Spoiler Alert: Do not read if you haven’t watched “Stranger in a Strange Land,” the Season 3 finale of “For All Mankind,” now streaming on Apple TV+.
In its third season, Apple TV+’s “For All Mankind” encouraged viewers to turn their attention to the possibilities of Mars. But that deceptive invitation meant taking their eyes off the dangers on the homefront — until it was too late.
In the finale, the Mars-bound crews for NASA, Helios and Russia band together to launch a very pregnant Kelly Baldwin (Cynthy Wu) back to the Phoenix station to safely give birth in its controlled gravity above the Red Planet — a successful mission that effectively strands the rest of them for 18 months until they can be rescued. But just as victory is declared from the control center back on Earth, a domestic terrorism plot targeting NASA’s increasingly divisive space program came to devastating fruition when a bomb was detonated outside the Johnson Space Center.
After the dust settled, Karen (Shantel VanSanten) and Molly (Sonya Walger) — two of the show’s original cast members — were counted among the dead.
“This decision was not taken lightly, and we struggled with it,” co-creator Ben Nedivi said of Karen’s death, specifically. “But there had to be a death on Earth that felt powerful enough that it resonated all the way to Mars.”
The jarring and eerily familiar attack (yes, the writers are aware of the 9/11 imagery) closed out a season that shook the foundation of the series’ alternate timeline, which imagines what happened if space exploration never stopped with the moon landing. While the moon has been conjured, this season’s repeated setbacks in the race to land on Mars weakened the space race’s pillar in our national identity.
With a fourth season already greenlit by Apple, as announced during the show’s Comic-Con panel in July, Nedivi and co-creator Matt Wolpert — who earlier this week extended their overall deal with Sony Pictures Television — talked with Variety about the finale’s casualties, the controversy surrounding Danny (Casey W. Johnson), how the tide turning against NASA will affect the show and what “For All Mankind” will look like in the 21st century.
Fans of the show probably didn’t have launching a pregnant woman into space on their Season 3 bingo cards. How did you arrive at this elaborate mission?
Ben Nedivi: Even with the Duct tape suits from Season 2, when that idea came up earlier in the season, you just go, “This is crazy.” But the more we looked at the science, the less crazy it seemed. It set a bar for us, and we feel this show can go to those places while still finding a way to stay true to science and what is possible. We take that to the limits and sometimes a little beyond, but I think in this case, even as crazy as this moment with Kelly is, it is based on the questions we ask and the science we follow.
Despite the dramatic events on and above Mars, the finale’s defining moment is back on Earth with the bombing. How did you balance the stakes of Mars and Earth?
Nedivi: That was what we always wanted to do. It’s been set up very early on that progress in our society comes with pushback, and it starts with the protests over the clean energy fusion, and people losing their jobs. There is a lot of anger in America. We planted those seeds early on. What was interesting to us was to set up the expectation that the danger is in space, and then we mess with that and remind people Earth is still pretty dangerous too.
The imagery in the aftermath of the bomb is particularly striking for anyone who remembers real-life attacks like 9/11. Was there a conscious effort to draw parallels to moments in history?
Matt Wolpert: There were a lot of discussions about that. Obviously, 9/11 was such a formative event for so many people, and the Oklahoma City bombing was another reference point in history for us. There are these tragic moments of destruction and violence, and seeing how it brings out heroism in the people left to deal with the aftermath was something we wanted to shine a light on.
It is such a part of our history, those moments of tragedy that come from people who are angry and disenfranchised and choose terrible ways to express their frustration. It felt very much like a lot of those social dynamics that led to the Oklahoma City bombing, in particular, would have still existed in our world but maybe shifted their focus. NASA, as the focal point of the U.S. government in our alternate history, felt like where it would be directed.
How does that frustration with NASA, which we see on an extremist level and in the pullback in government funding, affect the show moving forward?
Nedivi: In real life, there’s been pushback to the space program since the beginning, all the way back to the Apollo program. There were protests, similar to what we show in Season 3, that said that money was better spent on Earth. With the events of this season, it does shape how we’re moving forward into Season 4 in that it’s no longer a blank check to go up and do whatever we need to do to keep exploring. There’s been huge accidents both out there and here that will play a part in the future. Now, as everything with the show, our overarching goal is to continue exploration of space. But this season, we also wanted to really capture this idea that, moving forward, is not just utopia and milk and honey.
Three – going on four – seasons into your alternate timeline, how do you approach diverging from real history in a way that’s both faithful to the show and yet not too drastic?
Wolpert: At the beginning of every season, we do a deep dive into that decade, and think about the things that define that era and what would have changed and what would have stayed the same. Going forward, the butterfly effect will have an exponential effect. The further you go along, the more different the world becomes. But it has been important to us to ground things as much as possible and remind people of the era we’re in, even if it’s just in the way we use music and wardrobe. Those things that bring you back to that era. Seeing things like that juxtaposed with a growing base on Mars and these amazing technological accomplishments that feel futuristic, that’s kind of the most unique aspect of our show. The future and the past mushed together in one time.
You’re saying humans may have made it to Mars in the ’90s, but the hairstyles can still be bad.
There is, perhaps, no more important character this season than Karen. In many ways, she puts the pieces in place for how several characters end up on Mars. Considering how transformational this season was for her, why was it the right time to end her story?
Nedivi: Her arc is, maybe, one of the greatest examples of what is possible with a show like this. She starts out as an astronaut housewife, but even in that first scene she’s in, you can tell Karen is a boss. You knew the CEO potential was there, and I feel like because of the time she lived in and the expectations put on her, she never had that opportunity. It is one of the gifts of telling an alternate history, to show her growth throughout the seasons even when it wasn’t all pretty. But having that ability to grow and fail and succeed, and in this season to rise to the occasion in such a big way, it is an insane arc.
In terms of who keeps going on the show and who doesn’t, we have a loose framework. For us, it comes down to what feels like the right end of a story for a character. Not only are we insanely attached to the character of Karen Baldwin, but we are in awe of the actress, Shantel VanSanten. This decision was not taken lightly, and we struggled with it. But there had to be a death on Earth felt powerfully enough that it resonated all the way to Mars. Seeing that she is a casualty of this bombing makes the bombing feel that much more real and impactful.
Is that why Molly is also among the casualties?
Wolpert: We said before that in the writers’ room, we’ve come up with several different ways we could kill Molly Cobb throughout the course of the show, and we’ve just never been able to bring ourselves to do it because she is such an amazing character and Sonya Walger is such an amazing presence. But this felt like the right way to close out her storyline, in that heroic way because that’s what Molly does. She goes back into the fray to save another person. We saw her do that with Wubbo at the beginning of Season 2 and this just felt very much in line with who she is. To see someone not only overcome the circumstances of a post-bombing terrain, but to do so by overcoming her limitations with her vision, it really felt like a beautiful coda to her story.
As the son of two hero astronauts, Danny could have been the leader of the next generation that will inevitably have to take up the mantle of space exploration. But the season ends with him in forced isolation on Mars after his actions and addictions cost lives. Perhaps the only critique of Season 2 was Karen and Danny’s ill-advised affair, which you could have left in the past with the time jump. But you doubled down on his downfall this year. Why?
Wolpert: Danny is a fascinating character to us. We have been aware of the audience’s reaction to some of the choices he’s made, both in Season 2 and 3. For us, passion is a great thing, whether it is positive or negative. You don’t have to like every choice a character makes. In fact, some of the greatest characters in television are characters people hate. To us, the story of Danny and [his brother] Jimmy is the story of their parents. It was very important to us to tell the story of the cost of heroism and the negative effects the sacrifice that Gordo and Tracey made at the end of Season 2 had on their children. We talked a lot in the writers’ room about the book “100 Years of Solitude,” which tells the story of a family generation to generation and how not every generation of a family is a step forward. Over the long arc of the show, it gives you a chance at redeeming that family. So we definitely went into Danny’s story with our eyes open about our goals.
In the final moments of the finale, it’s revealed Margo (Wrenn Schmidt) is living in Russia in 2003, having not died in the explosion like the world thought. She successfully evaded a treason charge, but as someone who has given her life to the space program, will she be able to stay away?
Nedivi: A very good question that I will not answer. The more we thought about this ending, the more it felt right. Margo has two choices — go to prison or to Russia. On some level in her mind, she probably thinks there is something she still has to offer the world. Maybe she could do some good to make up for what happened. But this will be the biggest trial of her life. I don’t want to spoil anything, but it is definitely one of the storylines we are most excited for in Season 4. It is a real departure for the show.
Margo is the only one we see in the flashforward. What does the jump into the 21st century look like in the alternate timeline of “For All Mankind?”
Wolpert: Without getting into too much, because we are in the middle of the writers’ room right now figuring all of that out, it’s really about the expansion of what those Mars pioneers built in Season 3. We talked a lot this season about the journey of the Pilgrims, the first immigrants coming across the Atlantic Ocean. Coming back to our story in the 2000s and seeing what society they have built up there and how it has progressed in ways that maybe people didn’t see coming, there’s where a lot of the fun is going to lie in Season 4.
This interview has been edited and condensed.