For All Mankind takes one small step toward interesting drama [Apple TV+ review]

On this week’s installment of Apple TV+’s labored and single-minded For All Mankind, the next space flight is on everyone’s mind as the NASA crew careens toward destiny.

For All Mankind review: ‘Pathfinder’

After Ed Baldwin (Joel Kinnaman)’s explosion last week at wife Karen and adopted daughter Kelly, the astronaut must lie in the bed he made. But for once, he doesn’t mind what that means. Karen (Shantel VanSanten) deduced that he misses space travel and pushes him to command the Pathfinder space ship.

He slugs down a celebratory drink with astronaut buddies Gordo Stevens (Michael Dorman) and Danielle Poole (Krys Marshall). But Gordo’s already cracking up. He suffers a panic attack the first time he gets into one of NASA’s new spacesuits. Danielle and Ed talk him down, but everyone at the table seems to know he’s not getting back to the moon.

Shuffling the deck at NASA

Ed decides to give Molly Cobb (Sonya Walger) his old job while he trains for space flight. She’s in a tailspin, too, knowing that the full diagnosis from her radiation exposure is just around the corner, but she reluctantly agrees.

Danielle goes to visit her deceased husband’s family (he killed himself between seasons of For All Mankind), but they’re less warm than she anticipated. His sister (Yaani King Mondschein) knows about Danielle lying about breaking her arm to protect Gordo, and thinks Danielle’s wasting government money as an astronaut that could be going to better things.

It’s a little weird that the show makes the anti-government black woman the villain, even if it is only for this scene, but For All Mankind always had a conservative bent. Danielle does do something with this, demanding that Ed give her command of a mission. He can’t fight her arguments, but he doesn’t want to do it anyway.

She pushes back hard. “You sound like an NFL owner,” she says, like OJ Simpson wasn’t the most famous football player in the world in the ’80s. It’s all a little … I don’t know. I’m not sure what the goal posts here are even supposed to mean on this show.

I think I’ll sen’ these doctor bills airmail special to whitey on the moon

Wrenn Schmidt, Joel Kinnaman, John Marshall Jones and Jodi Balfour in <em>For All Mankind</em>.
Wrenn Schmidt, Joel Kinnaman, John Marshall Jones and Jodi Balfour in For All Mankind.
Photo: Apple TV+

Reagan and the Russians both approve Thomas Paine (Dan Donohue)’s idea to have Americans and Soviets shake hands on the moon, which pisses off Margo, Ellen and Ed, but they get on board anyway. Ed immediately suggests Danielle for the command and just shoves the racist onus onto Thomas, who is as uncomfortable with her taking as Ed was eight seconds ago when he told her he couldn’t do the same thing. I really don’t love this show’s version of progressivism.

The extremely talented Andrew Stanton (Wall*E) directed this episode of For All Mankind. He’s one of the greatest directors working in what you might call mass market paperback TV, but I really wish he was given more to work with.

This episode, titled simply “Pathfinder,” exhibits some real verve. But it’s still the same very labored drama — and Stanton deserves better material. There isn’t even anything particularly interesting in space to which the John Carter director can apply his talents, save for a few seconds of F-18 flight that provide the episode with its cliffhanger ending.

Today in alternative history

This week we hear the Loverboy song “Working for the Weekend.” And Gordo watches Vanna White’s first episode of Wheel of Fortune. Yentl has been released, and Larry Wilson’s favorite Martin Scorsese movie is 1983’s The King of Comedy.

I mean sure. Why not? But also, why go to such great lengths to show these guys enjoying concurrent cultural things. Why not make new bands? New movies? Wouldn’t that be more fun? Does everything have to be about the damned moon?!?! Forgive me, I don’t get out as much as I used to and this show is really making me feel claustrophobic.

For All Mankind on Apple TV+

New episodes of For All Mankind arrive 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 director of 25 feature films, and the author of more than 300 video essays, which can be found at Patreon.com/honorszombie.