Some TV shows will do anything not to kill off beloved characters, even if the situation demands it. Time and time again, For All Mankind has proved it is not afraid to dispatch the Grim Reaper, perhaps even relishing in the narrative bloodshed. The explosive Season 3 finale is no exception.
Space travel is not for the faint of heart, and the mission to Mars has racked up quite the body count, thanks to human error (looking at you, Danny Stevens) and the corners cut in a bid to become the first nation (or private company) to set foot on the Red Planet. It has been a season of one disaster scenario after another while exploring new frontiers, giving us little time to recover from the physical and mental unraveling.
It isn’t uncommon to end an episode and for me to realize I spent a portion yelling at the screen or holding my breath at whatever newfound space calamity has unfolded. Let’s just say that if I had a swear jar dedicated for when For All Mankind is on, I would have enough for dinner and a movie—yes, in this climate!
(Warning: Spoilers ahead for For All Mankind, which premiered its Season 3 finale on Apple TV+ Friday.)
From the opening flashback scene, “Stranger in a Strange Land” refuses to take its foot off the pedal, which is just as well—viewers have become accustomed to For All Mankind upping the stakes into a new stratosphere. After all, this season began with a space tourism catastrophe straight out of a 1970s disaster movie and, now, ends with multiple scenarios that set my heartbeat racing.
“Okay, this is nuts. Somebody apparently bet For All Mankind’s showrunners that they couldn’t make every episode feel like a season finale,” reads one tweet, which accurately sums up what it feels like to watch this space show. Co-creators Matt Wolpert and Ben Nedivi wrote the finale and made sure to crank the tension further—if that is possible.
Instead of sending two fan favorites to their deaths in suits constructed out of duct tape—last season’s major trauma—the crack squad of astrophysicists has to find a solution to get the eight-months-pregnant Kelly Baldwin (Cynthy Wu) off Mars when they don’t have enough fuel to do so. Oh, and they only have 24 hours to figure it out.
It is far from the only problem on the docket, as the penultimate episode cliffhanger revealed the astronauts are not alone on Mars. No, For All Mankind hasn’t taken a turn for The X-Files as the footprints in the sand belong to a North Korean astronaut who actually won this space race. For once, a series justifies its extended runtime, and the nearly 90-minute installment packs a punch through to the final bar of Radiohead’s “Everything in Its Right Place” that closes the episode.
Even with the gun-toting first man on Mars posing a challenge, it turns out that the most dangerous place in the finale is back on Earth. As if one Stevens sibling getting people killed wasn’t enough, Jimmy (David Chandler) accidentally befriends domestic terrorists who blow up the Johnson Space Center (JSC) in Houston.
Oh, Jimmy, Jimmy, Jimmy.
Let’s take a breath, as the writers are not content with blowing up NASA’s space command, but they also draw parallels to the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995. (The alternate timeline is full of slight deviations from our own, which also includes “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” and Bill Clinton’s impeachment) It is a nod that is not meant to be subtle, as the image is uncanny in its similarity to the attack perpetrated by Timothy McVeigh on the Federal building—right down to the truck packed with explosives. Yep, those conspiracy theorists who have been telling Jimmy there is more to his parents’ deaths wanted to do much more than broadcast a video to the world.
Given how frustrating the Stevens boys have been this season, it is notable that both children of heroes Gordo (Michael Dorman) and Tracy Stevens (Sarah Jones) continue to flounder in their long shadow. All roads lead back to their deaths as Jimmy’s radicalized buddies use the so-called holes in the moon rescue story to recruit the youngest Stevens. In contrast, everything Danny (Casey W. Johnson) does is a misguided attempt to live up to his name—while rage bubbles beneath the surface. Seriously, this is why therapy is important.
No, I don’t want to blame the couple for turning out a pair of flops, but it ain’t easy being the offspring of larger-than-life figures whose memory is distilled into a blockbuster movie, and a statue that no one noticed was stolen from JSC. For all this season’s careful plotting, the anti-NASA group somehow flew under every law enforcement radar. Karen Baldwin (Shantel VanSanten) did more sleuthing in five minutes than the people paid to monitor threats.
Karen did save Jimmy’s life, but that will be a small consolation for viewers and ex-husband Ed (Joel Kinnaman), who already blames one Stevens sibling for causing several deaths. I was convinced Danny would spill that he slept with Karen at some point this season. Danny kept his mouth shut and proved he is capable of doing the right thing for once. Is this going to be a loose end never to be resolved like the Russian on The Sopranos or Peggy and Pete’s baby in Mad Men?
One big misdirect sees Karen walking around in a bold houndstooth power jacket making moves for a future in which she is the CEO of Helios—long before leaning in and girlboss took hold. All eyes are on Ed and Kelly, but Karen is the one who doesn’t make it out alive. RIP to her fantastic voluminous wig and ability to cut through the shit.
Spare a thought for Wayne (Lenny Jacobson), who loses his weed-smoking buddy and wife in the same attack. No B.S., Molly Cobb (Sonya Walger) dies how she lived: doing it the way she wanted. “Selfish pricks change the world,” she tells Karen earlier in the episode (I sobbed during this scene on the second watch), and Molly is a classic selfish prick with a heart of gold. I wouldn’t want it any other way.
For All Mankind is at its best when mixing edge-of-the-seat action with rich emotional stories that lean toward a soap opera. Some of the scenarios and interpersonal dynamics walk toward the edge of ridiculous, but it remains compelling. It is infinitely watchable even when hating on the Stevens boys has become a weekly sport. Each new catastrophe is grounded by scenes of scientists sitting in front of a whiteboard dreaming up the impossible. How do you get Kelly Baldwin up to the Phoenix when there is only enough fuel to get 95 percent of the way there?
A ticking clock cranks up the tension further, and the stakes are incredibly high with all the life lost so far. In a soapy twist, the baby daddy, Alexei, died after the recent landslide that Danny is to blame for, and there will not be another hero moment for this Stevens. Thankfully, confessing to Ed about his “mistake” does not lead to a quick path to redemption or his death—that would be too easy.
In a brainstorm, there are no bad ideas, and Aleida’s (Coral Peña) audacious solution involves strapping Kelly to the roof of the craft before she launches herself toward Phoenix. Here is a new answer to whether you can fly in your third trimester. As far as holy-shit moments go, this last-ditch plan tugs on the heartstrings with an assist from composers Jeff Russo and Paul Doucette, who know when to dial up the hopeful notes.
I’m not the only one crying as Margo (Wrenn Schmidt) struggles to hold in her tears. It is a goodbye that no one knows she is giving as she skirts the whole spying-for-an-enemy-state thing (even though she had a good reason) by defecting to the USSR. This storyline feels straight out of The Americans, not just because several actors (including Schmidt) are from the FX espionage series. The big jaw-dropping reveal at the end (that sequence set to Radiohead’s “Everything in Its Right Place”) is that it is 2003, and Margo is alive in Russia. She didn’t perish in the bombing as we (and everyone else) believe. Her glasses might be smaller, but this is a living, breathing Margo.
A time jump is the go-to For All Mankind finale move, and there are a lot of loose ends to deal with when we return. How will the remaining astronauts on Mars fare until Soujourner II arrives in 18 months? Danny is exiled to the North Korean territory for his previous crimes, whereas the other team has gained Lee-Jung Gil (C.S. Lee). Cosmonaut Grigory Kuznetsov (Lev Gorn) buried the weapon that Lee-Jung almost killed himself with, and this very much had Chekhov’s gun written all over it—and not just because a Russian planted it in the sand.
You can tell a lot happened in this finale, as I haven’t got to the whole aftermath of President Ellen Wilson (Jodi Balfour) coming out to the nation while still in office. What will happen to her presidency is unclear (though I suspect she will fill Margo’s position at NASA), but she is finally free of Larry’s (Nate Corddry) wig. “What’d we do now?” asks Ellen’s ex-girlfriend Pam (Meghan Leathers) as if they are in a rom-com, and I am thrilled at least one romance is alive and kicking.
Surviving on For All Mankind is a victory, even if the Stevens boys being physically unscathed might seem like a loss. Because anyone can die, it adds to the heart-in-the-mouth sequences that creators Wolpert, Nedivi, and Ronald D. Moore refuse to relegate to the finale.
It is tough to imagine how they will crank up the tension dial in Season 4. Still, perhaps the biggest challenge will be convincing audiences that remaining originals like Ed, Dani, Margo, and Ellen are not as youthful as the actors playing them. Either way, For All Mankind, strives for the impossible and always surpasses those starry heights.