Apple TV+ alt-history hit For All Mankind makes all the right moves this week, then immediately blows a 26-point lead in the last inning.
For once, the dramatic arcs thrown at Margo, Karen, Dev, Aleida and Kelly all seem pretty satisfying and not at all cheap or hyperbolic. Then the writers ensure we won’t see how any of that plays out, instantly turning this from one of the show’s best episodes into its most frustrating yet.
But hey, at least we’re going to Mars, I guess.
For All Mankind recap: ‘All In’
Season 3, episode 3: Entitled “All In,” this one starts with a cute little montage of the years-long will-they-won’t-they between Margo Madison (played by Wrenn Schmidt) and Sergei Orestovich Nikulov (Piotr Adamczyk). This is at least human, and doesn’t involve pseudo-historical palm reading like the rest of the show.
Margo, elsewhere, is in high gear. Having heard that Dev Ayesa’s (Edi Gathegi) company Helios Aerospace is trying to get to Mars by 1994, NASA’s going to do the same thing. As a result, Danielle Poole (Krys Marshall), Aleida Rosales (Coral Peña) and Bill Strausser (Noah Harpster) all shift into crisis mode.
They don’t know how to make this new goal without sacrificing too much quality in the name of time. Then, Aleida suggests something radical: Go around Venus to catch a new launch window and beat Helios to Mars.
Ellen Wilson (Jodi Balfour) hears about this. And, in her next debate with presidential candidate Bill Clinton, she calls the healthy competition between the government and private enterprise good for America. (Clinton’s mouth doesn’t match the things he’s saying because he never actually had a debate about Mars and the guy they got to voice him in For All Mankind isn’t very good. It’s kind of like when Conan O’Brien would animate the mouth of celebrity pictures and do like the worst Schwarzenegger impressions possible.)
Helios wants to beat NASA to Mars
Meanwhile, Ed Baldwin (Joel Kinnaman), Karen (Shantel VanSanten) and Dev are getting to know each other in a hurry. After years at NASA, Ed doesn’t love the wishy-washy Silicon Valley way Helios does things. But Dev wants to win more than he wants to be right, so he loosens his grip on mission parameters.
Danny Stevens (Casey W. Johnson) and Danielle Poole are running some simulations on how to land the docking ship on Mars when she notices he’s too high-strung, even for an astronaut. He lies and says it’s because he and his wife, Amber (Madeline Bertani), are closing on a house. But it’s really because he wants to go on his own slingshot to Venus with Karen Baldwin, if you know what I’m saying. He leaves for the day just as Kelly (Cynthy Wu) shows up.
Kelly had been invited by her dad to go with him on his mission when he was in line to be the first NASA pilot to go to Mars, and she still wants to go. She also doesn’t want people to think she got to Mars because her dad invited her. So, she gives Danielle the hard sell about her qualifications. Ed, shockingly, is pretty cool with this revelation when they finally sit down to dinner as a family.
… but people are misbehaving on Earth
Karen tries to recruit Aleida Rosales for Helios, which Danny sees, but he doesn’t put two and two together. He’s too busy taking home a groupie out of jealousy at the sight of Karen. He drops his wedding ring at the bottom of a pool and, when he surfaces, the cops are there to arrest him for trespassing.
Turns out he took her to his old house because he couldn’t go to his own house, because his wife lives there. The cops let him go with a warning because of who his dad was. And just as Danny’s in the shadow of his dad, Aleida can’t turn her back on Margo despite Karen’s generous offer; no one else would have given Aleida the chances Margo did. She touched the moon because of Margo.
Danielle picks up Danny from the police station and takes him off the Mars mission until he gets his head out of his ass. So Ed offers him a slot on the Helios launch. Danielle, pissed, confronts Ed, who says what the boy needs isn’t tough love but a purpose. Karen can’t tell Ed she doesn’t want him around because he keeps trying to sleep with her, so she bites her tongue.
Aleida’s husband Victor (Jorge Diaz) is pissed she didn’t take the Helios offer. He wants the salary to pay for a nanny. Her dad (Arturo Del Puerto), who they brought up from Mexico help look after their son Javi (Tiago Martinez), is losing his mind as he ages. So now Victor has to watch both of them while Aleida works long hours for not enough money.
And that includes those sneaky Russians
And then Margo (Wrenn Schmidt) and Sergei (Piotr Adamczyk) finally make out after decades of flirting. He stops them before anything else happens because the Russians are trying to use him to get NASA info out of her. So he asks for engine plans, stopping just short of saying, “They’ll kill me if you don’t.”
She thinks he’s being careerist, somehow not grasping that if he’s doing this right before they finally seal the deal that something very bad must be happening. Just then, there’s a knock at the door. Turns out the Russians have enough to blackmail Margo into helping them. When she refuses, they strangle Sergei half to death in front of her. The next day, Bill Strausser quits to work at Helios.
Then we jump forward in time two years. Which is so goddamned infuriating I want to scream. This writers room made us sit through the grueling and dull trials in the first season, but now we know when to cut to the good stuff? I want a refund.
Who is it?
This, I gotta say, was as good as For All Mankind gets by the traditional rubric of “actually good TV.” You have to ignore a lot of what we know to enjoy it, though: that Ed Baldwin freaked out last season when Kelly said she was going to flight school, that Ed Baldwin was a huge racist prick last week when Danielle got Mars over him at NASA, that Ed Baldwin is a deeply unlikable man who throws tempter tantrums every time he doesn’t get his way.
You just need to ignore Ed Baldwin in general, is what I’m saying.
But if you can do that, the writers make few if any dramatic missteps until the two-year leap forward, which cuts out, oh, any of the hard work of living with the 10,000 little cliffhangers they set up. No Karen dealing with Danny at Helios, no repercussions for Danny’s marriage, no Margo buckling to the Russians, no sense of what happened to Margo and Sergei’s relationship after being cockblocked by the KGB, no Ed and Karen working through their divorce, no Aleida dealing with her dying dad or her miserable husband, no dealing with anything at all of the pretty satisfying curveballs thrown at their characters.
FORGET ALL OF THAT, Ellen Wilson is president now! That’s what we all care about, right?!?!?! For All Mankind has a special approach to making me deeply crazy. I let my guard down for an hour, and the writers mug me in an alley with dramatic contrivance.
This Week in Alternate History
Soundgarden is still a band and wrote “Black Hole Sun.” Convenient … like everything else on this show.
Watch For All Mankind on Apple TV+
New episodes of For All Mankind arrive on Apple TV+ every Friday.
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 author of Cinemaphagy: On the Psychedelic Classical Form of Tobe Hooper, the director of 25 feature films, and the director and editor of more than 300 video essays, which can be found at Patreon.com/honorszombie.