AppleTV+’s alternate history sci-fi drama doesn’t reach for the stars as much in its fourth season, but remains compelling.
This piece was written during the 2023 SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the actors currently on strike, the works being covered here wouldn’t exist.
Early in For All Mankind Season 4, Ed Baldwin (Joel Kinnaman) and Dani Poole (Krys Marshall) reencounter each other for the first time in years on the Happy Valley Mars base. Smiling warmly, each says, “Hi, Bob,” to each other. For fans of the show, it has an immediate impact. The significance of the silly greeting reminds those audience members of the deep bond between these two astronauts. Newcomers likely won’t grasp the specifics of the importance, but Marshall and Kinnaman’s performances make it quite clear that it isn’t some random bit of silliness.
Four years in, this scene captures a large part of why the show continues to earn its audience’s confidence. It treats everyone watching with respect, figuring them intelligent enough that something significant occurred between these two characters without an extended exposition scene or an awkward flashback. It trusts viewers to keep up, regardless of whether they’ve watched every episode, read the Wiki, or are giving the series a first try. In a time when so many grouse about “homework” if they don’t already know every reference, every detail, the moment it is mentioned on-screen, it is heartening to encounter For All Mankind Season 4’s approach. It isn’t hostile to newcomers, but it also doesn’t pretend as if the show doesn’t have three seasons that came before it.
Just because the series is unafraid of connecting to its past doesn’t necessarily guarantee it is equal in quality to those three previous efforts, however. For All Mankind Season 4 does pull back on its space exploration ambitions. Through the seven episodes made available to critics, the international coalition neither explores nor claims any new planets. Instead, the series moves its focus to life in the wake of almost four decades of magnificent leaps forward in technology and space exploration. After laying out a near-utopic vision of the world post-Johnson Space Center bombing, the show pushes inward to consider class concerns and the international rivalries that no number of speeches about a “new peace” can simply brush off.
It’s compelling and well-observed. Returning writers like Matt Wolpert & Ben Nedivi, David Weddle & Bradley Thompson, and Sabrina Almeida, joined by the likes of Andrew Black and Jovan Robinson, once again prove themselves talented chroniclers of all-too-human characters that time will one day reduce to the great men and women of history. Unfortunately, they haven’t yet developed new characters as strong as those insights.
[E]ven as the series looks inward, it still soars.
To wit, take Miles (Toby Kebbell). He’s a former driller whose job disappeared after electric cars became dominant in Mankind’s late 90s. His marriage is all over, but for his refusing to sign the paperwork. (Sidenote: As a child of divorce, pop culture has me imagining my parents endlessly squabbling over signing “the papers.”) He lies his way into a job on Mars, hoping that a new job will mean he never needs to make the divorce final. In doing so, he becomes a POV character that allows viewers to witness the base’s class disparity. All in all, it gives Kebbell an interesting set of issues to play. Unfortunately, beyond those challenges, Miles never takes shape. He’s more a theme delivery device than a full-fledged character.
Still, that’s a problem for the future. In For All Mankind Season 4, the all-stars still deliver. Kinnaman continues to explore the best character of his career. Wrenn Schmidt mines Margo’s mix of frustration, regret, and resignation with intriguing nuance. Marshall makes it all look effortless, mixing charisma and steel without sweating on-screen. This season, even as the series looks inward, it still soars.
For All Mankind Season 4 mines the red planet for all its worth starting November 10 on AppleTV+.