Ronald D. Moore’s Apple TV+ series For All Mankind has been a critical darling for a few years now. If you aren’t in the know: The series takes place in an alternate history of the late-20th century, postulating a world where the space race never ended because the Soviet Union landed on the moon first. In this reality, NASA’s cultural power remained intact through the 1970s and the interstellar frontier became another battleground in a Cold War that never ended in 1989. I guess that last bit is something of a spoiler for the third season, which premiered today and takes our cast of characters into the 1990s.
Season 1 showed us an altered 1960s and 1970s, where the space race was redefined from within and without. Women found a measure of equality within the organization, and the hypothetical election of Ted Kennedy to the American presidency in 1968 saw ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment. Season 2 picked up with a Reagan administration that started four years earlier and tensions with the Soviets escalating on the Lunar surface. The post-credits of the tragic finale, The Grey, promised a third season where humanity makes it to Mars in the 1990s. The season delivers on that promise.
I was fortunate enough to view most of Season 3 ahead of the premiere episode, and I have no interest in revealing the season’s big twists and turns. This review will talk in some detail about the events of Polaris, the first episode, because it has already aired, and more generally about the third season without diving into plot details.
One of the pleasures of For All Mankind is its playful take on alternate history. The season’s opening montage reveals diversions from the real-world timeline. This 1980s, for instance, saw the rise of President Gary Hart and the premature death of Margaret Thatcher at the hands of the IRA. Nuclear power is ascendant. Clean energy is becoming bountiful. The Beatles reunited. It’s not all sunshine and roses, though: LGBTQ rights issues are behind schedule, so to speak, even in comparison to the real 1990s. This is just the first salvo of reveals about this different world, of course, and more comes to light as the season progresses.
Polaris pretty quickly establishes the new status quo for our central characters, too. Edward Baldwin (Joel Kinnaman) is older, graying and separated from his ex-wife, Karen (Shantel VanSanten), who now runs the first space-orbital resort and casino with Sam Cleveland (Jeff Hephner), the millionaire widower of heroic astronaut Tracy Stevens (Sarah Jones). Karen’s affair with Tracy’s son, Danny (Casey W. Johnson), from last season still haunts both of them, but she nonetheless agrees to host his wedding as the hotel’s maiden voyage. The wedding serves as a shorthand excuse to bring together the rest of the main cast, including astronaut Danielle Poole (Krys Marshall) and her new family. It also gives the For All Mankind production staff a solid setting for some space-based disaster and excitement.
The alternate history elements are the fun part of For All Mankind, but what really sets the series apart is its mastery of sudden, dread-inducing tension. Season 1, still by far the strongest season, often mirrored the real-world tragedies of our space program. Season 2, far more oriented in science-fiction, still managed gruesome and haunting moments of mistakes and mechanical failures. Polaris has big shoes to fill, and its first instinct to buy even larger shoes. What I’m saying is that its centerpiece action sequence is pretty awesome and sets a tone to which the rest of the season (or at least the seven additional episodes provided for review) more or less lives up. This is a bigger, bolder, more outlandish show than it has been before.
There are a few major subplots in Season 3 that work really well, particularly a new political subplot that sends favorite characters in intriguing new directions. Each season has handled the question of equal rights in its own way, and this is no different, finally opening up consequential storylines for its prominent LGBTQ characters.
Unfortunately, the weaknesses of the show are still present, perhaps more so than ever. Season 2 introduced several interpersonal dramas that resume in Season 3 and feel just as hollow as before — in particular Karen and Danny’s affair. The realities of season-based television with ongoing starring cast members also requires the Mars plot to bend over backwards in order to accommodate familiar faces, which makes this brave new history feel small. The answer to “Who will reach the planet first?” is answered in a way that’s both dramatically compelling and somewhat underwhelming.
On balance, though, For All Mankind continues to hit its high notes effectively and remains one of the best prestige science-fiction shows on streaming.