Josh Reviews For All Mankind Season Three
I need more people to be watching this amazing show!! If you’re reading this and you haven’t started watching, I cannot encourage you more to dig in and give this terrific show a chance. I am so happy we’ve gotten three seasons of For All Mankind... I hope for many seasons more!!
For All Mankind depicts an alternate history in which the United States lost the “space race” with the Soviet Union, with the U.S.S.R. becoming the first nation to land a man on the moon in 1969. That might seem like a grim, dystopian set-up, but one of the (many) things I love about this series is that the show has trended utopian. (In fact, Ronald D. Moore, who is one of the co-creators of the series, along with Matt Wolpert and Ben Nedivi, has described For All Mankind as “the road to Star Trek.” I deeply love that idea.)
The second season ended with a tantalizing time jump more than a decade into the show’s future, to show us people landing on Mars in 1996. This terrific third season focuses on the exciting and eventful efforts between 1994 and 1996 (in the show’s alternate version of history) and the tense race to land a human being on Mars. Most of the first two seasons focused on the continuing competition between the Unites States and the Soviet Union. (In the show, because the Russians landed on the moon first, the United States remained in a fierce competition with the Soviet Union in regards to achievements in space. In our reality, after winning the space race in 1969, the United Space quickly lost interest in continued space exploration. The Apollo missions were cancelled as of Apollo 17 in 1972, and we have not again ventured beyond Earth’s orbit in the decades since. However, in the alternate reality of For All Mankind, both the United States and Russia continued to venture to the moon, building competing lunar stations, and pushing the technology of space exploration further in myriad ways.) Season three adds a third major player into the space race: private companies, in the form of the U.S. tech corporation Helios. The first half of this season depicts the three-way race to see who can land on Mars first: the United States, the Soviet Union, or Helios. I love this new dimension to the show (which has the added benefit of giving this third season a new flavor from the focus on the U.S. vs. U.S.S.R. rivalry in the first two seasons).
There will be some light spoilers ahead as I dig into this third season. Nothing huge, but if you haven’t yet watched this season please beware.
If you’re still here, let’s dig into this terrific season of TV!
Focusing this third season on the race to Mars (and what happens after) was a stroke of genius. I was fascinated by this show’s depiction of how something like this might have played out. It’s the perfect balance of realistic science-fiction with exciting TV adventure. (Notably, for instance, the show glosses over exactly how many weeks or months the journey to Mars might have actually taken the intrepid astronauts we follow through the season. There’s nothing to contradict the idea that many weeks might have passed between certain scenes, which is probably what the real science would dictate. At the same time, the show is edited in a manner that keeps the momentum going strong without having to waste multiple episodes on the real time that probably would have needed to transpire.) The season was edge-of-my-seat compelling from start to finish. My main complaint about this season was that it was so good, it blew by way too quickly!!
I was surprised that the show chose to give us the answer to the question of who would win the race to Mars at the end of episode five, only half-way through the season. I loved how this left me guessing as to where the rest of the season was going. The second half of the season did not disappoint. From start to finish, this show continues to be a thrilling balance of character drama and riveting outer-space sci-fi adventure. (Albeit an adventure that is deeply rooted in actual science. Yes, there is fiction mixed with this science. But I love how carefully the show attempts to anchor what we see in what is realistically plausible… even though what we see on the show steps beyond what we have achieved in our reality.)
The series has, since the very beginning, woven in and out of real history to depict this alternate history. At this point in the series, the world of the show is quite different from what actually happened in our reality. However, I love that the show continues to bring in actual historical people and events, anchoring the fiction of the show with the reality of actual history. So it’s fun to see, for example, that when Ellen Wilson runs for President in 1992, she’s running against Bill Clinton (and the show uses fun editing tricks to give us glimpses of a Wilson-Clinton debate).
I respect and understand why the show-runners have wanted to keep the show’s main cast involved in the story, though at this point in the show’s alternate history we’re three decades from the events of the first season. So most of the main cast appears under extensive old-age makeup. It’s a little distracting and not altogether convincing. But I was pleasantly surprised that, after the first episode or two, I was (for the most part) able to just go with it. I really love the show’s cast and so I’m mostly happy to see the actors continue in these roles. It somehow sort of works.
I enjoyed how the show in this third season centered on Ed Baldwin (Joel Kinnaman) and Dani Poole (Krys Marshall) as the show’s main leads. It’s particularly great to see Dani in such a central role here. I love this character; she’s probably the most heroic and noble person we see on the show. And yet Ms. Marshall always keeps Dani grounded as a believable, realistic human being. I was really rooting for Dani, this season more than ever. As for Ed… I have commented in my reviews of the show’s first two seasons that I have never really loved Ed as much as I think the show has wanted me to. He’s just too much of a jerk… and I’ve never felt Mr. Kinnaman was able to bring as much depth or nuance to the role as many of the other actors. Here in season three, there are moments when we see Ed at his absolute worst (he’s horrible to his new wife when they visit the space hotel in the premiere… and his baby-like behavior when it looks like he’s going to miss out on the Mars mission is just awful, most notably a repugnant comment he makes to Dani). At the same time, I was pleasantly surprised to see that it looked like the show was finally allowing Ed some growth, particularly in the second half of the season. Maybe Mr. Kinnamon and this character have just grown on me — or maybe Mr. Kinnamon has found ways to add some appealing shades to Ed. Either way, I found myself caring about Ed more than I ever had before by the end of the season.
As always, Wrenn Schmidt is wonderful as Margo Madison, the brilliant engineer who has, at this point, risen to become the head of NASA. The season two finale hinted at a complicated entanglement between Margo and Sergei (Piotr Adamczyk), and it was interesting to see how that played out. I loved the montage through the years of Margo and Sergei’s meetings at the International conference (though I was bummed that a decade passed without their hooking up!! That’s a long time!!). Margo’s a smart woman, so I didn’t like the suggestion at the end of season two that she was going to get trapped under the thumb of the KGB. I was mostly satisfied with how that played out here in season three; I think they maintained Margo’s smarts and independence while also showing how, despite her best efforts, she’d gradually wind up in trouble.
In season two, I felt the show struggled with figuring out how best to use Shantel VanSanten as Karen Baldwin. I hated the story of her cheating on Ed with Danny Stevens, a kid who was one of her son’s friends. I was much happier with her storyline here in season three. I liked that she and Sam Cleveland (Jeff Hephner) had maintained a relationship, and that together they had pioneered a space hotel venture… and I liked seeing her get involved with Helios, putting her against many of her former friends from NASA. That was a great, juicy storyline.
The only downside is they continued the dumb story of Danny’s infatuation with Karen. Ugh. This was the one element of season two that didn’t work for me, and I was hoping they’d drop it. Instead, they doubled down on this storyline, and it was again the one main aspect of season three that didn’t work for me at all. Watching Danny devolve into a crazy, drug-addicted stalker was no fun, and that he could get away with his increasingly erratic actions stretched my credulity to the breaking point. I guess I can buy that Ed Baldwin would give him a pass (whereas Dani immediately sees what’s going on), but then even when Ed realizes how bad Danny has gotten, does he relieve him of duty? No! He still leaves him in a position to cause mayhem, which he does when his drug-induced error leads to the drill malfunction which leads to catastrophe. Ugh. (And adding insult to injury, we never actually get to see Ed discover what happened between Danny and Karen. We predictably get an episode in which Ed and Danny are trapped together in a dangerous situation… and they still get out of that without the truth coming out. I don’t understand why the writers played things that way.)
It was interesting to continue to follow Ellen and Larry Wilson (Jodi Balfour and Nate Corddry) as they continued to climb the political ladder while hiding their sexual orientations. Seeing Ellen get involved with “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell”, in place of Bill Clinton, was a fascinating development. I was very pleased that, after ending both seasons one and two with what were, for me, rather heartbreaking developments for Ellen, we got to see her finally own her truth here in season three. I only wish we’d been able to see even more of the fallout from that. I hope that is further explored in season four.
I’ve been enjoying following the journey of Aleida Rosales (played in seasons two and three by Coral Peña) from undocumented immigrant on the run to becoming a brilliant, well-respected NASA engineer. It’s tough watching the growing schism this season between Aledia and her mentor Margo. (There were a few times when I was surprised Margo wasn’t smoother in handling Aledia. Doesn’t she know Aleida well enough at this point to know that she’s not going to just drop the investigation she started?? Rather than telling Aledia to drop her investigation, or that it’s nothing, I’d have expected Margo to validate her… but then find a way to stall things.)
I liked seeing Cynthy Wu back as Kelly Baldwin. I liked the way the writers made her more integral to the main story than ever before by having her a member of the NASA mission. That makes sense for the character and was a good way to keep her front-and-center. I liked the way they played her relationship with her father, Ed, this season. We see that there’s tension, but also true love between them. That felt just right. (I did raise my eyebrows a bit at her being foolish enough to have unprotected sex while on the mission… but the fun story complications that came from that act were fascinating to see play out in the second half of the season, so I can give that a pass.)
We saw less of Sonya Walger as Molly Cobb this season, which was a bummer because I love Ms. Walger in this role, but it makes sense for the character based on how things played out for her in season two. Still, it was fascinating to see the sparks fly when she finally pushed Margo too far… and when she re-entered the story at the end of the season it was absolute perfection.
I was intrigued to see the unexpected twists given to Gordo & Tracy Stevems’ other son, Jimmy (David Chandler) this season. He’d been mostly on the sidelines before, but he got a major storyline here in season three. It was sad to see the rise of anti-NASA sentiment and how that might fuel the rage of crazy people on the fringes of society… but sadly that also felt like how some people would really react. The way this built to an event paralleling the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing (of the the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building by, in our world, Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols) was an inspired and terrifying development.
Edi Gathegi (so memorable as Cheese in his brief appearance in Gone Baby Gone, and he also was great as Darwin in X-Men: First Class) was a terrific addition to the main cast as Dev Ayesa, the brilliant and singularly-focused head of Helios. I enjoyed the way this character was utilized throughout the season; he’s an antagonist at times, frustrating the NASA characters we’ve grown to know and love… and he can be short-tempered and arrogant. But he’s written, and played by Mr. Gathegi, with enough depth and nuance that we can also respect and grow to like him… and when things start to go awry within his company I certainly had empathy for him.
Other comments on season three:
- I liked seeing Noah Harpster back as Bill Strausser. After his heart-to-heart with Aleida in season two, I really grew to like him. It was interesting to see him get poached by Helios (after Aleida turned down their offer). This feels realistic to what would have happened once a private company with money to burn entered the space race.
- The show has generally avoided painting the Russians as evil bad-guys. That changed somewhat this year, as we saw abhorrent behavior by KGB thugs… and also from the captain of the Soviet Mars mission, who was shockingly ungrateful after Dani and the Americans sacrificed their lead in the race to Mars, not to mention the lives of several of their crew-members, to save the Russian crew from horrible deaths in space. I was surprised by what an ungrateful jerk he was.
- Randy Oglesby did great work as a variety of aliens on several of the different 24th century-set Star Trek shows that I grew up with. (He was particularly great as Degra on season three of Star Trek: Enterprise.) It was nice to see him pop up here as Ellen’s conservative Vice President, Jim Bragg.
- I loved seeing the very different types of space-ships that the major powers used in their Mars missions.
- I loved seeing Sojurner’s solar sails (which reminded me of the Bajoran vessel from the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine episode “Explorers”).
- I was pleasantly surprised to see the Russian defector, Baranov (whose defection caused so much trouble in season two) back in such a major role here in season three, as a member of the NASA Mars mission.
- I loved how the Koreans were woven into the story this season.
- Kelly’s solo flight through space in the finale reminded me of the Mark Whatney’s similar flight at the end of the film adaptation of The Martian. (That didn’t happen in the book.)
- I don’t get the idea of Danny’s being put in solitary confinement in the other crashed spaceship at the end of the season finale. He deserves comeuppance, but the idea that he’d be forced to live alone for weeks/months feels like awful torture to me. (And logistically I don’t quite get how that would work.)
- I was very happy that this season — as was the case in both seasons one and two — was brought to a satisfying conclusion in the finale… and then we’re given a tantalizing tease at the very end. This is how I wish all streaming shows would handle their season finales. (I’ve written about this before. Season-ending cliffhangers were fun but torturous back when the finales were in May and the premieres in September, meaning we had to wait 3-4 months for the resolution. But these days, when it can be a year or more between seasons of streaming shows, I am much happier when I feel that each season is a complete and satisfying story.) SPOILERS for the rest of this paragraph!! Still here? I’m excited by yet another time jump for the show; in this case, to 2003. As for that final tease itself… well, I’m happy that Margo is still in the show. But I don’t love when TV shows try to wring fake emotion out of the fake-out deaths of characters… and it seems like an unbelievable coincidence that however she and the Russians were planning to slip her out of NASA exactly coincided with the bombing, which provided cover for her disappearance. That stretches my credulity too far. But I’m curious to see where her story goes next… (Will she meet Martha from The Americans??)
This was a spectacular season of a spectacular show. I love For All Mankind. I can’t wait for season four!!
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