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Is ‘Foundation’ Too Vast? The Season Finale Begs to Differ.

The Apple TV+ Isaac Asimov adaptation spans planets and centuries, but in the end, that didn’t stop it from telling a personal, empathetic story

Apple TV+/Ringer illustration
Spoiler warning

“I know people hate me, consider me evil,” Brother Day (played by Lee Pace), the middle throne of the Galactic Empire’s tripartite genetic dynasty, tells the captive rebel spy Azura (Amy Tyger) in Foundation’s season finale. “But it is my detachment, my indifference to suffering, that allows me to rule effectively. The galaxy is so vast, problems so large, that I must turn a blind eye to the individual.” Brother Day’s icy philosophy effectively doubles as a thesis statement for Foundation’s big-picture ideas. Like its source material, Isaac Asimov’s acclaimed sci-fi book series of the same name, the Apple TV+ series concerns itself with the impending fall of the Empire as predicted by the mathematician Hari Seldon (Jared Harris), who elects to form a “Foundation” to preserve the best of humanity for future civilizations. Asimov was inspired by the fall of the Roman Empire to bring this far-flung galaxy to life, and the small-screen adaptation of Foundation is similarly ambitious in its scope: a morality play about civilization suffocating under the weight of a single ruler who doesn’t allow humanity to evolve.

With Seldon planning centuries into the future and the Empire’s genetic clones desperately trying to keep hold of their galaxy-spanning power that affects trillions of lives, Foundation is very much a chess match in the macro. All the characters are simply pawns in service of a narrative that, true to Brother Day’s words, must turn a blind eye to the individual. But what makes Foundation such compelling television is how frequently the show contradicts its own guiding principles. Within minutes of his comments to Azura, Brother Day describes, in excruciating detail, how he’s going to exterminate every person who’s ever had a meaningful connection with her—friends, extended family, coworkers, former lovers—until she’s essentially erased from existence. It’s a threat that couldn’t be more personal. (Also, uh, maybe this kind of behavior is why the Empire is seen as evil in some circles!)

For the small-screen adaption of Asimov’s work, Foundation showrunner David S. Goyer takes many liberties when it comes to the source material—even the genetic dynasty of Emperor clones, which brilliantly epitomizes the Empire’s stagnation, was a reimagining for the series. The show’s lack of faithfulness might irk Foundation purists, but none other than Asimov lamented that his novels were absent of suspense. Strictly adhering to what’s on the page would’ve been self-defeating, while proving why Foundation has long been considered unadaptable. Instead, Goyer’s Foundation uses Asimov’s text to lay the foundation (no pun intended) for a rich emotional undercurrent: What does it mean for people to give up their lives and relationships in service of something greater than themselves?

Elsewhere in the season finale, on the faraway planet Terminus that serves as the Foundation’s base of operations, Hari Seldon—or more accurately, the digitally archived consciousness of Hari Seldon, who has long been dead—reveals the true nature of their mission. Rather than soften the blow of the Empire’s fall by preserving the cornerstones of civilization, Seldon’s followers are going to slowly mount a resistance to overthrow the genetic dynasty. (The fact that the Foundation is in the far reaches of the galaxy means they’ll be able to mobilize outside of the Empire’s purview.) The true purpose of the Foundation might’ve been hidden from its own settlers for decades, but the broader endgame remains the same: the Empire is a crumbling institution, and its decline is inevitable.

As a result, the characters tasked with the busywork of forming the Foundation will literally never get to see the results of their actions: If all goes well, Seldon’s plan will span a millennia. In some respects, that can be a hindrance to Foundation: with the show constantly moving forward in time, there’s little reason to become attached to characters who won’t be around for the next time jump. But the finale does feature some narrative finagling that allows its two female protagonists to stick around a little while longer, though not without great personal cost. (Apple TV+ has already renewed Foundation for a second season.)

Having served as the Warden of Terminus throughout the season, Salvor Hardin (Leah Harvey) decides to leave the planet in search of Gaal Dornick (Lou Llobell), Seldon’s protégé who also happens to be her biological mother. The Empire has access to technology that allows its ships to jump through hyperspace, but Salvor’s journey will be a much more time-consuming ordeal. While there are futuristic hibernation pods that’ll allow Salvor to traverse the galaxy without aging a day—the same way that Gaal conveniently managed to be in stasis through a 34-year time jump near the start of the season—it also means there’s a very real possibility that she’ll never see her loved ones again. As Seldon has repeatedly stated, his equations can accurately predict what happens to civilizations, but they can’t predict the actions of individuals: the uncertainty of Salvor’s interstellar journey and where (and when) it will land her is arguably the most excruciating part of it.

Goyer is perhaps best known for his work in the superhero genre, which includes Christopher Nolan’s acclaimed Dark Knight trilogy. (Goyer cowrote Batman Begins and received a story credit for The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises.) Nolan, of course, knows a thing or two about how to utilize the concept of time in service of characters and themes—something that Foundation channels through Salvor and Gaal’s respective journeys and the personal sacrifices made along the way. It’s jarring, for instance, when the final moments of Foundation’s first season reveal a 138-year time jump after which Gaal finally returns to her home planet of Synnax from the other side of the galaxy. A water planet, Synnax’s religious leaders executed scientists and scholars for warning its population about the rising waters eventually becoming an extinction-level event. (Gaal had to hide her mathematical prowess from everyone or face persecution.) By the time she’s back on Synnax, the water has nearly washed away any trace of her people ever being there. Gaal was too late to save them.

Synnax becoming a watery tomb over the course of a century that, from Gaal’s perspective, happened in an instant, recalls the mission to the ocean planet in Nolan’s Interstellar: The planet’s proximity to a black hole warped the speed of time, meaning that minutes on the surface for Matthew McConaughey’s astronaut, Joseph Cooper, was years for everyone else—forcing him to catch up with two decades of his children’s lives in a few minutes on a computer screen. Interstellar’s time jump is difficult to watch, much less comprehend going through—after all, like Foundation, it’s nothing less than a mission where nothing less than the fate of humanity is at stake. (Another thing these two projects have in common: breathtaking visuals on a scale analogous to any science-fiction blockbuster you can think of. It wouldn’t be the least bit surprising if Apple spent as much on Foundation as HBO did on Game of Thrones—if not more.) The pathos of Gaal coming to terms with the extinction of her people is comparable only to what she finds underwater: a long-decayed spaceship with a still-functioning hibernation pod. Like Gaal, Salvor has spent over a century waiting for answers before finally coming face to face with her mother, who is, against all odds, roughly the same age as her. It’s hard not to feel moved by the tremendous sacrifices both characters make on the way to their fateful meeting—driven not by Seldon’s calculated, big-picture rebellion against the Empire, but overwhelming empathy for a culture that ostracized them and the desire to meet a mother they never knew.

If Goyer has his way covering Asimov’s novels for Apple TV+, Foundation will run for 80 episodes and eight seasons. Within that trajectory, the show would reach Seldon’s endgame and span a millennia. Were Foundation to go the distance—and even with the Season 2 renewal, that’s still a big if—it’s hard to imagine Gaal Dornick and Salvor Hardin will be around for many more seasons, no matter how many times they jump into narratively convenient hibernation pods. But if Foundation’s terrific first season is any indication, Goyer and his team won’t be following the Empire’s lead. Just because the centuries-spanning story means that Foundation has to ultimately detach from its characters over time doesn’t make the show indifferent to what they’re going through. The galaxy might be incomprehensibly vast, but Foundation still cares about the individuals fighting within it.