For All Mankind Feels a Little Too Real

Laura J. Burns
Laura J. Burns writes books, writes for TV, and sometimes writes TV based on books and books based on TV. She will never, however, write a poem. She’s the managing editor of The Antagonist.

It was interesting to watch a show about a public/private partnership on Mars during a weekend when yet another SpaceX rocket self-destructed. As Apple TV+’s alternate history drama For All Mankind moves into the 21st Century, we’re beginning to see more of these collisions between our current reality and the reality of the show.

While the first two seasons focused on the distant past of a space race won by the Soviet Union–with all the changes that might entail–the uneven third season jumped to the 1990s and brought us (well, some of us) into times we can actually remember. The music was great! The clothes were less great, in that I didn’t drool over them as costume design because I still have some of them in my closet. And cracks began to show in the plotting, which is hard to avoid when alternate history crashes into actual reality. What worked was the sad truth that homegrown domestic terrorism would still take root in the United States, aimed at a different target–NASA instead of a federal building in Oklahoma. What didn’t work as well was the season-long plotline about Danny Stevens stalking the woman who basically raised him–and uncharacteristically slept with him–Karen Baldwin.

Midway through season four, we still don’t know what ultimately happened to Danny, just that something bad went down on Mars after he was left in (well-deserved) solitary confinement in the North Korean capsule for basically getting lots of people killed due to his drug-addled, psychotic behavior. It doesn’t really matter, because that storyline is best left behind as we head into the…future? The present? As we move closer to today.

This season’s Mars stories have focused on a familiar dynamic–the exploitation of workers by those at the top. Meanwhile, on Earth, the corporate dynamics are also recognizable, with money flowing only to what is profitable rather than to what will advance scientific knowledge. “No bucks, no Buck Rogers,” as Kelly Baldwin puts it. Her family were NASA pioneers because Ed was in love with space exploration, but now NASA is in the space business along with Roscosmos, Helios, and North Korea. It’s all about the money.

Starry-eyed visionaries like Aleida and Kelly are getting their hands dirty by engaging in a corporate takeover alongside Dev Ayesa, last seen having his Elon Musk-esque ass handed to him by Karen Baldwin, who was an actual good manager. Has he learned anything from his time as a weirdo billionaire loner living in a fancy house where he thinks he owns the beach? Doubtful.

On Mars, Miles Dale, an oil rig worker pushed out of his job by the green tech that is ascendent in this timeline, is a living testament to “meet the new boss, same as the old boss.” Helios has lured him thousands of miles from home with the promise of a good paycheck to support his family, only to nickel and dime him into taking home less than he was back on Earth. Oh, and he can’t quit without owing them an exorbitant amount of money back. It’s indentured servitude disguised as “having a job.” How will he survive? By joining the nascent black market, of course. Same as it ever was.

The idea that nothing really changes is an interesting one: you can create an entirely different timeline by switching up one historical event like who landed on the Moon first, but regardless of what the ripple effect is on history–who will be president, how will the Cold War be impacted, in what unexpected ways will women’s rights change–human nature remains the same. There will always be greed, there will always be exploitation, there will always be those who call the shots and those who are oppressed. Discovery will always be monetized.

The question For All Mankind must answer is whether that’s interesting enough to hold our attention. I used to cry sometimes watching this show, seeing a version of the United States where little girls my age, growing up in the 1970s, saw women astronauts and aspired to be them. The depiction of a world where women’s push for equality started in earnest a few decades earlier was riveting, the society it created so familiar and yet so alien at the same time. But here we are now, still in that different world, but the income inequality and the corporate greed feels completely true to life. It’s harder to remember we’re in an alternate timeline even though half the characters are on another planet–the behavior is so Earthly.

For All Mankind does best when showing us the unexpected impacts of small changes. Here’s hoping it adds more of that back into the formula soon, because terrible working conditions and uninterested bosses? Well, that’s far too expected to be a fantasy plot.

Related Posts

Emily in Paris: I Don’t Care, I Love It

Emily in Paris is the cotton candy of TV shows. It’s not good for you, it offers no nutritional value, but it’s light and airy and sweet and it melts in your mouth. Eat a cone of cotton candy and it’s like you didn’t eat anything at all. Watch a season of Emily in Paris and it’s like it never…
Read More

Laughstatting SNL | Season 48 Episode 3 | Megan Thee Stallion

A strange thing happened while I was watching this week’s SNL: I found myself really liking Megan Thee Stallion while also recognizing that she was an imperfect host.  Some people are larger than life figures who can’t settle into even the most basic SNL sketch and Megan Thee Stallion was the worst culprit in recent memory, if only because she…
Read More