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‘For All Mankind’ Transforms Our Understanding of History

‘For All Mankind’ Transforms Our Understanding of History

This article contains spoilers through Season 4, Episode 1 of  For All Mankind.

For All Mankind treats the future as a matter of physics. The Apple TV+ series started its story with a national trauma: The United States loses to the U.S.S.R. in the race to put a man on the moon. That one change to the timeline bends the trajectory of everything that follows until, like a space capsule that has gone off course, the show’s version of history ends up far from the one we know. Some conflicts dissipate; new ones arise in their place. Some familiar technologies emerge; others never come. The superpowers, caught in a Cold War that never ends, establish separate colonies on the moon. Humans go to Mars. They bring Earth’s problems with them. The show’s universe is familiar and uncanny at once, and this is part of the joy of watching it: For All Mankind, as it merges the world-building powers of science fiction with the provocations of alternate history, turns time’s march into an endless cliff-hanger. What will change in this world? What will be constant?

The show’s structure adds to the tension. Each season, For All Mankind fast-forwards into the future, hurling its characters into the next decade. The series begins in 1969; now, as its fourth season begins, it is set in 2003. The speed treats the passage of time as a drama of its own. Each new season begins with a quick-moving montage that informs viewers of some of the changes that have occurred during the intervening years—the world leaders who rose to power, the failed assassinations, the successful ones. The compilations double as right-off-the-bat plot twists. As they reveal the world the show has built, they also ask questions about our own. For All Mankind presents a fractured past that leads humans to another future; in the process, it becomes a meditation on historical memory.

“Glasnost,” the first episode of the show’s fourth season, embodies the old idea that the past is never past. The episode finds characters alternately denying the past, wallowing in it, and succumbing to it. Aleida Rosales, who came to the U.S. from Mexico as a girl and has now worked her way up to become a NASA flight director, survived the Season 3 finale’s most traumatic event: the bombing of NASA headquarters. Years later, she begins experiencing panic attacks as scenes from the horror replay, with gripping immediacy, in her head. Ed Baldwin, the swaggering astronaut who helped establish the U.S. space program, is now on a mission on Mars. But Ed, we soon learn, is going rogue by sitting still: Overcome by grief—his wife, Karen, died in the NASA bombing—he is refusing to leave his post. (The pioneer of space exploration, we discover at the end of the episode, may well be the first human to have brought weed to Mars.)

Ed’s arc is both surprising and all but inevitable. For three seasons, For All Mankind has presented scenarios that are compelling for audiences and traumatic for characters. Now, in the fourth, the pain of the past is becoming unavoidable. It bears down on Ed so strongly that he holds himself prisoner, effectively, in space. Margo Madison, meanwhile, leads an existence that is all too earthbound. The woman who was not that long ago the administrator of NASA is now living the consequences of the relationship she developed with her Russian counterpart—and with her decision to share classified information with him. She is in exile, essentially, in Moscow, where she spends her days trying to convince uncaring officials that she is worth paying attention to.

“Glasnost” follows Margo as she goes through what seems to be her daily routine: first to a bakery, then to a newsstand, then to a park bench, where she does very little. But the dullness is set against the fact that she appears to exist in a vague but constant state of danger. Potential threats are everywhere. (You wince as she takes a bite of the bread that her neighborhood baker has insisted she take for free.) And the camera clarifies the stakes: It watches her from a distance, and then at uncomfortably close angles. It lingers too long. It is surveilling her.

Margo does not, in “Glasnost,” experience a manifest version of the threats. She is nonetheless living a slow-moving kind of horror. Her days in Moscow unfurl as endless stretches of gray. Margo’s life, once so epic, is now stiflingly small. She is reduced. She is alone. She is a reminder of why humans have always treated banishment as an extreme form of punishment. She has been stripped of the only thing she ever cared about: her own ability to bend the arc of history.

The Moscow that Margo inhabits, though, is in one respect similar to the place she left behind. It is teeming with monuments. This is another way that the world of the show collides with our own: We also live in a place that all too often treats historical memory passively, as an environmental proposition. The consonance is eloquent. Some of the most striking emotional moments in For All Mankind come by way of its scenery—and, in particular, by way of the memorials that minimize the past even as they claim to celebrate it.

Over the course of the show, many of the characters we’ve come to know have been lost in one episode and then later resurrected in stone and metal. Molly Cobb, the trailblazing astronaut who was a rich tangle of tenderness and misanthropy, now lives as text appended to the side of a building: the Molly Cobb Space Center. Gordo and Tracy Stevens, formerly married astronauts who sacrificed themselves during a disaster on the moon, currently exist as a massive statue at the entrance to the building then known as the Johnson Space Center. The pair, frozen in the seconds before their deaths, bend forward at slightly awkward angles. The show reveals that, soon after the statue was unveiled, it was followed up with a biopic about the couple starring Meg Ryan and Dennis Quaid. The film is called Love in the Skies. It is a smash hit.

These are forms of tribute, and in some sense the best humans can do. But the monuments, For All Mankind suggests, also flatten their subjects. To see the statue of Gordo and Tracy as a viewer of the show is to be reminded of the path they took together from the 1960s to the 1980s: from spouses to parents to exes to enemies to friends to colleagues to partners, finally, in heroic self-sacrifice. But we have special access to the characters’ stories; everyone else will look at the statue and see little more than celebrities and symbols.

Space exploration can make the banal seem epic: Even unremarkable human events—eating, communicating, working—can seem wondrous when they’re undertaken in the service of the stars. For All Mankind flips that dynamic. It emphasizes the ordinariness in space exploration, bringing its star-faring characters steadily back to Earth. The show tells stories of outsize heroism, but emphasizes their human scale. Here, astronauts are not distant heroes, but people who struggle with one another, and with themselves. They are variously petty and angry and jealous and stubborn and drunk. Their flaws, in a very direct way, make the show. They also make history. Again and again, in For All Mankind, time’s arcs wobble and bend because of people who disobey orders, who act out of love, who misunderstand, who sacrifice themselves, who surprise themselves, who cede themselves to their sorrows.

“Glasnost” offers an extreme version of that dynamic through Kelly Baldwin. The last time viewers saw Ed’s daughter and fellow astronaut, she was heavily pregnant and being evacuated from Mars—while strapped to the exterior of a spaceship that was piloted by Ed. (For All Mankind is an alternate history that is also, at times, a high-pitched soap opera.) By 2003, the episode reveals, Kelly is living a life of thorough conventionality. She’s a single mother with a precocious son. She has a spacious house with a sleek kitchen. She regularly complains about the woman who is, effectively, her mother-in-law.

The normalcy of it all, the extraordinary storyline alchemized into the ordinary one, is the show’s version of a plot twist. But Kelly is grieving, too: She lost her mother in the NASA explosion. She lost her baby’s father in a disaster on Mars. She and Ed are worlds away from each other, but reckoning with the same kind of pain in similar kinds of ways: Both are retreating. And both are doing a version of what every alternate history does: inviting viewers to measure the world that is against the one that might have been—to ask how we remember painful history, and how we fail to.

In some ways, with these varied portraits of grief and its aftermath, For All Mankind is doing what it has always done: considering the human cost of historical achievement. But the show’s new season hints that its exploration of those costs will be both more nuanced and more overt as its story proceeds further into the future. “You don’t ever really move on,” the astronaut Danielle Poole tells a former colleague in its first episode. “The people you’ve hurt, the people you’ve lost—you just carry them around with you wherever you go.” Humans, too, are forces of physics. Our pain might stifle us, or impel us on our paths. Venturing into space requires extreme control followed by extreme vulnerability: You build the machine. You train the crew. You trust the calculations. And then you hope. History works similarly. Its path is in our hands, until it isn’t.

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