SPOILER ALERT: This post contains spoilers from “Perestroika,” the Season 4 finale of For All Mankind, now streaming on Apple TV+.
Believe it or not, no astronauts died tragically in the Season 4 finale of “For All Mankind.” One just almost died tragically.
The near death and subsequent happy ending of Mars’ Happy Valley commander Dani (Krys Marshall) is a welcome respite for fans who have endured a lot of loss during the Apple TV+ series’ run. But that doesn’t mean the finale wasn’t without its turmoil, challenges and surprises.
Now firmly in the early 2000s, nearly 40 years after the show began its alternate history timeline, the world watches as NASA and Russia team up to redirect the Goldilocks asteroid’s orbit to Earth in order to harvest its priceless mineral. But a band of Happy Valley rebels on Mars manages to execute the heist of the new millennium by sabotaging their efforts. Stealing the asteroid worth trillions means keeping it in Mars’ orbit, and reaffirming the need to continue investing in the Mars colony and all of their jobs that sustain it.
But in retaliation for their efforts, armed operatives on Mars are authorized to invade North Korea’s base where the thieves are hiding, alongside their leaders Ed Baldwin (Joel Kinnaman) and Dev Ayesa (Edi Gathegi). The incursion leads to an all-out riot between the workers and the military, a violent product of the brewing class disparity that has defined the season’s extended stay on the Red Planet. In the chaos, a single gunshot is fired that hits and nearly kills Dani. But she recovers, and makes it home to Earth to meet her first grandchild.
Co-creators Matt Wolpert and Ben Nedivi know audiences have come to expect tragic exits for their characters, be it through terrorist bombings or heroic feats of sacrifice. They also confirm to Variety they considered having Dani join the ranks of those lost in the line of duty. But as the show and its original heroes age, the temptation to subvert expectation is irresistible.
“With the gravity of everything going in the finale, it just didn’t feel right to end it in such a dark way,” Nedivi says. “It didn’t feel necessary, and it didn’t feel like the only way to leave our show was to be killed.”
Does that mean Dani, along with other OG characters Ed and former NASA head Margo (Wrenn Schmidt), might be signing off after the events of the finale and another time jump? Wolpert and Nedivi stop short of confirming any cast exits just yet, but it certainly sounds like the end is nigh for some familiar faces on the series, which is still awaiting a greenlight for Season 5.
Talking with Variety, the co-creators address the looming reality of their aging legacy characters, what the jump to 2012 means for the series and whether aliens will ever factor into their version of the final frontier.
Before we talk about the finale, we can’t let a season pass without talking about the new revelations of your alternate history. Do you have a favorite fact in this reality that you’ve built? Does it get any better than the butterfly effect of the prolonged space race somehow saving “Ellen” from being canceled?
Matt Wolpert: It’s so funny you ask that, because everybody has their own favorite thing. Personally, my favorite in all of our season montages has been the evolution of John Lennon –– from the John Lennon who survived his assassination attempt, to the John Lennon who reunites with The Beatles, to the John Lennon who is doing a Super Bowl halftime show. It just speaks to the evolution of someone’s career, because of course he is going to do the halftime show and sell out!
Ben Nedivi: For me, it is the way American politics changes. At first, we didn’t know it was going to be Al Gore who wins the presidency this season. But the more we talked about it, the more it felt right to go there. It felt right to have a rematch with Gore in 2000, but this time he is going against H.W. Bush, not W. Bush. It was fascinating to play into the difference of a Gore presidency because the space race, naturally, is impacted by politics. This idea of Gore taking credit for the Goldilocks discovery was one of those moments in the writers’ room where we all knew instantly we had to do that. And we were so lucky to get those real clips of Gore and Letterman to help make that moment feel as real as possible.
This season, Ed and Dani faced the realities of being the old guard in a changing world. Some call them heroes, others call them villains. Was it a conscious choice for them to become complicated figures the longer they stick around?
Nedivi: It was conscious, and it is something we aimed to do early on. In creating these characters, we never set out to treat anyone as a hero, or rather good or bad. But what we realized with Ed — a guy with his upbringing who was a hotshot astronaut in the ‘70s — is that this is how he would age. I don’t think of him as a villain this season, although I understand why some people are going there with some of his early decisions. I think he is a grumpy old man, and we leaned into it, and Joel had a lot of fun with it.
Think back to Deke [Chris Bauer] in Season 1, Episode 9, when Ellen [Jodi Balfour] comes out to him. That scene informs a lot of this kind of thinking with the show. What you want as a writer for him to hug Ellen and embrace her, but we felt with Deke and how he grew up, it was a bridge too far. That is a philosophy we carry forward. Ed isn’t the spring chicken of Mars at this point. He is old man Mars, and there is good that comes with the bad. It was a lot of fun, not only to see him be challenged by that, but also try to overcome that.
Is that how you see Dani this season as well? She has always been the moral conscience of these missions, but as commander of Happy Valley, she made some pretty consequential decisions, including issuing orders that led to the torture of several characters.
Wolpert: With Dani in particular, one of our goals was always to put her in situations that give her moral dilemmas where she is trying to do the right thing. But in the context (of her giving the orders to find the thieves), you can understand why she made the decision to empower those people when she is thinking other lives are on the line. Remember, the strike has already led to several deaths. She is behaving out of what she thinks are good intentions, but it leads to horrible things. I think it is most interesting to us if the person you are rooting for makes it not super easy to root for them.
Nedivi: I like to call her “Teflon Dani,” because we are constantly putting her in these moral dilemmas where she is not the good Dani who does everything right. But somehow, she always remains a Herculean character in the end. I have to say that, this season, one of the things I’m most proud of are the reactions we have gotten from people saying they weren’t sure who to root for. That was a clear goal of ours all along.
In the final episodes, you get a sense of just how much history the audience has with the original main characters still standing –– Ed, Dani and Margo. Naturally, their advanced ages would lead to diminished roles for them in history. Do you see this season as the start of that?
Wolpert: This is absolutely that transitional phase, but it is not a hard and fast transition. We don’t have a line where after you pass it, everyone will be a new character. It is a slow evolution of the show that we have really been doing since the beginning. You look at a lot of the characters in that first season, and we have already phased out characters because this show is about generational change. That’s the nature of jumping a decade between each season. So it is really fun to play with these characters, and see the evolution of them through their mentors and parents, and the things passed down to them and then what they pass onto the next generations.
Do you see retirement in the future for Ed or Dani? I don’t know that Margo’s imprisonment after the finale could be called retirement.
Wolpert: It is a kind of retirement!
Fair enough, but is it feasible and believable that these characters would still be part of the main story as we jump to 2012?
Nedivi: It is a great question, and something we have already started to talk about. The intention of the show was always to do a hand off, eventually. But we didn’t want to make it so the only way to leave this show is by being killed either. That started to become expected in a way. But like Ellen’s arc ended last season, her story was over, and it didn’t have to be through assassination. It is something we want to embrace moving forward. When we feel we have reached the end of that character’s arc and we don’t have any more story to tell with them, that will be it for them. For us, an important element is bringing in new characters like Dev Ayesa and Miles Dale [Toby Kebbell]. Bringing in these types that can carry on the show when the older generations take less of the real estate. At this point, we don’t know what that looks like in Season 5, but it is definitely a challenge. Aging them with makeup is also a big challenge. But they are such strong performers and good people that it is always really hard to say goodbye.
Specifically speaking to Ed as the grumpy old man holding onto Mars, we don’t see him back on Earth with Dani at the end of the finale. Is it possible he is still on Mars in 2012?
Wolpert: Anything is possible.
But you can at least admit you are still playing with audience expectations about when some of these characters might leave. In the penultimate episode, we hear Dani talk about how excited she is to meet her grandchild back on Earth, which I think some of us saw as a big red flag that she could die before that ever happens. And she almost does die from a gunshot in the riot, but she survives! Did you ever think about a different ending for her?
Nedivi: Oh no, we were dead set to — let’s put it this way: As you know, with the show, death is always an option. I think we went in early on knowing this was the end of her arc in that way on the show. But we didn’t know if that would be her death or not. When we got to the writing of Episode 10, Matt and I leave ourselves some flexibility, because you want to see how the season is coming together and feels to us. With the gravity of everything going in the finale, it just didn’t feel right to end it in such a dark way. It didn’t feel necessary, and it didn’t feel like the only way to leave our show was to be killed. But I think people are always looking for any sign that someone may die, and we did lean into that in the fight during the finale in a way that was very effective.
Wolpert: And I have to say that I am really proud of the way that moment plays out when she comes back and meets her grandchild for the first time. The way the music goes against that moment, where it has this epic quality even though it is a quiet moment of a grandmother meeting her grandchild for the first time. That is epic in its own way. As we were talking about before, it is this hand-off of one generation to another, and it felt like it encapsulates the nature of our show in a really beautiful way.
You see that generational hand off between Margo and Aleida (Coral Peña) as well. First, they learn Russia killed Sergei (Piotr Adamczyk) for helping them. Then, Margo takes the fall for their part in sabotaging NASA’s Goldilocks mission. What is next for Margo now that she has been arrested?
Nedivi: Off that ending, I think prison is definitely in her future. With her, we did know that was what we were leading to this season. We love this idea that she sort of takes the fall for Aleida in that moment. But as she walks out of this building that has been such a huge part of her life, it’s not that she’s smiling exactly, but there is something Wrenn did with Margo’s expression that makes her look content. The thing we discussed with Wrenn is that this isn’t a happy ending, but it is probably an appropriate ending. In a way, there is some guilt there. But once she realizes going back to Russia is no choice at all because of what she discovers, she knows this is the right thing.
She probably deserves to go to prison, and if she can do that by helping Aleida out, what better way to go out? It was a really strangely beautiful moment, and one of my favorites of the whole finale is when Aleida goes up to hug her. The journey these two have been on over decades coming to this moment at the end, it felt beautiful despite being a sad ending for Margo.
This brings us to the flash forward to 2012. How do you come up with the number of years you jump between seasons? Is there a science to it?
Wolpert: It is funny, because it is a lot of going by gut on one level and feeling how far of a time jump makes sense for what we might need to do to advance technology and society. But on the other side, it is about how much we can age our actors. We don’t want to go too far because that would be hard to believe!
Nedivi: I will say, it is probably the last thing we do every season. A lot of times, though this isn’t the case now, we started writing the next season while we were post-production on the previous season. So we would be in the writers’ room trying to come up with enough story to figure out that date we are flash-forwarding to. It’s funny because in Season 2 with the Mars flash forward, we actually changed the year almost dangerously last minute. We had to go in, because we realized the Mars window wasn’t right. It caused a lot of last-minute chaos.
In this flash forward, you have Dev looking to the heavens — or rather to Goldilocks and the mining station that has been constructed to harvest its minerals. Why was that the right ending for Season 4?
Wolpert: Dev felt like the right character, because from the beginning of his introduction on the show, he has had this vision of what the space program could be, and specifically what life on Mars could be. He’s starting to see his vision come to fruition at the end of this season, so it felt like both showing him be content with what’s done to this point, and still looking to the future of what’s next. In terms of the asteroid, it is mining equipment you see, but let’s just say it will definitely play a role in Season 5 in a way we can’t quite say yet. But we are starting to think about that now.
Nedivi: The other thing to take from that final shot is that Dev’s vision was a self-sustaining colony on Mars, and that asteroid is key to that. The idea that he has achieved this goal of keeping it in Mars orbit means there is a future for Mars, and that does wink in a big way to where we are going with the show and the investment in the future of Mars.
With this next time jump, you are getting closer to our own present day. Does that give you more freedom to go full force into this alternative history you’ve created, or is there pressure to reflect a world we might recognize?
Nedivi: I want to say it gives us more freedom, because that’s what I want as a writer! But yeah, it is strange because the closer we get to our present, the farther away we get from it on the show. If you look at those opening montages, the alt history elements start to become a bigger part of them. I think as we go forward, we find ourselves less tied to the era, even though we always love to keep a foot in what is going on in our world. Even this year, some of the references toward to the end of the season spoke to the events of the early 2000s, like the Iraq War and the idea of the detainees and torture.
Space got a lot of attention in 2023 because, depending on who you ask, the government confirmed the existence of aliens. Will that ever factor into your alternative timeline?
Wolpert: Ben, you can take that one!
Nedivi: Oh, thanks! I will answer it by not answering it. I think with this show and the unique space that we occupy in the sci-fi landscape, we try to keep our story as grounded and realistic as possible. So that hasn’t been in the cards, to be honest. If we were ever going to approach a story like that, we would have to do it through the prism of the “FAM” realism. So let’s say for now, that’s not in the cards. But as Matt said earlier, anything is possible with this show.
This interview has been edited and condensed.