One of the best aspects of For All Mankind as an ongoing experience is how it blends the stark realism of period-accurate depictions of early space travel with the very real fact that, because this is now an alternate history veering well away from the established record of events, anything can happen. Which is to say that, sure, by the end of the episode, everything is fine, but there were a few solid minutes there where I was genuinely worried that Molly Cobb might die on the moon.
That sense of danger is the core element of “Into the Abyss,” which is a fairly calm and talky episode for most of its run-time, acknowledging that space exploration requires a lot of patience if you don’t have warp drive. That goes for both the astronauts cramped inside tin cans on the moon as well as their loved ones back on Earth, living with the very real possibility that a million and a half things could go wrong during this journey.
That’s a factor in why NASA overprepares for every eventuality — and why it’s a huge deal when, four days into the Apollo 15 mission, mission control realizes that there’s no chance of there being ice at the crew’s originally planned landing site. There are two options: Proceed with the mission as planned, despite its being futile, or change course and instead land at the Shackleton Crater, where there’s a real chance of discovering something.
Nixon’s representative in the room’s position is pretty firm: Nixon wants to be first with a moon base, and if America has to wait for the next mission to confirm a potential site for said moon base, the Russians will likely beat us to it. (The CIA, it’s said, is worried that the Russians want to put weapons on the moon. No one mentions whether America has the same plans.) While mission control agrees it’s possible to change course, it’s clearly a huge risk, so it leaves it to the crew to decide.
Molly, perhaps even surprising herself, is hesitant to change the plan, in part because she’s now pretty conscious of the whole if-this-mission-fails-people-will-say-it’s-because-a-woman-was-involved thing. But Ed and Sedgewick manage to convince her, and the change is made.
After those eventful opening minutes, the middle of “Into the Abyss” experiences some unfortunate sag. Back on Earth, Karen continues to host NASA gatherings to watch each day’s updates, but interfering with her ability to put up a brave front is Molly’s husband, Wayne, who (as a pot-smoking psychedelic-poster artist for bands like Santana) proves to be quite in touch with his feelings and fear. When he tries to open up to her about his terror, she shuts it down, angry that he’s trying to talk about things “we don’t talk about.”
Later, she shows up at his apartment, confronting him about his pot use (which, given that it’s 1971, is illegal enough for Wayne to jeopardize Molly’s career). However, what Karen really seems to want to do after all is talk, because as he said earlier, each understands what the other person is going through. It’s rarely interesting when people talk about their dreams, but Shantel VanSanten acts the hell out of the scene in which she describes how her terror over losing Ed manifests itself in her recurring nightmare — a panther eating Ed alive in a clearing. Later, Wayne paints it for her, just like he painted his own nightmare about losing Molly “to get it out of his head.” She accepts the gift but doesn’t exactly rush to put it on the wall.
Also, astronaut Danielle is thrilled to welcome her husband, Clayton, home from Vietnam — especially because she’s got some big news: While at the moment she’s mostly appearing as “the token black girl” at public events, there is “one other thing they want me to do — fly to the moon!”
She’s been assigned to the Apollo 18 crew, with Gordo as her commanding officer, so the day after Clayton gets back, they meet up with Gordo at the Outpost to bond a little bit. What begins with Gordo guzzling Champagne devolves into all three of them doing shots of the brown and a heated conversation between Clayton and Gordo over their very different kinds of service: Thanks to NASA, Gordo got out of Vietnam, while Clayton was very much “in the shit.” Between the alcohol, Clayton’s anger at the war (he’s wearing his uniform a day later but has already tossed away its ribbons), and Gordo being Gordo, there’s nearly a full-on bar fight that hopefully doesn’t jeopardize Danielle’s future.
But there’s no real follow-up on this story line yet because instead it’s back to the moon. After yet another heart-to-heart talk, this time between Molly and Ed about how they’re only where they are today because they were selfish enough to abandon their families and take this risk, it’s their last day to find ice at the rim of the Shackleton Crater. There’s nothing on the surface, so instead they come up with a dangerous cherry to put on this already pretty dangerous sundae: lowering Molly into the actual crater via a roll of cable and an improvised winch.
Adding to the lack of safety is their rapidly depleting oxygen supply, which is why, yes, I was genuinely concerned for a few minutes that Molly might sacrifice her life in the quest for ice — the potential key to unlocking the entire universe for the space program. But, dozens of meters deep into the crater, in pitch blackness save a flashlight, she’s able to find a very promising deposit, and then she and Ed (just barely, it seems) make it back safely to the LEM and return home.
And then we jump forward to October 12, 1973, and the landing of the Jamestown habitation module, the lunar base soon to be inhabited by “the boys of Apollo 21.” That is … a pretty big leap time-wise! Did Danielle still fly on Apollo 18? Is Nixon still president? Did Karen ever crack open that bottle of mescal that Wayne brought over? All very important questions, but for now, congrats, America. You finally came in first.
Houston, We Have Some Bullet Points
• It seems very, very unlikely that next week’s episode will feature Molly and Nixon getting together for highballs, but that would be a sight to see.
• One thing that hasn’t changed from our reality: Nixon still makes an appearance on the classic comedy series Laugh-In. However, that appearance happened in 1968, theoretically before the divergent point that created this universe. So, guess it was a rerun?
• Given how many iconic songs David Bowie wrote about space during his epic career, it’s almost shocking that it took until episode five for For All Mankind to sample one of them. But the show gets a lot of bang for Apple’s bucks, using “Moonage Daydream” both at the beginning and the end of the episode.
• Molly and Margo’s ongoing caustic interactions (this week, Molly literally wipes the grin off Margo’s face when she snarks about not believing Margo’s smiling) feels a little pointless. Not that all women have to like each other — that’s right, Erin Dewey from seventh-grade English, you heard me! — but they’re not rivals, and narratively it just feels disconnected and unnecessary.
• Along those lines, the absence of Aleida from this episode means that the show isn’t trying to force her in when it’s unnecessary — a good sign.
• For those who want to know, a “Gemini bag” basically was a plastic bag taped to your butt. So, better than a diaper, for sure … but not a huge improvement.
• “Here’s to selfish pricks, because we move the ball forward for mankind,” is certainly not an uncommon attitude, especially for those hoping to justify their actions. But Molly’s speech to Ed about how it’s a good thing that they’re “egomaniacal narcissists like Columbus or Magellan” hopefully gives way, in a brighter future, to a more optimistic belief structure — or at least one that doesn’t use those two particular dudes as role models.