Apple TV+ space opera/soap opera For All Mankind closes its confounding third season this week by introducing us to a new character and a new geopolitical rival for the beleaguered space crews.
In this week’s season three finale, entitled “Stranger in a Strange Land,” Ed Baldwin learns Danny’s terrible secret. Jimmy Stevens hangs out with the wrong crowd for just a few minutes too long. Margo’s in trouble, Kelly’s giving birth, Karen’s making bold choices, and Dev is up a creek.
None of that’s going to matter by this week’s third act, of course. Just you wait and see.
For All Mankind recap: ‘Stranger in a Strange Land’
Season 3, episode 10: Back when Helios Aerospace, NASA and Roscosmos were prepping their Mars excursions, there was talk of the North Koreans preparing a space launch of their own. No one took it too seriously, but, as it turns out, they should have.
Even though his mission was a disaster and his co-pilot was killed, Korean astronaut Lee Jung-Gil (played by C.S. Lee) was the real first man on Mars. His radio damaged in the crash, he is unable to tell anyone he survived. He eats through most of his food supply and starts to go stir crazy. With no hope of seeing his wife again, the gun the Koreans sent him up there with starts to look like a mighty tempting option.
Indeed, he’s in the middle of his suicide attempt when Danielle Poole (Krys Marshall) and Rolan Baranov (Alexander Sokovikov) roll up. Meanwhile, Dr. Mayakovsky (Goran Ivanovski) has bad news for Kelly (Cynthy Wu) and Ed Baldwin (Joel Kinnaman): She’s going to die if they can’t get to their equipment on the Phoenix. And to make that trip, they need fuel.
Maybe a certain Korean ship has the fuel they need? Danielle tries to reason with the Korean, and just as she’s making progress, Baranov yanks the guy’s oxygen tube loose, destabilizing him long enough to get his gun. That nasty trick, I confess, got a big laugh out of me.
Everybody’s playing politics
Back on Earth, President Ellen Wilson (Jodi Balfour) and her bigoted vice president (Randy Oglesby) are having it out in the aftermath of Ellen outing herself and her husband (Nate Cordry) as gay. The veep wants to spare the Republican Party the embarrassment of an impeachment trial. But also, he wouldn’t say “no” to taking over the job himself.
“I won’t let you destroy the Republican Party!” he says.
“Maybe it needs a little destroying,” she says, as if that’s smart or makes grammatical sense. I don’t like where the writers think they’re headed here.
A shakeup at Helios
Karen (Shantel VanSanten) is still having doubts about taking over Helios after the board ousts Dev Ayesa (Edi Gathegi). She goes over to talk to Wayne Cobb (Lenny Jacobson), but he’s out and only his much-more-ornery wife, Molly (Sonya Walger), is there.
Karen doesn’t want to talk to Molly, but Molly forces her to. She tells Karen to man up, be selfish, and do what the other great men of history would do. So, she walks back into Helios and tells Dev she’s taking over. He pitches a fit about it and vows to fight her on the decision.
Dev then stages a big Jerry Maguire/Wolf of Wall Street-style, “I’m leaving, who’s coming with me!” speech in front of Helios’ employees. But when Karen reminds them that they’ll lose their stock options if they leave, they all chicken out.
It’s like something out of The Simpsons episode “The PTA Disbands.”
“That’s easy for you to say, Dev! You’re like rich!” says a nameless employee. “The taxes! The hand thing means taxes!”
… and big problems at NASA
Margo Madison (Wrenn Schmidt) has two fires to put out. When the Mars crew figures out the only way to get to the Phoenix involves leaving a goodly portion of the crew behind on the red planet, they must quickly launch a new mission to rescue everyone they leave behind.
That leaves about nine astronauts on Mars in need of rescue, with much less than the year-and-a-half’s supply of food they’ll need to survive. And, as Roscosmos head Lenara Catiche (Vera Cherny) tells Margo, she’s being investigated by the FBI for her role in giving spaceship designs to the Russians.
Aleida Rosales (Coral Peña) tries to explain all this after Margo learns about the investigation and attempts to apologize, but Margo doesn’t let her. There is too much other stuff to worry about right now. Molly Cobb is called back in to help.
Margo is thrilled to learn that her efforts to get Sergei Nikulov (Piotr Adamczyk) out of Russia were successful, but she knows it’ll basically be the end of her career. When she walks off, leaving Aleida in charge, there’s a definite note of “this is my last move” to her resigned tone.
An inside job
Meanwhile, Jimmy (David Chandler) and his scumbag friends are planning a stunt to show the world how corrupt NASA really is by hijacking a camera feed inside the building to broadcast live as they plan to save the Mars mission.
He panics when he sees Karen Baldwin coming in to see them try to get Kelly up to the Phoenix. When they figure out he screwed up their mission, they beat him up and carry him off. Karen comes to his aid, finding him taped up in the back of the van.
Turns out the guys he’s been hanging with are terrorists and they brought enough explosives to level NASA. The explosion kills Karen and Margo (or does it?!?! It doesn’t. She flees to Russia, which is pretty hilarious). This means Aleida will never get closure, and now Ed Baldwin has another Stevens kid to be mad at: Danny (Casey W. Johnson) finally confesses that it was his fault that the drill blew up and killed all those people on Mars, so they banish him to the Korean spaceship for punishment, which rules.
Ed also crashes after delivering Kelly successfully to the Phoenix, but he survives, because this show would just be lost without Ed Baldwin.
Maybe it needs a little destroying
The idea that — instead of Oklahoma City or the World Trade Center — NASA becomes a target for white aggression and winds up taking the hit is a pretty hilarious conclusion to come to. But I have to give it to For All Mankind. When you see everything through the lens of the colossal importance of space travel, it makes sense that you’d assume NASA would take on this kind of centrality.
NASA having a political ideology at all is something the show invents by tying the space agency to capital and resource mining. Yes, NASA is obviously a limb of the State Department, but basically, this treats … like … Caterpillar construction equipment or a commercial airliner as the villain in a story about the U.S. government. Put another way: let’s say the US decided Newfoundland had oil and uranium and diamonds and I don’t know…gummy bears buried under their soil. Would you be mad at the company they send to do the drilling or the government who sent them? Because…you can always hire another drilling company but the US Government is always going to want what it wants.
There’s just something a little funny about seeing NASA, which we’ve been told is this starry eyed exploratory dream factory, where men and women become their best selves and nothing is impossible and yada yada yada, for someone to harbor such an intense grudge against them is really, really silly.
And besides wouldn’t the show’s terrorists be better served blowing up the runways from which space shuttles take flight? What does killing scientists do for the cause? They can train more scientists tomorrow. They can import Russian scientists as we’ve already seen.
I also like that Margo’s bright idea was defecting to Moscow to prove she wasn’t a Russian sleeper agent. Geniuses. Everyone on this show is a genius.
With my luck, I’ll be suffering through more of Danny and Ed’s dick-measuring in a year’s time when For All Mankind comes back for its fourth season. But if there’s a god out there in the cold recesses of space, may he please free me from the burden of having to remember all 900 names of the very boring and obstinate characters on this show.
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Watch For All Mankind on Apple TV+
You can now watch all three seasons of For All Mankind in their entirety on Apple TV+.
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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.