Foundation season 1 premiere episodes 1 and 2 recap: fascinating but choppy

Foundation season 1 premiere — the Apple TV Plus Asimov sci-fi adaptation is equally fascinating and impenetrable.

Jared Harris in 'Foundation'.
(Image: © Apple TV+)

What to Watch Verdict

The first two episodes of Foundation are fascinating but choppy, offering an unclear vision of what's to come.

Pros

  • +

    Jared Harris and Lee Pace are great as usual

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    The show's huge budget is on display, impressively so

  • +

    It's hard to know where this show is going, which is rare for prestige dramas

Cons

  • -

    It's hard to know if this show knows where it's going, which is sadly not rare for prestige dramas

  • -

    The choppy pacing in both episodes shows a lack of storytelling confidence

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    The episode-two cliffhanger is more baffling than shocking

Since Apple TV Plus was unveiled, in the fall of 2019, it has been marked by a number of expensive shows, aimed at grabbing small-screen prestige. From sci-fi drama For All Mankind to Sorkin-esque soapy drama The Morning Show, and of course, their biggest success of all, the brilliant fish-out-of-water comedy Ted Lasso, Apple TV Plus has tried it all. But it hasn’t quite found its equivalent to the worldwide phenomenon of Game of Thrones — the violent fantasy show with a sprawling cast, dragons and adult-rated scenes. It’s been years in development, so Apple has to be hoping that Foundation is that equivalent. 

Based on the novels by revered science-fiction writer Isaac Asimov, Foundation grapples with a premise that’s rooted well enough in the real world: what if society was going to crumble and could only be rebuilt gradually? 

Here, a famous and divisive mathematician, Hari Seldon (Jared Harris), has built out a mathematical model that states the entirety of humanity will lie in ruins in just a few hundred years. His best-case scenario has the remaining vestiges of mankind rebuilding in a thousand years instead of thirty thousand years — if they're lucky.

Foundation's first two episodes, “The Emperor’s Peace” and “Preparing to Live” are released on the same day, after which the next eight installments air once a week. It’s an interesting choice, seeing as each episode seems to serve as a pilot episode of its own. The first episode's conclusion offers a Battlestar Galactica-esque path forward for our heroes, but the second episode ends by recalling Game of Thrones in its first major death, but...well, let's not get ahead of ourselves.

Our protagonist is Gaal Dornick (Lou Llobel), a young woman living on a planet near the Outer Reach of the galaxy. Despite her extremely modest upbringing, Gaal is extraordinarily intelligent, having won a mathematical contest whose grand prize is sending the winner to the planet Trantor to meet with Seldon at his office in the Imperial Library, a massive educational mecca.

Gaal is understandably nervous, arriving above the planet Trantor before descending to the surface on a massive Star Bridge that connects the planet to its space station. It’s all a lot to take in, even when she’s chatting with a seemingly friendly stranger (Reece Shearsmith) about what it’s like on Trantor. Once on the surface, Gaal meets up with Hari’s son Raych (Alfred Enoch, who may be most recognizable to some as Dean Thomas from the Harry Potter films), who introduces her to the enigmatic Hari. Gaal is initially awed by the famous mathematician before he reveals that his predictive theorems have told him that they’re going to be arrested by the leaders of Trantor — he for the impact of his theorems and she for just being incredibly smart, while coming from a "lower-class" planet.

Lou Llobell as Gaal Dornick in Foundation.

Lou Llobell as Gaal Dornick in Foundation. (Image credit: Apple TV Plus)

We should talk about those Trantor leaders since they play such a key role in Foundation. (These leaders are new creations for the show.) The three leaders: Brothers Dawn, Day, and Dusk are played respectively by Cassian Bilton, Lee Pace, and Terrence Mann. This trio is named in a way to imply not only their age but that they are essentially the same person at different times of life, enabled by cloning technology. 

The leaders (primarily Day and Dusk) are displeased by Seldon’s prediction and how it is spreading throughout the community. When first we meet Day (Pace) it’s as he coldly and cruelly orders the death of a muralist who’s worked for him for decades, simply for having read Seldon’s theorem. Later on, the three Brothers are met by two leaders of warring factions from the Outer Reach of the galaxy, in the hopes of maintaining peace, a scene that has bloody ramifications.

Though Gaal hopes her mentor is wrong, sadly Hari is right. The two are quickly arrested and brought in front of the three Brothers, where they’re interrogated as part of a sham trial by a biased prosecutor (Alexander Siddig). Hari pleads not only for his life but for the chance to build what he calls a “foundation” (hey, that’s the name of the show!) that can be used by future generations as they pick up the pieces of humanity’s fall. But that fall may be coming sooner than expected — the trial is broken up by a massive dual terrorist attack that destroys the Star Bridge, killing hundreds of thousands of people.

It’s a devastating and horrific attack but as much as the three Brothers are now set on vengeance, they’re also swayed to both grant Hari’s desired wish and seemingly punish him in the process. They agree to spare Hari and Gaal, allowing them to create a foundation for the future of the human race. 

That’s the good news. The bad news is that Hari, Gaal, and Hari’s followers will be sent to Terminus, located so far away on the Outer Reach that it will take them literal years to arrive there. Gaal is downcast until Hari reveals that this was part of his plan all along — to be sent to Terminus. The episode opener is set there, 35 years later, with a group of kids trying and failing to approach a mysterious floating Vault. Every time someone approaches, they’re struck by a strange force that physically debilitates them... everyone except for Salvor Hardin (Leah Harvey), who is inexplicably able to walk right up to the Vault and touch it.

Lee Pace as Brother Day in Foundation.

Lee Pace as Brother Day in Foundation. (Image credit: Apple TV Plus)

The second episode “Preparing to Live”, however, doesn’t revisit Terminus. Instead, it’s split into two parts: one focuses on Hari, Gaal, Raych and the others heading to the planets. The other part focuses on the three Brothers, who are now trying to figure out exactly who ordered the two bombs that killed so many people. Although the Brothers have been able to find a few possible leads, there are hundreds of people who might have been involved. Though Brother Day remains convinced that the two leaders of the opposing factions are behind the dual attacks, he doesn’t kill them, just as he didn’t kill Hari in the first episode. Instead, he chooses to make them suffer, by performing a mass hanging in a public square, as a way to communicate strength and send a warning message.

On the ship heading to Terminus, there’s a much bigger shock ahead. First, enough time has passed that Gaal — whose most recognizable trait is that she recites prime numbers when she gets nervous — is now romantically involved with Raych, even going as far as imagining themselves having children. Secondly, in the last moments of the episode, we see Gaal swimming laps on her own (in previous scenes of her swimming we've seen her first greeted by Raych and then by Hari). Gaal suddenly runs out of the pool and into Hari's room, only to see him being stabbed to death by none other than Raych, who grabs Gaal, takes her down to an escape pod, and sends her flying away. 

Kudos to Foundation for both upending expectations and embracing them abruptly. The first episode's climactic moment hinges on whether or not Brother Day will kill Hari, in a scene that recalls the big death scene for Ned Stark (Sean Bean) in season 1 of Game of Thrones. But Hari lives to fight another day. Now that Hari has been killed it's now hard to know what comes next on this show... at least for us non-readers.

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Josh Spiegel is a freelance cultural critic who has been published in Slashfilm, SyFy, ScreenCrush, The A.V. Club, The Hollywood Reporter, The Washington Post and others. His favorite films include Singin’ in the Rain, The Rocketeer, Pinocchio and A Matter of Life and Death. His favorite TV shows include Ted Lasso, Only Murders in the Building, Deadwood and Lost. He lives in Phoenix with his wife, two sons and too many cats.