I really love the first season of For All Mankind. Even as I acknowledge that the alternate history it presents is shallow at best.
But even with all its faults, that first season has so much going for it. There’s the fantastic cast, compelling drama, and a time in the space race that defined an entire generation. Every bit about it works.
So why is it that after a colossally terrible second season, For All Mankind still can’t right the ship as it sails into total fantasy in its third, and most expansive season yet?
Set in the early to mid-90s, season 3 dumps the Moon for something grander: Mars, the red planet. As the Soviet Union and America race for supremacy, a third competitor appears to stir the pot. Helios, run by engineering savant Dev Ayesa (Edi Gathegi), is the series stand-in for Elon Musk, though any similarities begin and end with “rich tycoon.” Now, with a fire under their asses, NASA has tough choices to make as to who runs their mission to Mars. Is it the talented but egotistical Ed Baldwin or the logical and by-the-book Danielle Poole?
In the end, it doesn’t really matter. You know everyone is going into space one way or another, leaving much of the early season to spin the plates for no reason. This is a shame since everything before the actual mission is far more interesting than what comes next.
Said “next” is a three-way drag race towards Mars, complete with the obligatory disasters every spacefaring fiction needs to tick. While the visual spectacle is faultless, even by the standards set by the previous seasons, the drama itself is inert at best. There’s rarely a feeling like we’re on an unprecedented journey. Nor does it feel like a claustrophobic race against time. Instead, For All Mankind does what it has done since season 2. It trades wonder for a shower thought experiment, a what-if that never extends beyond the superficial.
Nowhere is that as evident as in the alternative history, which, if the series is believed, is basically our recent history only with minor adjustments. Apparently, the continued Cold War has no effects on world events except that we solve climate change early. Any expectation that the series would comment on the complexities of the American military-industrial complex is swiftly struck down.
As in season 1, which treated the reality that Nazis helped America to the Moon as a coincidence snuck through the system, season 3 is shameless in its whitewashing of American espionage programs and world policing. Watch Margo, head of NASA, gasp in shock at the thought that someone, anyone, would torture prisoners for information. Surely such a thing never happens on our soil.
The rest of the world lives in stasis as America excels beyond our wildest dreams. Electric cars are the norm, The Newton can make calls to Mars, and even the poor live in relative comfort. It’s not so much alternate history as it is pure wish fulfillment. But such naivety just makes the world of For All Mankind feel sterile and pointless. The race for Mars means nothing since everything establishes America as the de facto winner of the world. If there were any emphasis on the satire of how a dominant power feels threatened by a state whose rockets are held together by glue and spite, the series would feel more palatable.
Even worse, in its belief that a journey to Mars isn’t interesting enough, For All Mankind drags out the worst plotline of season 2 to egregious lengths. If you hated the idea of Karen Baldwin playing Mrs. Robinson, you’re going to have a bad time here. Gordo’s son, Jr., fares no better. It’s frankly remarkable that in a distant world, the most drama we get is whether or not someone is high. One plotline can only be described as Checkov’s Uterus and then left at that, never again glanced at in hopes it just goes away.
If you’re picking up a tone, it’s because For All Mankind is better than all of this. The first season remains one of the most promising new series in recent memory. It’s a downright tragedy how the smart, nuanced, and graceful show has succumbed to the lowest common denominator plotlines and soap opera cliches.
Singular elements still impress. Mainly thanks to the leading cast, who remain compelling and interesting. The great Joel Kinnaman single-handedly carries the show through even the dumbest plot twists. Sadly, most of them also have to do with his character. Between him and the fantastic Krys Marshall, you’d think the series would have all the charm it needs to propel itself to Mars and back. Why the need for all the extra bloat, I will never understand.
On a technical level, For All Mankind features great directing and effects work, all of which help create a solid, thoroughly convincing illusion of interstellar travel.
But its vision is so limited that no vast distance or journey across the sea of stars can help. It treats science as a chore. Something that’s only useful when something needs to travel at the speed of drama. It looks at the endless opportunity and possibility that is space travel and instead turns inward. But even that introspection feels hollow as all it can deliver in return are comforting platitudes.
It can be better. It really should be better.