For All Mankind is back on Earth and bored out of its mind [Apple TV+ review]

By

Sarah Jones on For All Mankind
Astronaut Tracy (played by Sarah Jones) goes Hollywood.
Photo: Apple TV+

For All Mankind, the Apple TV+ soap opera about the lives of astronauts in an alternate-history America, takes a few leaps toward disaster in its sophomore season’s second episode. Crisis looms around every corner — and everyone’s gearing up for the worst.

This post contains affiliate links. Cult of Mac may earn a commission when you use our links to buy items.

For All Mankind review: ‘The Bleeding Edge’

Trailblazing female astronauts Molly (played by Sonya Walger) and Ellen (Jodi Balfour) are back from the moon. Ellen comes back to her closeted husband (Nate Corddry), Larry’s new lover (which doesn’t bother her), and her new job as deputy administrator at NASA (which does). She doesn’t feel up to the task. And her first meeting finds her fidgeting as talks of manned missions to Mars — which she’s decided will be her legacy at NASA — are put on the back-burner.

Molly comes back disoriented and worried she’s going to die of cancer because of the radiation burns she sustained saving one of her fellow astronauts, Wubbo (Bjørn Alexander), up there.

After last episode’s solar flare, the Russians and the United States ramp up their military forces, preparing for an attack for some reason. So NASA bigwig Thomas Paine (Dan Donohue) suggests a publicity stunt in which a popular American shakes hands with a cosmonaut on the moon.

Margo (Wrenn Schmidt), who thinks Paine’s proposing bringing rockets to the moon to point at Mars, demurs. His reply sounds like a hairdresser whose style choice was shot down: “I know, I know, that’s on hold … for now.”

I genuinely don’t know if the writers intended this to sound so absurd, but it is patently ridiculous to hear him cattily table weaponizing the moon. We encounter a lot of tone trouble on this season of For All Mankind, so get used to it.

I can’t pay no doctor bill but Whitey’s on the moon

For All Mankind: Molly (Sonya Walger) risks it all.
Molly (Sonya Walger) risks it all.
Photo: Apple TV+

Tracy (Sarah Jones)’s back from her talk-show tour in time for her ex-husband Gordo to edge toward a heart attack on his tour of the nation’s rotary clubs. Mostly he collects small paychecks with a bad nightclub act about his time in space, which of course includes lying about saving Danielle (Krys Marshall). The truth is, for those who don’t remember the first season, that Gordo was going mad in space. Danielle broke her own arm to give them a reason to leave the moon early and spare Gordo from being permanently grounded. Now he can’t tell the truth about it — and it’s driving him crazy all over again.

The main thrust of this episode, titled “The Bleeding Edge,” is people reckoning with their bad decisions now that their glory days are behind them. Molly’s certain she’s never going back to space when they find out how heavy the dose of radiation she got from the solar flare really is. She even blows up at Wubbo when he says he’s going to go back home to the Netherlands to live the rest of his few remaining years there while the cancer kills him.

Gordo gets drunk and makes a scene at The Outpost, so Ed (Joel Kinnaman) has to go get him and listen to him cry about how he’s an American hero and yet all his best days are behind him. Margo gets a message from Aleida (Olivia Trujillo), who she helped last season. We’re left to believe something bad happened to Aleida because the mere mention of her name makes Margo’s blood run cold.

Remember the moon?!

I don’t know … I guess it could be interesting on paper, but seeing wealthy, white astronauts lament what could have been does not make for terribly exciting television. Neither Molly’s, nor Baldwin’s, nor Gordo’s troubles are that compelling. Neither is Baldwin’s solution (send Gordo back to the moon to give him something to live for).

All it does is once more highlight the weaknesses inherent in For All Mankind’s construction: There’s more to life than the moon. Gordo might lose his mind again up there, but at the same time he’s making a mess of his life on Earth, so maybe that’s preferable.

The issue here is that the writers and directors have done little to make it obvious that the lives of the astronauts here are just “the moon” and “crushing boredom and ignominy.” Why can’t Gordo just get a job as a race car driver or something if he wants thrills and attention? The show’s world is obviously narrow on purpose, but here it just seems myopic. Is there truly nothing else for these men to do with themselves but go to the moon or whine that they’re not on the moon?

I’m reminded, and not for the first time, of comedian Dana Gould’s indictment of moon travel. “Did we finally just come to the conclusion that the moon’s really not that great? ‘Yeah, I went to the moon…. Sucked.'” The show has yet to refute this.

Today in alternative history

As with Dickinson’s millennial buzzword farming, I’m going to start listing all the things that still happened in For All Mankind’s alternate reality that also happened in ours, even though on the show, John Lennon is still alive and other butterfly-effect cultural stuff has happened. Not just because it’s something to think about while the moon drama creeps by, but because at some point I know the writers are going to slip up and show something that simply couldn’t exist.

The Ramones have still covered the Chambers Brothers’ “Time Has Come Today.” Atari still released the game Asteroids in 1979. Dandy Livingstone wrote “A Message to you, Rudy” in 1967 and The Specials still covered it a few years later. Devo has still released the album Freedom of Choice. And Sgt. Slaughter is still in the National Wrestling Alliance.

For All Mankind on Apple TV+

New episodes of For All Mankind arrive every Friday.

Rated: TV-MA

Watch on: Apple TV+


Scout Tafoya is a film and TV critic, director and creator of the long-running video essay series The Unloved for RogerEbert.com. He has written for The Village Voice, Film Comment, The Los Angeles Review of Books and Nylon Magazine. He is the director of 25 feature films, and the author of more than 300 video essays, which can be found at Patreon.com/honorszombie.