Tensions run hot between Soviets and US in For All Mankind [Apple TV+ review]

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For All Mankind review: Ellen Wilson (played by Jodi Balfour) makes an unbelievable move this week.
Ellen Wilson (played by Jodi Balfour) makes an unbelievable move this week.
Photo: Apple TV+

Space-race soap opera For All Mankind drops a bomb this week that could ruin the chances of everybody here getting what they want — and definitely destroys whatever character work the writers and actors have done up until now.

The writers realized nothing exciting had happened all season and so just dropped a bunch of character arcs in favor of what’s convenient. I wish I was surprised.

For All Mankind review: ‘Don’t Be Cruel’

This isn’t a plot point, but I do want to point out that the conversation astronaut Danielle Poole (played by Krys Marshall) had about racism with her sister-in-law has never ever come up again, which means the show thinks they’ve solved it.

Moving on: Ellen Wilson (Jodi Balfour)’s dad has a heart attack, so she misses the flight to Moscow, which Thomas Paine (Dan Donohue) is on when a Russian fighter jet shoots it out of the sky for some reason.

Ellen’s plans to quit NASA to be with Pam Horton (Meghan Leathers) are thus monkey-wrenched pretty good because they want her to take over Thomas’ responsibilities.

There was no way something like this wasn’t going to happen. The minute a character’s ready to stop caring about the moon, they gotta get pulled back in. It’s the moon’s world on For All Mankind, we’re all just living in it.

How real will this alt-history be?

The characters talk about the improbability of the plane incident happening at all, which is either the writers trying to excuse the left-field plot development or a smoke screen because we’ll learn that President Ronald Reagan’s people have been secretly spying on the Russians.

I’m curious how realistic the U.S. response to this attack will be. Reagan famously excused the deaths of a few dozen U.S. soldiers killed by accident by Iraqis during the Iran-Iraq War. The Iraqis were secretly U.S. allies, and the United States wanted renewed access to Iraqi oil reserves when the conflict finished. Let’s see if the For All Mankind writers’ room has done their homework. My guess is no, because of what happens next.

A call from Ronald Reagan

Ellen gets a phone call from Reagan. He gives her a boilerplate thing about prayer while behind her Pam, the girlfriend she’s hiding, sits out of sight. The idea that the man whose press secretary laughed when journalists first brought up the AIDS epidemic is supposed to present legitimate pressure for Ellen to stay in the closet … this is not the device the show thinks it is.

If Ellen stays at NASA, she’s tacitly agreeing with the Reagan administration’s genocidal attitude toward gay Americans, but the show won’t frame it like that because AIDS has nothing to do with the moon. Not only does she stay, she suggests that the military move up an operation to attack the Russians on the moon in retaliation. So one phone call from the president turns her into a warmonger. Yikes.

Frankly, no, I don’t buy this. Ellen going from “sick of her job and following the love of her life” to “militaristic hard-ass doing Reagan’s dirty work” is absolutely ludicrous, especially because when Thomas dies she doesn’t even act all that put out about it. The show did not write this character to do this. The scribes just rewrote her when they needed a plot point.

On July 4th of this year America will … blow up the moon

After all that, it’s hard to care about the rest of the stuff going on in this episode. Karen Baldwin (Shantel VanSanten) sells The Outpost Tavern to Sam Cleveland (Jeff Hephner), Tracy Stevens (Sarah Jones)’ fiancee. Sam was lately told by Tracy’s ex Gordo (Michael Dorman) that he’ll be trying to win her back when he gets to the moon.

Danielle’s kinda sorta being held captive in Russia. Aleida Rosales (Coral Peña) and Margo Madison (Wrenn Schmidt) reconnect over a glass of brandy. Kelly (Cynthy Wu), the Baldwins’ adopted daughter, looks for information about her birth mother.

Gordo and Tracy’s college-aged son Danny Stevens (Casey W. Johnson) finally tries to sleep with Karen Baldwin, a very weird thing toward which the show’s been unsubtly and worryingly building all season. Karen’s old enough to be his mom. Their sons used to hit the playground together and stuff.

I know this kind of thing happens all the time in real life. But I don’t know what this detail does for this show. Maybe someone noticed A Teacher racking up good numbers on Hulu. I have a hard enough time caring about Karen without the show making her a creep!

Today in alternate history

Before attacking the Russian base with machine guns, everyone in the lunar attack squad sings Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries” like in 1979’s Apocalypse Now. And then they step off the space ship to The Clash’s cover of “I Fought the Law.” Talk about uhh … missing the point!

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.