For All Mankind Takes on a Very Different 1983 in a Thoughtful, Harrowing Season 2

TV Reviews For All Mankind
For All Mankind Takes on a Very Different 1983 in a Thoughtful, Harrowing Season 2

It’s no secret that in its 1983-set sophomore season, For All Mankind is putting guns on the moon.

There they are, front and center in the splashy, neon-drenched Season 2 banner floating at the top of Apple TV+’s landing page: Moon-white rifles, held at the ready by a quartet of American astronauts bounding across the lunar surface in matching moon-white spacesuits.

Guns. On the moon.

In case you’re worrying you might have fallen asleep during that part of your 20th-century history class, don’t—the recent establishment of Space Force notwithstanding, in the relatively short history of human spaceflight, guns have never been part of the equation. Technological one-upmanship, yes. National pride, sure. Scientific discovery, absolutely. But guns? Nah.

That’s in our timeline, though. In the timeline of For All Mankind, the meticulously crafted alt-history science fiction series from Ronald D. Moore, Matt Wolpert, and Ben Nedivi that turns the Space Race on its head by imagining it was the Soviets who landed the first man on the moon, guns are just the latest in a long line of things our own space program hadn’t even considered launching into orbit before 1983: Guns. Television sets. A lunar research base. A lunar mining operation. A Martian rover. The Bob Newhart Show. Black people. Women.

Those last two served, in the series’ exceptional first season, to underscore how much social progress might have been made had America’s capitalist pride been wounded enough by a single Soviet victory to necessitate moving the Space Race goalposts. Now, the armed encroachment of the DOD on NASA territory serves, in an equally stellar second season, to remind us of America’s unmatched ability to fail the world when the possibility of armed conflict is in the air. Sure, with the new season opening on Ellen (Jodi Balfour) closing in on her last tour in command of a bustling (and noticeably diverse) Jamestown base, Tracy (Sarah Jones) running Hollywood as the tousle-haired rock star of the American space program, Molly (Sonya Walger) killing it as one of the moon’s most badass frequent flyers, and Dani (Krys Marshall) poised to top them all, it’s clear that the progress made in the series’ first season has been well and truly locked in by the second. I mean, even on the non-astronaut side of things, the series’ female characters hit 1983 on both personal and professional highs: Margo (Wrenn Schmidt) having continued to rise in the JSC ranks, Aleida (Coral Peña) having worked through the challenges of her precarious citizenship status to become the engineer Margo knew she could be, and even Karen (Shantel VanStanten) having found a way to carve out a new role for herself in the wake of Shane’s death. (There are some frustratingly regressive issues of repressed emotion and destructive machismo in the men’s arcs, but we’ll have to wait for various embargoes to lift to dig deeper there.)

What all that progress doesn’t negate, however, is the fact that in 1983 the Cold War is still going strong. In fact, given how we’re told in the premiere’s whirlwind newsreel opening that the Soviet Union has backed out of invading Afghanistan in order to pump more resources into its side of the Space Race, it might be safer to say that in For All Mankind’s 1983, the Cold War is going stronger than ever. And thus is it that we find Nelson Bradford (John Marshall Jones), the DOD’s (Black!) chief liaison to the JSC, acting on President Reagan’s behalf to force NASA to arm its lunar operation.

Which is to say: Guns on the moon.

There’s a lot more going on in the second season of For All Mankind than the issue of guns on the moon, of course—as it did in its first season, the series continues to excel at balancing its sprawling ensemble of characters, all of whom are driven by a dizzying array of motivations, with the precise textural demands of a well-dressed period piece. Moreover, it sets itself apart as the rare prestige streamer not just to make use of its episodes’ hour-plus runtimes, but to treat those episodes not simply as acts within an ongoing streaming play, but rather as unique pearls, strung together to make a complete streaming necklace. The art of the episode—may more series remember to honor it.

Throughout 10 ten of the episodes provided for review, however, it was the guns that I kept coming back to. Because here’s the thing: While arms of every kind have long been a mainstay of the space-faring sci-fi drama (look no further than Moore’s own Battlestar Galactica, for one), they’ve never been a part of our own space-faring reality. In fact, that they’re not a part of our own space-faring reality feels so baked into the whole humans-in-space project, that even establishing it as a question this season introduces a surprising degree of narrative tension. Because while we know what America’s 20th-century space program looked like (no guns), and we know what every fictional future space program looks like (lots of guns), the fact of the matter is that we haven’t spent a lot of time wrestling with what the transition from one reality to the other might look like. In presenting the JSC with a guns or bust ultimatum this season, For All Mankind gives us an opportunity to do just that, letting us see, as the season progresses, what that struggle might look like not just for the bureaucrats at the top of both NASA and the DOD, but also for the astronauts who get conscripted to carry the moon’s first rifles, and for the test pilots (Ellen Wroe’s Sally Ride included) who get blindsided by the President’s decision to force their arm of the program into such a sharp right turn. We get to see the disillusionment set in, as each of them realizes that the dream of a project where mankind might work in space together, as a global community, towards a shared vision of peace and possibility, is over.

This isn’t to say this upcoming season of For All Mankind takes a pass on hope, however. The places it takes its characters throughout the season—and the places, in turn, it takes both America and the world—are full of hope. So if you find yourself singing along with the Jamestown crew to Bob Marley’s “Three Little Birds” as they stand, shoulder-to-shoulder, to watch the sunrise after a long two weeks of darkness in the premiere, let yourself lean into it. As the rest of the season will hopefully remind us all, even if we end up with guns on the moon, space is still vast and full of hope.

In the meantime, a couple of recommendations to best enjoy the first few minutes of the Season 2 premiere, which opens with a truly staggering newsreel display of alt-history highlights: Watch with your pause button at the ready, and have at least one person over the age of 50 on hand (and/or a browser open to Wikipedia) to make sense of the dozens of historical changes the show wants to establish before bringing you back to Jamestown for the first time. They clearly had a lot of fun imagining every bit of it; you deserve to get in on that fun, too.

Season 2 of For All Mankind premieres Friday, February 19 on Apple TV+. New episodes are set to drop each Friday thereafter through April 23.

Alexis Gunderson is a TV critic and audiobibliophile. She can be found @AlexisKG.

For all the latest TV news, reviews, lists and features, follow @Paste_TV.

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