FOR ALL MANKIND Season 3 Episode 4 Review: HAPPY VALLEY - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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FOR ALL MANKIND Season 3 Episode 4 Review: HAPPY VALLEY

The race is on, says Matthew Kresal.
With its opening trilogy of episodes, For All Mankind's third season has quickly moved into high gear. Indeed, the race for Mars that one might have supposed would dominate the season instead got off to a start far earlier than one might have anticipated. And with Happy Valley, the hurdles on the way to the red planet start making themselves even more apparent.

The race to Mars, in contrast with the Cold War-dominated aspects of the first two seasons, has become a three-way affair. In addition to the usual US vs. Soviet race as the Cold War has moved into a new decade, private spaceflight and what we might call Space 2.0 has arrived a couple of decades sooner, thanks to Helios and its founder, Dev Ayesa (Edi Gathegi). The stakes involved, not only for international prestige but competing visions of the future, are as high as getting to Mars.

And as Happy Valley reveals, the gulf between vision and reality is sometimes a chasm. Perhaps nowhere more apparent than with Dev and Helios' determination to be first to Mars. The episode's opening minutes reveal a side to Dev that's been unseen until now, and the events of the 40-odd minutes that follow lead to conflict between Dev and the Baldwins, with Ed (Joel Kinnaman) in space on the Phoenix and Karen (Shantel VanSanten) on the ground. It's an allegorical touch, bringing to mind Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos, billionaires funding space projects with grand visions of the future yet caught up at times in pettiness that undermines it. How far Dev is willing to go comes as a surprise to characters and possibly viewers alike, offering a dark mirror to the present day (and potential future) of private spaceflight.

That clash between idealism and reality plays out elsewhere in the episode. Ellen Wilson (Jodi Balfour) might have made her way into Oval Office, but two years into her term, it's clear that things are not going well. Indeed, the past is fighting the future in many ways, as younger Steven's son Jimmy (David Chandler) learns as oil workers protest NASA's energy work putting them out of jobs. For All Mankind has only briefly touched on opposition to NASA and spaceflight in the past, something it seems to be making up for here. Worryingly, viewers knowledgeable of recent political history may start feeling that the series is marching toward a future, not unlike our own reality, with references made in a couple of scenes.

For now, the focus is on the Mars race. With old friends and former colleagues Ed and Danielle Poole (Krys Marshall) leading rival American efforts to get there, there's a friendly rivalry between them, one far less so on the ground between Dev and Margo (Wrenn Schmidt). It also allows writer Joe Menosky and director Wendey Stanzler to contrast the two crews, their two commanders, and their respective attitudes to the mission at hand. Whether it's Ed dealing with Danny (Casey W. Johnson) and his temper or Ed's daughter Kelly (Cynthy Wu) being part of an international NASA crew that includes a Scottish astronaut (Tony Curran, better known as Doctor Who's Vincent van Gogh) and a former Soviet cosmonaut, there's an interesting ensemble of characters. Not to mention that the comparing and contrasting highlights how different these crews and their approaches are.

Those differences make themselves felt as the episode builds towards its ending. One that sees the third part of this race attempting a comeback with results that increasingly bring out the best and worst in these characters. The extended sequence in the closing minutes is one of the triumphs of the season, and perhaps the series as a whole, as the production comes together from the writing and direction to the visual effects and music from Jeff Russo and Paul Doucette. Not to mention being the very definition of things moving from bad to worse, building the tension up to something that this series has gotten all too good at deploying: the cliffhanger ending.

One thing is clear after this episode: the race to Mars will be a nailbiter all the way to touchdown. As viewers wait for the cliffhanger's resolution, they can also reflect on the season moving from strength to strength. And that, as with much of spaceflight, there's no such thing as safe and routine in For All Mankind.

Matthew Kresal is a writer, critic, and podcaster with many and varying interests. His prose includes the non-fiction The Silver Archive: Dark Skies from Obverse Books, the Cold War alternate history spy thriller Our Man on the Hill, and the Sidewise Award winning short story Moonshot in Sea Lion Press' Alternate Australias anthology. You can read more of his writing at his blog and at The Terrible Zodin fanzine, or follow him on Twitter @KresalWritesHe was born, raised, and lives in North Alabama where he never developed a southern accent.

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