The Gentle Ruthlessness of ‘For All Mankind’

[Spoilers abound for the Season 3 finale of For All Mankind, as well as for all other episodes]

For All Mankind, Apple TV+’s alternate history series exploring what might have happened if the space race had never ended, has a seven-season plan that includes a near-decade time jump between each. So far, the show has also jumped ahead in time in the middle of seasons – sometimes even halfway through an episode, as if to say, “Let’s just get to the good stuff.” But if For All Mankind gets its planned seven-season arc, we’ll likely see the death of every original adult character on the show. When this dawned on me, I joked to a friend that watching For All Mankind is like watching the last fifteen minutes of the Six Feet Under series finale in a more elongated time frame.

For All Mankind reminds me of a lot of shows. Increasingly, it reminds me of LOST in that it’s about a large, diverse group of people who come together, cultivate found families, changes the course of each other’s lives, and sometimes make the ultimate sacrifice for one another. Halfway through Season 2, during my first watch of the show, I also began referring to it affectionately as “space Halt and Catch Fire,” as I’d realized that For All Mankind uses its time jumps to give characters such rich histories, every relationship becomes layered with each individual’s baggage. That baggage often comes in the form of tension or pain a character cannot express – especially to their loved ones; communication breaks down just as it does between NASA Mission Control and astronauts in the far reaches of outer space. Here, I think of Karen and Ed Baldwin (Shantel VanSanten and Joel Kinnaman), two people who clearly love each other even after their Season 3 divorce but cannot give each other what they need.

For All Mankind is further reminiscent of Halt and Catch Fire in that it is a show about super-smart people who want to be at the forefront of technological and human progress, often to the detriment of their personal lives. Margo Madison (Wrenn Schmidt) puts so much of herself into climbing NASA’s administrative ladders, it’s hard to suss out if she even has a personal residence or only sleeps in the bedroom in her office. Closeted individuals like Ellen Wilson (Jodi Balfour) and Will Tyler (Robert Bailey, Jr.) also come to mind; in different capacities, they’ve had to hide their sexuality in order to do the work they are passionate about.

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Cynthy Wu as Kelly Baldwin, Alexander Sokovikov as Rolan Efimovitch Baranov, Krys Marshall as Danielle Poole, and Robert Bailey, Jr. as Will Tyler (COURTESY: Apple TV+)

But For All Mankind — especially as it concludes its very good third season — is also something wholly its own. It’s uncompromising in its willingness to hurtle through time and space and in doing so to kill off characters regardless of whether they’re tertiary, secondary, or main fan favorites. Yet when I approach the show emotionally, it doesn’t feel akin to others (Game of Thrones, for example) with a reputation for gleeful character killing. Interestingly, deaths on For All Mankind are often heroic, but they still have a dash of the mundane to them (Sam Adams describes something similar in a recent piece for Slate). For All Mankind simply understands death as an ordinary thing, a common, human uniter. For a show about space, where astronauts’ deaths in the big frightful unknown are often horrifying (think Tracy and Gordo Stevens’ [Michael Dorman and Sarah Jones] bodies literally bursting as they run across the surface of the moon covered in duct tape), it’s also a show about how the threat of mortality is always around us. Tragedy lurks around every corner for astronauts in space and for mere humans on the ground. And maybe that’s what makes space worth exploring. In the scope of the vast universe, sometimes the only way to cope with the existential crisis of our own insignificance is to venture into the great unknowns.

These themes and ideas coalesced for me as I watched the For All Mankind Season 3 finale. This show excels at season finales that bring disparate plot points of 10+ characters to an intersecting head. Your brain feels like its on fire for the duration of the episode while your heart ping-pongs between emotional highs and lows. Its seasons may start slow and can sometimes frustrate with its narrative direction (or lack thereof). But most of its many stories tend to coalesce by the time the finale rolls around. For All Mankind’s Season 1 and Season 2 finales (“A City Upon a Hill” and “The Grey,” respectively) are true creative peaks for the show: in both cases, a crisis in space calls for all parties to put on their finest display of competence porn. The show is masterful with cause and effect, its characters’ choices building over the season to set the stage for final showdowns, often with global and personal lifelong consequences. But “Stranger in a Strange Land,” the For All Mankind Season 3 finale, dials this up to such a degree that one wonders how anything on this show will ever feel the same again (the easy answer here is that it probably won’t). The episode also departs from the usual finale structure in one important respect: the deaths are very much earthbound.

It’s a real transition point for the show, in quite a literal way — the culmination of the homegrown terrorism threat developed all season long is a group of NASA conspirators bombing the Johnson Space Center. The attack echoes the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995 while also reflecting the mass shootings and white terrorism that plague the country well into the 21st century. The bombing comes after Margo Madison’s poignant address to everyone in Mission Control. About to flee a pending arrest for espionage, Margo makes some tearful final remarks to the room. Only she and her mentee, Aleida Rosales (Coral Peña), know that she is passing on the baton. For All Mankind is cluing us into the change that is afoot, for Margo has been such a stable mainstay of NASA that it’s hard to picture its interiors without her. As she exits Mission Control and plays her office piano for the last time, it is devastating, but foreboding.

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Joel Kinnaman as Ed Baldwin, Shantel VanSanten as Karen Baldwin, and Cynthy Wu as Kelly Baldwin (COURTESY: Apple TV+)

Shortly thereafter, the bombing takes with it two beloved women: Karen Baldwin and Molly Cobb (Sonya Walger). Given the show’s perspective on the mundanity of death, it shouldn’t have been surprising that this season finale’s deaths didn’t occur in space. It’s a misdirection that we think Ed will be our fallen hero this season. On a dangerous mission to return Kelly, his daughter, to the in-orbit Phoenix to give birth, Ed’s chances of landing the MSAM safely on Mars’ surface are slim. So it’s quite a twist when it turns out that Ed’s ex-wife is dead beneath the rubble of the Johnson Space Center.

On For All Mankind, death is a disrupter. It doesn’t come for these characters after they’ve achieved everything they wanted in life. For Gordo and Tracy Stevens, it didn’t come after they were able to rekindle their love. For Deke Slayton (Chris Bauer), it didn’t come after he was able to land on the moon after years of being grounded with a heart condition. And Karen, one of our two victims this time, knows better than anyone how death just happens. It took her son from her on an ordinary day while riding his bike to a basketball game. In the case of her own death, Karen was a tragic bystander, a woman brought to the Space Center that day because her daughter and ex-husband were attempting a high-risk mission.

The tragedy of Karen’s death was amplified in that it came at the hand of a person she had a significant role in raising. I don’t like Jimmy Stevens (David Chandler), but as he watches Karen die, it wasn’t lost on me that he was losing the only other mother figure in his life. As she takes her last breath, Karen looks up into an emerging blue sky as the cloud of debris around her begins to part. Throughout the show, she always noted how much she hated space. There is a tragic irony in the fact that of all the Baldwins — Ed, Karen, Shane, Kelly — the ones who died weren’t astronauts.

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Sonya Walger as Molly Cobb (COURTESY: Apple TV+)

It would be remiss to talk about For All Mankind‘s deaths without also mentioning the heroism those deaths usually involve. The one kindness For All Mankind‘s writers do pay its untimely dead is acts of selflessness, humanity, and a sense of honor. Karen died trying to alert security about the bomb — she could easily have saved herself, as she told Jimmy to do after discovering the bomb in the back of the van. Meanwhile, Molly Cobb, the For All Mankind Season 3 finale’s other fallen hero, dies not in the bomb’s immediate blast but because she was helping people flee the building and couldn’t escape before it collapsed. At the beginning of “Stranger in a Strange Land,” Molly makes a big deal of how she’s a card-carrying member of the “selfish prick club.”

In fact, Molly has always made it known that she’s unabashedly selfish in her career and her desire to explore. Yet her decision to continue helping others get out of the collapsing Mission Control room echoes Molly’s selfless mission in Season 2, when she loses her eyesight in saving a fellow astronaut in a solar storm. Molly Cobb may have been selfish about her devotion to her work, but she was unbearably selfless in her duty to her fellow humans. And though Aleida does not meet a tragic end, it’s another display of the writers’ optimism for humanity when, instead of trying to exit the building after the bombing, Aleida goes to the director’s office to see if Margo is okay.

Changes are certainly afoot as we head into For All Mankind Season 4, which starts production this month. We learn in Season 3’s now-traditional finale flash-forward that in 2003, Margo is in Russia (and in a real O. Henry-esque twist, her romantic interest Sergei Nikulov (Piotr Adamczyk) defected to the United States in 1995). With Johnson Space Center hollowed out, Margo in the (presumably still-standing) Soviet Union, Ed likely too old to command big missions, and the combined reverberating effects of Molly and Karen dying, there are certainly major transitions on the horizon.

Plus, we’re not even certain how our stranded Mars heroes will make it back to Earth. It’s the first time For All Mankind has left us feeling uncertain about the future of almost all of these characters. Who is going to make it off of Mars? Has Margo actually been in Russia for seven years? How will Wayne and Ed cope without their wives and best friends? Will Sergei and Margo eventually reunite? What will become of our new North Korean friend from the finale? Will Ed actually snap and kill Danny (Casey W. Johnson)? There’s no shortage of big questions moving into Season 4.

Wrenn Schmidt as Margo Madison (COURTESY: Apple TV+)

If we also take the bombing of the Johnson Space Center as figurative, it marks the point where For All Mankind should pass the torch on to the next generation. I am curious as to how the show will pull this off, given that it’s difficult to think of a single second-generation character as compelling as the ones we met in Season 1. Danny and Jimmy Stevens did virtually nothing in Season 3 to earn our favor. Will we care about them as main characters in the coming seasons? Aleida and Kelly have their charms, but they’ve mostly been made interesting through their interactions with Margo, Ed, and Karen. For All Mankind faces a potential problem if the characters in which we’re most invested are aged out too quickly at the same time that there’s a lack of younger characters to carry the narrative.

We’ll see how the showrunners choose to tackle these problems down the road, but for now, you have to admire the risks they’re willing to take. For All Mankind gambles with how its characters exist in the show’s time and space. While some of those gambles don’t always pay off to the fullest extent (i.e., much of Danny’s arc in Season 3), it’s refreshing to watch a show where the stakes feel high, and the writers are willing to bet on themselves. After all, it’s only by taking big swings that we’re rewarded with the show’s most iconic (and emotionally hefty) sequences.

Coral Peña as Aleida Rosales (COURTESY: Apple TV+)

Remarkably, For All Mankind’s third season reveals it to be one of the most ruthless shows on television despite not really developing a reputation for ruthlessness. This might be because it continues to be massively underrated in terms of viewership, but it might also be because its deaths aren’t treated as exploitative entertainment events. You don’t get the feeling that For All Mankind‘s writers love killing off characters, or even that they’re being opportunistic by aiming for big, talked-about deaths. It’s more that they’re attuned to the realities of what it means to show a complete ensemble of characters over the course of their lifetimes. They understand that heroism and being at the forefront of history eventually have costs. This understanding allows For All Mankind to take risks while somehow eschewing shock value. Life is short; maybe astronauts just figure out more quickly that no one is safe even on Earth.

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