Despite humans landing on the moon before the advent of commercial cellphones or the internet, we’re still years, if not decades, away from the first manned mission to Mars. The most optimistic projections have NASA sending astronauts to the Red Planet in the 2030s, and even then there are plenty of hurdles to clear given that astronauts would have to spend around seven months in low gravity while in close proximity to one another. Would humanity’s progress to Mars be substantially improved if the Space Race between the United States and the Soviet Union hadn’t ground to a halt?
On Apple TV+’s alt-history drama For All Mankind, the Soviets beat America to the moon and draw out the Space Race in the decades to come. The competition precipitates impressive scientific breakthroughs as both countries establish research bases on the lunar surface by the 1970s. The progress might be born out of a geopolitical dick-swinging contest, but at the same time, the show argues that these pursuits are made possible only by brilliant individuals driven to do great things for the benefit of all mankind. (It’s right there in the title.) But while For All Mankind has already breezed past our IRL achievements around the moon within its first two seasons, Season 3 goes a step further by bringing astronauts (and cosmonauts) to Mars at a time when Nirvana is cranking out hits and Bill Clinton is running for president. Even as some of the technology surpasses what we’ve accomplished, the ’90s of For All Mankind feels much closer to our present—for better or for worse.
After narrowly averting a third World War at the end of its terrific second season, For All Mankind returns with the Soviets and Americans coexisting on Earth and beyond. With the moon successfully colonized, the global powers have set their sights on Mars. For the Soviets, being the first to land on Mars would reinforce their dominance in space; the Americans, meanwhile, are determined to make up for losing the race to the moon. But the countries aren’t alone in their pursuit: a third challenger comes from the emerging private sector in Helios, an aerospace company led by enigmatic billionaire Dev Ayesa (played by Edi Gathegi), whose ambition—and deep pockets—threaten to poach some of NASA’s finest.
While the intriguing alt-history details continue to rack up with each season, the biggest suspension of disbelief required for watching the show is how much its core group of characters have shaped the world around them. Ed Baldwin (Joel Kinnaman), once a hotshot test pilot from the days of Neil Armstrong, is looking to cap off his storied career in space by being the first person to set foot on Mars; his friend and colleague Danielle Poole (Krys Marshall) is hoping to do the same, leading to a good-natured competition between them; Ed’s ex Karen (Shantel VanSanten) went from being a stereotypical astronaut’s wife to a business mogul responsible for cofounding the first space hotel; Margo Madison (Wrenn Schmidt) is consolidating more power as NASA Administrator, even at the expense of pushing others out of the agency; and former astronaut Ellen Wilson (Jodi Balfour) is leading the Republican presidential ticket against Clinton while remaining a closeted lesbian. All of that [deep breath] doesn’t address Ed and Karen’s adopted daughter Kelly (Cynthy Wu) pursuing the discovery of microbial life on Mars, the Soviet supporting characters ranging from sympathetic to Machiavellian, or the many subplots that make For All Mankind’s alt-history feel so lived-in, even if its universe is somewhat confined to a select group of extraordinary people.
While relations between the U.S. and Russia remain shaky in the real world, For All Mankind’s third season initially derives conflict from government space programs competing against private industry. If geopolitical tensions once drove the series to the brink of nuclear war, capitalism now threatens to pull the rug from under two global powers in the three-horse race to Mars. (Another sign of the changing times is that The Outpost, once a charmingly rustic bar that astronauts frequented in Houston, has transformed into a global franchise not unlike the Hard Rock Cafe.)
But for all the innovations the private sector brings to the show’s universe, Season 3 also underlines the razor-thin margins between success and catastrophic failure in outer space, and how these conditions aren’t exactly conducive to idealistic billionaires. (The SpaceX parallels probably won’t go unnoticed.) To that end, the season premiere largely takes place in the aforementioned space hotel, which quickly pivots from wish-fulfilling tourism to the setting for what’s essentially a Roland Emmerich disaster movie. It’s a breathtaking episode, and a confident statement of intent for a season that leans further toward the realm of science-fiction despite still taking place in the past.
As humanity continues to make giant leaps in the solar system, For All Mankind’s sprawling nature is grounded by the show’s dedication to the interiority of its characters and their lives. Every little exchange within the ensemble, whether it’s body language in elevator rides or the mulling of career steps over homemade edibles, is handled with the same consideration as the splashy, life-or-death sequences that attracted viewers to the series. In an era when television can have the kind of scale and production value comparable to a summer blockbuster, For All Mankind understands that the big moments aren’t going to land without the emotional groundwork laid by all the smaller ones. This is what separates a purely entertaining drama from a great one, and what has made For All Mankind an unlikely contender as the crowning achievement of Apple’s streaming service.
The Morning Show has the star power, Ted Lasso has the feel-good factor, and Severance has the juicy “did Apple just create a psychological thriller based on itself?” premise, but For All Mankind is, above all else, a serialized drama with an unshakable commitment to detail. Strip away the stunning special effects and what you’re left with is a show that cares deeply about cause and effect, and how seemingly minor decisions can have serious ramifications for countless characters down the road. For All Mankind takes the idea that the world would be dramatically different if the Space Race never ended and uses it as a guiding philosophy where actions have consequences in every aspect of its storytelling, whether it leads to a character’s tragic death or simply an expression of love.
For All Mankind has a seven-season plan that, if given the chance to complete its story, will go from the height of the Space Race to a future where interstellar travel moves into the far reaches of the solar system—and possibly beyond. Three seasons in, For All Mankind is nearly at the halfway point of this ambitious undertaking, and rather than crumble under the weight of its increasingly convoluted alternate history or from moving its characters across several decades, the series is as strong as it’s ever been. And with Better Call Saul just six episodes from completion and Succession producers stressing that the show won’t go past five seasons, For All Mankind has the runway to take over as TV’s next great drama.
Compared to Better Call Saul and Succession, which illuminate the darker side of human ambition, For All Mankind holds a more optimistic view of humanity in spite of our flaws. Even when characters become entangled in corporate greed or geopolitical face-offs, they strive to find common ground in the shared pursuit of scientific discovery. Their world is far from perfect, but For All Mankind presents an alternate history that imagines what people can accomplish when logic and empathy largely prevail. That it happens to be the one of the best shows on television only makes its hopeful message more resonant. When it premiered as part of Apple TV+’s launch in November 2019, For All Mankind was one small step of the company’s push into streaming. Four years later, the show is following its characters’ lead and reaching for the stars.