Apple TV+’s Flawed But Heartfelt Space Drama
At the beginning of Season 2 of Apple TV+’s For All Mankind, it’s the year 1983, and Americans live on the moon. Not a lot of Americans, to be clear, but in the alternate universe depicted by Apple TV+’s captivating and complicated drama, humanity’s exploration of the stars has accelerated well beyond… well, not the limits of our imagination. But certainly beyond what we’ve been able to reach over the last few decades in reality.
While we’ve leaped forward in time from the end of Season 1, many of the people we met then are still around, including Ed Baldwin (Joel Kinnaman), who has moved into a management role within NASA, while he and his wife Karen (Shantel VanSanten) now own beloved astronaut hangout Outpost Tavern. Meanwhile, Tracy Stevens (Sarah Jones) has become a legitimate celebrity thanks to the space program, while now-ex-husband Gordon (Michael Dorman) wallows in his glory days, and Margo (Wrenn Schmidt) continues to oversee NASA’s rapid-paced advancement into the stars.
But while the idealism of the space program and what it means for the advancement of man-and-woman-kind is still very present in the series, Season 2 faces head-on an issue first raised in Season 1: the militarization of the space program. Without drifting into spoiler territory, I’ll note that the official poster features astronauts on the moon carrying machine guns, and that’s not a metaphor; the battle over how NASA is forced to cooperate with the U.S. military is a primary concern of the season — especially because the Russians are still very much a presence, and in fact become a far more prominent aspect of the series by the finale.
When Season 1 launched in November 2019, it did so with the promise that it would be telling a story meant to span decades, with those first 10 episodes covering what happened from the years 1969 to 1974. But one of the strongest choices made by Season 2 is that it does not take a similar approach — instead of years, only months pass, allowing important developments and initiatives to develop out.
Having watched the full season, I’ll note that the back half is pretty jam-packed with plot developments, to the point where I found myself wishing that the action had been spread out just a bit more. It’s of course incredibly hard to talk about the season since it’s set for a weekly rollout; I can tell you that the season finale is full of wild swings and space action unlike anything you’ve seen before, but that episode won’t premiere until April 23.
But For All Mankind‘s biggest, most daring choices aren’t really what stick with you, in the end, because where the show really sings is in the details — there are moments scattered throughout the whole season that will electrify your brain and break your heart. (Get ready to sob over one scene in a later episode paying tribute to Laika, Russia’s very good and brave girl.)
That said, one way in which the show manages to avoid descending too hard into overt sentimentality is by allowing its characters to make some very bad personal decisions against the backdrop of interstellar conflict. There’s at least one storyline coming which is basically like watching a car accident in slow-motion; you can see the disaster coming from a mile away, but there’s nothing you can do to stop it, making for some pretty painful viewing. But it does emphasize one of the show’s core truths — we might be bearing witness to a world that’s slowly but surely becoming much better than our current one, but that doesn’t make the people who live in it any less flawed or problematic.
This is a core element of the show that is fascinating to watch unfold, because we’re being asked to believe that given the right circumstances, humanity is capable of more, and to its credit For All Mankind does make a solid case for its argument. And even when the show itself falls prey to missteps, the power of its greatest moments provides enough momentum to carry us forward, towards the rosy future being promised.
Plus, For All Mankind is the kind of show that will let a moment linger so that we can watch a smart person simply pause to think about a problem; it believes in the intelligence of its characters (even when they make bad decisions in their personal life). And an understated but still charming element remains the show’s advancement of technology well beyond the time period in our reality; someone got to sit down and design the 1983 version of a cell phone, and bless them for it.
Season 2, it’s worth noting, makes greater use of “deep fake” technology to bring to life fame-os of the era, including Ronald Reagan and Johnny Carson, and it’s honestly my least-favorite aspect of the series; it’s a distracting use of the technique, especially in comparison to the subtle ways Season 1 used similar “cameos” by deceased figures.
But it’s understandable that producers Ronald D. Moore, Matt Wolpert, and Ben Nedivi want to incorporate these characters into the action; it’s all part of the special soup that makes this show sing. The magic of For All Mankind is that by playing both on our excitement for the future and our nostalgia for decades gone by, it grounds the seemingly fantastical advancements of the space program, makes these achievements feel just within our reach.
The day before Season 2 premiered, in the real world, NASA’s Perseverence rover landed on Mars to search for signs of ancient life. People all over the world watched online as the first images were beamed back to Earth; Mars may be 128.75 million miles away, but in those moments it felt just a little bit closer. That’s the sense of wonder For All Mankind has proven capable of capturing, and while Season 2 has its flaws, it’s exciting to know that the story will keep advancing into the future.
New episodes of For All Mankind will premiere Fridays every week on Apple TV+.
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