We’ve got a lot of catching up to do.
Like every previous season, this one starts with a time jump, and a newsreel of events unfolding in our alternate timeline. The highlights: after shocking the nation by coming out as gay last season, President (and former astronaut) Ellen Wilson wins a close re-election bid, and four years later is succeeded by President Al Gore. Instead of the USSR collapsing, Mikhail Gobachev’s liberal reforms (the “glasnost” of the episode title) transforms the Soviet Union into an economic powerhouse and an ally of the US, as President Gore declares the Cold War over.
On Mars, the Happy Valley Mars base is now a sprawling compound, and gray-haired Ed Baldwin is still in charge of the base, exchanging video messages with Kelly and his born-in-space grandson. And kicking off this season’s overarching plot, he and Russian pal Grigory Kuznetsov are on a joint mission to land Grigory on an asteroid. While this show thrives on anything and everything going wrong in space, it doesn’t lose sight of the pure joy of exploration, and Grigory’s giddy thrill at running his hand across the surface of the asteroid is a great moment to start the season on.
Of course, if everyone were happy and everything was going well, there wouldn’t be a show. Season one took place in 1969, and now it’s 34 years later. Our remaining season one leads — Ed, Dani, Margot, and Aleida — are getting too old for this shit. Ed’s hands are shaking and he’s not the kind of person to admit he’s lost a step. Margo (as revealed in last season’s post-credits stinger) has defected to Russia, but has been shut out by Roscosmos after decades of covertly helping them keep up with NASA. Aleida’s rattled by post-traumatic stress from surviving the Johnson Space Center bombing. Amber Stevens has been on her own for years, with the fate of her husband Danny as-yet-unrevealed. (Creepy, unstable Danny was the furthest thing from a fan favorite, so it’s not outside the realm of possibility the writers decided he was killed on his way back to his home planet.)
They’ve suffered too much, lost too many friends, and yet none of them can stay away. As Danielle Poole says, “the people you’ve hurt, the people you’ve lost, you just carry them around with you, wherever you go.” And she’s in a better place than anyone else on the show, having happily retired to a peaceful, Earthbound life. And yet, when a mission gone wrong gets her called back into action, she can’t bring herself to say no.
Who could stay away? What greater adventure is there than exploring the cosmos? Long-running shows often need some contrivance to keep their characters running through the same paces season after season, but it never needs explaining why Mankind’s characters keep coming back for more. Yes, there’s always danger. Death, failure, broken marriages, strained friendships. But as Captain Kirk famously said, risk is our business. The rewards are simply too great not to keep pushing further. So Ed stays on Mars a while longer, despite getting too old for the job, having a daughter and grandson who need him around. Dani leaves her comfortable life on Earth to go back to Happy Valley. And when Margot gets turned away by the Russian space agency, clearly not for the first time, we can safely assume she isn’t going to quietly retire and take up the balalaika.
As missions go, asteroid mining isn’t nearly as exciting as seeing the first person land on the moon or Mars. (Or being that person.) But it’s another mission, another frontier to explore, and our astronauts can’t say no.
• A few more highlights from the opening reel: After leaving office, Ellen marries Pam, having legalized gay marriage nearly 20 years ahead of our own timeline. Clint Eastwood plays Ed in the movie version of the earlier seasons. And as always, John Lennon is still alive, and playing a triumphant Super Bowl halftime show instead of what we all know deep down he’d really be doing — embarrassing himself on social media on a regular basis.
• Apart from the opening montage, Jodi Balfour won’t be returning as Ellen Wilson. Edi Gathegi is still part of the cast, but his disgraced Helios founder Dev Ayesa doesn’t appear this week. Instead, season four bolsters the cast with Daniel Stern as Eli Hobson, a former auto exec who’s replaced Margot as NASA chief; and Toby Kebell as Miles Dale, an about-to-be-divorced oil rig worker who gets a mining job on Mars in the hopes of winning his wife back. With the Stevens family all out of the picture, we need our dose of family drama, and until the show contrives a way to get Kelly back into space, we need a few younger characters, unless we want season five to feature 80-year-old Ed Baldwin flying to Jupiter on his own.
• While the asteroid-mining mission lacks the epic scale of the Mars race, we do get to see a lot more of astronauts doing hands-on work. Whether that’s owing to the smaller scale, or a higher CGI budget this season, it adds a lot to the show to feel like these characters are really working out in space and not just walking around a red-tinted Mars soundstage.
• When Ellen runs for re-election she replaces her bigoted Religious Right VP with Secretary of State George H.W. Bush, who, in a bit of alt-historical irony, loses the 2000 election to Al Gore. This is well outside the show’s purview, but it would be fascinating to explore a political world in which the GOP becomes the party of scientific advancement and LGBT rights instead of being violently opposed to those things. Do the Democrats pick up that ball and run with it, as Nixon did with the Southern Strategy? Or do we just get a better America in which bigotry and anti-intellectualism don’t have a home, politically? It’s smart of the show to stay focused on the astronauts’ world, but the occasional glimpses of how the wider world could have changed are always entertaining.