TV Show ReviewsJosh Reviews For All Mankind Season Four

Josh Reviews For All Mankind Season Four

For All Mankind continues to be one of my very favorite current TV shows.  I’m overjoyed that it’s made it to four seasons, and I hope we get many more.  The series presents an alternate future in which the Soviet Union won the “space race” and landed on the moon before the United States.  While that might feel, from an American standpoint, like a dystopian set-up, I have been delighted to see that, right from the beginning, the show has always been utopian at heart.  In many ways, the alternate history presented in the show is a better future than the one in which we’re currently living!  On the show, we see that continued competition between the United States and the Soviet Union led to technological advances and social change far advanced of what happened in real life.  And don’t mistake my comment that the show is utopian to mean it’s boring!  For All Mankind can be wrenchingly stressful at times, skillfully depicting the dangers of space exploration.  The show is a compelling character drama and a sci-fi adventure all wrapped up in one.  I love it, and if you’re not watching it, you should be!

One of the many cool aspects of this show is that it jumps ahead by about a decade between each season.  So while the series began in 1969, here in season four we’ve arrived at 2003.  Much of the season’s action takes place on Mars, which is now home to a sprawling base called “Happy Valley,” populated by American and Soviet astronauts and workers… as well as employees of the private company Helios, and also astronauts from North Korea.   We get a lot of stories this season watching the tricky balance of politics and science involved in successfully running this multi-national facility, especially considering that these three nations (the United States, the Soviet Union, and North Korea) are far from friends.

The main storylines this season all spin out of the discovery of an asteroid passing through our solar system that is loaded with rare, valuable minerals.  A mission is quickly mounted to capture the asteroid and bring it into Mars orbit.  But the asteroid represents different possible futures to different groups of people, on both Mars and Earth, and soon there are many different (and competing) plans and agendas for that asteroid, and what should be done with it…

Several characters from previous seasons return, under old-age makeup.  Ed Baldwin (Joel Kinnaman), despite his advanced age, is still an astronaut.  While he might be an old man, he’s still the head honcho up on Happy Valley… at least until an accident results in Dani Poole (Krys Marshall)’s being called out of retirement to head up there to help right the ship.  Not surprisingly, the two butt heads immediately, and much of the season’s stories revolve around around their battle of wills for how Happy Valley should be run.  Ed continues to be an enormous prick — moreso than ever this year — but he’s fun to watch (and hate!).  Dani, meanwhile, continues to be one of my favorite characters — noble and brave, and also intelligent and tough.

When we left Margo Madison (Wrenn Schmidt) at the end of season three, we see that she had survived the bombing of NASA, and she was living as a defector in the Soviet Union.  Season four spends a lot of time exploring the fallout of that.  We follow Margo’s difficult and unhappy life as a nobody in the Soviet Union.  (I kept hoping Margo would bump into Martha from The Americans!!)  Then we see her get what she’s been longing for, as she find a way back into the game of space exploration, albeit this time on the Russian side… and it’s delicious to see that this doesn’t make Margo’s life any easier.  She winds up involved in the joint U.S./U.S.S.R. project to capture the asteroid, which results in her returning to Washington as a hated traitor.  This is a juicy storyline and a highlight of the season for me, as we follow Margo as she tries to find some way through the challenges that surround her.

Aleida Rosales (Coral Peña) is suffering PTSD following the bombing in the season three finale; she’s left NASA, but in an interesting twist, she winds up involved with Helios, working with Ed’s daughter Kelly Baldwin (Cynthy Wu), who is developing a project to search for signs of life on Mars.  NASA sidelined the project, but she and Aleida hook up with deposed Helios boss Dev Ayesa (Edi Gathegi), and the three plot a way back into the game.  I liked the idea of putting these three very different characters, with different agendas, together.  Aleida remains one of my favorite characters on the show.  She’s so entertainingly flawed — stubborn, impulsive, and not a team-player — and at the same time she’s so smart and brave and honest.  I love Aleida, and it was fun seeing her enter the corporate world this season.  Kelly remains a bit more of a mixed bag for me.  I like the actress, and I thought the show-runners had some interesting ideas for Kelly this season (her scientific project was cool, and I was intrigued by the idea of her bringing her young son to space in the back half of the season), but none of her storylines seemed to amount to much in the end.  Dev, meanwhile, is an interesting character.  He’s an antagonist in many ways, but I like that the show doesn’t make him evil.  He has an understandable point of view that makes a lot of sense, and he does a lot of good… while at the same time his goals put him at odds with many of our favorite characters on the show.  I like that angle.  (That one scene with his mom was so sad.  I strongly disliked Dev in that scene, but I had empathy for him, too.)

The main new character this season was Miles Dale, played by Toby Kebbell (Black Mirror, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Fantastic Four, Kong: Skull Island).  Miles is an “everyman” who signs up to work at Happy Valley, not because he dreams of being an astronaut, but because he’s an out-of-work oil rigger who needs the money, and Mars is where he sees an opportunity.  I like the idea of introducing this type of character to the show, somehow who is not a scientist and not an explorer, and I think Mr. Kebbell is a great actor who is eminently watchable.  Unfortunately, I think they made a mistake in introducing Miles by having him presumptuously stride into the house where his former wife, from whom he’s separated, and kids live, treating the place like he still lives there and dismissively refusing his wife’s pleas that he sign their divorce papers.  The show wants us to be rooting for this everyman character once he’s involved in the drama and danger up on Mars (and it also wants us to root for him and his wife to reconcile!), but by introducing him in this manner I strongly disliked him and was rooting against him!  The character did eventually grow on me, but that intro was a big mistake, in my opinion.  I also think the show was a little unfocused with Mile’s journey once he arrives on Mars.  One minute he’s involved in a smuggling operation, the next he’s helping form a union, the next he’s potentially starting World War III by breaking into the North Korean compound.  I liked all those stories, but together it was too much for me and it felt like they didn’t quite know what to do with him.

I loved the addition of Daniel Stern (Home Alone, City Slickers, Diner, Hannah and Her Sisters) as the new NASA boss, Eli Hobson.  This character could have been a stiff, but Mr. Stern brought a fun twinkle and a great sense of energy to the performance.  I enjoyed following Hobson’s careful political dance with his U.S.S.R. counterpart, Irina Morozova (Svetlana Efremova).

I was pleasantly surprised to see North Korean astronaut Lee (C. S. Lee) back this season… and in such a major way!

I missed Jodi Balfour as Ellen, the closeted gay astronaut and then politician who we’d followed through the first three seasons, but I respect the show’s willingness to let even a main character fall to the wayside as the story advances through the decades, rather than trying to find an awkward way to involve her in the story.  (We similarly lost Ellen’s husband Larry, who had been played very well by Nate Corddry.)

Was this season perfect?  No.  Most of my complaints center around the finale, which is unusual for a show that has always ended on a high in years past.  Each of the past three seasons had an engaging burst of narrative energy and suspense in the final batch of episodes, building to a thrilling finale.  This season, I had expected the same, and at first it looked like that was happening.  When we got the cliffhanger ending of episode seven, and the revelation of the plot to steal the asteroid, I was pumped and ready for another great climax to the season.  Unfortunately, I found the end of the season to be a bit of a letdown, as I felt that many potentially interesting plot-lines weren’t given the closure I’d hoped for.  (Beware SPOILERS ahead, gang, as I dig into the end of the season.)  Let’s start with Ed Baldwin.  I’ve been waiting years for this arrogant jerk to get his comeuppance, and as he continued to make shockingly self-centered choices this season, I thought finally we’d get to see him get what’s coming to him.  But, nope, he seems to again skate through with no real consequences.  Instead, it’s Dani who suffers, getting shot and almost killed.  (I’m glad they revealed in the final moments of the finale that she’d survived.)  I was disappointed at how passive and behind the eight-ball Dani was in the back half of the season; Ed and Dev were ahead of her at every turn.  Throughout the final few episodes of the season, I kept asking how Ed, Dev, Miles, and the others involved in the heist plan expected to escape without consequences.  Even if they succeeded, NASA and Dani would know what they’d done, so wouldn’t they think they’d face consequences for that??  The show never answered that question, which undermined their whole scheme for me… and the finale ends without showing us what happened to any of the conspirators, which I thought was a big letdown!

Moving forward through the characters… the season opens by showing us Aleida’s suffering from PTSD, but then that never comes back into the story.  We never see Aleida have to face that or deal with it in any way.  I was very disappointed that Kelly Baldwin totally dropped out of the story in the final few episodes.  I thought for sure that Ed’s using her son as part of his heist plan would lead to a confrontation between the two, because of his reckless and untrustworthy behavior, but that never happens.  Nor does Kelly’s research project come to any sort of fruition in the finale.  That was a disappointment to me.  I was happy to see Lee get a happy ending, reunited with his wife, but 1) how did he escape consequences for his actions, including the near-murder of one of the other North Koreans, and 2) how did they manage to rescue his wife from North Korea??  I feel like I needed about 10 more minutes of storytelling in the finale to have given closure to these many storylines that, instead, felt like they were dropped.

Other thoughts on the season:

  • The big glaring problem in the otherwise great third season was the deranged Danny Stevens.  I was glad that the show breezed by that character here in season four, though the few references to his fate were confusing to me.  Why was anyone surprised that he killed himself, after being kept in isolation for weeks (if not months)???  Duh!!  I’d asked this question when watching the season three finale.  (I also didn’t understand the comment that they were running out of food for him; how could that have been the case?)
  • This show always does a great job with tense space sequences.  The accident during the asteroid mission in the season premiere was incredible, a stressful, exciting sequence that was a great start to the season.  And then the fight on the exterior of the ship in the finale was another nail-biter!!
  • I loved seeing Aleida’s reunion with Bill Strausser, early in the season.  I love their strange friendship.  I wish Bill had been more involved in the season’s story, but I’m thankful for that one scene.
  • Boy did they make us wait until deep in the season to tell us what happened to Sergei!  I was shocked to learn that he was in the U.S., living a peaceful life in suburbia.  I loved the scenes catching us up on his banal life, and it was delightful to see his eventual reunion with Margo.  His final fate was so sad.  I am mad at the show for that choice!!  (While I admit it was good storytelling.)
  • The best moment of the season, and the true confirmation that the alternate future of For All Mankind is superior to our own, was the wonderful line referencing the “three Star Trek shows” that exist in this universe.  There have been a lot of guesses about what this means.  My interpretation is that, in this universe, only the first three truly great live-action Star Trek shows exist — the original Star Trek, The Next Generation, and Deep Space Nine — and none of the sub-par sequel shows.  Amazing.

For All Mankind continues to be one of the best shows out there.  Bravo to Apple TV+ for supporting this show to this point.  I hope we get news of a season five renewal soon, and I hope this great show is allowed to continue for many more years beyond that.

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