Apple TV+’s For All Mankind is known for its compelling characters and vision of the Space Age guided equally by idealism, hard science and realpolitik. But season 4, which ended January 12, also offered something totally unexpected: one of the craziest heists ever to grace the screen.
The central quest in season 4 is the attempt to seize a massive asteroid soon to pass by Mars, where humanity now has a small mining base. Filled with extraordinarily rare minerals, that asteroid has the potential to revolutionize human civilization. At the same time, if the asteroid is simply brought into Mars’ orbit and mined from there, it will be decades before people on Earth will enjoy its benefits. The decision is made to send the space rock back to Earth for mining instead, at the cost of eliminating the need for the Mars colony, much to the fury of the hundreds of civilian miners who have sacrificed years of their lives there.
Just as all seems lost for the miners, an unexpected source of salvation arises: their boss, Dev Ayesa (think: Elon Musk in space). While in public he completely supports sling-shotting the oncoming asteroid to Earth, in reality Dev has no intention of seeing his Mars colony rendered irrelevant. And so, in classic heist style, he puts together a team of engineers and astronauts to steal the asteroid from the nations of the world and put it into permanent orbit around Mars.
Like any great heist story, Dev’s plan involves bringing in players with unique skills. There’s Miles, the miner on Mars who runs the black market, and can get them the equipment they need to seize control of the rockets on the spaceship that will guide the asteroid; Sam, the female miner who will be on that ship, who they need to exchange the discriminator device that receives commands from the Mars base with their own; and two of the world’s most beloved astronauts, America’s Ed Baldwin and North Korea’s Lee Jung-Gil, who each have access to parts of the base others don't.
Each step in their plan also faces great complications. The discriminator the miner on the ship needs is accidentally locked up on the base, leading Ed and Dev to recruit Ed’s young grandson Alex to sneak through air shafts to get into that storage unit. Onboard the ship the device that Sam needs to switch out is located pretty much in front of everyone, making it nearly impossible to exchange.
But here’s the thing about heist stories: Even as they seem to be filled with impossible challenges, ultimately they are wish-fulfillment fantasies. Down deep we know that George Clooney and Brad Pitt are going to win the day, and we want them to. The fun is in seeing how they get there.
While some of that is true here, too—seeing Sam use the zero-G atmosphere plus a little water to short out the original discriminator is pretty great—Mankind also refuses to play to the fantasy. Rather than charismatic and heroic stand-ins for ourselves, Dev Ayesa and Ed Baldwin are by far the season’s most unlikable characters. The aging Ed now marinates in a ranting, pouty toxic masculinity. Dev is an egomaniac whose plans always backfire.
Having us root against the thieves makes the heist feel much more grounded, the abiding hallmark of the show. It also increases the sense of jeopardy. It seems more than likely the heist will result in the asteroid crashing into Mars, killing everyone, or sent hurtling toward Earth and even greater catastrophe.
And the writing team just keep racheting up the problems, increasing the feeling of mortal danger: The good guys discover their plans and secret headquarters, forcing them to flee to the off-limits North Korean area and try to come up on the fly with a whole new plan to seize control of the ship’s rockets. In the end the only path available to them involves Sam spacewalking to a control panel above the rockets while the ship is travelling thousands of miles per hour, and a soldier is coming to fight her.
Meanwhile, the computer engineers at NASA are putting together a set of commands to stop the engines before Sam can take control, KGB and CIA agents on the base are coming for the heist team, and the base's miners are preparing to riot. And at the start of the episode someone found a gun. It's all so unhinged, the stakes so high, the outcome so uncertain, we can’t take our eyes off it.
(Props, by the way, to the writing team for the use of the gun. It's a clear nod to playwright Anton Chekhov, who famously said if you introduce a gun in act one, you have to fire it at some point, and also a Star Trek pun.)
In one last nod to the trope, the asteroid heist succeeds in the end only through the intervention of one final, unexpected player. Having discovered that her boss has murdered Sergei, the Soviet scientist that she loves, former head of NASA Margo Martindale, who is now working for the Soviets (it’s a whole thing), convinces her former student and friend Aleida Rosales to help her stop the NASA code and basically give the middle finger to everyone.
While there's a certain amount of deus ex machina in Margo's intervention, the rage at the heart of her interstellarmic drop makes it work. On For All Mankind, the X-factor that can either push civilization farther or burn it to the ground is always humanity itself. Margo may argue if Mars dies, so does our reach for the stars. But the truth is, they killed Sergei, so !%!# them.
Despite the praise it has received and the passion of its fanbase, For All Mankind's renewal is always up for grabs. Their showrunners have expressed hopes that they’ll get two or three more seasons, so that the show can make it to our present day. But where that goal might cause some shows to aim for safer stories, the Mankind writers keep opting for the more audacious, more daring. It’s an attitude worthy of the boldest of thieves. Here’s to hoping it enables the Mankind staff to pull off the greatest heist of all.