Bringing Together the Threads of the Constellation Premiere (Recap & Analysis)

“The Wounded Angel,” “Live and Let Die” & “Somewhere in Space Hangs My Heart”

Jo, in a spacesuit, looking out the hatch of her pod in Constellation on Apple TV+
Screenshot/Apple TV+

The following recap contains spoilers for the premiere of Constellation (Episodes 1 & 2 directed by Michelle MacLaren and written by Peter Harness, Episode 3 directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel and written by Peter Harness)

The premiere of Constellation on Apple TV+ consists of three episodes, and while I’m generally not a fan of that way of doing things—I have stodgy views about how you should be able to establish a show in one episode—I do think it makes sense in this case.

For much of these opening three hours, Constellation asks us to operate with almost no bearings. And I don’t just mean that it’s unclear exactly what is going on, insofar as that remains the case coming out of Episode 3, but that before this point it was hard to even formulate good questions.

That will be my primary aim in this recap, which won’t offer a play-by-play of the first three episodes of Constellation so much as attempt to bring threads together and think about this premiere more synoptically. When I finished Episode 3, I went back and watched the beginning of Episode 1, and I’m beginning to think this series might truly be worth the effort.

Let’s dig in.

Henry with a marker cap in his mouth
Screenshot/Apple TV+

Episode 1 begins with a scene I’ll come back to later. I think a good place to start is on the International Space Station, where Jo (Noomi Rapace) serves as an astronaut. She’s supposed to go on a big spacewalk and is talking to her daughter, Alice (Rosie Coleman/Davina Coleman) when something hits the space station. And it’s worth noting that, at the same time, Paul (William Catlett) is engaged in an experiment with the CAL device.

Regardless, everything goes wrong fairly quickly. The ISS is in trouble, and Jo ends up doing a spacewalk after all. It’s not for the original purpose (whatever that was), but she needs to repair the life support for the station and so on.

Here, she sees that what has hit the station is the body of a dead female cosmonaut from the Soviet era, but the cameras aren’t working, and it flies off into space. No one else sees this body.

Meanwhile, Paul dies, and the rest of the crew has to evacuate the station because they can’t fix it. Unfortunately, one of the escape pods is messed up, so Jo has to stay alone to fix it while her comrades take off in the one that is working OK, and this gives us many drawn-out scenes of Jo alone in the space station as she works to replace the batteries on the pod that serves as her only chance home.

A closeup shot of the cosmonaut corpse Jo sees, with light blue eyes and a cracked helmet
Screenshot/Apple TV+

For the record, I don’t mean it as a criticism when I say these scenes are drawn out. Largely, Constellation manages to mine tension from them, and we slowly get the sense that something about Jo’s perception of reality is amiss. It works well, even if there were moments when I got frustrated with how she was getting distracted from her time-sensitive task.

At one point, she sees Paul’s severed arm floating around, but when she grabs it, it grabs back and she has a vision of Paul as though he were alive. In another, she suddenly sees a door with a beaded necklace hanging from it, down a hallway that wouldn’t be on the ISS, and that ties into how Episode 1 ends (where the same necklace dangles on the door of a cupboard in Sweden).

Indeed, that ending made me think that we were cutting to a time after Jo’s return, but Episode 2 picks up with Jo still in space, even as it remains similarly bookended by what I’ll call Cabin Scenes.

Jo holding Alice's hand
Screenshot/Apple TV+

Jo finally manages to replace the batteries in her pod but has lost communication with Earth, so she has to navigate her own re-entry. Ultimately, it works. She lands on solid ground and is threatened briefly by a wolf (which is weird), but that wolf is scared off by the rescue team and all seems to be well. Jo is reunited with Alice, and with her husband, Magnus (James D’Arcy).

There is a moment on the rescue helicopter where Jo seems to disappear from Alice’s reality, and then Alice seems to disappear from Jo’s reality, and I do think this is significant to where Constellation is going with everything, but I’m going to ask you to hold that thought, along with thoughts about the Cabin Scenes, for just a while longer.

Irena in glasses at the hearing
Screenshot/Apple TV+

There’s a hearing where the muckety-mucks involved with ISS, headed by Irena Lysenko (Barbara Sukowa) want to determine what hit the space station, and when it comes to Jo’s claim that she saw a dead cosmonaut, they very much aren’t having it. Ultimately, she agrees to say it was a garbage bag.

But, along the way, she shows her fellows a picture of the kind of suit she saw, and they point out that she’s looking at an image of none other than Irena herself. That seems relevant!

Then, while Jo is visiting Paul’s grave, she sees Paul as though he’s alive, and he says:

Somewhere in space hangs my heart
From it stream sparks
Into other intemperate hearts

I’ll be honest; I don’t quite know what to do with that at the moment. But it seems important!

Bud Caldera talks to a reporter on his computer, with a reflection of himself in the mirror behind it
Screenshot/Apple TV+

Throughout this three-episode premiere, Henry Caldera (Jonathan Banks) is obsessed with the data from the CAL experiment. Multiple people tell him that it isn’t as important as human lives, but it seems pretty clear that he doesn’t agree with that assessment, even as he pretends to so that no one thinks he’s some kind of monster.

Jo does manage to bring this experiment back to Earth, and Henry is astonished to see it giving him a pattern of interference that shouldn’t be terrestrially possible. Unfortunately for him, no one else can see it, so he starts talking about quantum physics and the observer effect. Which, that’s cool, and if Constellation wants to take inspiration from quantum physics, I’m happy to play along (though any living scientist worth their salt would tell you that you can’t just go mapping quantum effects onto a macro level).

Yet, putting aside any such quibbles I might have based on my layman’s understanding of the science, it does very much seem that Constellation is playing with these concepts. Henry is doubled by Bud Caldera (also played by Jonathan Banks). Conversely, Alice is played by two actors. And, more to the point, Jo seems convinced that there are two Alices (one of them doesn’t speak Swedish) and that the family car is supposed to be red (it’s blue).

Henry tries to take a picture of the interference effect with his phone but it doesn't work
Screenshot/Apple TV+

The Calderas are an interesting entry point into what’s going on, because when Bud gives an interview to the news in Episode 2, the journalist mistakenly calls him Henry at the end of it, which pisses him off. Further, he references the tragedy on ISS both in this interview and later in his panel appearance with Ian Rogers (Shaun Dingwall), who’s questioning Bud’s experience with Apollo 18 (which didn’t happen in real life).

All of this seems to indicate that Bud is in the same reality as Henry—and indeed, Bud’s first appearance occurs right after Irena asks Henry about his brother—but then Bud blames what happened on his mission to the Moon on Henry, and Ian doesn’t seem to know who he’s talking about. So, are Henry and Bud twin brothers living in the same world, where Henry was perhaps on the ground while Bud went to the Moon, or are these two versions of the same person, with a split more radical than what we’re seeing with Jo?

As Episode 3 comes to a close, Henry is dancing with Irena, and suddenly she appears to him as the desiccated corpse Jo saw in space. The simplest explanation might involve some kind of split between realities, but I think Constellation is operating more in the kind of liminal space Henry describes to Alice.

At least, I’m resisting what would feel like an explanation at the moment. What’s going on with Bud and Henry is a fascinating entry point to the central mysteries of the show, and one can only hope that Bud shoving Ian into the ocean will be an impetus to answering the questions I posed a moment ago.

Irena appears as a corpse as Henry dances with her
Screenshot/Apple TV+

As for Jo, one might fear she’s just lost her mind, but Constellation’s three-episode premiere does provide some evidence that points in another direction.

In the opening scene of Episode 1, she’s listening to a cassette tape of a woman speaking in Russian (and I’m convinced at this point that this woman is Irena) saying that the world is the wrong way around. Further, Jo has the CAL cannister, so I think it’s fair to say that by this point in the narrative she at least thinks she has some idea of what’s going on.

Alice asks what’s happened to her dad—which seems like a fair question and is something I’m also wondering about—but then they arrive to the cabin, she goes to bed with a story from Jo’s iPad, and everything seems basically OK. That is, until Jo hears Alice crying out for her from outside and goes out to investigate.

Magnus sits at the dinner table
Screenshot/Apple TV+

In terms of what we see, Jo finds an identical cabin that is completely frozen over. There is a dead cat, and Alice is hiding in a cupboard that has a beaded necklace hanging on it, just like the one Jo saw in a muddled-up way when she was on the space station. As Episode 1 ends, Alice wants to know where she’s been.

As Episode 2 begins, Jo is carrying Alice back to the other cabin, where she sets a warm bath for her. The hot water runs out, so she goes to boil more, but then she sees the first Alice sleeping in bed. And, crucially, there’s a bit where she experiences both Alices as present before she goes back into the bathroom to find that Alice is gone.

So, she sets back out towards the “other cabin” with Alice 2 in tow (like you do), but they don’t find it, which leads to a moment at the end of Episode 3 wherein they confront one another. Jo doesn’t believe that this Alice is really her daughter, and Alice doesn’t believe that this Jo is really her mother.

We cut to police vehicles approaching their area, and the episode ends.

Bud confronts Ian Rogers on the deck of a cruise ship
Screenshot/Apple TV+

My biggest question coming out of all of this might actually be why the police are approaching at the end of Episode 3. One possibility is that Jo has stolen the CAL experiment and they’re on her trail about that. Another is that something has happened to Magnus, and a third is that she’s kidnapped Alice. In one way or another, I expect the world at large has decided she’s cuckoo bananas by this point.

Obviously, she isn’t, and Constellation is doing something with alternate realities, or something like that. I’m a bit worn out on that trope, to be honest, but there have been some series (like Devs and Legion) that have done some really good work with it. I’m hopeful that Constellation will fall into that category since what we’ve been given so far is by no means straightforward and the series has admirably refused to hold our hands through the first three episodes.

I don’t know exactly what’s going on, but I’m up for this ride. I hope you’ll join me.

See you next week.

Written by Caemeron Crain

Caemeron Crain is Executive Editor of TV Obsessive. He struggles with authority, including his own.

Caesar non est supra grammaticos


Leave a Reply
  1. Michelle MacLaren. Anywhere she goes is worth a look/see no matter how weird/wacky the mosaic — be it bad breaks, stark thrones, robotic and or zombie infestations — but what IS going on with those vitamins.

    • I definitely don’t think they are what they say they are, which is just like B-12 or whatever. I probably should have gone into this, but my speculation is something related to grounding people in reality or something, which would imply that someone knows more about what’s going on than they’re letting on (probably Irena). I assume this will factor in later

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *