(Warning: This post does contain some spoilers for “Away” on Netflix).
Do you need faith in a higher power to get through a strenuous mission to Mars? In Netflix’s Hilary Swank-led space drama series “Away,” showrunner Jessica Golberg found the oh-so-subtlest ways to ask that very question with an intertwining theme of faith and religion — which we just couldn’t help but notice.
For instance, consider how one of the five astronauts on the mission to Mars, Dr. Kwesi Weisberg-Abban (Ato Essandoh), was left orphaned when his birth parents died and was then adopted by a Jewish woman and her husband. Throughout the eight-month mission, Kwesi often prays openly, and in the final episode he even ends up swaying the usually agnostic Dr. Lu Wang (Vivian Wu), who asks him to lead them in prayer as they approach their difficult and potentially fatal landing on Mars.
Then there’s that scene where Commander Emma Green’s (Swank) daughter Alexis (Talitha Eliana Bateman) attends a Catholic mass with her boyfriend — not your average activity for a couple of love-struck 15-year-olds.
Throughout the series, the astronauts are guided through every terrifying moment where something goes wrong by a sense of “hope,” which might as well be synonymous with faith — whether that’s in God, science or something else entirely is up for interpretation.
“When you talk about the universe, it’s hard to eclipse those questions of faith,” Goldberg told TheWrap. “We did a lot of research, we talked to a lot of astronauts, and one thing we kept hearing was when you’re up there, if you’re atheist, you’re even more of an atheist, or if you believe, you become a deeper believer. I think because we were having those conversations in the [writers] room, they just worked into the larger fabric of the show.”
It should come as no surprise to fans of the sci-fi space travel genre that a mission to Mars also brings up the ultimate question: are we alone?
“When you’re questioning about going to the moon or Mars or other planets, you’re questioning, ‘Is there life in other places? Are we the only life?’ The sort of Russian doll of questions that you start to ask ends up always coming around to faith in some way,” Goldberg continued. “We felt that a lot of scientists are agnostics, are atheists, but it felt important to have someone up there who had faith and believed. And you hear about people having experiences in space.”
Even astronauts who don’t necessarily believe in God have reported feeling something close to the divine when peering out of that little window down at that blue marble, Earth, Goldberg said.
“We talked to Don Pettit, who didn’t believe in God, who’s been in space for hundreds of hours, and he felt more a spiritual sense with the Earth,” she said of the American chemical engineer and NASA astronaut. “Some people experience little lights and have more of a religious experience.”
“In our [writers] room, we’d be talking about these things, and then it would definitely evolve back to, ‘Is there a God? Do you need faith to get through these kinds of missions? What happens if you believe in nothing? What if there is other life out there?’” she continued. “If we get to go on and have a Season 2, that question will play even more deeply because the question of life on Mars is the scientific basis, you know, it’s the holy grail of what Mars could possibly hold.”
Could there be little green men on Mars? Do they know something about a higher power that we don’t? Let’s hope “Away” gets a second season so we can find out.