For All Mankind grapples with the question of space crime [Apple TV+ review]

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For All Mankind review: Astronaut Ed Baldwin (played by Joel Kinnaman) still has his head in the clouds.
Astronaut Ed Baldwin (played by Joel Kinnaman) still has his head in the clouds.
Photo: Apple TV+

There are guns on the moon — repeat there are guns on the moon — in a new For All Mankind with a mildly elevated pulse! Everyone’s making hard choices and living with regrets on this week’s episode of no one’s favorite space soap on Apple TV+.

For All Mankind review: ‘Rules of Engagement’

In “Rules of Engagement,” Russians have stolen some prime moon real estate and the Department of Defense wants NASA to send a box of M16s on the next flight up there. Margo, Ellen, Thomas and Ed scoff but they don’t have any better ideas. They suggest sanctions, like when the Berlin Wall was erected, but the Soviets just shook those off. So sure, guns on the moon it is.

As usual with narrowly focused shows like this, it’s pretty funny to hear NASA engineers make foreign policy suggestions like they’d have a say at all, especially with a hawk like Ronald Reagan in the White House. It’s kinda like how CSI used to have crime-scene techs perform arrests. Not really how it works…

Earthly problems

Margo finally tracks down Aleida Rosales (who is now played by Coral Peña), and she’s seen better days. In the years since Margo recommended Aleida for a career in engineering and couldn’t help her father from getting deported, she’s torched her career while Margo has thrived.

Their reunion is baaaadly written. Aleida’s about to get deported herself. She got fired from her last job. She and her boyfriend are on the outs. And she’s living in a dirty trailer. Margo offers her a job as an engineer at NASA and Aleida makes a huge song and dance about being a charity case, accusing Margo of only coming to her aid to assuage her own guilt.

But we all know that Aleida will take the job even after saying all that stuff about how Margo’s white guilt is motivating the job offer. So the show lets itself off the hook. There are about three non-white characters on the show, and one of them starts fires, lives in a trailer and needs the benevolent female NASA head (who used Nazi blackmail to climb the ladder) to bail her out. Shrug.

‘Who brings a gun to space?’

For All Mankind review: Tracy Stevens (played by Sarah Jones) is perpetually hungover and I know the feeling!
Tracy Stevens (played by Sarah Jones) is perpetually hungover, and I know the feeling!
Photo: Apple TV+

Ed (Joel Kinnaman)’s past comes back to haunt him when it’s discovered that the Russian hostage he took in For All Mankind’s first season left a listening device in the Jamestown moon base. The Russians have been listening to the Americans’ every move for the last decade. Whoops.

Meanwhile, Karen Baldwin finally learns that adopted daughter Kelly (Cynthy Wu) wants to join the Navy and blows up at her. She talks it over with Tracy and they make up later.

Weirdly, it’s Ed who can’t be consoled by the news that Kelly wants to join the military. He has a Phobos-size freak out about it, and he and Karen almost come to blows. Kinneman handles the post-fight confession scene pretty well. Indeed, this may be his best acting on the series to date. This show is mostly people with deep voices wryly talking about their golf game and doing stray bits of math. It’s nice to see something relatable.

Tracy’s sick of everyone not being happy for her after her engagement because they all still have to deal with Gordo, her sad-sack ex. So Tracy gets drunk and makes Gordo drive her around. It makes him not a little happy to see that she’s a wreck, too, and that he’s not the only one acting out since their marriage fell apart.

They seem like they’re headed for a reconciliation until Tracy learns that Gordo’s going back to the moon — and that his trip will coincide with hers. The slick, newly image-conscious Tracy blows up at the idea of a national story about her and her ex-husband on the moon together.

Whip it, into shape, shape it up, get straight…

This week’s episode of For All Mankind is all about regrets and trying to live with the past while strutting confidently into the future. It all feels like drama borrowed from somewhere else. Tracy suddenly being terrified of her public image getting tarnished feels like a convenient reason for her to be newly mad at Baldwin and Gordo. But the question I have again is, what is she planning to do after the moon? Why would it matter that people think of her as someone’s wife while she’s up there? She already went to the moon — what’s she gonna do, run for Queen of the Universe?

I get that it’s condescending to be thought of as a “wife” when you’re one of the few people to ever set foot on the surface of a celestial body. However, it feels once again like the world revolves around the moon and the show’s alternate history fails to consider that in the future of our reality? Nobody cares about the moon, who went there, or why. It’s not exciting just because some other people go to the moon in this version of events.

In a lot of sci-fi, there’s always a character who’s been obsessed with a subject so long that the world passed them by. Viveca Lindfors and James Spader in Stargate, Gene Hackman in Enemy of the State, Dr. S in that one episode of The Simpsons.

For All Mankind is a show made up entirely of those characters  — and they’ve all got the moon on their mind at all times. “You ever wonder what it would have been like if the Russians got to the moon first? We’d have cities on the moon already. Think about it!” Um, no thanks.

Today in alternative history

In this week’s episode, we get more Devo on the soundtrack. Laptop computers have been invented. They still made a movie out of Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff (and presumably it’s still directed by Philip Kaufman). Thin Lizzy still released Jailbreak in the late ’70s. Spandau Ballet wrote “True,” which means they had to have formed, which also means that the Sex Pistols happened in this reality. Emily has a Tom Petty poster on her wall.

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.