As someone who considers herself one of For All Mankind‘s staunchest supporters, it grieves me to admit the Season 3 finale simply did not work. Instead of following storylines out to their logical, emotional conclusions, the For All Mankind Season 3 finale very clearly seemed to be chasing the same wild highs that made the Season 2 finale such a knockout. But where For All Mankind Season 2 was built on U.S./Soviet tensions and Tracy (Sarah Jones) and Gordo’s (Michael Dornan) parallel journeys to reclaim their own sense of heroism, For All Mankind Season 3 was about a race to Mars that transformed into a collaborative mission to survive. The Season 3 finale — with its weird North Korean twist, terrorism plot, and insane plan to shoot a pregnant woman with pre-eclampsia into space — didn’t tonally make sense. It was also messy, killing characters offscreen and forgetting about major new developments.
The For All Mankind Season 3 finale was a misfire, but why? How did one of the most carefully plotted shows on television right now somehow lose sight of its own internal logic? Could it be that by chasing the dramatic highs of the Season 2 finale, For All Mankind Season 3 got in its own damn way?
Apple TV+’s For All Mankind takes place in an alternate timeline where the Soviet Union, not the United States, landed on the moon first. This sets off a ripple effect, transforming the space race into an aggressive battle that sees Richard Nixon pushing for female astronauts, the establishment of a permanent moon base, and huge advancements in technology. For All Mankind Season 3 takes place in the early ’90s and follows a three-way race to Mars. NASA, the USSR, and private company Helios all think they have the right stuff to get there first.
By the time we get to the For All Mankind Season 3 finale, the few surviving astronauts from all three missions have teamed up on Mars’s surface out of sheer necessity. They are desperately trying to cultivate enough fuel to send their one remaining working shuttle up into orbit to meet Helios’s ship to make the journey home. There are two problems: there’s barely enough fuel to support the weight of one person at this juncture and astronaut Kelly Baldwin (Cynthy Wu) is pregnant and beginning to show signs of pre-eclampsia, a condition that will kill her and her baby if not addressed within 24 hours. While the surviving astronauts nobly offer Kelly their seats, there’s still not enough fuel to get the shuttle all the way to the Phoenix’s orbit. Back on earth, Aleida (Coral Peña) comes up with the mathematically sound plan to…uh…strap Kelly to the top of the ship and then use her space suit’s thrusters to propel her the rest of the way??
The whole mission — which also involves Ed (Joel Kinnaman) flying the shuttle and landing blind, without fuel, most likely to his death — felt ludicrous to watch. Like, I’m sure the math works, but I can’t imagine expecting a dying pregnant woman to pull off the precision timed movements to make that math work. Moreover, I suspect the whole experience of being strapped to a rocket and hurtling into space could upset the fetus? (Or maybe not! I just know that if a pregnant woman trips down some stairs, that can be bad!) And then there’s the fact that Ed actually survives the landing?
The whole Kelly situation felt like the writers’ room challenged themselves to top the insanity of Tracy and Gordo wrapping themselves up in makeshift duct tape spacesuits to go on a suicide run on the moon’s surface. That moment was indeed wild. However it worked because neither survives their heroic folly. It also worked because it was a satisfying end to the separated couple’s first and second season arcs. You could believe that the always rebellious Tracy and Gordo would dare to pull something as stupid as that off. That Kelly, baby, and Ed all seem unscathed is neither a logical or emotional conclusion.
But not every character did survive the finale. Back on Earth, Tracy and Gordo’s younger son Jimmy (David Chandler) has fallen in with an extremist group that is plotting to blow NASA up. A bit of phone tag brings Karen Baldwin (Shantel VanSanten) rushing to his aid. Karen saves Jimmy, but not NASA. A bomb goes off, killing Karen in the blast. We learn from a later newspaper headline that Molly Cobb (Sonya Walger) also perished while heroically helping survivors to safety.
While the writers did steadfastly plot this ever-encroaching danger, the characters chosen to perish felt a bit off. In the case of Karen, she had just deftly taken over Helios, setting herself up as one of the most important people in future space endeavors. There was room for her to grow even more into a space age leader. Instead she died fulfilling her original role as NASA wife and mother, protecting the progeny of the heroes who conquered space. In the case of Molly, she had been offscreen for most of the season, due to a rift with Margo Madison (Wrenn Schmidt). Really, though, it felt like the writers didn’t know what to do with a middle-aged blind woman.
Then there’s my biggest quibble with the For All Mankind Season 3 finale, which is shockingly not a rant about how Danny Stevens (Casey W. Johnson) is the worst. (Though he is.) For All Mankind Season 3 Episode 10 opens with the revelation that North Korea also sent a ship to Mars and its mission’s sole survivor arrived before NASA, the USSR, and Helios. We watch a poignant montage showing this man’s harrowing journey before he collides with our heroes. After a tense standoff, Danielle Poole (Krys Marshall) and Grigory Kuznetsov (Lev Gorn) get the upper hand and take him back to base, where Ed is able to dredge up some Korean War slang to chat with him.
The North Korean twist was a really well thought out one! We’ve seen off-handed comments throughout the season that North Korea was attempting to join the space race, but was seemingly flailing. It’s class For All Mankind stuff. But what wasn’t as deftly done is how this guy is just totally forgotten about once everyone’s back at base and Kelly has to be rocketed into the great black unknown. Like, hello, there’s a North Korean guy here. What is his take on this madness? We’re just going to use him as window dressing now? Oh, okay. (But not.)
For All Mankind has been one of the most incredible science fiction shows of the last decade, but this finale fell incredibly flat. It was sloppy, frustrating, and, at times, downright ridiculous. Nevertheless, I can’t quit this wildly audacious show. I know that when For All Mankind Season 4 comes around, I will be rooting for it to get back on track. I care about these characters too much now. I care about this show too much now. And that’s precisely why this finale upset me so.
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