FOR ALL MANKIND: Season 3 Episode 8 Review: THE SANDS OF ARES - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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FOR ALL MANKIND: Season 3 Episode 8 Review: THE SANDS OF ARES

Matthew Kresal has an engineering problem.
Now in its third season, Apple TV+'s For All Mankind has proven itself a master of raising the stakes. From the introduction of its alternate history to the establishment of the first moonbase in its opening season to rising Cold War tensions with literal end-of-the-world stakes in its sophomore year, the series has now taken its characters and viewers to the Red Planet. As this season has shown, the journey there and establishing a beachhead has proven no less dramatic, as The Sands of Ares proves.

Picking up from Bring it Down's epic cliffhanger (if you'll pardon the expression) where a Martian cliff-face fell on Helios base, writers Joe Menosky and Eric Phillips have a full plate of an episode for their script. Almost all of the season's subplots are in the air, including the deteriorating relationship between Ed (Joel Kinnaman) and Danny (Casey W. Johnson) as part of the Helios mission, which came to a head in the last episode, for example. Not to mention the three-way rivalry between NASA, Helios, and the Soviets and Ellen (Jodi Balfour) dealing with a presidency that's increasingly not going to plan while discovering the price she paid to get there. Menosky and Philips have the unenviable task of having to start resolving them here while also clearing up the proverbial and literal mess from the previous episode. To their credit, they do so superbly.

To do so, they and the series essentially create something of an unofficial adaptation of a somehow never adapted for screen work of classic literary science fiction. Namely, Arthur C Clarke's 1961 novel A Fall of Moondust. Like Clarke's book, which focused on the trapped passenger and crew of a lunar surface passenger cruiser trapped under meters of dust by a moonquake as well as the efforts to locate and rescue them, The Sands of Ares sees the effects of the disaster play out at almost every level involved. From one of the Helios habs (and some of our characters) likewise trapped to the efforts to locate and rescue them, as well as the political implications and media coverage, it's an immensely engaging piece of science fiction. Not to mention that if like this reviewer, you've always wanted an adaptation of Clarke's novel beyond the 1981 BBC Radio 4 dramatization, this is probably the closest you're going to get.

Part of the reason it's as engaging as it owed to things that have been among For All Mankind's strengths. A fair portion of it is how strong it is from a production point of view, including its visual effects, for which The Sands of Ares is an absolute showcase. There's also the direction of Dan Liu and the cinematography, which feature effectively in the evocative opening minutes of the episode in addition to the various buried hab scenes, and, in a particular highlight of this episode, the music of Jeff Russo and Paul Doucette. They're only a part of the equation, though.

There's also the episodes use of the series characters and their arcs. As mentioned above, much of this season's subplots remain up in the air as the episode unfolds. Across its 67-minute running time, the episode finds moments to address almost all of them in some form and moves them satisfactorily along. It also serves up some new complications that have been simmering in the background for a couple of episodes, including one that promises to complicate the situation for Kelly (Cynthia Wu). Like last season, there's a sense of chess pieces moving into place for one heck of an endgame.

More than that, the episode reaches into the series' past. Among elements explored is the death of Baldwin's son Shane and the Apollo 23 explosion from the first season, the latter having set Margo (Wrenn Schmidt) firmly down the road she's been on, but without ever asking what happened to others involved as she learns in this episode. Both are poignantly dealt with, as is a reunion for Ellen that picks up a thread from last season and last year's controversial plotline involving Danny and Karen (Shantel VanSanten) that may finally be buried in the next couple of episodes. It's something that perhaps only a series well into its run could hope to do, but For All Mankind does it extremely well here.

The result? The Sands of Ares is the best episode of For All Mankind's third season to date. Which, given it's gone from strength to strength over the last couple of months, is saying something. Though, if past experience is anything to go by, it might not hold that title for long.

After all, there's still two episodes left...

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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