Foundation season 1 episode 3 recap: The Mathematician's Ghost

Foundation season 1 episode 3 sees the sci-fi saga take a leap forward in the timeline.

Leah Harvey as the Warden of Terminus in Foundation
(Image: © Apple TV Plus)

What to Watch Verdict

Though Foundation continues to look phenomenal, the plot of the latest episode is unexpected in both good and bad ways.

Pros

  • +

    This show looks incredible and truly futuristic

  • +

    Leah Harvey's performance as the Warden of Terminus is a highlight

  • +

    The implacable nature of the Cleon clones is intriguing

Cons

  • -

    The choice to sidestep the cliffhanger from episode 2 is frustrating

  • -

    The timeline-jumping is headache-inducing

  • -

    It's hard to latch emotionally onto characters

One of the many fascinating aspects of the Apple TV Plus series Foundation is that it appears to be confounding everyone — not just those of us who haven’t read the Isaac Asimov books the show is based on.

So what will the book fans make of Foundation season 1 episode 3 “The Mathematician’s Ghost?” 

It would seem obvious for Foundation to build off the stunning cliffhanger at the end of the second episode. The mathematician, Hari Seldon (Jared Harris), was brutally murdered in the finale by his adopted son Raych (Alfred Enoch), who then promptly sent the innocent and shocked Gaal Dornick (Lou Llobell) into an escape pod to parts unknown. That seems like a pretty big ending, one that raises lots of questions: why did Raych kill Hari? Did Hari know this was going to happen? Was it supposed to happen? And what happened to Gaal, our faithful narrator?

Well, the good news is that Gaal continues her narrating duties in “The Mathematician’s Ghost.” The bad news is that absolutely nothing related to that cliffhanger comes up — unless you count an offhand reference to Seldon’s funeral as something related to that cliffhanger. The person making that reference, the mother of Salvor Hardin (Leah Harvey), also notes that the only person aside from Hari who could make heads or tails of Hari's theory of humanity was Gaal. And that’s about it. 

If “The Mathematician’s Ghost” is any indication, Foundation is going to be a profoundly maddening TV show, one that looks truly incredible but is too busy with keeping epic-spanning plates spinning in the air to tell a cohesive, coherent story.

Laura Birn as android Eto in Foundation.

Laura Birn in 'Foundation.' (Image credit: Apple TV+)

Part of the problem is that Foundation has a lot of different timelines to latch onto, as is shown by the first 20 or so minutes — first, they focus on a period 400 years before the main action of the first two episodes, before jumping ahead to 19 years after the terrorist bombing on the planet Trantor and then leaping forward another 17 years after that. As I type these words, I think of a true science-fiction classic, the Mel Brooks comedy Spaceballs and how the nefarious Dark Helmet (Rick Moranis) stares out at the audience after one exposition-laden monologue and snaps, “Everybody got that?” That’s what it feels like watching Foundation so far. 

Anyway, that first 20-minute chunk of the episode focuses mostly on the eldest version of the three Brothers overseeing Trantor, Brother Dusk (Terrence Mann). He is just the latest clone iteration of Cleon the First, the ruler of Trantor who seems closest to the ageless android Eto (Laura Birn), who stays the same age even as he grows older perpetually. 

Brother Dusk is really Cleon the Eleventh, Brother Day (Lee Pace) is Cleon the Twelfth, and so on. As Brother Dusk faces the reality that even as a clone, he’s aging to a point where he will have to die and a new clone be born to continue the Day/Dawn/Dusk line of succession, he’s struck by thoughts that perhaps Seldon was right, at least about the unnatural aspect of cloning. As Brother Dusk sees an incubating clone baby in some of his final moments, it’s hard not to disagree with him.

This section of the episode ends with a hint toward a perhaps even darker future for the three Brothers, as we meet a teenage version of the new Brother Day who orders that a longtime mural on his wall, charting the reaches of the galaxy, to be removed.

Leah Harvey in 'Foundation'.

Leah Harvey in 'Foundation.' (Image credit: Apple TV+)

As was the case in the second episode, there’s really no connection point between the story of the three Brothers and the exiled humans heading to Terminus. Whereas the last episode was focused on the ship and the humans making their trip to the outer-reach planet, the rest of “The Mathematician’s Ghost” is squarely focused on what’s happened now that the humans have arrived. 

As we learned in the premiere, there’s a strange alien object resting on Terminus that the humans dub the Vault, a large floating device that incapacitates almost anyone who tries to walk up to its surface. In what the show dubs (in a superimposed caption as “Now”), we follow Salvor in her position as the Warden of Terminus, as she tries to handle two potentially severe issues. One is the arrival of a group of Anacreons, the outer-reach race that was implicated as one of the terrorist groups that attacked Trantor. The other issue is that the force field surrounding the Vault, the field that repels everyone (except Salvor), is expanding to a point where they may need to relocate their shanty town.

Foundation looks as impressive as any show depicting a science-fiction future ought to look and successfully creates a world that seems alien and strange but also futuristic. The biggest obstacle this show has is  trying to figure out what’s worth caring about. 

Three episodes in, Gaal Dornick is our omniscient narrator, but after spending two episodes trying to get invested in her journey, “The Mathematician’s Ghost” hints about the ghosts that the humans are dealing with day after day, without actually showing us any of those characters. 

That Foundation is still raising questions is perfectly reasonable. We’re three episodes into a series that could last for eight seasons (at least if co-creator David S. Goyer has anything to say about it), so getting everything resolved so early on would be poor storytelling. But Foundation doesn't seem remotely interested in even acknowledging the existence of the questions that the final moments of the previous episode raised — what happened to Gaal? Why did Raych kill Hari?

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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.