Multi-season arcs are now the standard in prestige T.V., but most shows' stories don't unfold over multiple decades. Four seasons in, "For All Mankind"'s alternative history of the space race now stretches from the late-1960s into the early 21st century, and seeds that were planted 30 (fictional) years ago are now coming to spectacular — and extremely satisfying — fruition.
The relationship between NASA boss turned defector Margo Madison (Wrenn Schmidt) and her protégée Aleida Rosales (Coral Peña) has been integral to the show since its early days. It went through a significant power shift in season 3 when Aleida suspected her boss might be caught up in some dodgy dealings with the Soviets. "Leningrad" picks up those threads and it's utterly captivating to watch.
With NASA, Roscosmos, and Helios still deciding how to proceed with the mission to capture the potentially lucrative Goldilocks asteroid, this is an episode powered by talk rather than action. But when the character beats are as good as they are here, you almost forget that it's been a long time since we've had any serious outer space jeopardy. With just four episodes left in the season, we're expecting that to change very soon…
Spoilers ahead for "For All Mankind" season 4 episode 6: "Leningrad"
In the 2003 of "For All Mankind," Leningrad never reverted to its previous name of St. Petersburg after the end of the Cold War. The location of the M7 Goldilocks summit is therefore a handy reminder that, for all of the show's futuristic sci-fi technology, it's still an alternative history.
All the major dignitaries of the space exploration world arrive in big cars as if they're attending a movie premiere, including NASA's Eli Hobson (Daniel Stern) and Aleida Rosales. Not all of the key players get to network in person, however — former NASA boss-turned-Roscosmos staffer Margo Madison has to watch proceedings on T.V., albeit via her own private channel.
Margo is also feeding constant information to Irina Morozova (Svetlana Efremova) via a hidden earpiece, as the head of Roscosmos chairs a meeting that will determine the M7’s approach to mining the Goldilocks asteroid. "Let us begin," she says in a perfectly timed introduction to the opening credits.
On Mars, Happy Valley's recently grounded XO Ed Baldwin (Joel Kinnaman) shows how he's been spending all his new-found free time in a montage soundtracked by Frank Sinatra's "That's Life." The only throwbacks to his disciplined military days are his exercise regime and a very well-made bed. Otherwise, he's sleeping in late, smoking weed, and drinking. Which is why he finds his way down to the base's lower decks speakeasy — much to the surprise of proprietor and obtainer of illicit goods Ilya (Dimiter D. Marinov). Just as saloons in Westerns tend to go quiet when a stranger walks in, the unexpected arrival of the base's former number two makes everybody feel awkward. But as Ed downs shot after shot of moonshine (should that be Mars-shine?), the regulars resume their conversations.
In Leningrad, the finest minds in spaceflight (and a bunch of politicians) are realizing that turning the riches buried inside Goldilocks into tangible profits isn't going to be as easy as they first thought. Aleida dives into the numbers, delivering a conservative estimate — corroborated by Margo on the other side of a video screen — that they'll need around $2 trillion (in other words, a lot of zeros) of upfront capital to capture and then mine the asteroid. Ever the pragmatic scientist, Aleida regards the investment as a no-brainer, seeing as Goldilocks is believed to contain well over $20 trillion worth of iridium. However, for the more politically-minded members of the panel, it's time for a sharp intake of breath.
The team on Happy Valley are already struggling to meet their increased workload, with newly promoted XO Palmer James (Myk Watford) using some very colorful language to tell base commander Danielle Poole (Krys Marshall) that he doesn't think this kind of pace is sustainable.
The workers are skeptical too, and Samantha Massey (Tyner Rushing) is doing her best to unionize Helios staff in case their employers cut corners to get the job done. Some of her colleagues are prepared to take bigger risks if it means a larger paycheck, but Sam points out that all the money in the Solar System won't help you if you're dead. She also reminds them that, with the clock ticking and Mars a two-month flight from Earth, it's not as if Helios can fly out replacement workers to break a strike — in other words, Helios C.E.O. Dev Ayesa (Edi Gathegi) is going to have some major HR issues to deal with when his flight lands on Mars.
Meanwhile, Ed — something of a connoisseur of illegal booze, it turns out — tells Ilya how he can fix his still to create a superior vintage. Before long they're getting so friendly that he's asking Ilya how he runs his black market business — not that Ilya is inclined to divulge his trade secrets in public.
At a drinks reception in Leningrad, Aleida — who's been put in a rather less swanky hotel than Eli, apparently because Irina wants to make a point — gets a crash course in international geopolitics. As Irina toasts success, Aleida says, "I'm not sure how that's possible, unless we find a trillion dollars under someone's mattress." Eli counters that the U.S. and U.S.S.R. are both good for the cash — but if other members of the M7 want a share of the spoils, they're going to have to invest from the start.
There's another, potentially larger problem, however — investors are going to have to wait the best part of four decades to make their money back. This isn't going to fly with the policy makers in Washington and Moscow, especially as Helios will be making a profit on building hardware and infrastructure from day one.
Even so, Aleida and Margo are shocked when Eli and Irina drop the bombshell that, as things stand, the once-in-a-lifetime mission won't go ahead, leaving Goldilocks and its vast riches to sail off into the distant reaches of the Solar System, out of reach forever. But, much as he did in episode 4 ("House Divided"), Eli has a brainwave with the potential to alter the course of history. What if, rather than bringing a human workforce to Goldilocks and transporting the iridium home, they change tack and bring Goldilocks to Earth instead? They could use the existing infrastructure for extracting helium-3 on the moon to start mining the asteroid immediately, without having to send thousands of people to Mars. That would mean a significantly quicker return on investment, and an opportunity for companies other than Helios to profit from the endeavor. You can practically see the dollar signs in their eyes.
Business isn't looking quite so rosy for Miles Dale (Toby Kebbell) who's told by Faiza Khatib (Noor Razooky), one of his shipping contacts, that she can no longer help him with his Martian rock shipments. As she hurries away, Ilya's enforcer, Petros Khorenatsi (Nick Gracer), grabs Miles by the throat and tells him "You do not f**k with Ilya's business." Ilya's not prepared to take Miles' lucrative sideline selling Martian rocks lying down, but neither is he prepared to get his hands dirty.
In a private meeting with Eli, Irina and (unbeknown to everybody else) Margo, Aleida begins to "work the problem" of bringing Goldilocks back to Earth. Unfortunately, the mathematics suggest that dragging such a large object across the Solar System could take centuries — the prospect of that rapid return on investment is starting to look even more iffy.
Even with Margo whispering in her ear, Irina can't quite keep up with the science. When Margo suggests using techniques employed by DART (Double Asteroid Redirection Test, a real-life 2022 NASA experiment that took place in the '90s in the "For All Mankind" timeline), Irina mishears it as BART. And when Irina parrots Margo's description of eight techniques NASA previously explored for deflecting extinction-level asteroids and comets, Aleida (still suspicious about the similarities between U.S. and Soviet NERVA engine designs a decade earlier) accuses the U.S.S.R. of stealing data. Quick as a flash, Margo interjects, telling Irina that NASA openly published their research, but forgets who she's talking to, adding: "NASA doesn't do its work in secret like some police state."
Irina's demeanor changes in an instant and the skilled political operator reawakens. In a coldly calculated response that could be directed at either Aleida, Margo, or both, she fires back: "Your loyalties are misplaced. You don't work at NASA anymore, so your duty should be to your current employer."
With Margo as her guide, Irina shoots off more suggestions, ranging from ion-beam shepherding to nuclear explosives but — even though she stops short of pitching Bruce Willis and his crew of oil drillers from "Armageddon" — it's clear none of them will work in their current form. Margo is convinced there's a solution, but Irina adjourns the meeting when she realizes her lack of astrophysics smarts are about to be exposed. An exasperated Margo does her best to create her own version of the famous Picard facepalm meme. Maybe she should point everyone in the direction of our article on 8 ways to stop an asteroid?
A hungover Ed wakes up in the middle of the afternoon. As he starts his day with a smoke, Palmer arrives on his doorstep with a request. Even though Ed's been removed from Happy Valley's chain of command he's still Helios's "senior project manager" for Mars operations, and as such he needs to sign off on bonus rates for employees. Palmer would like a signature right away, but Ed's in the mood to be a fly in the ointment, and takes the paperwork away "under review." He's also perfected the kind of evil laugh you'd expect to hear from a villain in a kids' cartoon show.
Behind closed doors in Leningrad, Margo tells Irina she believes the Goldilocks problem can be solved. Irina tells her they don't have time to do so, but Margo has a radical solution — she should work directly with Aleida and run the numbers together. Irina quickly points out the major flaws in the plan, that Aleida thinks Margo's dead and may not want to work with her former boss. There would also be significant political ramifications, because if Margo's cover were to be blown, Moscow would want to shout about her defection, and she'd be branded a traitor back home. Even so, Margo's prepared to become "the most hated woman in America" if it means taking Goldilocks and its iridium riches back to Earth.
Irina, ever the politician, wonders if there's an ulterior motive, and presses Margo on her true reasons for coming out of the shadows. Margo admits she thinks she should be in charge of Star City's Goldilocks capture operations. "Now we reach the truth," says Irina. "You want power. Again. It’s like a drug, no?"
"My drug is the work, this work," Margo assures her.
Margo arrives at Aleida's hotel room, finding the door open but nobody home. Aleida gets the shock of her life when she returns from the bathroom down the corridor — one of the more obvious consequences of staying in a less swanky hotel — and sees an intruder in her room. Then she literally sees a ghost as she realizes the mentor she assumed had died in the Johnson Space Center blast is standing right in front of her. Aleida's first response is to run over to Margo and hug her — possibly not the reaction we were expecting but there's still plenty of time left for the episode to reopen old wounds.
In the meantime, Miles isn't happy about the hostile dissolution of his business partnership with Ilya and pays a visit to the North Korean compound. He tells Lieutenant Colonel Lee (C. S. Lee) that Ilya never had any intention of bringing his wife to Mars, and has been stringing him along to keep his business. Lee says this is not acceptable and tells Miles that he will "handle" it. The battle for Happy Valley black market superiority is getting nasty, starting with a group of North Korean soldiers sneaking up on Petros.
But that's just a distraction from the most important scene in the episode and arguably the entire season. Margo coming clean to Aleida about sharing NASA secrets with her old friend, confidant, and Soviet scientist Sergei Nikulov is something we've been waiting for since Aleida noticed weird goings-on in season 3, and when it comes, the moment doesn't disappoint.
Margo initially tries to justify everything she did — the information exchange, the defection that followed — but Aleida is having none of it. "After all this time you still think you did the right thing?" she asks incredulously.
Coral Peña steals the show during Aleida's subsequent soliloquy, tearfully recalling the day of the JSC bombing. How everybody but Margo was at their post that day, how she saw so many friends killed or critically injured, and how she went to find Margo, saw the remains of her office, and assumed her mentor was among the dozens of casualties. Frankly, Margo claiming that, "For what it’s worth, I wish I’d been there. At my desk. At my post," is too little, too late.
So, why would Aleida want to work with Margo on the asteroid capture mission? Margo's argument rests on knowing that Aleida would be tortured forever if she felt a solution was out there, and they didn't do everything they could to solve it. "Hate me if you like," says Margo, "but work the problem with me."
Ilya finds Petros in the infirmary with a broken arm, bruised ribs, and a collapsed lung — and he's not going to accept the official line that the injuries were sustained in a hydraulic lifter malfunction. He goes to confront Miles, who's instantly joined by his new North Korean friends. "Look around you," says Miles. "This whole place is going to be swimming in money. That's opportunity for everybody, that's the kind of opportunity I can't waste, but I still want you to be part of it." Then Miles goes full "Godfather" with a spectacular power grab, telling Ilya that he's welcome to stop by his bar anytime, and that he won't ever forget that Ilya helped him when he needed it most.
Sam leads a meeting to call for better workers' rights, claiming that the recent spate of injuries is only going to get worse as Helios ramps up its Goldilocks operations. An unlikely new agitator then joins proceedings, as Ed Baldwin arrives to share some important information about pay schedules. Sam thinks he's just stirring things up after losing his job — "I am an old pot stirrer from way back when," he admits — but he reveals that Helios is planning on changing the terms of their bonuses, significantly increasing the targets they need to meet to earn a payout. In fact, the grounded Ed may have found a new calling as his rousing words are enough to get the assembled masses chanting "Strike! Strike! Strike!"
The episode ends with a news report announcing Margo's defection, showing footage of her reading a propaganda-loaded statement citing "many years of dissatisfaction and disappointment with both NASA and the American government" as her motivation. It also confirms that she'll be leading the Soviet team, and that she worked behind the scenes "on the breakthrough that will bring the Goldilocks asteroid to Earth." Aleida clearly doesn't want to hear any more, however, and turns off the T.V. in an incredibly loaded — and powerful — fade to black.
New episodes of "For All Mankind" debut on Apple TV Plus on Fridays.
Get the Space.com Newsletter
Breaking space news, the latest updates on rocket launches, skywatching events and more!
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.