TV: For All Mankind (Season 4)

Launching a great science fiction show is one thing; sustaining one is something else entirely. Ronald D. Moore tends to do a fine job of the former, but he struggles with the latter, and unfortunately For All Mankind follows in the footsteps of Battlestar Galactica on that score. Early promise steadily fading, For All Mankind remained compelling through season three despite numerous soap-opera missteps. With season four, it has become a victim of its own ambition and longevity.

Following on the heels of earlier seasons, this one jumps ahead another decade, from the great Mars race of the 1990s to an established Mars station in the 2000s. The base, Happy Valley, is supported by an international coalition that, while rife with tension, is still largely collaborative. As the season begins, pioneer astronaut Ed Baldwin (Joel Kinnaman) stubbornly resists retirement as the chief operations officer, and he’s in charge when a risky asteroid-mining mission goes horribly wrong. In the wake of an accident, Ed’s respected friend and colleague Dani Poole (Krys Marshall) comes out of retirement to take over Happy Valley. Her job is to shepherd the program—an initiative that grows more urgent when a “Goldilocks” asteroid strays near Mars orbit. The invaluable rock contains more lithium than all of Earth combined, and capturing it would have immense economic and scientific ramifications. But during a short window of opporutunity to recover it, the effort is besieged by complications: geopolitical tensions between the U.S., Russia, and North Korea, meddling private-sector interests, a fractious class divide between Happy Valley’s privileged astronauts, pilots, and scientists and an increasingly disgruntled underclass of station workers. Can the beleaguered factions of humanity get their act together in time to seize this world-transforming opportunity?

Given Moore’s mission statement—that For All Mankind is basically “the road to Star Trek”—the answer, rather obviously, is yes. Therefore, as in previous seasons, the entertainment comes not from what will happen, but how precisely it will unfold. The first couple of seasons managed that with a sure hand, and even season three’s broader scenario contained enough enganging sense of wonder to gloss over annoying subplots and character missteps. Even so, by then the strain had begun, as an ambitious time-jumping structure drove great characters down unlikely paths—or, worse, into corners where the only out was untimely death.

Season four spirals further south, its charms steadily eroding not because of the overall scenario or the broader strokes of the plot, which remain reasonably interesting. But the details, both in terms of plot and character, are mishandled. Kinnaman’s Ed Baldwin, never a particularly warm, fuzzy figure, was at least relatable in the early days. Here, his shifting allegiances and motives are constantly undermined by odious or, worse, random behavior. On the flip side, Marshall’s competent, charistmatic Dani is awkwardly pushed to the “wrong” side of the series’ primary conflict—a conflict that hews so strictly to the show’s mission statement that it turns the side-choosing into a clumsy, arbitrary exercise.

There are interesting elements to the season, such as the growing socioeconomic strife in Happy Valley, given voice by blue-collar newcomers. For example, there’s Miles Dale (Toby Kebbell), who ventures to the red planet in an attempt to make enough money to shore up his crumbling family life—only to receive a rude awakening about his financial prospects. There’s also Samantha Massey (Tyner Rushing), who becomes a labor organizer when the harsh working conditions at Happy Valley lead to unsafe conditions and rampant corporate exploitation. Alas, these new characters aren’t afforded enough time to win us over, especially in an endgame that increasingly pits them against the generally well-meaning establishment we’ve spent three seasons investing in. Another intriguing angle is the extended personal ordeal of Margo Madison (Wrenn Schmidt), whose commitment to science over the years has led to enormous personal sacrifice—and ended with her living in Russia as a reluctant defector. Margo is an inspiring presence in the series whose character, increasingly, gets a raw deal in the name of dramatic tension. Moreso than any other actor, Schmidt does an amazing job selling a four-decade physical transformation, and her heartbreaking performance is sensational. But watching her suffering hurts, and it certainly isn’t satisfying, especially when it  leads to an uncharacteristic reversal in the clunky, paradigm-shifting final episode.

In the end, then, it’s a rather disappointing season—perhaps inevitably so, given the immense structural challenges the show had established for itself. Still, it deserves credit for ambition of approach. The accelerated alternate timeline, still tinged with authentic period detail, is an impressive sustained achievement, even if it gets less compelling the closer the story gets to contemporary times. I’m not convinced there isn’t still something to the project, which might ultimately pay off if it manages to push beyond the present into new territory, but it will take much better writing and a rallying new hero or two to get things back on track.

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