Mac Rogers’ Audio Drama Give Me Away Reminds Us How Compelling Small-Stakes Sci-Fi Can Be

The season finale of Give Me Away has all the hallmarks of a Mac Rogers science fiction story: a brutal yet pragmatic use of radiation, a familial resolution (if not complete closure), and warring human and alien motivations. But what’s unusual is its relatively smaller scale: It’s neither the paradigm-shifting body horror twist at the end of Steal the Stars, nor the domestic points-of-no-return in The Honeycomb Trilogy—instead, Gideon Media’s contemporary SF audio drama ends its first season on a quietly devastating turn. Give Me Away is playing the long game.

Spoilers for Give Me Away Parts 1 and 2.

This strategy was immediately apparent in the release of episode 5, “My Body is Your Body,” which opted not to pick up after the Part 1 cliffhanger (the wrong alien consciousness got put into protagonist Graham Shapiro’s (Sean Williams’) head) but instead backtracked through the histories of how the series’ other human/Second hybrids came to their unimaginably generous arrangements. There is no one specific path shared by Brooke-and-Deirdre (Lori Elizabeth Parquet), Liz-and-Robin (Rebecca Comtois), and Corey-and-Isaiah (Hennessy Winkler); each human came to their own decision to host an alien mind for personal reasons, and each finds a different dynamic with which to adjust to that partnership: as ideological peers, as lovers, as two wounded souls helping each other cope.

I’ll confess that I initially grappled with this narrative choice, desperate as I was to find out exactly what had gone wrong with Graham—and I had the benefit of immediately bingeing the next episode, as a critic. (For the most part the series was released weekly, though Stitcher Premium subscribers could binge the entire season on the Part 2 premiere date.) Yet it makes perfect sense in hindsight that Rogers would have established what it looks like for a human and a Second to reach a détente in a shared environment, both for the listeners’ understanding (like establishing how each voice actor plays both roles) and down to hyper-specific details like how the Seconds initially fear human sleep as their long-dreaded (perhaps long hoped-for) death. We also have to hear about the Innovator before we actually hear him.

What’s more, episode 5 is not the only one that revolves away from the seemingly central conflict; subsequent episodes spend time with Graham’s ex-wife Morgan (Hanna Cheek), college buddy Travis (Nat Cassidy), and of course his adult children Jamie (Diana Oh) and Talia (Dani Martineck), all of whose movements for the most part run parallel to this massive decision their father/friend/ex-partner has made for himself and, by extension, them. Yet theirs still seem like mere domestic dramas in comparison to the mind-expanding transformation that Graham is undergoing, and so initially checking in on their lives—Morgan selling the house, Jamie and her dirtbag boyfriend crashing with Talia—feel remarkably un-sci-fi. There’s a fascinating tension between my (and perhaps’ others) impulse to focus only on Graham-and-Joshua—though they have not yet earned the dual title—and completely disregard his human family of origin. After all, it was feelings of abandonment, of not being needed anymore, that propelled his decision to host a Second; episode 4 ends with Travis fulfilling the series’ title by “giving him away” like a bride at the altar.

But that’s the thing—even if Graham’s nearest and dearest gave up their exclusive filial claims on him, what Part 1 established over and over is that he (and Joshua) will remain part of their lives. That means neither he nor the listeners can afford to forget what’s going on with the rest of them, even if it’s not as “important” or “life-changing” as taking on a second self.

Perhaps Rogers’ and director Jordana Williams’ most daring move is centering Give Me Away Part 2 on the series’ two most difficult characters: arrested-development problem child Jamie and newly-introduced Joshua, a.k.a. the Innovator—Williams pulling double-duty voicing Joshua and Graham with such fascinatingly different tones that one could hardly be mistaken for the other. After all the buildup to Joshua, he’s no picnic; an ostensibly brilliant and arrogant mind who is as humbled by the hybrid experience as every other Second, needing Graham to literally talk him through why something as simple as urinating is not torture and why the surrender of sleep rewards with the promise of waking up again. Joshua is also horrified at the fact that he’s been dropped not into some young buck but a middle-aged man who has, at best, three decades left. Rather than accept his own second act, Joshua wants a redo. The fact that Graham needs to preface every statement from his Second with “Joshua speaking” is a detail that quickly becomes aggravatingly repetitive, yet it perfectly demonstrates these two minds’ utter inability to get into sync.

Then there’s Jamie, who seems incapable of getting into sync with anyone: She forces herself and her red-flag boyfriend on Talia, then leaves in a huff when her sibling won’t enable her mercurial behavior. Her next move is to crash with Travis, which she believes she can justify only by offering to let him fulfill his fantasies about her mother through her (winning the distinction of the season’s most uncomfortable scene). All of this is in service to her attempt to apply to the same Second program, which anyone within this story or listening to it will know was going to end in a humiliating rejection. But it gets her where she needs to be: Red Camp, where she’s going to bust out her dad (and his alien hitchhiker) in some misguided attempt at reversing what appears to be a permanent process.

Jamie has echoes of one of Rogers’ most captivating onstage characters: Veronica “Ronnie” Cooke, who starts The Honeycomb Trilogy as a curfew-skipping delinquent and ends the theatrical triptych as humanity’s weathered leader who will make the sacrifices no one else will. But let’s be clear: Jamie is Advance Man-era Ronnie, more resembling a sulky teenager than an adult responsible for others above herself in Sovereign. Small moments of pathos—like her lashing out at Graham and Red Camp for not believing her noble or capable enough to earn a Second of her own—come across more as tantrums than learning experiences. Even her surprisingly mature sacrifice to get irradiated and infect Lieutenant Riley (Ato Essandoh) for threatening to “audit” (read: shut down) Red Camp is played somewhat for laughs. The only reason that it works is because they expect a hysterical girl who demands hugs for her suffering, not realizing that she’s spreading radiation with every touch, until they’re all immobilized.

But therein lies the turn: Jamie was the key, both to this season-finale plan and to the reveal, as Graham-and-Joshua confronts Brooke-and-Deirdre in the final moments of “A Bug and a Feature,” that their match-made-in-hell was no mistake. Part 1 set up Graham as the seemingly pathetic divorcé, a perfect candidate for the program in general; but it’s Jamie who makes him the perfect host for the Innovator. Both because Graham carries unresolved guilt over letting Jamie down, that he will unconsciously turn toward the second chance with his Second—but also because Graham’s limited lifespan is a check on the Innovator’s clear tendency toward dictatorial control. Rogers doesn’t fill in all of the details as to why the Ghosthouse’s inhabitants were imprisoned (that’s presumably for season 2!), but it’s obvious that the Innovator took things too far on their world, and they all suffered for it. Brooke-and-Deirdre, the latter who played a more passive role in her prior life, have forced the Innovator into a role where he can innovate all he likes—but then he has to pass the baton to the next generation of human/Second hybrids, instead of keeping all the glory and control to himself.

It’s brilliant, and plays back into Rogers’ penchant for writing older, perhaps more “undesirable” characters in SF: He acknowledges their limitations compared to the more typical younger protagonists, but he also sets much more compelling constraints with which to operate. How will Joshua adjust to being forced to work with others? How will this alter the rest of Graham’s life? What room is there for his family that he’s promised to remain in touch with, when he’s been saddled with an alien leader operating on a ticking clock? What can Graham reasonably offer his family, when Graham-and-Joshua now stand to offer something to the rest of humanity?

In a word, Give Me Away Part 2 is challenging: It challenges our notions of what “counts” as a sci-fi story by refusing to focus solely on Graham’s shiny new life stage, and by resisting the temptation to end the season on some unearned, large-scale, catastrophic event simply because it might feel like more of a genre trope. There is no mass alien invasion of human minds, but neither do the characters remain static: In episode 7, Joshua pushes Graham into letting him speak at the Red Camp press conference long enough to scare the shit out of the government with his offer—to the United States, to the rest of the world—that anyone who wants to “live differently” can join them in taking on a Second. “What better way to repay your hospitality than that?” he asks, creating a viral moment in the world of the story and bringing the series’ initial demonstration of radical hospitality full-circle. Episode 8 presents humanity’s initial answer to this equally generous, equally unimaginable proposal: the government’s attempt to shut down the system, disguised as an audit. And episode 9 pushes Graham-and-Joshua to finally work as a unit, using Jamie for what she does best, and earning the hybrids enough time to control the direction of the next conversation about their unstable futures on Earth.

Moreso other sci-fi audio dramas, Give Me Away is a series told more in conversations than actions. It may feel unorthodox to those of us expecting “bigger” moments, but so far it’s working—it’s got us talking.

 

Gideon Media’s Give Me Away is free on-demand to listeners across all podcast platforms, with distribution from public media organization PRX. Transcripts are available here.

Natalie Zutter can’t wait to see what kinds of people take on Seconds in season 2. Talk fiction podcasts with her on Twitter!

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