For All Mankind suffers from an unbearable lack of imagination [Apple TV+ recap] ★★½

For All Mankind spins its wheels this week until a catastrophe in the back half of the episode. Danny’s losing it. Ed’s being Ed. Jimmy commits some low-level espionage. Ellen and Larry find themselves under a microscope. Aleida closes in on the truth. And Margo is losing everything.

A surprise cameo from one of history’s greatest monsters reinforces the lack of imagination on the part of a show whose only job is to imagine greater things.

For All Mankind recap: ‘Bring It Down’

Season 3, episode 7: In the episode, entitled “Bring It Down,” Margo Madison (Wrenn Schmidt) must say goodbye to Sergei Nikulov (Piotr Adamczyk) ahead of schedule, now that the Russians are working with Helios Aerospace and Dev Ayesa (Edi Gathegi) instead of her and NASA.

The Russians are drilling for an energy source on Mars, and they don’t need the US government breathing down their neck as they do so. Margo was trying to help Sergei defect, but she couldn’t get her ducks in a row in time. They’re sending him back today, and the Russians might kill him if she can’t intervene.

Last week’s episode of For All Mankind ended just as President Ellen Wilson (Jodi Balfour) announced her version of “Don’t ask, don’t tell,” at the suggestion of her closeted husband, Larry (Nate Cordry). One of his lovers, Jeremy (John Forest), told his connected friend Elliott (Michael McMillian) about their affair. Elliott took this information and leaked it, predictably enough.

So, while Larry is being grilled about NASA spending, his congressional interrogator Willie Baron (Patrick Labyorteaux) asks him if he’s seeing one of Ellen’s aides and Larry lies under oath before Congress. Then Larry grills Jeremy, and he gives up Elliott. Jeremy sees that this will likely be the last time they’re together, so he isn’t as keen to work on Larry’s behalf as he might otherwise have been.

Ellen is livid with Larry. As they discuss all the things they sacrificed to get to the oval office, Larry brings up Pam the bartender (Meghan Leathers), whom left Ellen decades ago — well before she ran for office. Turns out Ellen had no idea it was because Pam and Larry knew she couldn’t make it to Congress while in two same-sex relationships. Now, of course, she’s probably gonna look up Pam and get into more hot water.

Meanwhile on March…

Kelly (Cynthy Wu) is pissed at her dad Ed Baldwin (Joel Kinnaman) and her boyfriend Alexei (Pawel Szajda) because they won’t let her run tests on the water they’re digging up on Mars. She’s convinced they might find microscopic organisms — actual life on Mars — but they won’t conduct conclusive tests on her say so.

Really, they should both be worried about other things — like that Danny Stevens (Casey W. Johnson) is losing his mind. He’s become addicted to painkillers and is going stir-crazy.

He’s so bent out of shape that he doesn’t notice that his wife Amber (Madeline Bertani) is trying to tell him that his brother Jimmy (David Chandler) is also losing it, but in a different sort of way.

Pranking NASA

Jimmy, his girlfriend Sunny (Taylor Dearden) and her would-be anti-government terrorist cell try to break into NASA and bring it down from the inside. That’s not really what happens, though. All Sunny and her friends do is steal the statue of Jimmy’s parents and bring it to Danny’s house in the middle of the night. That’s more “senior week prank” than “espionage.”

It’s a joke that For All Mankind doesn’t lean into the fact that on the tour, everyone is super-nice and loves Jimmy. He’s there to prove that NASA is a heartless, lying corporation selling fabulist narratives to the American people to short them out of their own economic independence. But when they go to NASA, everyone’s just lovely and friendly and smiling and happy to see Jimmy.

Ed finally talks with Danny about his behavior and takes him off his next flight mission because he’s high and losing his marbles. Ed, great guy that he is, screams at Danny to hit him if he’s so mad about the situation. When the younger man refuses, Ed says, “That’s what I thought … fucking pathetic.”

Exactly what you should tell a man on the edge in front of the whole crew. This will go well.

Who stole the engine design?

Aleida Rosales (Coral Peña) is still fuming about the Russians stealing her engine design. She suspects everyone in the office except Margo, who shows her hand a little too clearly when she says that Aleida should take a break from work. Margo knows she can’t keep this a secret for much longer if she also wants to keep Aleida on her staff. But Aleida also knows there’s only one person who fits the crime — the same person who’s telling her to stop investigating.

Then Danny gets high and botches the drilling mission, which leads to Ed getting gravely injured and the rest of the Helios and Roscosmos crew getting caught in a deadly sandstorm. Nice going, young man.

Karl Rove?

Republican strategist Karl Rove makes an appearance this week, played by Joseph Beck. I guess the idea is that Ellen Wilson and Jim Bragg activated him ahead of time to come work at the White House. But what the writers don’t seem to grasp is that while, yes, it makes sense that in order to talk tough and act straight the Wilsons would absolutely kowtow to treacherous monsters like Rove, it also makes them inexcusable figures of identification.

How is anyone supposed to look at Ellen and Larry sincerely thinking about an offer made by the man who helped kill millions of innocent Iraqis and still walk away thinking that whatever happens next to them is going to be worth our time to think about?

This show has already made civil rights heroes out of Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon, so I’ll at least take it as something of a sign that they are trying to make Rove look evil. But why on earth do we spend so much time with genocidal ideologues on this show about the wonders of space travel? I await the writers response to this eagerly.

This Week in Alternate History

John LeCarre still wrote Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Thrilling.

★★☆☆

Watch For All Mankind on Apple TV+

New episodes of For All Mankind arrive on Apple TV+ 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 author of Cinemaphagy: On the Psychedelic Classical Form of Tobe Hooper, the director of 25 feature films, and the director and editor of more than 300 video essays, which can be found at Patreon.com/honorszombie.

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