Apple TV+’s For All Mankind finally made it to Mars! Still, it’s pretty much business as usual this week, what with Americans and Russians bickering and making back-alley deals, and men being boorish and short-tempered and proud of nothing.
On Earth, U.S. President Ellen Wilson must deal with gays in the military right on schedule. And on Mars, Danny’s going nuts, Ed and his adopted daughter Kelly meet, and the Russians find water — and vodka!
A perfectly OK episode of the alt-history space show is made all the more frustrating by its flashes of greatness.
For All Mankind recap: ‘New Eden’
Season 3, episode 6: In this week’s episode, entitled “New Eden,” both NASA’s Sojourner 1 and Helios Aerospace’s Phoenix make it to Mars. Over in one camp is Danielle Poole (played by Krys Marshall), Kelly (Cynthy Wu), her new boyfriend Alexei (Pawel Szajda) and the rest of the NASA and Roscosmos astronauts. And over at the other is Ed Baldwin (Joel Kinnaman), Danny Stevens (Casey W. Johnson) and the rest of the Helios crew.
Danny’s still spying on Ed’s messages to his ex-wife Karen (Shantel VanSanten). And the Russians are still chafing under Danielle’s command over at the NASA station. It doesn’t look good for anyone.
There’s no water on Mars, first of all, which they were perplexingly counting on. (I don’t get that part. I thought we always knew that Mars couldn’t sustain water. Maybe my timeline is off, but if we’ve got iPods a decade early on For All Mankind, it seems to me that we should have predicted that there was no water on Mars.)
Subterfuge on Earth
Margo Madison (Wrenn Schmidt) is trying to get Ellen Wilson (Jodi Balfour)’s government to get Sergei Orestovich Nikulov’s (Piotr Adamczyk) family out of Russia. If she can do that, then she doesn’t have to fall on the grenade of having leaked info to the Russians using Sergei as blackmail fodder.
Or anyway, it might lessen the blow when Margo has to tell her protege Aleida Rosales (Coral Peña) that she traded Aleida’s engine designs for the life of her Russian boyfriend. Aleida’s more suspicious than ever about the Russians working out of NASA’s offices, BTW.
Karen makes a stop at Helios to talk with Dev Ayesa (Edi Gathegi), who’s still smarting after losing the race to Mars. Karen’s heard from Lenara Catiche (Vera Cherny), the head of Roscosmos, who wants to talk to Dev about something. They think they know where water is, but they need Dev’s drilling technology up there to get to it. Karen makes them agrees to share credit for whatever they find.
Coming out on Mars
Everyone has another new problem when Will Tyler (Robert Bailey Jr.), one of the astronauts on Mars, comes out during one of his video diaries. Vice President James Bragg (Randy Oglesby) and the joint chiefs want to fire Will and bring him home. But mutual beards Wilson and Larry (Nate Cordry) obviously know that they are also lying about being gay, so they can’t fully turn against the kid or they’ll never forgive themselves.
But how do you fight the conservative establishment? When people start defacing Will’s mother’s house, Wilson recalls telling Deke Slayton (Chris Bauer) that she was gay when they were going to die on Apollo 24. (His response at that critical moment: “Don’t tell anybody else.”)
She’s in tears, and then Larry invents “Don’t ask, don’t tell” on the spot, which is a riot. (The show thinks it’s great, which is goddamned typical from this writer’s room.) In the next scene, Rolan Baranov (Alexander Sokovikov) and Will get into a drunken fistfight because Will kept his gayness a secret.
Addiction, secrets and vodka
When Danny cuts his hand doing some drilling, they give him pain pills to get over it. He immediately becomes addicted and starts barking at Ed about what a bad leader he is and everything. Ed doesn’t see that Danny’s unraveling, though. He just thinks Danny’s chafing under his close scrutiny.
Danny obviously feels guilty because he’s been spying on Ed’s messages to Karen, but who knows with this kid? Ed’s coming to help the Russians with the drill, and Kelly’s feeling a little put out. Neither her dad nor Alexei, her boyfriend, tell her what they’re doing.
Again … extremely funny, because you’ve made it to space and you still feel like you need to know some proprietary capitalist nonsense or the boys are keeping you at arm’s length? You’ll find out soon enough! You’re on Mars! You can’t keep secrets on Mars!
Speaking of secrets, Sergei visits Margo and writes a secret message on one of her vinyl records, which lets her know that the Russians think they found water. Margo tells Aleida and Aleida tells Danielle and Danielle makes a scene in front of the whole crew in the middle of their vodka-fueled celebration.
Humor, intentional and otherwise
I don’t know if the score wasn’t ready or something when I reviewed an early screener of this episode, but the chintzy synth that blared as our astronauts triumphantly strode onto the Martian surface for the first time was pathetic. The effects were also not done yet when I watched, which was kind of funny. One minute, everything was crystal-clear and beautiful, the next it was a circa-1995 screensaver image of Mars.
Director Andrew Stanton (who made WALL-E and John Carter) gets to do some real humor this time. In last week’s episode of For All Mankind, he got a pretty good gag out in the Russians and Americans wrestling each other to take the first step on Mars. The little crew diaries are pretty funny, with Poole and her Russian counterpart telling their own versions of who got their first. That’s also where we get Will Tyler coming out.
Sexual politics … in space!
This show suddenly being about sexuality is one clumsy-ass turn from a show that has never ever cared about anybody’s struggle beyond how it related to surviving in space (except occasionally Danielle Poole, who just forgave Ed Baldwin for suggesting she benefited from affirmative action).
If the show’s writers knew they were building toward this, some kind of ground work would have been helpful so that Will’s sexuality didn’t seem like the shoehorning of the personal political into a show about absolutely nothing. What worries me is that For All Mankind is going to make the argument, like it always does, that because the Russians beat us to the moon, we’re going to have comprehensive anti-discrimination laws. If that is where this is going, I am going to fucking scream.
Director Stanton’s touch can also be felt in the choice to play “My Rifle, My Pony, and Me,” from the movie Rio Bravo, a 1959 Western by the great Howard Hawks. Stanton learned a lot about film comedy from Hawks. At his best, he’s on a par with him. There’s a joke here that you could see John Wayne loosing on Ricky Nelson in Rio Bravo when Alexei pretends he doesn’t know Kelly when she insists they not tell him they’re dating.
This Week in Alternate History
“We Are the World” was released and is still a punchline. We get more Mazzy Star this week, too. Joe Lieberman was still a Democrat at this point like he was in the real 1990s. Supergrass formed and wrote “Alright.” Somehow it’s on Kelly’s iPod … even though it was written and released in 1995, by which point Kelly was in goddamned outer space. COME ON PEOPLE!!!! Get it together. There’s also a song by Satellite Orchestra from 2018, so For All Mankind just isn’t even trying anymore.
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.