'For All Mankind' season 4 episode 3 review: A Cold War thriller set in the 21st century

A man in gray work coveralls embellished with a 'Helios' logo is pushing a metal cart down an industrial-looking corridor.
What's happening at Helios? (Image credit: Apple TV+)

The James Bond franchise had to reinvent itself after the fall of the Iron Curtain in the early-1990s, but "For All Mankind"'s alternative timeline keeps the old-school Cold War thriller alive well into the 21st century. It's also a case of history repeating itself, as a close approximation of the coup that nearly toppled Mikhail Gorbachev in real-life plays out a decade later – with former NASA boss Margo Madison caught in the crossfire.

As hardline Communists try to take back control of the U.S.S.R., capitalism is undoubtedly on top elsewhere. After last week's outing was dominated by efforts to turn Mars' internet back on, this third episode is all about keeping the booze flowing in Happy Valley, as Miles Dale gets involved in the base's lucrative black market. And back on Earth, Kelly Baldwin and Aleida Rosales's mission to secure funding for their Martian space probe takes them to an unexpected destination.

It's an episode short on "For All Mankind"'s traditional orbital action, but – like the Cold War itself – a tense, slow-burning affair.

Related: 'For All Mankind' season 4 episode 1 review: Lots of moving parts but light on plot

Spoilers ahead for "For All Mankind" season 4 episode 3: "The Bear Hug"

"The Bear Hug" picks up in the immediate aftermath of the newspaper stand incident that concluded last week's episode, "Have a Nice Sol". A confused Margo is among 12 detainees crammed into a police van. "The police back Korzhenko [the leader of the coup]," her newspaper seller friend explains. "They're making an example of those who ask questions. Just do what they say." They're thrown out of the van and lined up against a wall with lots of other prisoners.

After the opening credits, a U.S. news report supplies the necessary exposition on the "Soviet Crisis," explaining that Communist hardliners are trying to reverse Western-friendly policies and restore Marxist/Leninist principles. With actual archive footage adding to the effect, it's eerily reminiscent of the real-life 1991 coup that came close to toppling Mikhail Gorbachev, and subsequently led to the break-up of the former U.S.S.R.

The shockwaves are only just reaching Mars. NASA boss Eli Hobson (Daniel Stern) tells the Happy Valley crew that President Al Gore is expected to condemn the action imminently, and that they've been unable to make contact with Roscosmos or Star City. When Soviet commander Svetlana Zakharova (Masha Mashkova) explains that she's also unable to get in touch with her father, the ever-sensitive Danielle Poole (Krys Marshall) orders that communications with Russia be prioritized. She also offers to postpone the imminent asteroid capture training mission, but Svetlana says they should continue as planned.

Danielle Poole (Krys Marshall) and Ed Baldwin (Joel Kinnaman) in "For All Mankind," now streaming on Apple TV+. (Image credit: Apple TV+)

Back on Earth, Kelly Baldwin (Cynthy Wu) and Aleida Rosales (Coral Peña) pitch their S.E.E.K.E.R. (Subterranean Extraterrestrial Exploration via Kinematically Enhanced Robots) to Helios. Although much of the preparatory work has already been funded by NASA – and the presentation is well received – the board decide they don't want to take the financial risk of looking for life on Mars.

"What's 200 million to a company worth more than the GDP of Texas?" asks a frustrated Kelly. "I can think of someone else worth just about the same," replies Aleida. And seeing as we've just seen Helios founder Dev Ayesa (Edi Gathegi) relaxing on his private beach, there are no prizes for guessing who she means.

Deep below the surface of the red planet, Miles Dale (Toby Kebbell) receives a message from his wife, Amanda (Shannon Lucio), telling him that his lower-than-expected take-home pay isn't making his two-year Martian jaunt worthwhile. She's therefore looking for a job to help pay the bills. Miles needs to find a way to bring in some extra scrip (Martian money) fast, so he asks Ilya Breshov (Dimiter D Marinov) – the brains behind Happy Valley's lucrative black market – if he could use an extra pair of hands.

Ilya is cautious about bringing anyone new into his operation, until Miles' roommate Samantha Massey (Tyner Rushing) points out that Miles' access-all-areas pass could be a very useful tool for someone who needs to get things. Her intervention swings the deal, and surely we can't be the only ones thinking that romance is now on the cards – especially after the writers have gone to such great lengths to make it clear that Miles' marriage is in a bad place, and that Samantha got divorced before flying to Mars.

Miles' roommate Samantha Massey (Tyner Rushing) vouches for Miles Dale (Toby Kebbell). (Image credit: Apple TV+)

It's also a great excuse for another of "For All Mankind"'s fun training montages, this time with the cool grifter vibe of "Ocean's 11." The key takeaways? Use a pencil and paper rather than a computer when taking orders, and always smile at the customer.

Margo has apparently found herself in her very own Cold War spy movie, albeit one that's taking place a decade after the real Cold War ended. That said, the chances of a James Bond figure coming to the rescue seem remote, even when her inquisitor runs out of the room to investigate the gunfire that's going off outside.

Above Mars, Ed Baldwin (Joel Kinnaman) and Svetlana have an asteroid docking dress rehearsal. The hand issues that were afflicting Ed in season opener "Glasnost" are flaring up again, so – while claiming the controls are a bit "sluggish" – he passes control over to her. They're clearly comfortable in each other's company, so when she tells him she's still suffering back pain after the asteroid disaster that killed Soviet hero Grigory Kuznetsov, he suggests she visit his garden later that evening.

Relations between the U.S. and U.S.S.R. aren't quite so cordial in Margo's holding cell, where the former NASA director (detained under the name of Margaret Reynolds, her Canadian "business consultant" alias) is interrogated by Lieutenant Stepan Gura (Konstantin Lavysh) – a particularly zealous police officer working against the "corrupt Gorbachev regime." He tries – and indeed manages – to scare her by pointing out that foreigners taking part in anti-government demonstrations are subject to the same penalties as Soviet nationals. He's much more interested, however, in the business card Margo was given by the mysterious woman on the bench in the season premiere – understandably so, seeing as the dialing code suggests it leads directly to the upper echelons of the KGB.


Svetlana Zakharova (Masha Mashkova) and Ed Baldwin (Joel Kinnaman) focusing hard. (Image credit: Apple TV+)

Kelly and Aleida arrive at Dev's tech paradise home – or, in the words of a trespassing surfer, "monstrosity of a house" – to make their S.E.E.K.E.R. pitch. Dev's also impressed by the plan, but he doesn't believe that patenting the genomes discovered will be quite as lucrative as Kelly claims, and declines. She's not in the mood to take no for an answer, however, so tells him he's "full of shit" and no longer the guy who once impressed her mom so much that she went to work for him. Dev counters by saying that Karen stabbed him in the back, though the experience was still worthwhile because it helped him see people for what they really are.

"Maybe I shouldn't have brought up my mom…" says Kelly. "You think?" Aleida replies, wryly.

But all is not lost because we see Dev taking a break from an office-based workout to give the S.E.E.K.E.R. prospectus another look.

Ed's shows Svetlana his garden, an impressive continuation of the horticultural work Kelly started on the first Martian mission eight years earlier. He tells Svetlana that growing plants helps him feel closer to his late wife, and she reveals that her father was a gardener for (former Soviet Premier) Leonid Brezhnev, so the smell of the plants is also emotive to her.

Ed then reveals the real reason for this demonstration of his green thumbs: he's been growing marijuana. As he offers her a smoke to help take away the pain, she strokes his hand and notices the tremors and stiffness. As the episode hints at another potential "For All Mankind" romance, he admits he doesn't know what the problem is – he's presumably afraid to raise the issue with a doctor in case his flight status is revoked.

Ed invites Svetlana to see his garden. (Image credit: Apple TV+)

Margo's been left waiting for some time when a man in army uniform (Nikolai Tsankov) walks into the interrogation room. Introducing himself as Colonel Vidor Kolikoff, he tells her he's working to restore Gorbachev to power, but that's not necessarily good news for Margo. He's also obsessed with her mysterious business card, and interrogates the now beaten-up Gura – to the extent of breaking his finger – to find out what he knows about the person on the other end of the phone. He eventually confesses that he called the number, whose owner claimed to be a watch repair shop that boasts one Margaret Reynolds as one of its most valued customers.

This ends badly for Gura, who's shot in the head, and it's not great for Margo either, who's splattered with blood before being chained to the ceiling. Kolikoff is also really, really keen to know the identity of the woman who gave Margo the card. At this stage in her story, it's impossible to know whether anyone is friend, foe, or even both.

On Mars, Miles discovers that doing a good turn isn't always the right course of action – especially when you're living 100 million miles outside Amazon's delivery radius. His unauthorized attempt to improve Ilya's illicit still backfires, puts alcohol production on hold for at least two months, and kills his side hustle in the process. There is one tiny sliver of hope: the component he needs does exist in Happy Valley. The problem? The only one is located in the off-limits North Korean compound.

It turns out that keeping the below-decks crew stocked with booze is a big enough deal to risk violating the odd international treaty, so Miles triggers a cooling system leak to gain access to the North Korean sector. However – perhaps inevitably – all does not go according to plan, and Lieutenant Colonel Lee (CS Lee), the first human being on Mars, walks in on Miles before he's done. Believing Miles has installed a spy camera, he demands to take a look in his case, leaving Miles with no option but to come clean about the component he's stolen. Miles offers to put it back, but Lee refuses, telling him he needs some help instead.

Kelly Baldwin (Cynthy Wu) and Aleida Rosales (Coral Peña) pitch their Subterranean Extraterrestrial Exploration via Kinematically Enhanced Robots (thankfully S.E.E.K.E.R. for short). (Image credit: Apple TV+)

Kelly and Aleida find an unexpected guest in Kelly's apartment. Dev tells them that he's been thinking about their offer and – while he has no intention of investing his own money – he has another, rather more aggressive plan. By combining his own Helios stock with shares Kelly inherited from her late mom, he reckons they can get enough stakeholders on board to mount a hostile takeover.

As Dev and Kelly make approaches to other investors, Aleida makes the case to Bill Strausser (Noah Harpster), her former mission control colleague/mentor who suffered life-changing injuries in the Johnson Space Center bombing. She's feeling guilty that she hasn't been to see him in years, while he's struggling to understand why she's left NASA to work on a project that's "beneath" somebody who "should be" director of NASA by now. She admits that, after the attack, she can't face working in manned spaceflight anymore, that the memories are too raw. Bill tells her she can do whatever she wants with his shares, but turns down her offer of a job.

The trio obviously do enough to secure the necessary votes, because Dev marches into a Helios board meeting to fire the majority of the management team.

On Mars, Miles' bold approach to keeping the liquor flowing wins him his off-the-books job back, as he tells Ilya he's found a new customer. Sensing a lucrative new revenue stream, Ilya hits Lee with a major charm offensive, but the North Korean officer isn't interested in cigarettes, alcohol, or porn. Instead, the one item on his shopping list is something that's seemingly impossible to arrange: "I need you to bring me my wife," Lee says. Is the first human on Mars looking to defect with his wife using Happy Valley as a staging post?

Whatever happens, his defection can't go much worse than Margo's, who's still hanging from the ceiling, blood congealing on her face, when her interrogator is called out of the room. She's released but has a hood thrown over her head before being bundled into the back of another van. When she reaches her destination she comes face to face with the park bench woman, Irina Morozova (Svetlana Efremova), who apologizes for taking so long to find her. Irina explains that Gorbachev has now agreed terms with the U.S.S.R.'s new government, that she has been appointed as the head of Roscosmos, and that she'd like Margo to come work for her at Star City.

At the end of an episode short on actual action – appropriate, perhaps, for an instalment steeped in Cold War themes – the Soviet space program coming under new management promises a new direction for the show. In "2001: A Space Odyssey" sequel "2010," a similar political turmoil forced U.S. and Soviet astronauts/cosmonauts to live separately – if a similar scenario plays out in Happy Valley, it could really shake things up.

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Richard Edwards
Space.com Contributor

Richard's love affair with outer space started when he saw the original "Star Wars" on TV aged four, and he spent much of the ’90s watching "Star Trek”, "Babylon 5” and “The X-Files" with his mum. After studying physics at university, he became a journalist, swapped science fact for science fiction, and hit the jackpot when he joined the team at SFX, the UK's biggest sci-fi and fantasy magazine. He liked it so much he stayed there for 12 years, four of them as editor. 

He's since gone freelance and passes his time writing about "Star Wars", "Star Trek" and superheroes for the likes of SFX, Total Film, TechRadar and GamesRadar+. He has met five Doctors, two Starfleet captains and one Luke Skywalker, and once sat in the cockpit of "Red Dwarf"'s Starbug.