For All Mankind
To be the first to do something means taking risks, being bold and accepting the fact that the initial launch might not go so smoothly. That’s a good way to describe not just the 1960s space race, but the first episode of For All Mankind.
Oh, and perhaps, on an even more meta level, that extends to the new subscription service upon which it will be launched. But given that Apple TV+’s success will more than likely depend on the actual quality of its programming, it makes sense to dig in deep with what might be its true flagship series (sorry, Jen and Reese).
For All Mankind begins with a big swing, but the power of its opening twist hinges entirely on how much audiences already know about the show. If a viewer happened to be randomly exploring the brand-new Apple TV app on their brand-new Apple TV box (remember, kids, you get a free year of Apple TV+ with the purchase of any new Apple product!) and decided to give it a shot, then the extended introduction, capturing a seismic moment in global history as millions of people watch their televisions, waiting for news from the moon, might have ended with quite a punch.
But if you watched even one full-length trailer for the series, you would have known that the premise hinges on the fact that, somehow, the first man to land on the moon was a Russian cosmonaut on June 26, 1969, and not Neil Armstrong on July 21, 1969. And thus, that long opening sequence, which does some loose but necessary work in introducing the show’s ensemble, is ultimately like watching The Sixth Sense while knowing what’s up with Bruce Willis.
It’s a dark night for the men and women of NASA, as they watch a Russian expedition to the moon beat the planned Apollo 11 mission. NASA’s using Mission Control as a really big television to watch the arrival, and because it’s 1969, there’s a bit of a gender split among the Americans, as Ed (Joel Kinnaman) and his fellow astronaut buddies watch from a local bar in Houston (the legendary Outpost Tavern, a real place), while their families watch from home.
Because of the Russians making it to the moon first, everything that happens going forward will be different from what we know, from the drastic to the minor (though, of course, even the minor may have its own impact). Right in this moment, though, wherever Americans might be, the reaction is the same: shock, awe, and shame. The last one definitely weighs on the minds of everyone involved in the space program, though no one more than Ed, because he was on Apollo 10, the so-called “dress rehearsal” for Apollo 11 — and his mission directive had been not to land, but he had all the equipment, and if he had maybe decided to push that button …
It’s fun, to be honest, that a show built on the premise of a “what if” also has other “what ifs” in the chamber, especially one based on real fact. And it’s that “what if” that haunts Ed as the NASA team gathers in the aftermath of the Russian victory — first, at an all-hands meeting with their boss Deke, who tells them to take the weekend off and “get drunk, kick your dog, gnash your teeth or howl at the moon” to get over the frustration of losing the right to be first on the moon. (For the record, NO ONE better have done that second thing.) After that, it’s back to the Outpost Tavern, after a fun little car race featuring some truly sexy 1960s cars. (They might be gas-guzzlers, but, c’mon.)
Late into the “getting drunk” phase of the day, a reporter comes into the bar, and that’s where Ed makes his key mistake, one a more media-savvy dude might have recognized. In fact, given how many other members of the space program previously declined to talk to said reporter, you’d think that Ed would have some clue that maybe he shouldn’t crap on the whole NASA organization and gripe about how safety precautions have become a priority after the Apollo 1 fire.
Ed’s comments are a part of a front-page Newsweek story that asks “Have We Lost the Space Race?” which gets him demoted and nearly fired, but then he takes a back seat to the real story — Apollo 11 will still happen, except that now it has even bigger stakes. As expressed more than once by various figures, if this mission fails, America’s interest in the space race is over.
An element of this is due to the fact that, of course, at this time, Nixon is the president, though the show spares us an actor in facial prosthetics, instead taking a The Post–esque approach, with an impersonator “being recorded” via his infamous tapes, stewing over how these events might affect him.
When Nixon learns that the Russians won the race to the moon, he talks about it like a blown football play, and then, when NASA figures tell a political operative that they want to set things up so Nixon can make a phone call to astronauts on the moon (a thing that, even in 2019, sounds pretty damn cool), Nixon’s representative says that the president “doesn’t usually call the silver medalist.” Never mind, of course, the point that this would show off America’s technological superiority — just throwing this out there, but Nixon might have been a jerk?
There is a moment a bit later where Nixon shows a bit of humanity … all that is required is the presumed death of the Apollo 11 crew. The mission does launch successfully, but the descent of the lander is rocky, and there’s a good long period of time where they’re presumed dead, to the point where we hear Nixon rehearse out loud the speech that had been written for him, in the event that the attempt failed — a speech that really exists.
Here’s the truth: The first time I watched this episode, there were a few minutes where I really thought they were going to kill off Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin. I know! But it speaks to the power of the storytelling that I was literally breathless, and that’s the exciting thing about engaging with a brand-new show that wants to create a brand-new reality — we know where we’re starting from, but who knows where things are going? This could be the show that leaves Neil and Buzz to die on the moon! It’s Apple TV+, baby! Who’s to say what could happen!
And what’s to happen is still a question at the end of the episode, once we all regain our breath after listening to the haunting sound of static for minutes, interrupted by contact with the surface. There are two American men left on the moon. We got them there. Time to get them back.
Houston, We Have Some Bullet Points
• There was so much to unpack in this episode that giving NASA engineer Margo her full due proved impossible. But perhaps one of the most fun and character-driven sequences of the first episode is simply watching her wake up and go to work — her pencil/toothbrush combo alone makes her one of the show’s most intriguing characters, and also it was an important reminder that, yes, looking like the ’60s definition of Professional Attractive Human Woman, Super-Dedicated to Her Job takes a whole lot of effort that men might not appreciate.
• What’s Up With Aleida? Good Question! One of the many people watching the Russians land on the Moon is a young Mexican girl who later crosses the border with her father after her mother dies; her presence in the story might feel a bit confusing, but it’s given enough screen time to assume she’ll be an ongoing presence. Also, it has to be said, adding non-American perspectives to events like this gives it a necessary global scale.
• In case it wasn’t clear, the character of Ed is fictional, as well as a few others, and how the show balances that with the real-life figures who are very much a part of the action in fictionalized form is probably going to be important.
• Did that news anchor sound familiar? Well, if he did, it’s probably because you’re an Orange Is the New Black fan — Michael Harney appeared in almost every season of that show as Sam Healy.
• It feels safe to hope that this show will be a treat for fans of ’60s and ’70s jams, as the Apple moneybags were able to get classics like “What Becomes of the Brokenhearted” and “It’s Your Thing” for this episode. Wait, take that back — we’ll really know they’re spending the cash when we hear some Beatles.
• One of those “blink and you might miss it” details is that Edward Kennedy cancels his party weekend on Chappaquiddick to hold hearings into why, exactly, America got beat to the moon. That’s a pretty big deal, because in “our” timeline, that party led to a car accident caused by Kennedy that killed a young woman; it’s considered to be the major reason why he never ran for president.
• “I’m Gordo Stevens and I come in peace … three times a night.” You know what? Yeah. As far as first words on the moon go, that does beat “for the Marxist and Leninist way of life.”