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Episode 01: The Wounded Angel
AppleTV+  ·  50 minutes  ·  Original Broadcast: February 21, 2024

Directed by: Michelle MacLaren  |  Written by: Peter Harness

Official synopsis: Jo Ericsson is a Swedish ESA astronaut on the ISS. Just as NASA astronaut Paul starts an experiment with the CAL, an object hits the ISS, damaging it. Paul is injured and dies, despite the crew’s efforts. Jo performs a space walk to assess the damage and sees the object that hit them ― a desiccated female corpse in a USSR space suit. The other three of the crew board the docked three-seat Soyuz MS spacecraft that is undamaged and return to Earth, while Jo remains to repair and then take the other docked Soyuz MS. Back on earth, NASA’s experiment leader Henry Caldera insists that Jo bring back the CAL data core, which Roscosmos’ flight leader Irena Lysenko allows after she is disturbed by Jo’s drawing of the USSR corpse. While alone on the space station, Jo experiences strange occurrences: a clock speeds up, and she has a vision of a cupboard with Alice’s necklace on it. Meanwhile, Jo’s daughter Alice and her husband Magnus are flown from their home near the ESA Centre in Cologne, Germany to the Roscosmos cosmodrome in Kazakhstan to await updates. Intermixed with this story are several flashforwards to five weeks later, where Jo late at night drives through a snowy northern Sweden and takes Alice and the CAL data core to an isolated cabin. After Alice has fallen asleep, Jo hears her voice calling from outside and follows the voice to an identical but dilapidated cabin, where she finds a sickly Alice hiding in a cupboard.

Episode Recap
Please note that recaps feature spoilers on the individual episode.
This recap was written by Erin Qualey for Vulture, February 21, 2024

The premiere of Constellation is a total mood. Directed by Michelle MacLaren and starring Noomi Rapace and Jonathan Banks, the first hour of the series is full of stark contrasts, overt references to the duality of (wo)man, achy parental bonds, and oodles of space intrigue. Constellation immediately categorizes itself as a thinking person’s show. It boasts layered stories set in space and the frozen tundra of Europe — both of which feature moments of fractured reality — and a central character who has to piece together a mystery of her own potentially fractured identity in real time. After a strange incident occurs on the International Space Station (ISS), astronaut Jo Ericsson (Noomi Rapace) begins to sense that something has gone awry in her reality. The strong premiere telegraphs the idea that Constellation will be a show that’s tons of fun to talk about with the smartest people you know. (That is, if there are actual answers involved.) More than once throughout the premiere, I wrote, “Is this all going to make sense?” in my notes. And I sure hope so! MacLaren certainly creates a compelling ambience for the world of the series with her careful camerawork and a striking blue-and-orange color palette, but at times it feels like the central narrative might hinge on the nonsensical. Jonathan Banks lends his trademark gravitas to the story line as a space veteran who’s focused on a mysterious glowing canister called the CAL, but strip away his deadly serious treatment of this story line, and it all might seem a bit silly. That said, the premiere is otherwise so compelling, so well acted, and so thoughtfully shot that it’s easy to set these concerns aside and be swept away by the story.

The mystifying CAL serves as the axis for the narrative’s orbit. The episode kicks off on a dark, wintry road as Jo nervously drives away with her daughter Alice (Davina and Rosie Coleman) in the chilly backseat. There’s no heat — or so Jo says — and, as Jo warily eyes an approaching police vehicle, there’s a sense that an Amber Alert situation might be unfolding here. Jo and Alice arrive at a cabin, and Jo sets to work lighting lanterns. Jo is acting cagey around Alice, and Alice seems nervous because her would-be protector seems to have gone a little batty. She asks for a story, and Jo plays her a video of a story called “The Little Rocket Girl” that she recorded when she was on the ISS. Then, time goes a little screwy, and Jo finds herself running through the woods, a glowing canister by her side. The images of Jo racing through the woods, orange light pulsing over the inky darkness of a nighttime blizzard, are striking in their ability to evoke feelings of helplessness and isolation. Isolation is a prominent running theme throughout this episode. Here, the focus seamlessly shifts from the biting elements on Earth to the vacuum-sealed beauty of space. The transition between these two inhospitable environments feels wholly organic. Humans shouldn’t be able to survive in either the bracing cold or hundreds of miles above the atmosphere in a metal tube, but here we are. Our tenacity and nimble thinking allow us, as a species, to thrive even when we should be dead. Jo is lovingly FaceTiming Alice on her iPad (we see you, Apple!) when something goes horribly wrong. “They’re doing something fiddly with the CAL,” she says, just minutes before Paul presses a button, and all hell breaks loose. The show seems to be suggesting that the CAL might not have caused the destruction. Just as Paul starts his experiment, there’s a point-of-view shot of something rapidly approaching the ISS. Is it a billionaire’s rocket gone rogue? An alien life force? Clooney from Gravity?! It turns out that the item is actually a body. What?! And not only is it a body, but it’s the desiccated body of a female cosmonaut from the Soviet Union. Continuing the delightful orange-blue color palette of this episode, the cosmonaut is dressed in an orange flight suit, and as Jo frees her from the wreckage, we see her bright space suit contrasted against the dreamy blue Earth below. Jo panics, asking that they check the oxygen mix in her space suit. Is she hallucinating? She couldn’t have just seen a body. Could she? Inside the craft, the rest of the crew is dealing with the aftermath of the incident. Paul’s arm has been pinned down, and Ashley is performing CPR as weightless blood blobs assault her face. I know that astronauts get a ton of intense training before going on missions, but I don’t feel like there’s anything that can prepare a person for blood blobs in space. Ashley gives it her all, but Paul succumbs to his wounds. She reports back to the ground: “Paul is dead.” The CAL-focused Henry (Jonathan Banks) frantically pops a bold-yellow-and-red pill as the news of Paul’s death reaches him.

As things go haywire on the ISS, Alice and her gentle father, Magnus (James D’Arcy), are retrieved so they can communicate with Jo in case anything goes wrong. Like her mother, Alice also oddly seems to be experiencing some fractures in her reality. As she boards the private jet, she sees Paul’s daughter and his wife in a blurry double, indicating that maybe there were multiple ways in which this scenario could have played out. Meanwhile, Jo is seeing double on the ISS. After finding out that the damaged escape capsule only has enough life support for a single occupant, Jo insists that the others depart in the functional one. The damaged unit needs a ton of repairs that need to be completed quickly as Jo only has 19 hours of oxygen left. As they close off parts of the ISS to conserve vital functionality, Jo scoots out to grab Alice’s necklace. This gives Mission Control an absolute heart attack, but it gives Rapace a moment to show off some of the core tenets of her character — she’s daring, confident, and playful. At least … this version of Jo is. It feels clear that reality splits or shifts somewhere within this episode, but the exact moment it does so is unclear. The idea of the multiverse has been explored in popular media lately, most notably within the Marvel franchise, but Constellation seems to be taking a more subtle, Sliding Doors–like approach to the situation. What if only a few things in your life were tweaked because of decisions you made or situations outside of your control? Do all of those selves exist within the universe? How might you get back to where you needed to be?

The clearest indication that something fiddly has happened with reality is when Mission Control asks Jo to bring back the CAL, and she responds that she’s never heard of it. She has! We know she has because she was literally talking to Alice about it in their last conversation; there’s no way she forgot about it, even given the trauma she’s just experienced. So, which version of herself is she now? Hopefully, she’s a version of herself that remembers all that astronaut training. Rapace exudes a cool confidence and unflappable focus in her scenes where she has to remove large batteries in zero gravity, using a strip of magnetic tape to hold each small piece in place. God, space is so stressful. However, Jo isn’t a robot, and Constellation works to play up the relationship between mother and daughter to great effect. Getting us to buy into the emotional bond between Alice and Jo is crucial to the way that this story is going to unfold. But the Alice we see on Earth doesn’t necessarily seem as connected to her mother as the Alice we saw on the iPad earlier in the episode. As she and her father travel to the command center, she mentions that she knows her parents are having some marital trouble. Somehow, it feels like she’s on her dad’s side here. Why wouldn’t she be? She’s still at an age where feeling overcomes logic, and her mom left for a year, and her father has been her primary caretaker. It’s worth considering that the perfect vision of Alice that Jo has in her head might never have existed.

On the ISS, Jo is notified that the Soyuz 2 capsule has landed successfully. Watching the landing on the ground, Russian space lady Irena (Barbara Sukowa) pops one of the same pills we saw Henry take when Paul died. Curious. As Jo struggles to perform her duties, the scene shifts back to that cabin in the woods. If the beginning of the episode didn’t explicitly say that the events at the cabin took place five weeks after the initial ISS disaster, I would have been fully convinced that Jo was hallucinating them. Jo is losing time. She’s lost in the blizzard. The snow starts to fall in slow motion. She keeps coming back to different realities with Alice in different positions in the cabin. Then, she leaves for what seems like a moment but comes back to a deserted cabin. There’s a dusting of snow covering everything in the interior. And as Jo approaches a large wardrobe, she sees Alice’s necklace hanging on the knob. She opens it, and a bedraggled and partially frozen Alice looks up at Jo. “Mama,” she says.

Guest Cast: William Catlett (Paul Lancaster), Barbara Sukowa (Irene Lysenko), Henry David (Ilya Andreev), Carole Weyers (Audrey Brostin), Sandra Teles (Yazmina Suri), Lenn Kudrjawizki (Sergei Vassiliev), Chipo Chung (Michaela Moyone), Rebecca Scroggs (Frida Lancaster), Sadie Sweet (Wendy Lancaster), Eleanor Fanyinka (Eryn Lafferty), Anton Levit (Mission Controller), Emily Cox (Sara Schiller)