"For All Mankind" makes it to Mars, and it's depressing [Apple TV+ recap]

For All Mankind finally makes it to Mars, and it’s depressing [Apple TV+ recap]

By

For All Mankind recap: Ladies and gentlemen, we have a winner in the race to Mars.★★☆☆☆
Ladies and gentlemen, we have a winner in the race to Mars.
Photo: Apple TV+

In “Seven Minutes of Terror,” Apple TV+ alt-history space race show For All Mankind returns this week to where it left off last season, with America and Russia once more holding hands begrudgingly to fix some space problems.

Ed and Karen have the same trouble with authority. Danny’s cracking up. Margo’s head is in a noose. Kelly’s got a crush. And Sojourner 1 suffers from a serious a problem.

Behind the scenes, WALL-E helmer Andrew Stanton directs this week. His brand of post-classical Hollywood craftsmanship is much appreciated, if also a sad sign of where we are as a country.

For All Mankind recap: ‘Seven Minutes of Terror’

Season 3, episode 5: With Soviet spacecraft Mars-94 good and useless, and cosmonauts aboard NASA’s Sojourner 1, the Russians must once more swallow their pride and work with the Americans.

Well … kinda. Roscosmos director Lenara Catiche (played by Vera Cherny) comes to Margo Madison (Wrenn Schmidt) with a request. The Soviets want a boatload of American space equipment to finish their Mars-specific mission parameters when they get to the red planet.

Margo knows the Russians have her over a barrel, because all that stuff they used to blackmail her into the schematics for their nuclear engine? They still have it. So she really doesn’t have a choice. However, she does have one move left: She wants Sergei Orestovich Nikulov (Piotr Adamczyk) to come to Houston, possibly forever.

Helios, we have a problem

Back on Helios Aerospace’s Phoenix, Ed Baldwin (Joel Kinnaman) and his engineers have retaken control of the ship after Helios CEO Dev Ayesa (Edi Gathegi) blocked them, through software bugs, from rescuing the Russians that Danielle Poole (Krys Marshall) and Sojourner 1 wound up saving.

Ed’s ex-wife Karen (Shantel VanSanten), who’s also Dev’s partner at Helios, is proud of Ed’s move. She resigns rather than keep going with Dev’s ego-driven mission to Mars.

Still, Dev won’t apologize. Karen’s also mad because when Sojourner 1 rescued the Russians and the ship exploded, her and Ed’s daughter Kelly (Cynthy Wu) was aboard and could have died. Dev’s going to have to sue her.

Aleida Rosales (Coral Peña) does some calculations and realizes that the Russians used her engine design for Phoenix. She goes to Margo to tell her, outraged, and Margo deflects, knowing full well that she gave the Russians those designs to spare Sergei’s life. She’s going to have to explain this at some point. And when she does, Aleida’s going to finally turn on her mentor, the woman for whom she turned down that fat Helios paycheck all those years ago.

Danny (Casey W. Johnson) breaks into the Helios email server (using emotional blackmail) and finds a video message Karen sent to Ed about resigning from Helios. Danny’s psychopath streak continues unabated.

Soviets and Americans

Meanwhile, Kelly makes a friend among the cosmonauts aboard Sojourner 1, Alexei (Pawel Szajda). He reached out just before the Soviet ship’s engines imploded, and they’ve been quietly having discussions since then about the mission parameters.

He pushes her buttons when he says that Vietnam has taken care of itself since the war, to which she replies that that’s because all the poor people were killed. She somehow blames this on communism and floats away when he suggests that Marxism is good for poor people.

Mind you, this comes in the same episode where the Russians torture Sergei in a gulag because he was helping the United States. Have I mentioned how much I loathe this show’s political perspective? I guess when literally all you care about is space travel it’s very easy to get a weed up your ass about communism. But For All Mankind possesses absolutely zero sense of how any government works beyond its applications as a conduit for going to the moon.

Anyway, Kelly and Alexei make out.

An epiphany on Earth

Back on Earth, Karen goes to visit Molly Cobb (Sonya Walger) and her stoner husband Wayne (Lenny Jacobson). Wayne gives her a pep talk about quitting. (“There’s this author Ken Kesey …,” he says, as if Karen didn’t also live through the goddamned 1970s. Jfc, this show!)

Suddenly, Karen has an epiphany. She wants to build things for herself.

When Danny breaks into the email account and watches her stoned message to Ed, he goes nuts. He needles Ed about their divorce. And Ed confesses that if he ever found out who Karen slept with before divorcing him, he’d kill the guy.

Then it’s three days later, for some reason. (Hey, why bother showing us how anything resolves, eh?) Aleida confronts Margo a final time about the engine theft. She knows she’s going to have to either destroy the evidence or confess. Danny and Ed beat Danielle to launching their lander, but Danielle is hard on their heels.

Mars is anyone’s game now.

Of Mars and John Carter

For All Mankind recap: Sometimes a spaceship is just a spaceship.
Sometimes a spaceship is just a spaceship.
Photo: Apple TV+

It’s kind of a bitter irony to me that they got Andrew Stanton to direct this episode of For All Mankind, where the astronauts finally land on Mars (and next week’s episode, where they’re on the surface for the first time). In 2012, Stanton directed the beautiful John Carter based on Edgar Rice Burroughs’ pioneering sci-fi books about a man from America who travels to Mars through a kind of intergalactic spiritual magic.

Burroughs’ books stand as classic pulp storytelling, and Stanton brought out their most magical and classical elements. John Carter was blockbuster filmmaking at its finest.

The movie fell victim to a classic critical smear campaign. The logic, as always, was that the filmmakers spent way too much money on it, and then people didn’t respond to it, so clearly this wasn’t merely bad judgment but a cultural crime of the highest order that needed punishing. (Just as a counter-example, nobody ever does this when a football team goes through a bad season.)

As a result, John Carter’s huge leaps forward in CGI, its charming script, its great performances, its beautiful design elements, its flawless transposition of a hundred-year-old text that had already been repurposed a dozen times — all of that went ignored because the film cost too much and it reminded too many people of Star Wars, whose author had stolen from the original novel.

Andrew Stanton and the sad state of For All Mankind

Stanton was allowed to regroup at Pixar, the studio that fostered his artistic growth. (His movies WALL-E and Finding Nemo became huge hits for the studio, and he made Finding Dory as a kind of apology for John Carter, which really depressed me.)

Since then, Stanton’s only made TV, including episodes of the hideously derivative shows Legion and Stranger Things (the latter of which, like For All Mankind, has a regressive conservative agenda).

Stanton made one of the great action movies of the last decade about learning to love a culture whose fight is not your own. The fact that he is now reduced to being the token sci-fi director in shows about the inescapable boredom of recycling sci-fi premises on TV week after week (Stanton also contributed to The Book of Boba Fett, another colossal misfire about not being able to tell new stories) … well, it’s one of the most shameful and sad chapters of modern American film culture.

Stanton’s career was quite literally sacrificed on the altar of nostalgic comfort. Why take risks when you can tell the same exact stories we’ve been telling for 50 years with safe televisual grammar?

Seeing him direct the Mars landing on this disgraceful, unimaginative, ahistorical, sociopathic, selfish, libertarian nightmare — where creeps like Danny Stevens (like Jonathan Byers on Stranger Things before him) are given our full attention and sympathy — was like watching the promise of my adolescence finally and definitively hit rock bottom.

How can the American moving image pull up from this intellectual property death spiral? I don’t have much hope that it will.

This Week in Alternate History

Mazzy Star still formed and wrote “Rhymes of an Hour;” this doesn’t have anything to do with anything but I’d never considered before right now just how much modern chanteuses like Angel Olsen and Sharon Van Etten owe to Hope Sandoval and Mazzy Star. I don’t really listen to either of them, which explains my back-of-the-class revelation here. Anyway, just a thought for the 10 people who’ll find that interesting.

★★☆☆☆

Watch For All Mankind on Apple TV+

New episodes of For All Mankind arrive on Apple TV+ every Friday.

Rated: TV-MA

Watch on: Apple TV+

Scout Tafoya is a film and TV critic, director and creator of the long-running video essay series The Unloved for RogerEbert.com. He has written for The Village Voice, Film Comment, The Los Angeles Review of Books and Nylon Magazine. He is the author of Cinemaphagy: On the Psychedelic Classical Form of Tobe Hooper, the director of 25 feature films, and the director and editor of more than 300 video essays, which can be found at Patreon.com/honorszombie.