You get only one chance to make a first impression, and viewed through that lens, For All Mankind didn’t exactly take flight. The Apple TV+ series, which was part of the streamer’s initial launch in November 2019, envisions an alternate history in which the Soviet Union puts people on the moon before the United States, and the space race continues to evolve from there. With its Cold War tensions and Battlestar Galactica’s Ronald D. Moore on board as cocreator, For All Mankind had the kind of pedigree to match its big-picture implications. And prelaunch, the show might as well have been called Game of Astronauts for the amount of hype it generated among space enthusiasts.
But For All Mankind stumbled out of the gate. The series’ first two episodes hit a saccharine tone that felt like the cringiest parts of The Newsroom transported to NASA’s mission control center. The show couldn’t seem to decide whether to celebrate the perseverance, grit, and ingenuity of its characters (with the requisite corniness that approach entails), or highlight the flaws of American exceptionalism under Richard Nixon. (It certainly didn’t help that this was all happening within bloated, meandering, hour-long running times.) It’d be hard to blame anyone for calling it quits on For All Mankind after those early episodes: After all, who has time to wait for a show to get good when there’s more original programming to sift through than ever before?
By the third episode, however, For All Mankind reinvented itself for the better. In what almost functioned like a second pilot, “Nixon’s Women” sees the United States scrambling for better optics in the wake of the Soviets landing a woman on the moon. The U.S. hastily recruits female astronauts a decade earlier than it had in real life—with training sequences evoking The Right Stuff—but the show never shies away from the irony that the push for inclusion is only a PR stunt. (When discussing what he’s looking for in NASA’s first woman in space, Nixon says “preferably a blond.”) The further For All Mankind pushed its alt-history, making its way to the ’70s by the end of the season, the more the series found its footing. Ultimately, the Soviets landing on the moon was one small step in a show where military bases are established on the lunar surface and plutonium-carrying rockets launch out of the ocean.
Now, with its second season premiering on Friday, For All Mankind has jumped ahead to 1983. What was once a NASA lunar base the size of a typical New York studio apartment has ballooned into a massive complex capable of staffing dozens of astronauts at a time, and the space program has been further enmeshed with the American military under the Reagan administration. (Yes, Ronald Reagan still becomes the president in this alt-history, but [deep breath]: Prince Charles marries Camilla Parker Bowles, the Miracle on Ice never happens, John Lennon is alive, and Roman Polanski is arrested at the border.) One of the creeping tensions this season, in which the Cold War reaches Cuban missile crisis levels, is the development and deployment of weapons on the moon—from arming military-trained astronauts to equipping space shuttles with missiles.
The vision of armed astronauts hopping around the lunar surface looks like something out of a 12-year-old’s Mountain Dew–induced fever dream, and you’d forgive For All Mankind for occasionally indulging in the ludicrous thrill of it all. But the series doesn’t lose sight of the slippery slope that comes with bringing a military presence to the moon. At a pivotal moment when the Americans and Soviets are fighting over a lunar stronghold rich with lithium, armed astronauts begin humming “Ride of the Valkyries”—a not-so-subtle allusion to Apocalypse Now, the Vietnam War, and needless cycles of violence.
Which is not to say that For All Mankind makes the aggressive jump to “World War III on the moon” this season, as the trailers and rad-looking promotional materials might suggest. Instead, most of the political maneuvering between the Americans and Soviets takes place back on Earth, with the respective space programs navigating bureaucratic quagmires and workplace issues. (It’s a lot more interesting than it sounds.) And like any good space show should, For All Mankind ensures that viewers are just as emotionally invested with what happens on the ground thanks to an evolving ensemble cast.
Astronaut Ed Baldwin (played by Joel Kinnaman) begins the new season behind a desk, evaluating the other astronauts and assigning missions for them; his buddy Gordo Stevens (Michael Dorman), who had an unreported mental breakdown on the lunar base in Season 1, grows a dad bod and refuses to confront his trauma; Gordo’s wife Tracy (Sarah Jones) becomes the blond face of the space program, so caught up in the glamour of her newfound celebrity status and frequent late-night appearances that she begins neglecting the actual work required of being an astronaut; and Ellen Wilson (Jodi Balfour) continues to wrestle with being a closeted gay woman while advancing her career under the Reagan administration, with an eye toward being part of a future manned mission to Mars. As long as you can suspend your disbelief that these characters seem to have barely aged a day in the past decade—Gordo looks exactly the same minus the beer gut, and NASA mission director Margo Madison (Wrenn Schmidt) was basically just given bigger glasses—For All Mankind delivers satisfying payoffs that conjure the rich character development on Moore’s Battlestar Galactica.
The first two episodes of For All Mankind missed the mark so badly that they might as well be decanonized, but the second season has no such shortcomings. It can be a slow burn at times, sure, but it’s easy to be patient with the early episodes when there are boardroom meetings punctuated by lines like “Are you two seriously suggesting that we send guns to the moon?” And by the time all the story lines intersect in the season’s final episodes, For All Mankind hits on a visceral and emotional level that’s as good as television’s ever been outside of Earth’s orbit.
It’s still unclear what the endgame is with For All Mankind—both as a television series, and how it fits into Apple TV+’s larger ambitions as a still-nascent streaming service. The show already has been renewed for a third season—one that will inevitably involve another time jump, ageless astronauts who’ve apparently discovered the Fountain of Youth, and humanity stretching itself further in our solar system. At some point, the show might start to feel less like alt-history and more like proper science fiction; The Expanse by way of actual historical figures.
That comparison favors For All Mankind, as The Expanse is arguably the best space show on television since Battlestar Galactica. But as For All Mankind slowly but surely moves the astronaut action to Mars and (possibly) beyond, it’s unclear whether the United States is navigating the solar system for the genuine pursuit of scientific research or as a continued flex of military power. If there is any one lesson to impart from the show’s excellent second season, it’s that space exploration is one giant leap that mankind isn’t quite ready for—lest this alt-history series turn into a dystopia.