Review: 'For All Mankind' Reaches New Heights in Season 3

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Monday June 6, 2022

'For All Mankind' Goes to Mars... in 1995
'For All Mankind' Goes to Mars... in 1995  (Source:AppleTV+)

Ronald D. Moore ("Battlestar Galactica"), Matt Wolpert, and Ben Nedivi had a brilliant idea for an alternative history sci-fi series: Assume that the Russians got to the Moon first in 1969, and then follow the possibilities, probabilities, and wild flights of fancy of how the space race might have gone... and taken humanity into the stars along the way.

The first two seasons of "For All Mankind" follow an old guard NASA cadre, a mixture of real and invented figures, into this alternate history — and now, with Season Three, the show rockets further ahead and into the solar system.

It's now 1992. A montage of news reports and other TV clips show what's happened since the end of Season Two: The election of President Mike Dukakis, a Beatles reunion, and the opening of a space hotel that's like something right out of "2001: A Space Odyssey." That last is the work of Karen Baldwin (Shantel VanSanten), the now-ex-wife of astronaut Ed Baldwin (Joel Kinnaman), and her new husband. Space tourism is well and good, but NASA has bolder ambitions: After the near-destruction of America's Lunar base, and the parceling out of the Moon between the U.S. and the USSR, America is in a new contest with Russia to get to Mars. Former astronaut Ellen Waverly (Jodi Balfour) is in contention against Bill Clinton for the White House; if she wins, NASA will have a friend in the Oval Office, and LGBTQ+ Americans will have one of their own as the leader of the free world — not that Ellen and her gay husband, Larry (Nate Corddry), who are in a sham marriage, are about to come out publicly.

But the superpowers have a new rival to contend with as the space race enters a new phase. Dev Ayesa (Edi Gathegi), the immensely wealthy inventor of fusion energy, is an Elon Musk figure who has a plan to beat out the old nation-states and show that a private company can undertake history-changing challenges better and more efficiently. Even the corporate culture of Dev's company, Helios Aerospace, is innovative: Dev has dispensed with titles, offices, and hierarchy — nominally, at least; at the end of the day, he remains the boss, and there's no mistaking that what Dev wants is what the company is going to deliver... and Dev wants Mars. If he has to poach of few of our favorite characters from NASA to make that happen, he's got the juice to pull it off.

But don't count NASA out just yet, even if there are fault lines within the agency that could play out in unexpected ways. Margo Madison (Wrenn Schmidt) has transformed NASA into her own "oligarchy," as one senator hungry for NASA's resources puts it. (The agency has gotten rich in its own right thanks to the discovery of abundant Helium 3 on the Moon... that's a real isotope, and it really is up there in quantity, by the way.) But original female astronaut Molly Cobb (now doing a desk job as the result of a heroic sacrifice made in Season 2) is, in some ways, Margo's equal at the agency, and the two disagree on the mission roster. Molly wants to put Ed in charge of the Mars mission; Margo wants Danielle Poole (Krys Marshall) — a veteran, like Ed, of the Moon's pioneer days.

But Margo straddles a fault line of her own. Her longtime association with the head of the Russian space program has strayed far too close to romantic territory, and her personal connection to him (plus her passion for space exploration, no matter which nation pursues it) has led Margo to share sensitive secrets with the Russians... a decision that's going to come back to haunt her, possibly with catastrophic results for NASA and the American space program as a whole.

Speaking of catastrophes, this season holds several in store, beginning with a disaster in Earth orbit in the first episode. Space travel is a dangerous business, and when ego, human fragility, and the very nature of exploration go wrong, everything... and everybody... can be thrown into peril in a heartbeat; at the same time, hope and ingenuity — and teamwork — can overcome odds that seem downright impossible.

That's the driving message of Season 3: When people pull their own ways, driven by personal (or national) pride, disaster will follow. It's only through pulling together that our heroes prevail. Here's the thing about exploration, though: Each new horizon brings fresh dangers, and not all the disasters our heroes face take place in the vacuum of space. Some unfold in the halls of power; some in the tensions between close friends or family; and some between countrymen when fake news and conspiracy theories spread out of control, prompted by technological innovations that displace old industries even as they usher in an era of fresh potential.

The show's writers, including Moore's longtime collaborators Naren Shankar and Joe Menosky, make sure that the promise of this alternate history is fulfilled in thrilling, and sometimes terrifying, ways. Forget "Star Trek," which they all worked on; for that matter, never mind "Battlestar Galactica," which, under Moore's guidance, became, quite probably, the first modern sci-fi show with truly adult sensibilities. "For All Mankind" may take a couple of improbable liberties (fusion power in the '90s?) but its musings never leap into the realm of space fantasy. The show respects physics, much as it acknowledges human faults, which are the rocket fuel that powers its most compelling storylines.

If you love science fiction for grownups, or television with depth as well as momentum, this show is for you.

"For All Mankind," Season 3, premieres on AppleTV+ on June 10.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.