For All Mankind wonders how to mend a broken heart [Apple TV+ review]

The characters in For All Mankind, Apple TV+’s space-race melodrama, all try to find their sea legs … or, uhh, space legs … in this week’s tense episode. Astronaut Ed Baldwin is under the sea. And his wife, Karen, is losing her cool. Meanwhile, Tracy Stevens is on the moon, and her ex Gordo is losing his mind!

For All Mankind review: ‘The Weight’

Tracy’s newfound fame has made her a total shill, which doesn’t really make any sense, but that’s what the writers have gone with. She’s having her moon landing filmed for posterity but her cameraman doesn’t get it the first time so she does a second take.

She’s filming everything about her voyage, and naturally all the other astronauts are awkward. Tracy doesn’t like a second of the footage captured because it inevitably makes her look a little foolish (or because her co-stars aren’t photogenic).

This part I don’t really understand. NASA was and is always pretty careful about the people they send up to space. It’s a huge plot point in The Right Stuff, the real movie (based on the Tom Wolfe book based on fact) that appears this season in For All Mankind’s alternative universe. And in fact, this show did a whole story arc about it. So it doesn’t really track that everybody on the Jamestown moon base would be a weird bundle of nerves.

Head cases in space

How did these losers get to space? Furthermore, this sequence doesn’t really add up. Why is Tracy allowed to bring a camera crew to the moon when Ed pretends he can’t send Danielle Poole (Krys Marshall) to the moon when she asks? Seems kinda like any idiot can go to the moon all of a sudden.

Tracy gets bored of being on the moon almost immediately (Without fail, this show about space travel always makes it seem like an unendurable slog that no sane person would ever put themselves through). So she spends most of her time doing mindless work, eating garbage food and calling TV and radio stations back on Earth (including K Billy, the fake radio station from Reservoir Dogs, so maybe Eli Roth killed Hitler in this universe, too).

With Gordo (Michael Dorman)’s visit to the moon impending, she dreads every new day that brings his arrival closer. The best scene of this episode finds her sneaking a cigarette while everyone else is asleep.

First-day jitters

Astronaut Tracy Stevens (Sarah Jones) is back on the moon and hating it in.

After Ed (played by Joel Kinnaman)’s crash last episode, his adopted daughter Kelly (Cynthy Wu) sees firsthand what it means to wait on a pilot when you’re back on the home front because Karen is inconsolable waiting for news about her husband. She tries to bury herself in work, but her restaurant has nothing but spaceship paraphernalia on the walls, like some kind of moon-themed TGI Fridays.

Thomas Paine wants Ed and Gordo, who’s still cracking up as his launch date nears, benched after the crash, but Molly Cobb (Sonya Walger) won’t fire them because she knows only too well what it’s like to be a pilot. Margo Madison (Wrenn Schmidt) and Thomas are beside themselves because they have to take orders from her now.

Molly is also in no hurry to chastise or hamper other astronauts because she still hopes to get back to the moon someday and her radiation sickness is slowly blinding her. Wouldn’t do to set that precedent while she’s in charge.

The strange case of Aleida

Aleida Rosales’ (Coral Peña) first day at NASA gets off to a measured start. Bill Strausser (Noah Harpster), one of the Mission Control desk guys, tries to draw her out, but she’s reluctant to share a single thing about her life for a couple of reasons. A: She doesn’t want to rat out Margo, who gave her the job over other qualified candidates because of their personal connection. And B: She doesn’t feel like revealing that her life is a trailer-park-bound nightmare.

I don’t really understand the point of Aleida’s story arc across the show’s two seasons. I get it in the first one, where she’s the child of hardworking illegal immigrants who must pull herself up by her bootstraps (as is the extremely boring way of these things in drama) to work at NASA. What I don’t get is why they then have to also add to it that she’s a violent screwup.

It feels like the decks are already stacked against this woman, who was literally homeless for a few episodes in season one. And it seems random that they also make her prove herself again for different reasons. For All Mankind is full of maladjusted white people who don’t have to demonstrate their abilities. Why is the show’s only Latina POV character such a mess?

Where everybody knows your name

Pam the bartender (Meghan Leathers) is back, in case you missed her/noticed she was gone. She was Ellen Wilson (Jodi Balfour)’s secret lover for a spell She’s since quit her job at The Outpost Tavern and has a new life as a poet — as well as a new girlfriend. That last part bothers Ellen a little when she shows up to see Pam at a poetry reading, but not enough that she says “no” to an invitation to a private drink.

Ellen’s cloistered life has been contrasted with her husband Larry (Nate Corddry)’s more active one the whole season. Now, her own loneliness is wearing on her. And because she’s a character on this show, she just decides to sleep with Pam, who a minute earlier was talking about having kids with her girlfriend.

Today in alternate history

There’s a montage set to The Band’s song “The Weight,” because of course there is. Karen and Kelly see 1982’s Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan when it premieres, even though last week Larry was talking about Yentl, which came out in ’83. When exactly is this show set?

You would think, incidentally, with all the talk about art set in space (The Right Stuff, Trek), that this show would engage a little more with the grammar of those movies. However, For All Mankind looks continually like just another piece of prestige TV. I don’t know what it buys the show to so consistently play it safe, especially because show creator Ronald D. Moore is known for much more flamboyant art than this.

For all the talk about “what if?” in For All Mankind, the series takes almost no risks. It’s still very much about “what is.”

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.