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For All Mankind Bosses Break Down The Tragic Season 3 Finale Twist Inspired By A True Story, Plus Why (Spoiler) Happened Off Screen

Molly and Karen cropped side by side for For All Mankind Season 3
(Image credit: Apple TV+)

Warning: MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD for the Season 3 finale of Apple TV+'s For All Mankind.

The third season of For All Mankind came to an end with the finale called "Stranger In A Strange Land," and fans might be feeling a little strange after watching the super-sized episode. It delivered moments of joy like Kelly successfully escaping Mars and giving birth to her child, and Ed surviving his all but impossible attempt to land. But there were also huge tragedies, as an explosion at the JSC resulted in a lot of deaths, including two key characters: Karen Baldwin (Shantel VanSanten) and Molly Cobb (Sonya Walger). Executive producers Matt Wolpert and Ben Nedivi broke down the tragedies to CinemaBlend, including revealing the real-life event that inspired the explosion.

In true TV fashion, the devastation came right when everything seemed to be looking up as the team on Earth managed to guide the crew on Mars in their mission to get Kelly to safety... and get Ed back alive. Unfortunately, "Stranger In A Strange Land" proved just how bad of a crowd that Jimmy fell in with, as they turned out to be domestic terrorists dead set on blowing up the JSC. When Karen realized what was happening, she tried to help, but she was too late to stop the bomb from going off. She was crushed beneath debris, and lived just long enough for one final moment with Jimmy. 

Losing Karen was a shocker, as she has been a constant since Season 1, but the EPs had their reasons for doing it. Matt Wolpert explained the thought process behind killing Karen off, and why it happened the way that it did:

It was honestly something that we discovered very late in the writing process. I think we knew we wanted to tell a different version of the Oklahoma City bombing, [and] show that sort of simmering anger in society that led to the Oklahoma City bombing was now directed at the space program, which has become so much more central in our world. But we felt the necessity to have that land in a real way with one of our main characters, so that the tragedy of the bombing wasn't just intellectual, it was emotional.

Even though fans couldn't have predicted an Oklahoma City bombing-esque twist actually destroying the JSC and killing Karen right outside, For All Mankind did set the stage by establishing that public sentiment wasn't entirely behind the Mars mission and all the money spent on the space program. Plus, For All Mankind is telling an alternate version of history, which can mean similar events happening very differently than they did in the real world. And for the bombing to really hit home with viewers, the EPs decided that a main character had to die. Matt Wolpert continued, explaining why Karen was the right choice: 

To us, Karen – who has had the most amazing arc over these three seasons, probably a bigger arc than almost any other character, and who was at the next step in her life of rising to the best version of herself and accomplishing so many more things – to have her future snuffed out in that way to us felt like the most tragic version of that story. And really, it is such a tragedy, as the real versions of these mass casualty events are. So it was a very difficult decision to make and a very emotional one for us, because we're such fans of Shantel and what she's brought to the show and of the character. But it felt like the right story to tell.

For All Mankind really did seem to be setting Karen up to chase what she wanted and had earned, and she was set on that path with some help from Molly. This clear path to her future made it all the more shocking that she was the first major victim of the bombing, which Shantel VanSanten (who will be back on FBI Season 5 in September) nailed as an actress. R.I.P. Karen, and goodbye Shantel VanSanten!

But Karen was just the first of two key characters to die because of the explosion, although the other wasn't confirmed until after the smoke lifted. Molly survived the initial blast and even led some fellow survivors out of the building, feeling along the walls and guiding the others. Instead of exiting to safety along with those she had helped, however, Molly went back in... and that was the last time that she was seen alive. 

Her death was confirmed via a newspaper headline, which also revealed that the JSC was renamed the "Molly Cobb Space Center." So, why did For All Mankind deliver Molly's death off-screen and reveal it this way? Ben Nedivi explained:

We always knew we wanted to bring Molly back at some point this season, and it kept never feeling like the right moment as we were going episode to episode. And it finally occurred to us in this ending that she's the perfect person to guide Ed on his crazy journey down to the surface, especially with her experience as a barnstormer. But then that tragedy with the bombing, it was kind of that kismet moment that wasn't even planned in our mind, fully thought-out, where we were like, 'Well, who better than Molly Cobb of all people to make this heroic act?' You know, she knows the hallways of JSC better than anyone because she's walked them blind, feeling the edges of the walls, as you see in Episode 2. She's the one who no matter her condition, she'd be the last person to kind of call it a day. She would go back in.

The reveal that she had died was sad, sudden, and not planned from the very beginning, but certainly not out of character for Molly Cobb. In a way, maybe fans should be relieved that the final shot of her was her returning into danger to help others, after having to watch Karen's death. Ben Nedivi continued, to explain why showing Karen's but not showing Molly's made sense to them: 

In thinking about how we show her death – especially because we show Karen's – I feel like with her, we felt like the fitting ending was to show her heroically go back down that hallway until she disappears into the smoke. It's such a beautiful and tragic image, and it sort of calls back to the opening of Season 2, when she jumps out of that cave, into the abyss to save Wubbo knowing full well the impact it will have on her own health. It felt like such a perfect moment for her character.

Short of Molly being too injured to go back in, it's hard to imagine any scenario that would keep her from doing everything in her power to save others. While the episode didn't reveal how many trips she made before losing her life – or even if it was just that one – she saved lives. Nedivi elaborated: 

Even in that moment, if you don't know she's gonna get out or not, you do realize and recognize how crazy it is what she's doing, and how risky it is. So I think when the audience sees that she died, while it's hard to take – for us as well – it feels appropriate, and it feels even more appropriate that the building, this complex, the JSC is now the Cobb Space Center. And it felt so fitting that this character who when she was part of Mercury 13, wasn't allowed in the doors of NASA to be an astronaut, now has her name on the whole complex. It's really an incredible arc for that character, and I think a real fitting recognition of what she brought to the space program in our show.

Renaming the JSC after Molly was probably the happiest ending that the storyline with the bombing could have gotten, unless it counts that the final reveal of the episode was that Margo had not in fact perished, as Aleida believed. Instead, she managed to escape to the Soviet Union, and was still there as of time jump ahead to 2003. The reveal came along with a nice Radiohead moment with "Everything In Its Right Place" playing, and I think it's safe to say that the ending should make Apple TV+ subscribers very happy that For All Mankind has already been renewed for Season 4!

The bad news is that there are no details about when For All Mankind Season 4 will debut on Apple TV+ (opens in new tab), so fans could be waiting a while for one of the best Apple TV+ shows to reveal what happens starting in 2003. You can always watch and rewatch the first three seasons streaming, and check out our 2022 TV premiere schedule for some upcoming viewing options.

Laura Hurley
Senior Content Producer

Laura turned a lifelong love of television into a valid reason to write and think about TV on a daily basis. She's not a doctor, lawyer, or detective, but watches a lot of them in primetime. Resident of One Chicago, the galaxy far, far away, and Northeast Ohio. Will not time travel, but will sneak references to The X-Files into daily conversation.