TV is best when there’s room to take big, potentially disastrous swings. It’s one of the frustrations of the limited-series format: The upside is a tightly controlled arc where all the variables can be measured and tweaked, but the downside is a lack of experimentation or risk. The edges are all smoothed over. Over the course of a series, everything feels pretty much like everything else. In a long-running series, like For All Mankind has now become, there’s more room for growth and odd tangents and for stuff that, frankly, does not work. Is the result more uneven? Sure. But the highs are higher.
Apple TV+’s space-race alternate-history series began in the late 1960s with the simple premise that, in its fictional timeline, Russia beat the United States to the moon. Seasons one and two spin that premise out into the 1980s, following the rough idea that increased global competition sparked significantly more investment in space exploration. By the end of season two, America and Russia both have permanent lunar bases. Season three, which premieres today, leaps forward into the mid-1990s, and the world’s focus is now set on colonizing Mars. The U.S. and Russia are still the chief players, but For All Mankind also adds Helios, a privately owned tech company, as a major competitor in the race to land on the red planet. All of that coalesces into a season that is sometimes a fist-pumping celebration of passion and ingenuity, full of tension and glory and feats of space-themed derring-do. And sometimes, it made me stand up and pace around my home like a deranged sports fan ranting about poor coaching decisions. You have got to be kidding me!! How could you possibly expect this to be a good call!? What were they thinking!
Some of the missteps of For All Mankind’s third season are silly but relatively easy to overlook. Much of the main cast is still present, including Joel Kinnaman and Shantel VanSanten’s Ed and Karen Baldwin, Wrenn Schmidt’s Margo Madison, Casey W. Johnson’s Danny Stevens, Krys Marshall’s Danielle Poole, and Jodi Balfour’s Ellen Wilson. It’s hard to take a cast that’s been working very well and dismantle them for the sake of the show, but in the case of For All Mankind, that decision presents challenges. By my math, Ed and Karen Baldwin should be pushing 70, and yet there they are, looking fresh-faced and ready to hop aboard multiyear missions into the depths of the solar system. On the administrative side, it’s all too plausible that people in power in the 1970s could still be hanging onto their posts well into the ’90s. (It’s an alternate-history show, yes, but some things never change!) But astronauts? Astronauts going to Mars? Korean War veterans in the mid-’90s with the musculature of an MMA fighter and barely a hint of wrinkles? Hmm.
Still, it is an alternate history. Perhaps in this version of the space race, retinols work much, much better. And it’s a superficial complaint, one that requires a fairly rote suspension of disbelief in order to have much-loved characters back onscreen. The bigger issue is that by bringing back most of the cast from season two — even though the leap into a new decade provides ample excuse to bring in new key characters — For All Mankind also keeps all the biggest dramas and interpersonal battles from the previous season.
For some characters, that ancient history is an excellent source of ongoing narrative tension. Seeds that were sown years ago, like Margo Madison’s friendship with a Russian rocket scientist or the competitive edge of the friendship between Ed Baldwin and Danielle Poole, are now stories with deep roots. They can anchor all sorts of new developments, and that lengthy history becomes a neat shortcut. No exposition needed; it’s straight to the good stuff.
The double-edged sword of that decision is that For All Mankind’s third season also brings back some long-brewing tensions from previous seasons that might have been much better left in the past. There’s something admirable about the decisions this show makes around a few specific plotlines, particularly those relating to Danny Stevens, son of astronauts Gordo and Tracy Stevens, whose tragic deaths are the center of season two’s magnificent finale. On paper, there’s a compelling ethical drive behind the decision to write a traumatizing, life-defining set of events for a young character and to then follow through that with rather than simply dismissing the probable outcome (i.e., the fact that without therapy he’d likely be a huge fucking mess). In practice, though, the result can feel like leaning on a bruise. This story was rough the first time around, and now we’re going to excavate all the emotional implications? Maybe, from a storytelling perspective, it’d be cowardly to cut bait and run. Maybe there are upsides to a little healthy cowardice.
Aside from that one notable thread, though, much of For All Mankind’s third season retains the show’s best qualities. It balances character development with big, scary, highly dramatic space stuff, always finding time for small conversational moments inside the immense, explosive set pieces. In addition to the way it slowly pulls together a variety of plotlines, For All Mankind is also unusually good at being a big, impressive space show. There’s a visual device it uses to locate characters in space, a zoom from one planetary or outer-space location to another that involves variable rates of visual speed when moving between distances — it’s an arrhythmic slow slide and then quick spin from one place to another. Few space operas of any medium have been as effective at establishing a sense of scope and scale. It’s simple, but the ability to register how small things are and how far they are from one another does so much to underline the emotional stakes when things (inevitably) go awry.
The highs are very high, and the lows are pretty cavernous. Within those two poles, some aspects of this season fall in the undetermined middle, particularly in areas that relate to national politics. One of the new characters, a tech-CEO amalgam played by Edi Gathegi, never quite comes together as a distinctive person beyond a collection of familiar “sketchy billionaire” personality traits. There are intentional but not fully formed echoes of what happened inside the White House in the mid-’90s, and they waver between interesting experiments and incomplete side plots. There’s a story line about Danny’s brother Jimmy (David Chandler) that appears to fall on the “yikes” side of the spectrum, but it’s difficult to say without seeing the full season. (Critics were sent eight out of the season’s ten episodes, which is a sufficient but infuriating number given this show’s history of home-run season finales.)
More than once, I was frustrated by season three — frustrated enough to resort to all-caps yelling to anyone who could listen. Even still, there are few shows I’ve enjoyed more this year and few finales I’ve looked forward to more than this one, and despite those frustrations, I still vastly prefer the show’s impulse to dig into the painful places rather than to skitter around on superficials. You need to drill down deep to look for water on Mars.