For All Mankind rolls out red carpet for the Russkies [Apple TV+ review]

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U.S. astronauts like Danielle Poole (played by Krys Marshall) meet their Soviet counterparts.
U.S. astronauts like Danielle Poole (played by Krys Marshall) prep to meet their Soviet counterparts.
Photo: Apple TV+

The Russians are coming! The Russians are coming! Don’t bother they’re here … Apple TV+’s For All Mankind gears up for its historic moon handshake in typically laidback fashion in this week’s episode.

The commies are here to collaborate on a space mission meant to bring civilizations together. They’re of course mirthless, shifty cads because that’s just how Russians are written in fiction like this.

Until, of course, they get to eat red meat and drink American whiskey. Then they’re all smiles! Glad to know these jokes haven’t changed at all since the Iron Curtain went up.

For All Mankind review: ‘Best-Laid Plans’

In this week’s episode of For All Mankind, titled “Best-Laid Plans,” the whole of NASA’s Mission Control is furious about the demands the Russians make for the mission, which … a word about this particular plot point.

President Ronald Reagan’s legacy was as the most miserable anticommunist who ever lived. His State Department went all over the globe secretly destabilizing and destroying functioning, legally established communist governments. There is just no way in hell he would have ever let this joint U.S.-Soviet space venture come to the planning stages, let alone actually allow it to happen.

For All Mankind’s version of speculative fiction occasionally borders on straight-up sci-fi when it does things like this. Last season, it posited that President Richard Nixon was so put out by losing the space race to the Russians that he put women on the moon. Anyone who’s done even a cursory bit of research into Nixon’s government or Nixon the man would have told you that this is an absurd idea.

Nixon was losing the Vietnam War. If he cared about public opinion as something more than a symbolic barometer, he’d have done more than go on Laugh-In one week while killing millions of soldiers abroad.

Revisionist Republican history

For All Mankind has some bizarre, unshakable faith in Republican presidents whose track records on “cooperation,” “representation” and “advancement” are all quite well-documented. Furthermore, I just don’t get why any of this is all that interesting at all.

Why are we playing “what if” fantasy games about Republican policy? So we can have one episode after another of domestic drama and space travel that’s rendered as a grueling chore? I get it that, like, seasons from now we’ll have cities on the moon. That’s where the show is heading, obviously, but this feels like taking a Toyota Camry apart and rebuilding it as a Ford Taurus.

If where you’re headed is a city on the moon, just make a show about a city on the moon. Doing it this way, where we see every moment the writers ignore historical precedent for the outcomes they need, is just tedious.

In Soviet Russia, show write you!

Wrenn Schmidt and Dan Donohue, who play NASA administrators Margo Madison and Thomas Paine, do some really weird stuff with their characters this week. Donohue’s always played Paine like a fussy old woman. And Schmidt’s never quite gotten the balance of stern Southern belle and fierce career woman totally right.

But this week … hoo, I don’t know. They have a conversation about not canceling the Russian mission that’s just plain ridiculous. Can’t even describe why it’s so funny, but it’s almost like they’re in an Adam McKay movie. Also this week, Margo finds Aleida Rosales (played by Coral Peña) sleeping at NASA. But Aleida proves herself by pointing out a design flaw in new docking hardware, so that conversation is put off for a little while.

All the Russian “comedy” in this episode is about as old as Sputnik. Danielle Poole (Krys Marshall) gets her Soviet counterparts some Russian food but they want hamburgers and Jack Daniel’s. That’s probably hugely accurate, but it’s pretty bad to see this presented as new material in 2021.

Ellen Wilson (Jodi Balfour) and Pam Horton (Meghan Leathers) have a hard conversation about their future. Ellen finally realizes she doesn’t care about her career as an astronaut and wants to be with Pam, who has obviously moved on. They haven’t seen each other for a decade but they’re ready to torch their old lives for a chance together. We shall see how long this lasts.

This week in alternate history

The Pretenders 1982 B-side “My City Was Gone” is old enough by this episode that it’s on the jukebox at the Outpost Tavern. I’m still not really sure in what year this season is set.

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.