For the Love of God, Start Watching ‘For All Mankind’
For All Mankind may imagine a past that never was, but its speculative science-fiction conceit—an alternate history in which the Soviets beat the U.S. to the moon, triggering a race to colonize Mars—is rooted in a realistically universal idea about cooperation as the key to progress. Overcoming differences and setting aside grievances in service of the greater good isn’t always easy in Matt Wolpert, Ben Nedivi, and Ronald D. Moore’s series, what with bitter Cold War-era disputes and personal, professional, and familial clashes thwarting domestic and international collaborations. Yet regardless of those stumbling blocks, hope is alive in Apple TV+’s stellar drama, and while its fourth season relies a tad too heavily on familiar narrative beats, it remains one of the most compelling watches on television, infused with awe for the cosmos and faith in humanity’s ability to bridge gaps by working together.
The struggle to stay optimistic is central to For All Mankind (premiering Nov. 10), whose story leaps forward from 1995 to 2003 to find Mars colony Happy Valley flourishing thanks to the joint efforts of Americans, Russians and—despite cordoning themselves off in typical isolationist fashion—North Koreans. Ed (Joel Kinnaman) is still on the Red Planet, much to the frustration of his daughter Kelly (Cynthy Wu), who wants him to make good on his promise to return home to meet his grandson. Danielle (Krys Marshall) is on Earth, grappling with the (initially mysterious) fate of Danny (Casey W. Johnson), although she’s soon headed back into space courtesy of new NASA boss Eli Hobson (Daniel Stern), who convinces her to reassume command of Happy Valley. Aleida (Coral Peña) is contending with PTSD born from the terror attack on NASA HQ that took the lives of Karen (Shantel VanSanten), Molly (Sonya Walger,) and, she presumes, Margo (Wrenn Schmidt), unaware that her mentor has defected and is now trudging through a drab secret life in the Soviet Union.
For All Mankind catches viewers up on these individuals’ circumstances with the same assuredness that it sets its geopolitical scene via a trademark premiere-episode montage that blends real and fictional news reports and headlines. It also, for the second straight year, commences with an outer space tragedy—a bit of formal repetition that extends to the eventual establishment of a three-way intergalactic race between the USSR, U.S.A., and private corporation Helios. These developments are adeptly handled and fit comfortably within the framework of the larger saga. Nonetheless, on the heels of the past two seasons concluding with the cataclysmic deaths of beloved characters, the show’s habit of playing the same melodramatic notes feels somewhat uninspired, even if its moment-to-moment action is engaging.
Much of For All Mankind’s success hinges on its skill at eliciting empathy for its main players, and no matter the loss of VanSanten, Walger, and Jodi Balfour (whose President Ellen Wilson has ceded the White House to Al Gore), that continues to be true in its fourth go-round. Ed is his usual pain-in-the-ass self, his gruff charisma offset by his imposing arrogance, and Kinnaman makes him simultaneously likable and infuriating. Schmidt’s Margo inspires similarly conflicted feelings, given that her traitorous behavior—and current grim predicament—was driven by both love and selfishness. The hearts of the show, however, are now Danielle, Aleida, and Kelly, three American women striving to do what’s right in a pressure-cooker space-age environment that throws constant obstacles in their paths, all as they try to deal with grief, fear, regret and the push-pull between their responsibilities at home and to themselves.
With Happy Valley on the cusp of transforming from a research station into a self-sustaining community, everyone’s attention is focused on mining rare minerals from captured asteroids. That includes the colony’s working-class Helios staffers, who are soon joined by Miles (Toby Kebbell), an oil rig veteran who signs up for a two-year Mars contract as a way to earn enough money (and respect) to win back his estranged wife and kids. Once on Mars, though, he’s reduced to a glorified maintenance repairman making less than he did back on Earth. To earn some extra dough, Miles convinces Ilya (Dimiter D. Marinov) to let him join his black-market business (which includes a not-so-secret bar), which proves a lucrative hustle that inflames Miles’ greed and complicates his relationship with Samantha (Tyner Rushing), a fellow service professional whose class-based resentment soon has her thinking about sticking it to the man through organized-labor means.
For All Mankind smoothly integrates its newbies into the proceedings at the same time that it further develops its returning protagonists, pitting them against one another over new and lingering issues or, in the case of Kelly and Aleida, partnering them on a project that ultimately entails billionaire Dev (Edi Gathegi). Additionally, it concocts a believable tale of Soviet political instability, East-West friction, and uneasy teamwork threatened by betrayals and acrimony, with Margo at the center of much of it. Showrunners Wolpert and Nedivi meld their micro and macro concerns with a deft hand, and they’re aided by performances that are never unduly mawkish; Marshall, Peña, and Schmidt, in particular, are stellar, as is Kebbell as a man who, like Margo, is motivated by understandable emotions to make unwise decisions.
Avarice, fanaticism, and upstairs-downstairs tensions persistently impede small- and large-scale endeavors in For All Mankind, and Wolpert and Nedivi’s stewardship allows the series to be at once intimate and grand, replete with palpable wide-eyed wonder for the mysteries of the universe and humanity’s capacity for dreaming big and then making those pie-in-the-sky aspirations a reality. If there’s a shortcoming to this latest installment, it’s that the goal chased by its various factions is minor compared to those of prior seasons, and that impression isn’t diminished by recurring talk about how a coveted asteroid dubbed Goldilocks might beget amazing evolutionary breakthroughs. This may be the natural evolution for the story, but such stakes come across as relatively underwhelming.
Fortunately, For All Mankind’s winning characters do much to make up for any slight plot deficiencies. Grounded even in its most out-of-this-world moments, it’s science fiction that puts people first and, in doing so, recognizes that creating a lasting future hinges on our willingness to unite.
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