Review: 'For All Mankind' Gets Bolder and Brighter in Season Two

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Friday February 19, 2021

'For All Mankind,' Season Two, premieres Feb. 19
'For All Mankind,' Season Two, premieres Feb. 19  (Source:Apple TV+)

Take the general framework of "The Right Stuff," build it out into a plausible alternative history, and take inspiration from the groundbreaking (but virtually unknown) 1959 CBS drama "Men Into Space," and you'll have the basic idea of "For All Mankind." Add the undisputed genius of Ronald D. Moore ("Battlestar Galactica") and his frequent collaborators Naren Shankar and David Weddle & Bradley Thompson, plus Matt Wolpert and Ben Nedivi, and the promise is fulfilled: "For All Mankind" stays rooted in hard science and human realities even as it reaches for the stars.

Season One started off with the Americans losing the Space Race, or at least, the first major lap of it, to the Russians. The effect of that loss was to put the American space program into overdrive; within a few years (and the end of the first season) both the Americans and the Russians had established a permanent presence on the Moon.

Season Two jumps ahead nine years, to 1983. Between the post-credits scene at the end of Season One's final episode and the montage that starts off Season Two we quickly get our bearings in a parallel, but still recognizable, alternate reality: The Moon base has grown significantly, supplied by frequent launches of the massive Sea Dragons (a class of rocket that was designed but never built in our own far less bold reality), while world events, knocked off their familiar course by that one historical change, grow ever further disparate from actual happenings. (In a wink at the paradoxes created by their imaginations, the writers show us a world in which some assassinated figures, like John Lennon, literally dodged bullets, while others were not so lucky.)

Within the context of this world, our familiar characters (a mix of fictionalized historical figures and fictitious characters) continue to thrive - more or less. Astronaut Edward Baldwin (Joel Kinnanan) is now a major player within NASA's programs and has turned his efforts toward more earthbound tasks, like determining flight assignments and trying to master his gold game; his wife Karen (Shantel VanSanten) has launched herself onto a new career path.

Ed's best friend Gordo (Michael Dorman), still wrestling with PTSD, has gone from flyboy rake to middle-aged has-been. Overweight and drinking too much, he's wracked with guilt and insecurity over events from Season One - an extended Moon mission in which he nearly lost his marbles. His career was salvaged only by the self-sacrificing actions of fellow astronaut Danielle Poole (Krys Marshall). Tracy Stevens (Sarah Jones), meantime, has become a glamorous symbol of America's superiority in space, as well as the rightful place of women in the cosmos.

And women very much have earned that place. Poole strives to get her career back on track, and Molly Cobb (Sonya Walger) is remains a fearless, competent badass. Moon base commander Ellen Wilson - a closeted lesbian who has married a gay NASA engineer to help preserve both their careers - is about to make a transition to her own earthbound administrative tasks, though she's not entirely certain what she wants for her future.

Margo (Wrenn Schmidt), meantime, is now a high-powered NASA administrator in her own right, while Aleida (now played by Coral PeŮa) has grown up to become a gifted engineer... and a hothead whose resentments, ignited by her father's deportation and Margo's failure to help her out at a crucial juncture in her life, propel her into repeated acts of self-sabotage.

Moore and co. stick to the formula that made Season One a success, balancing workplace and domestic relationship dramas with the perils of space exploration. But Season Two adds an extra, and inevitable, level of danger and intrigue as the Soviets and the Americans wage a new form of cold war in the airless environment of the Moon, a rivalry beset by spying and territorial aggression that seems destined to careen into all-out open conflict of the sort that will very likely have serious repercussions on Earth below.

The show's in no hurry to get a war started, though, which is a mixed blessing. While the tension is build across multiple episodes in a gratifyingly gradual and realistic manner, the military story threads are sometimes left hanging for too long. Another rare misstep shortchanges preparations for a critical mission in favor of an especially ill-considered romance.

But those are exceptions to the rule. "For All Mankind" successfully keeps human relations - friendship, partnership, romance, and family, as well as politics - at the forefront. With "Battlestar Galactica," Moore helped bring TV science fiction into a new, more adult-oriented age in which hardware and CGI enhance, rather than overshadow, character and good dramatic writing, and he proves himself adept again at that particular mix.

Moore got his start on "Star Trek" shows like "The Next Generation" and "Deep Space Nine." He's moved away from that franchise's space opera conventions and happy-face assumptions about a bright future. That doesn't mean he's lost his optimism. Especially in the wake of the last year, "For All Mankind" feels like a reminder that the world - as it is, and as it might have been - is an imperfect place, but there's always cause for hope and room for wonder.

"For All Mankind," Season Two premieres Feb. 19 on Apple TV+, with subsequent episodes following every week.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.