The Nineties Sucked. Here’s How For All Mankind’s Season Three Finale Captured That
Note: This article includes spoilers for For All Mankind’s Season 3 finale.
When teaser trailers for Season 3 of For All Mankind dropped depicting our favorite characters wearing their best mid-1990s fits, many probably were preparing for the ultimate nostalgia trip: Cheap gas! Soundgarden! Flannels! Ripped mom jeans! Slip dresses with Doc Martens!
Instead, the season provided viewers with the ultimate anti-nostalgia trip. For All Mankind’s third season revealed the decade as what it really was: a sometimes grisly, nightmarish vision where a somehow more progressive past strained at the limits of the present. Almost inexplicably, the dark picture of the 1990s depicted in For All Mankind is miles and miles sunnier than the reality of the decade.
Here’s Why Your Favorite Decade Sucked
While For All Mankind is an alternate history of what spaceflight could have been, it has mirrored actual significant events in space and world history. For example, women and minorities were eventually hired as NASA astronauts (even though in the For All Mankind universe, this happened in 1969 versus 1978, the actual year NASA unveiled “The Thirty-Five New Guys,” an astronaut class that boasted six women, three African-Americans, and one Asian candidate). As the 1980s led to the 1990s, names including Ellison Onizuka, Fred Gregory, and Eileen Collins made history as they proved ethnicity, color, and gender were no barriers to excellence in spaceflight. However, just like the actual 1990s, For All Mankind’s Season 3 emphasized how the Earth was indeed the most dangerous, divisive place one could be during that period, even as disaster struck on the surface of Mars.
The Season 3 finale ends with an unspeakable tragedy: NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, the show’s hub of spaceflight operations and decision-making, is bombed by an extremist group in a case of domestic terrorism. As Aleida Rosales (played by Coral Peña) searches in vain for her mentor, Margo Madison (played by Wrenn Schmidt), she is confronted with the stark reality that the building’s façade has been blown wide open. Grizzled Apollo and Mercury 13 veteran Molly Cobb (played heroically by Sonya Walger) leads survivors out of the building via a stairwell, but that’s the last we see of her — ever. Increasingly frail and blind, she is presumed lost in the rubble.
The wide shot of mourners congregating at the ravaged JSC site is uncomfortably close to what happened in Oklahoma City in April 1995, when domestic terrorists bombed the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building. From Oklahoma City to the Branch Davidians in Waco, Texas, to Heaven’s Gate later in the decade, the 1990s proved to only be a spirited extension of the political and sometimes religious extremism exemplified by Jim Jones of the Peoples Temple, who led hundreds to their deaths (many unwillingly) via poisoned Kool-Aid in 1978.
Meanwhile, President Ellen Wilson (played by Jodi Balfour), who has recently come out, is being threatened with impeachment. If a woman president had come out during the 1990s, it’s safe to say it would’ve been super controversial, if not somehow resulting in impeachment. The 1990s were a decade when “gayness” was still regarded as a slur and was still wrongly and inappropriately associated with HIV and AIDS.
When Magic Johnson announced he’d acquired HIV in 1991, rumors about his sexuality clogged the tabloids; the message seemed to be that he “deserved” to get a potentially deadly virus because of his indiscretions (note: nobody “deserves” to get a deadly virus). When Walter Payton, the legendary Chicago Bears running back, lost an enormous amount of weight due to an eventually fatal liver disease, the rumor mill went into overtime: Payton was gay, and he’d gotten AIDS (of course, neither of these things were true). When Ellen Degeneres came out in 1997, her career at the time was scuttled, and her previously popular sitcom was canceled shortly after that; her then-girlfriend, actress Anne Heche, later spoke out about how she couldn’t get a Hollywood film offer for a decade after their same-sex relationship had ended. In a horrifying coda to that story, Heche was declared brain dead just today following a fiery car accident in Los Angeles, undoubtedly not unscathed by the stigma following her and her love life.
Out of the Present
Magically, women seem to be dealt a slightly better hand in For All Mankind’s Season 3 than they were during the actual 1990s. When Kelly Baldwin (played by Cynthy Wu) gives birth to an out-of-wedlock child due to highly unauthorized sex with a (now deceased) Soviet cosmonaut, her career and reputation don’t seem to be affected. The general public seems to welcome the idea on the show’s faux newscasts by sending hundreds of baby booties and onesies to NASA.
In real life, women who chose certain relationships didn’t fare quite as well. President Bill Clinton, who — remember — was a progressive president, was busted having sex with a junior intern, who then bore the brunt of attacks for the affair (remember all that talk about the “blue dress”?). On the more extreme end of the scale, the country’s most famous football star, O.J. Simpson, became the sole suspect in two 1994 killings — one of the dead being his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson. O.J. Simpson, a known domestic abuser, had not only evaded the law throughout the years but had arguably been protected by a media committed to portraying him as an “everyman hero.” This 2014 clip featuring Keith Olbermann discusses how Simpson’s abuse was enabled by a press terrified to challenge a powerful, popular man.
Being a woman in the U.S. Navy during the late 1990s was a formative experience. We were hired into previously “male only” roles after U.S. combatant ships were authorized to bring on women. However, that only meant you were allowed to get the job and could be a “token.” Many of us were outright denied any real growth or leadership roles. I’ll never forget when a male colleague told me, “I don’t mind that you’re here, but I don’t want you operating the plant.” Indeed, I was allowed to be there, but I wasn’t allowed to stand my senior-in-rate watch station more than a couple of times. He wasn’t incorrect, I guess. (By the way, I wasn’t a good mechanical operator; I was great.) Many of us took that 1990s mindset into the civilian world, where we were okay with “being there” but didn’t actively seek out roles that afforded us growth, more money, and more prestige. At least in For All Mankind, we saw women allowed to grow — and sometimes make mistakes — in senior leadership positions.
I am leaving out that there was some tumult in spaceflight during the 1990s, most notably the troubles experienced by the “Phase One” Shuttle-Mir program (as depicted in the book Dragonfly by Bryan Burrough), which were exacerbated by the fall of the Soviet Union during the early 1990s. Perhaps the most 1990s of 1990s cosmonauts was Sergei Krikalev, who exemplified cosmonaut hotness during that decade. In 1991, he began an increment on Soviet space station Mir. Krikalev saw his mission extended far beyond its planned time, partly thanks to what was happening in his country: the utter collapse of its political and economic system. His mission and the circumstances surrounding it are chronicled in the 1995 documentary Out of the Present by Andrei Ujică.
In For All Mankind’s 1995, we saw astronaut Ed Baldwin (played by Joel Kinnaman) — in a near shot-by-shot duplicate of the infamous scene at the end of the 1983 movie The Right Stuff, when an injured Chuck Yeager limps across Edwards’ desert landscape after a plane crash — swagger out of a crashed Mars ferry vehicle, battered, dusty, but still bulletproof and badass. In 1992’s reality, we saw Sergei Krikalev — undoubtedly still pretty badass, but alas, this is real life and not Apple TV+ — get extracted out of a Soyuz spacecraft after ten months in space, resembling a limp, sweaty newborn, a man with the wrong flag on his spacesuit sleeve.
Krikalev’s plight and physicality were more symbolic of the actual 1990s: we were put at the mercy of a flagging society and came out as floppy as linguine, unsure of what or who we represented.
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