Wow, an hour and 16 minutes, and For All Mankind barely managed to escape the year 1974. But not much of that screen time feels wasted — after all, there are astronauts literally adrift in space, grieving women on Earth, immigration issues, lingering worries about Soviet spies, and Elvis vs. Sinatra debates — it’s a lot.
Things begin with Ellen regaining consciousness aboard Apollo 24; she and Deke are alone because, in the chaos of last week’s disaster, it was hard to tell exactly what happened to their crewmate Harry, but this week confirms that he was in fact pulled into the rocket blast. Harry’s death definitely happened on screen in “Bent Bird,” but the drama got so caught up in trying to save Molly Cobb that it’s only now that NASA (and by extension, the show) has the bandwidth to pay tribute to another dead astronaut.
The mission now, of course, is to keep that body count from increasing, though Ellen and Deke are in a tough jam: They’re miles off course, very low on fuel, and stand a large chance of overshooting the moon and just drifting off into the unknown. It’s one of those terrifying scenarios you might never expect to find yourself contemplating until, of course, the very worst happens, and Deke and Ellen seem to face it with some good humor.
But remember that scene in the movie Contact when the guys give Jodie Foster a suicide pill and tell her they’ve been giving them to astronauts since the beginning? Whether this is true about the space program has never been confirmed, but Ellen makes a good point about how, in their case, all they’d have to do is just open the hatch. After all, when it comes to space, it’s surviving that’s hard to do, not dying.
Down on Earth, however, NASA has a plan to make that survival happen. The catch is they have to get some help from Ed — who is still not responding to their communication requests because he’s busy interrogating the Russian cosmonaut he trapped in the airlock at the end of last week’s episode. (Anyone else kind of relieved that Ed didn’t murder the guy? For All Mankind has taken some dark turns, but that one might have been too much.)
“Ivan,” as Ed calls him (the guy’s real name is Mikhail) is tied up and turns out to speak English pretty well, especially when challenging Ed about the supposed “goodness” of America. Mikhail won’t say anything about the Russian plans for the moon, except to note that “this is the moon, mister — it belongs to all of us. The moon belong to the whole world.” Also, while both the Americans and the Russians need the moon’s ice for their colonies, “there is enough ice for everyone.”
This isn’t convincing enough for Ed, though, nor is Mikhail’s attempt to bond with his captor by engaging him in a conversation about Elvis. Mikhail loves Elvis thanks to the illegal bootlegs he heard when he was younger; Ed, however, prefers Sinatra, as Elvis has gotten older while Sinatra “just gets better with time.”
As they wait for Ed to come through, Ellen and Deke chat about their lives, with Deke in bad shape after sustaining a serious puncture wound and internal bleeding. Things take a nasty turn when Ellen tells Deke about her real love for Pam, and Deke reacts with, for lack of a better term, extreme prejudice. Part of it is bigotry, part of it is anger that Ellen’s being gay could affect the program, but all of it leads to Deke giving her one piece of advice: “Don’t tell anyone else what you told me.” Deke’s death theoretically keeps her secret safe; if this was a test on Ellen’s part to see if coming out of the closet would be a real possibility for her, it went pretty badly.
Houston finally manages to get Ed on the comm after it starts flickering the lights inside the Jamestown station, communicating a simple SOS with Morse code (everyone should go see Parasite, by the way), and there’s no real mention of how Ed has basically gone space crazy for who knows how long — everyone’s just grateful to get him onboard for the plan to save Apollo 24. Ellen and Deke were able to use the last of their fuel reserves to get within a matter of feet to their ideal trajectory, but if Ed launches off the surface in the lunar lander, he might be able to get them some additional fuel and bring them back down to the moon.
The only problem — one Ed doesn’t mention to NASA — is that getting the extra fuel from a used vehicle should be a two-man job. But it’s something Mikhail knows, and he offers to help, if only because international law demands it. “We are on the dark ocean together,” he says. “We have no choice but to trust each other.”
The episode skips past Ed and Mikhail’s successful retrieval of the fuel, and Mikhail returns back to his base while Ed launches the lander. Unfortunately, he can’t dock with the Osprey because it’s spinning too much, so they land on a plan for Ed to literally toss the fuel tanks through space — the toss goes a little wide, and Ellen misses it on the first attempt but eventually manages to snag it. (If you shouted “Goddamn it!” when Ellen missed, know that you were not alone.)
The mission is successful, but there’s no saving Deke. It’s just Ellen and Ed on the surface of the moon now, and Ed is hesitant to return to Earth. Ellen manages to persuade him. It’s clear that the temptation to stay behind and continue avoiding the grief he knows is waiting for him is real; it’s a credit to him as a person that he does eventually accept that it’s time to go home.
Ellen is thus now the lone American on the moon, and at a televised press conference from her new home, she gets to deliver the big, inspirational, season-closing monologue, reminding us that “sacrifices are part of the journey.”
Pam is watching as Ellen also takes the opportunity to say “I love you” to Larry; earlier, Pam defied “the rules” thanks to an increasingly rebellious Karen and came to watch the rescue attempt from the viewing room at NASA headquarters. But Pam and Ellen’s future is still very uncertain.
Meanwhile, on Earth, my prediction from last week about what would happen to Aleida and Octavio turned out to be totally incorrect: Octavio is getting deported, and while Aleida did go to Margo asking for help, all she asks for was a place to stay. Margo, unfortunately, doesn’t want to add caring for a teenager to her full plate, and when Aleida’s original hosts disappear (either arrested or on the run), the girl is left alone in the world with a backpack full of clothes and a letter of acceptance to the Kennedy School that it’s unclear she’ll be able to use.
There are a lot of unfinished stories here — Karen in particular feels like a work-in-progress — so it’s a relief to know there’s a second season of this show already in production. What’s to come? Well, the non-period-appropriate use of Tears for Fears’ “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” as the credits roll of course leads into the post-credits flash-forward to the 1980s, where America is launching one big-ass rocket to the moon, a big-ass rocket containing plutonium that will help expand the Jamestown colony.
And that’s a wrap on For All Mankind season one, which has been uneven at times but, overall, a smart, intriguing exploration that has had its fun tweaking a certain time in American history. The balance between optimism and realism (or cynicism, depending on how full your glass looks to you) has kept the series from getting too saccharine. But as things continue to accelerate with the passing years, one can only hope that, in the long run, the fact that the Russians beat America to the moon all those years ago ended up being a good thing for … well, you know.
Houston, We Have Some Bullet Points
• The episode’s title, “City on the Hill,” is a Bible quote that (in our reality) was first used by John F. Kennedy and then later by Ronald Reagan in speeches about the idea of America representing a “beacon of hope” to the world.
• That’s important because, as mentioned in the show’s news footage, Robert Kennedy’s reelection seems unlikely, while Reagan (a few years ahead of schedule) is coming for the 1976 presidency. If season two does pick up with 1983, that could mean Reagan is at the tail end of his second term. The touches of politics woven into this show have been understated in the best ways.
• The return of the Apollo 25 crew was kind of an afterthought this week, but it did lead to two great character moments: Molly telling a surprisingly emotional Margo that she understood Margo’s decision to forbid her rescue …
• … And Gordo giving Tracy his gold astronaut pin! Tracy and Gordo have had a pretty rough path over the course of this season, but in the past few episodes they’ve become a couple to root for.
• A clever touch of the 1983 flash-forward was keeping Ed and Karen audible but offscreen, thus sparing the production team from having to show us what nine-years-older versions of those characters look like.
• And finally, huge thanks to Vulture for letting me take this show on and to everyone who has been reading these recaps all season long! I’m pretty sure this show hasn’t had an audience on the level of Game of Thrones, but it has been exceedingly fun to dig into all the minutiae each week. I have learned so much about space over the past two months, you guys! I hope you’ve enjoyed doing so as well.