'Away' Boss on the Obamas, Sex in Space and Life on Mars in Season 2 (Exclusive)
By Stacy Lambe
Now that Away, the series starring Hilary Swank as astronaut Emma Green on the first manned mission to Mars, is streaming on Netflix, showrunner Jessica Goldberg talks to ET about highlights from season 1, how the Obamas influenced the characters and what’s in store for season 2, if the space drama gets renewed.
In the series created by Andrew Hinderaker (Pure Genius) and executive produced by Jason Katims (Parenthood), Emma is leading an international crew -- Misha Popov (Mark Ivanir), Dr. Kwesi Weisberg-Abban (Ato Essandoh), Ram Arya (Ray Panthaki), Lu Wang (Vivian Wu) -- on a three-year round trip to Mars while also coming to terms with her decision to leave her husband, Matt Logan (Josh Charles), and 15-year-old daughter, Alexis Logan (Talitha Bateman), right when they both need her most.
Despite taking every precaution and training for anything that could happen, life aboard the spacecraft intensifies the further the crew -- each of whom have their own baggage back on Earth to deal with -- travels from home and the more they journey into the unknown.
[Spoiler warning: Do not read if you haven’t finished the entire season.]
Emma’s Commitment to the Mission
Throughout the first season, the biggest conflict is over Emma’s commitment to the mission, especially after Matt is left wheelchair-bound after suffering a stroke brought on by CCM disease soon after they take off for the moon before setting off to Mars. Despite the additional care provided on Earth by family friend and former astronaut Melissa Ramirez (Monique Curnen), everyone challenges Emma’s decision to stay in command amid the distractions from home.
“This is a working mom to the Nth degree,” Goldberg says, adding that “she has chosen this job and she loves this job and she is going to fulfill this job.” While Emma’s focus may have wavered -- especially as she overcomes extreme dehydration later in the season -- the showrunner says the moment when she touches down on Mars, there’s no regret. “It is, like, crystal clear in that moment -- the awe, the humility, the joy of having made it.”
How Barack and Michelle Obama Influenced the Series
While Emma struggles to reassure her crew and forge relationships with them in space, her marriage to Matt is one that needs no work. While it was also his dream to go to Mars, he fully supports Emma’s decision to go, no matter what. “This is his dream just as much as it is for her,” Goldberg says, adding that it was important to have a family unit “that supports each other’s dreams.”
And when it came to developing this relationship, the showrunner turned to the marriage between former President Barack Obama and former first lady Michelle Obama. “I feel like so often in television and in the media, you see relationships where someone is mad at the other person for putting their work first. And we just loved the idea of a couple who shared a dream,” Goldberg recalls. “So we've looked at Barack and Michelle, we looked at Ruth Bader Ginsburg and her husband, Martin, these kinds of marriages in which you just feel like the partners are sharing a larger dream together and are building each other up to inspire each other.”
Exploring the Crew’s Lives and Expanding Their Stories in Season 2
While Emma’s story largely drives the emotional journey in season 1, the series slowly explores the lives and backstories of her crew members. Most notably, Lu is outed as a lesbian as she is reeling from the transfer of CAPCOM’s Mei (Nadia Hatta), with whom she had a secret romance. “That was something we always thought was really interesting about her character and something we wanted to keep unpacking,” Goldberg says. Elsewhere on the spacecraft, Russian astronaut Misha is losing his eyesight after being diagnosed with space blindness.
Those were two stories the Away team knew they were going to explore. But Goldberg reveals that other developments, like Kwesi’s backstory, were written along the way. “He was a character who was developed more in the room,” she says. “We discovered that he had been adopted [from Ghana] and was Jewish later.”
While there were revelations about each crew member along the way -- Kwesi being adopted, Misha’s complicated relationship with his daughter, Ram’s story with his brother -- “I just feel like there’s so much more to tell about everybody,” Goldberg says. “I feel like we just scratched the surface of the other characters and it would be wonderful to get to go deeper.”
Panthaki adds there’s so much history that the show can delve into with future seasons. “So much hasn’t been explored in the first season, so I would like to explore these characters more and learn about their past, which I think is interesting,” he says. “And the structure of the show allows us to do that, so that's exciting.”
Romantic Sparks in Space and Back on Earth
Speaking of Panthaki’s character, Ram, near the end of the season, it is revealed he has feelings for Emma. Despite professing his love for her, she shuts down any idea of them ever being romantically involved. But as Goldberg says, the further they move away from Earth, any tethers to life back at home slowly disappear and are replaced by the relationships aboard the mission to Mars. But they’re not the only pair to have sparks, with Melissa confronting Matt over their dynamic of being pseudo co-parents of Alexis while not actually being a couple.
“I think all shows have romance,” Goldberg says. “And this is just another example of how hard it is to be away. It just really puts the pressure on these characters, who also develop these intimacies that are emotional with other people in the absence of their partner. We definitely think that's interesting ground to explore.”
As for whether audiences will ever see sex in space on Away, the showrunner says it’s something they discussed a lot in the writers’ room and even tried to research if it ever happened in real life. “It seems like a very complicated thing to do, literally,” she says, teasing that “emotional sex feels very possible.”
Life on Mars and Creating a Space Family in Season 2
One foundational idea for the series was that the astronauts sent into space needed to have people on Earth they would be tethered to, so they would have a reason to fight to get back. Because of that, the Away team loved the idea of breaking these characters down over the course of their journey to Mars and find out who they would evolve into or discover who they really are.
“What’s starts to happen,” Goldberg says, “is the longer you’re away, the people you’re with become more your family and those tethers become more and more tenuous. I imagine if we’re lucky enough to have a season 2, which I hope we are, there’s so many stories to tell.” Over time, she adds, “we really see these characters lose the tropes, lose the stereotypes. We start to see who they really are. And we also start to see them become a family.”
But just like they were aboard the spacecraft, this family will be tested on Mars, despite having finally come together at the end of season 1. Essandoh, in particular, is excited to see his botanist put to work. “My character is supposed to be growing food on Mars. I want to see how we pull that off,” he says. “I mean, what’s it going to be like living on a planet where you can’t even see where you came from. I think that’s going to start a whole bunch of new sort of alliances and relationships.”
“Mars opens up the possibility for so many stories to tell,” Goldberg says, adding that no matter what complications or trials the characters are faced with, it’ll still come down to how they grow together as a “Martian” family and what kind of connections they form on the surface of the planet, now that they are so removed from everything they previously knew.