Season 3, Episode 1, “Polaris”

Krys Marshall and Joel Kinnaman in For All Mankind

Krys Marshall and Joel Kinnaman in For All Mankind
photo: Apple TV+

“The Men of Earth came to Mars,” Ray Bradbury wrote, “because they were afraid or unafraid, because they were happy or unhappy, because they felt like Pilgrims or did not feel like Pilgrims. There was a reason for each man.” You could say the same of the humans on the moon in the first two seasons of For All Mankind, Apple TV+’s meticulously realized, largely satisfying alternate-history space drama. Each has their reason for stepping onto the cold lunar surface. Or, in this season, the equally inhospitable Red Planet.

Over twenty episodes streamed in 2019 and ’21, the series excelled when messy human motivations ran up against the life-or-death demands of surviving in space. Heartbroken Edward Baldwin (Joel Kinnaman) captained the first nuclear-powered space shuttle in a game of chicken with the Soviets in orbit around the moon, even as his marriage was imploding on Earth. Ex-spouses Gordo (Michael Dorman) and Tracy (Sarah Jones), who were awkwardly reunited on the lunar base Jamestown, save the joint (I mean the entire moon) from nuclear meltdown by a suicide mission on the surface, their spacesuits jerry-rigged from duct tape and crazy determination. Ellen Wilson (Jodi Balfour) goes to superhuman lengths to save her mission in season one—but works even harder to hide her sexuality. These aren’t cardboard heroes; they’re flawed men and women dying inside (and outside) but doing what has to be done.

in For All Mankind, every astronaut, NASA administrator, family member or lover has their private reason for risking their lives or standing by while a loved one theirs risks. Jimmy (David Chandler), Gordo and Tracy’s emotionally fragile son, grabs the mike at his brother Danny’s wedding in space to deliver a bitter tribute to his romanticized parents: “Now they’re lovers on the lunar surface,” Jimmy says with a sneer . “That’s what NASA does. It twists things into how we want to see them. They died for the country, they died for the space program, they died for each other, but the truth is, they just died.” Go ahead and say it’s for science, or progress, but reality lies, like the title of the season-two finale, in “The Grey.”

Speaking of gray, everyone’s a decade older as season three begins with the NASA-reunion-becomes-a-disaster-movie thriller “Polaris.” Ed falls and fractures an ankle trying to hustle out of a space hotel room during an emergency. Margo (Wrenn Schmidt) has to squeeze extra hard to get into her control pantyhose in the morning. Makeup crew even add lines to Krys Marshall to show how time is wearing on Danielle Poole. The year is circa 1992, Gary Hart is President, and the next destination is Mars.

For All Mankind has always been a workplace drama that turns on a dime into a horror movie (what you get when you ride giant fuel bombs into a radioactive void). in season one (its Mad Men in Space phase), the Apollo 23 launchpad explosion incinerated Gene Kranz and several others; and the Apollos 24 and 25 malfunctioned Harrison Liu and Deke Slayton. In the 1980s-set season two, there were Soviets and gunplay on the moon, and the body count rose accordingly. And not just in space. NASA Administrator Thomas Paine also got obliterated in the (real-life) KAL 007 airplane disaster.

Now space is being commercialized and civilians are at risk. China and Korea have launched their own rockets. An Elon Musk-like billionaire named Dev Ayesa (Edi Gathegi) is mining Helium-3 on the moon as a source of clean energy. NASA announces plans to put an American on Mars by 1996. The Soviets counter with their own Mars mission. And so we’re back to season one‘s audacious premise: the Soviets beating Americans to the moon in 1969. That national humiliation drove the space race faster and longer, while at the same time prevented the USSR from falling apart. Incredibly, Margo is still carrying on an extremely ill-advised affair with her Soviet counterpart, Sergei Nikulov (Piotr Adamczyk). They’ve been passing technical secrets for a decade to help advance each other’s space programs. I’m not sure I’m ready to see Margo let her hair down (it’s actually pretty short now) behind closed doors with the reds.

Speaking of love affairs, it’s nice to see that Aleida Rosales (Coral Peña) has settled down and started a family with a fellow named Victor. Aleida’s kindly father, Octavio (Arturo Del Puerto), lives with them, and in a scene where Margo comes for dinner, we learn that Aleida is the best person suited to fix a NERVA technical issue on the moon, the nuclear-powered engine that will get us to Mars. The moment is a reminder that, for all the innovations like a space hotel and whatever gadgetry the Soviets and private entrepreneurs come up with, NASA remains the idealistic hub where an immigrant like Aleida can let her engineering genius flourish. Such quietly dignified patriotism is one of the show’s more refreshing aspects.

And it fits the semi-utopian, technophile alt-history the series promotes: If NASA developed revolutionary new technology at a faster pace (mobile phones, electric cars, nuclear rockets, and of course, lunar colonies), would social progress come faster? (The Equal Rights Amendment was passed in season one.) But this season, we’re in the thick of ’90s go-go neoliberalism and social justice takes a backseat to commercial success: The former astronaut dive bar the Outpost is a Hard Rock-café like chain (thanks, Sam Cleveland) and the Polaris space hotel spins in orbit above the earth (thanks again, Sam).

Coral Pena in For All Mankind

Coral Pena in for All Mankind
photo: Apple TV+

And thanks also to Karen Baldwin (Shantel VanSanten). She’s co-owner of the wheel-shaped Polaris, which serves as the destination-wedding for shiny new astronaut Danny Stevens (Casey W. Johnson) and Amber (Madeline Bertani). On the guest list are Ed Baldwin, his second wife, Yvonne, Dani Poole, and her second husband and son. The seasoned astronauts are both impressed and dubious about the slick Polaris set-up, which promises a bar, a gym and “all kinds of amenities that astronauts could only dream of.” The veterans of early Jamestown roll their eyes. “We came in peace. For all your cash,” Dani jokes. “I’m just glad I’ll be on my way to Mars in a few years,” the older but still wiseass Ed drawls, “and leave all this bullshit to you lowly Earth dwellers.” To which the ever-composed Dani whispers, “Come on, old man. You know I got this in the bag.”

Ed and Dani are in competition to see who will head the mission to Mars. The tête à tête between Molly and Margo a few scenes later—over that very issue—brings up an interesting point that could become more prominent as the season progresses: As technology gets more sophisticated and can be relied upon to perform tasks more precisely than humans, it makes the daredevils of the space program—the Ed Baldwins, specifically—less essential. Being an old-guard space cowboy, Molly wants Ed to be the first American on Mars. Margo prefers the more methodical, level-headed Dani. I fully expect Aleida on the first Mars mission.

But before Mars, we have a disaster to avert on the orbital Four Seasons. In terms of lapel-grabbing brio, the race to save Polaris is one of the most cracking season openers I’ve seen since season two of deadwoodwhen Al and Seth go at it in the mud. If there was a criticism of For All Mankind‘s first two seasons, it’s that they were slow burns until slam-bang action in the last two episodes. Apparently, showrunners Ronald D. Moore and Ben Nedivi would like our attention. And they get it with Space Hotel: Killer Gravity 1992!

It appears that an unmanned Korean test rocket recently exploded, and a chunk of that debris just happens to hit a thruster on Polaris. The thrusters make sure the wheel-shaped Polaris rotates at just the right speed to simulate normal Earth gravity. With the wheel accelerating nonstop, G-forces increase, and members of the wedding party, already a bit tipsy, starts to feel the weight. A nice touch from co-writers Matt Wolpert and Ben Nedivi and director Sarah Boyd shows the bride-and-groom figurines on the wedding cake sinking ominously into the frosting. Trying to repair the damage, a couple of Polaris crew members are crushed by dislodged cables whipping around like space-octopus tentacles. We are told that at G-Force 4, the hotel will start breaking up, and it’s up to Danny—in an echo of his parents’ heroism from last season—to save the day with a last-minute spacewalk to repair the damage and slow down the rotation.

The whole sequence was a reminder that for all its human drama and tech geekiness, For All Mankind likes a good, old-fashioned cataclysm. The show is essentially a fable about the beautiful, terrible unpredictability of existence. We go about our lives on this little blue planet (or pockmarked satellite) and suddenly a chunk of space junk slams into our lives. Think of Shane Baldwin on his bike. Innocence becomes tragedy. The reason astronauts go into space is probably the same thing that attracts fans to sci-fi: a mix of wonder and terror.

Stray observations

  • Polaris, aka the North Star, features in various mythologies: It’s the jewel on the end of a spike around which the sky revolves (Norse). It’s “The Star-That-Does-Not-Walk-Around” (Native Americans). Ironic this unmoving center turns out to be quite unstable.
  • Margo continues to have zero work-life balance. As with the first episodes of seasons one and two, we see her wake up, shower, and dress not at home but in her current office. At least by season threeshe appears to have a bedroom adjacent to her workspace.
  • Director Sarah Boyd throws in visual nods to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Cutting from the Mary Lou Williams LP on Margo’s turntable to the spinning wheel of Polaris recalls the airborne bone becoming a shuttle. The Polaris lobby looks like a combination of the interiors of Discovery One and Space Station V, where Heywood Floyd runs into a Russian colleague.
  • Suggestion box is now open to name Molly Cobb’s seeing-eye dog.
  • Margo has traded her ubiquitous Tootsie Rolls for Slim Fast. What’s next? Aerobics?!
  • Karen is understandably disturbed by the cover of “Don’t Be Cruel” for Danny and Amber’s first dance. Karen slow-danced with Danny to the Elvis classic, a flirtation that led to sex, hastening the end of Karen and Ed’s marriage. Danny is not over Karen.

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