By Matthew Kresal
In 2019, Apple TV+ brought viewers an alternate history vision of a space race that never ended. Created by Ronald D. Moore, Matt Wolpert, and Ben Nedivi, For All Mankind turned the events of July 1969 on their ear. With its opening ten episodes, the series saw not only the first women stepping foot on the lunar surface but the establishment of lunar bases. Having time-jumped to 1983 in a post-credit scene during the first season finale, the series did likewise in its second season, taking the show into new territory and a Cold War confrontation.
One of the things viewers can do in watching this season is note how it mirrors its predecessor. Every Little Thing, which opens the season, starts with a three-minute montage of stock footage and news headlines offering its alternate vision of the late seventies and early eighties (where UK viewers are likely to get a chuckle out of one particular moment), and features sequences, such as one involving Wrenn Schmidt's Margo Madison going through her morning routine, that echo those from Red Moon. Coming mid-season, The Weight serves the same role as The Abyss in the middle of season one, serving as the transitional episode between the two halves. Finally, with the finale, The Grey, the cliffhanger ending of the previous episode builds into a series of crises that go from bad to worse, making the stakes of the first season finale seem tiny in comparison. Like with much of alternate history, it's something that gives the viewer a sense of the familiar and different as the series moves forward.
What separates For All Mankind's second season from the first, perhaps more than anything else, is its setting. While the first season covered approximately a half decade, the second is firmly rooted in a single year: 1983. And the choice of 1983 is a deliberate one on the part of Moore, Wolpert, and Nedivi, as with Ronald Reagan having gotten into the White House four years sooner than in our timeline, Cold War tensions, underlying but never at the fore of the first season, boil over here. The series writers work in variations of historical events, such as the shooting down of KAL 007, along its space-based plots, raising the stakes ever higher. Which, given how tense the real 1983 was, is saying something. Nor does the show paint a rosy picture of the Reagan era, as subplots involving Jodi Balfour's Ellen Wilson attest to as she deals with a sham marriage, a rekindled romance, and the political advances by a very real infamous conservative political operative highlighting its contradictions. As it did for the Right Stuff era the previous season, For All Mankind's take on the eighties is a case of nostalgia with a revisionist eye, refreshingly so, given recent nostalgia for the decade in wider pop culture.
Having moved things into the 1980s, the season also brings into play that decade's iconic space vehicle: NASA's Space Shuttle. Whereas season one focused on recreating the Apollo era, its second season had more room to reimagine while keeping things rooted in reality. In the presentation of eighties NASA, from the Shuttle itself (taking advantage of some spectacular stock footage) to the updated spacesuit designs and a next-generation shuttle's maiden voyage, there's both an attention to detail and an imaginative flair brought to bear. With the inclusion of two real-life shuttle astronauts as recurring characters across the season (and a cameo by a third one playing himself), this season feels like a love letter to the Shuttle era that might have been but wasn't to be.
This season, particularly in its second half, also presents its own take on another Cold War space event: Apollo-Soyuz or, as the Soviets would prefer it to be known, Soyuz-Apollo. With tensions rising, a proposal for a joint mission manages, against all odds, to get moving, even if Cold War distrust, politics, and uncertainties are on display throughout. As such, there's a fair amount of pleasure and even a bit of comedy to be drawn out of characters we often see as confident, if not outright cocky in some cases, being thrown off guard by tight-lipped Soviet officials. Not to mention that those who know the real-life 1975 mission will likely recognize parallel events and situations, albeit reimagined through the prism of For All Mankind's alternate history and characters, such as Krys Marshall's Danielle Poole and Schmidt's Margo. While the real-life 1975 docking of space rivals in Earth orbit may have become a Cold War footnote for many, its featuring here gives it greater weight and even a role to play in the finale.
Ah, the finale. The Grey is like one of the great chess matches of the Cold War, where the writers have moved the pieces into place for a spectacular 76-minute endgame. Everything alines perfectly, from where characters are physically and mentally, to the season's slow-burning arcs involving the divorced astronaut couple of Gordo (Michael Dorman) and Tracy (Sarah Jones) Stevens, Poole in command of the US half of Apollo-Soyuz, Margo and Ellen dealing with multiple crises at Mission Control, to Joel Kinnaman's Ed Baldwin finally back in space. It's a delicate balancing act, but it's one that the writers and director Sergio Mimica-Gezzan pull off incredibly well, allowing The Grey to deliver on all the promises of this season, creating one of the most tense and fulfilling season finales in recent memory. Indeed, it might well be the single best episode of For All Mankind to date.
Yet this season was not without its frustrations. Surprisingly, the biggest came from how much it became earth-centric and grounded, which felt odd for a space-centric alternate history series. While it's true that the first season didn't spend every minute in space, much of the second season took after its characters, spending too much away from the high frontier. This rooting seems to come from the decision to root the season firmly in a single year instead of the half-decade the first season covered. The balance changed toward the end of the season, particularly in its final two episodes when it delivered on its Cold War in space promos with effect, yet remained mildly frustrating watching it week after week.
The other frustration came from a plotline involving Shantel VanSanten’s Karen Baldwin and Casey W. Johnson’s Danny, the now-grown best friend of her dead son. If there was a significant misfire for this season, it’s in the development of this subplot and the relationship that drives it. As a writer, its presence is understandable as it shows how far Karen and her astronaut husband have drifted apart and how she's making her own way in life. In practice, its execution was sorely lacking, crossing into cliched dialogue and soap opera plotting. One of this reviewer's abiding curiosities for season three is how it deals with the fallout from it and how much it does (or perhaps doesn't) affect the characters involved.
For those flaws, the second season of For All Mankind still remains a triumph. One that took much of what had made the first season work so well and kicked it up a notch, not to mention into a whole new decade. The journey may feel long, but it is certainly worth taking. And with the third season taking the series and viewers into an alternate 1990s next month, the time has never been better to give For All Mankind a watch.