and husband, Matt (Josh Charles), a former astronaut who suffered a debilitating stroke. Although the adventure is daunting, the story of Away itself is comfort-viewing in our tense times, a warm and enveloping family drama that feels especially prescient during the age of social distancing. Emma is thousands of miles away from her family—and will be for multiple years as she and her crew continue their mission on the Red Planet. Meanwhile, Alexis is exploring her rebellious side back on Earth. And Matt? Well, Matt just really misses his wife.
Although the series had a strong release, spending several weeks in the top 10 Nielsen streaming viewership rankings, on October 20 Netflix made the decision to cancel Away. At the end of the first season, audiences had left Green and her crew standing on the surface of Mars, about to begin their 18-month hunker-down on the Red Planet. But now audiences might never know what discoveries the crew stumble upon. In an effort to understand why, we’re breaking down the factors affecting Netflix’s decision.
Why does this come as a shock?
Before mid-October, all signs pointed to an Away renewal. The show was popular among viewers, and the big-name billing of Swank added extra eyeballs. In early September, Away creator Andrew Hinderaker told The Capital Times, “There’s no news to break in terms of whether we know that there will be future seasons, but the plan was always for a multi-season arc.”
He added, “Part of the reason the show is called Away is we were always interested in that journey, and what happens when they go home. There’s this phenomenon among astronauts, it’s so fascinating, where home becomes space, and they feel away back home. And, of course, that’s amplified in a mission to Mars where you’ve been gone for three years.”
In an interview with RadioTimes, Ato Essandoh, who plays Emma Green’s crew member Kwesi, said, “I’m sure there are plans for a second season like there would be any time, and I would definitely want to be a part of that.” Bateman hinted that she, too, anticipated a second season.
So why was the show cancelled?
There are a number of theories to consider. First, Away is far from the only production to face the chopping block recently. In light of the COVID-19 pandemic disrupting all semblance of normal production in Hollywood, Netflix has canceled fan-favorite shows including The Society, GLOW, The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, I Am Not Okay With This, and Altered Carbon, among others.
Plus, Away isn’t your average drama. Even if the show did get the green light to start shooting again, the complicated nature of its set—not to mention its insane cost per episode—would likely delay the release of a second season for months, if not years.
Showrunner Jessica Goldberg told ELLE.com, “Some of the scenes, like where Hillary does that spacewalk and has to deploy the solar panel, you know? That’s something that takes hours of plotting in advance. Thinking about what to build, how to do it, putting the actors on wires, it’s quite complicated.”
In a separate interview with Esquire, she expanded on that problem within the context of the pandemic. The Mars scenes would be simple enough, she said; the crew members could simply quarantine together. But shooting on Earth, especially at a large, crowded venue such as Johnson Space Center, would be challenging, if not outright impossible. These logistical tangles might have given Netflix further incentive to cancel the show.
What will we be missing?
Unfortunately, a lot. Goldberg hinted to Inverse that, during the second season, Green and her crew would likely discover life on Mars—even if it didn’t reveal itself as little green men. But she implied that the real intrigue would take place back on Earth, where privatized spacecraft could disrupt the industry.
If you’ve paid much attention to the real-life race to Mars, you might know Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin and Elon Musk’s SpaceX are both quite interested in shooting their rockets into the unknown. But private sector space travel versus public agencies like NASA bring with them all sorts of ethical and finance questions.
“I do feel that’s a story that’s super important,” Goldberg told Inverse. “Right now, we can’t get anywhere without that private sector money, and I think it would be great to bring that storyline in.”
Despite the many captivating adventures Away could have shown us in the world of space exploration, Goldberg wanted to make sure the show stayed grounded in its depiction of family as well. She told ELLE.com, “[This show] was the first time I really felt like I could tell the story of a working mom in a way that I’ve never seen before. It’s rare to see a woman in love with their work, who is so smart and great at what she does and also loves her child and is great at [parenting], but experiences the push and pull of all those things and how emotional it is.”
When asked about her own hopes for a second season, Bateman told ELLE.com there was exactly one thing she wanted for Lex: “More dirt bike riding would be awesome.”
But with a new boyfriend and a caretaker who’s in love with her dad, Lex might have had more to worry about than another ride. If Melissa, her parents’ friend and her pseudo-babysitter, had decided to reveal her affections for Matt, Lex might’ve pulled away.
When Mel told Matt about her feelings, she “handled it in a really, really good way, I will say that,” Bateman told ELLE.com. “She didn’t act on her feelings, she didn’t make a move or anything because she has a respect for [Lex’s mom], but it still was just a boundary that that obviously wasn’t appropriate. And I have this thing against affairs, in general. I’m very bothered by them. I feel like it distorts the character for me, and maybe that’s me taking my own personal thing into it, but maybe Alexis will forgive her because she does value her relationship with Mel because she’s been there for her through everything. So we’ll see how she reacts, but I don’t know. There might be some distancing or there might be some forgiveness.”
Unfortunately, we won’t get a chance to see that reconciliation play out. As the pandemic continues to worsen in parts of the country, there’s no end in sight for COVID-19 restrictions, which means Netflix won’t be likely to consider renewing a canceled series for some time, if ever.
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