While last week’s episode, “Into the Abyss,” was basically 30 minutes of talking bookended by two tense sequences, the newest episode of For All Mankind represents a relatively slow burn, but a pretty significant one for a number of reasons, including a twist that brings together two seemingly unrelated plot threads in a shocking way.
That is, of course, after the longer-than-usual cold open, which is making me regret the use of the phrase “slow burn” just now. It’s now 1974, and launch time for Apollo 23, the crew of which includes Michael Collins from Apollo 11 and our old pal Molly Cobb. Things seem relatively calm in the minutes leading up to launch, and Gene Kranz has even come out to the launch platform to wish the astronauts good luck … but as he walks away, a massive explosion consumes him and (it’s confirmed later) 11 other men. They all die in the blast, which Houston witnesses with silent horror via the video feed, while the astronauts on board manage to escape via emergency launch, but not without injuries.
This is understandably a Big Deal for NASA, which proceeds to launch an investigation into what happened. Meanwhile, the three astronauts who are currently living in the Jamestown homestead on the moon — Gordo, Danielle, and Ed — are stuck there until a new mission can be sent to relieve them (as Apollo 23 was meant to do), surviving off supplies sent by unmanned rockets.
NASA’s investigation is heavily concerned with the possibility that Russian sabotage led to the explosion, which leads them to investigate the backgrounds of everyone involved … and that leads to an FBI agent interrogating Larry about whether he happens to frequent gay “dance halls” in the Montrose district of Houston. (The smart money was always on Larry also being gay, making his relationship with Ellen mutually beneficial, but here we have our official confirmation of that.) Ellen has to face the fact that in order to continue working at NASA, she’ll have to commit a felony and lie to the FBI; she also has to face the fact that her relationship with Pam can’t really continue, despite the two of them loving each other.
On the home front, while their fathers are hanging out on the moon, Tracy and Karen’s sons are acting out at school, committing small acts of vandalism like detonating cherry bombs in toilets — theoretically because of their missing fathers, but the connection isn’t very well drawn. Because Tracy is busy with her work in the space program, Karen is basically doing the heavy lifting when it comes to her kids, which (despite her resentment of Tracy back when the program first started) she seems to have come to accept over the past few years. But that doesn’t lack for repercussions, specifically Tracy’s growing distance from her son.
All of this runs alongside a very awkward night for Margo, who gets asked to do something she really doesn’t want to do: Visit her old mentor Wernher von Braun, who has created a report on what went wrong with the launch of Apollo 23, but will only allow her to pick it up from his home. It’s a transparent move on his part to reengage with her, as she cut ties with him following the revelations about his work in Nazi Germany, but as he explains to her, he promised her father before his death that he would try to explain why, exactly, her father was never all that loving. Turns out Margo’s father, during the war, had been recruited to work on the Manhattan project, and was directly involved with the development of the bomb that would destroy Nagasaki and help end World War II — something that haunted him the rest of his life.
Margo listens and seems to understand, but it doesn’t make her want to hang out with Wernher any more, and she demands the report so that she can leave. Wernher has one more surprise for her, though. At the beginning of the episode, before the explosion, American history had been seemingly improved for the better, as the Illinois state government cast the final votes necessary to make the Equal Rights Amendment a part of the United States Constitution. (This is something that, in real life, has yet to happen.)
The ERA was apparently a big campaign issue for now-President Ted Kennedy (sorry about that, Nixon), and Wernher reveals to Margo just one of the ways Kennedy made it happen: By bringing NASA manufacturing contracts to key political districts, such as Illinois, which then delivered Kennedy a political victory. So while it wasn’t the Russians, but equipment failure, which caused the explosion, the equipment was manufactured by a company chosen not for quality but for politics — a revelation Wernher knows full well will be classified as top secret by NASA as soon as Margo delivers it.
Wernher is exactly right about this, which is why Margo, tired of being passed over for the position of flight director because of the perception that she’s not a team player, makes a copy of the report before turning it in to her bosses, and threatens to reveal it to the world unless she’s made flight director of an upcoming mission. Blackmailing your way into a leadership position isn’t exactly something “team players” do, but hopefully Margo’s confidence and competence make up for it.
This all gets capped off by Gordo, still stuck on the moon and bummed out over the fact that once he returns to Earth, he and Tracy are heading toward divorce, going on a walk outside and spotting red lights in the distance — like much of the plot of this week’s episode, another bit of set-up for the future.
Perhaps the smartest choice “Home Again” makes is its very first one. After “Into the Abyss” jumped forward in time by two years, I fully anticipated that this week’s episode would explore what happened during the years between 1971 and 1974. Instead, For All Mankind continues to rocket forward into the future, and finding out just how far the first season will be able to go before the end is one of the series’ most exciting elements.
Houston, We Have Some Bullet Points
• I couldn’t remember who recorded the 1973 song “Drift Away,” which closes out the episode, so I Googled it. I am horrified to report that the first artist to which Google credits the song is Uncle Kracker. Um, I may not have remembered Dobie Gray right away, but still, excuse me???
• If you’re curious about the Manhattan Project, by the way, check out the excellent short-lived drama Manhattan, currently streaming on Hulu.
• Hey, What’s Up With Aleida? Well, she’s just made a new friend, as Margo (trying to process her feelings toward her one-time mentor as well as her father) decides to mentor the now-teenager, who likes to hang out in the NASA observation gallery doing logarithms. Margo even gives the girl Werner’s slide rule, and promises to teach her how to play the piano. It’s hardly a shocking development, but it is touching.
• We only get a glimpse of it, but Karen now appears to have Wayne’s painting of her nightmare about losing Ed on display in her home. That’s a nice touch.
• In one curious scene, we hear Kennedy call a now-unemployed Nixon to let him know that he’s going to be pardoned for “all crimes you might have committed in connection to Watergate,” something Nixon isn’t thrilled to hear, issuing a veiled threat about the amount of time Kennedy spends in Palm Beach.
• If you didn’t recognize the man playing the FBI agent dangerously close to exposing Larry’s secret, then that’s a sign that you need to watch Difficult People, Review, Documentary Now! and more. James Urbaniak has a uniquely special quality that he skillfully manipulates to fit any role, whether menacing or friendly; he’s not a hero here, but he’s so fun to watch that hopefully we haven’t seen the last of him.