The last few episodes of For All Mankind have felt a little stagnant, and “Bent Bird” finally makes it clear why. The show has always been at its most thrilling when it was accelerating toward the future (remember the time jump from 1971 to 1974 at the end of episode five?). But maybe two weeks have passed since the end of episode seven. While the choice to slow things down makes a certain level of sense, given all that’s happened, it’s still been less captivating than in the past.
It also doesn’t help that things have been buried under a cloud of tragedy since the death of Shane. Up on the moon, Ed is barely operational (the piles of printed-out messages from Earth on the floor of the base say way too much about where he’s at) and so the quest to relieve him has become even more urgent. Unfortunately, because space travel in the 1970s isn’t as easy as it is on Star Trek, that’s gotten complicated. Apollo 24, on its way to the moon, has a technical failure that leads to Apollo 25, Tracy and Molly’s orbital mission, being retasked to help with repairs.
The repair effort seems to work to some degree, though it ends with Apollo 24 unable to communicate with Houston and zooming off course, and Apollo 25 barely able to save Molly after her tether pulls her away from the ship. Of all the “Oh God, is someone actually about to die?” sequences this show has pulled off over the course of the season, “Bent Bird” was the most harrowing to date, if only because it’s one thing to freak out over Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin’s mission getting screwed up in the pilot — especially since those characters were never really fleshed out by the show. But we are nine episodes into For All Mankind now, and thus it’s a whole other situation when these specific characters’ lives are in the balance, and we see Molly literally drifting out into the vastness of space. (Also, of course, the success of their mission is also probably key to Ed not going completely insane on the moon.) The fact that both the Apollo 25 crew and Gordo essentially revolt against Margo’s authority to save her feels like something that will either be a big deal or completely ignored down the line. Theoretically, it should be the former, but this show has a proven tendency to lean toward the latter.
Down on Earth, meanwhile, nothing seems to be going very well for anyone. Karen is, of course, still grief-stricken over the death of Shane, though does find a way to talk about it — not by confiding in her fellow astronauts’ wives, but by getting high with Wayne. “I know things have to change. I don’t even know what my life is anymore,” she tells him, and after a season of watching her play the perfect wife and mother, it’s vaguely gratifying to see her have that realization. (Also, after an ominous shot of a bottle of pills on her nightstand, it was good to see her take a different path than what that moment might have foreshadowed.)
Meanwhile, Octavio finds out that Aleida is not sure about going to the Kennedy School’s advanced math and science program, which feels like it’ll be their worst moment of the week … until, that is, the interrogation scene with Agent Donahue. Octavio’s arrest might be the most shocking moment of the episode — the danger of his and Aleida’s immigration status always felt present, but for it to get tied to the FBI’s pursuit of Communist agents was not how I saw that going. It also now means a new question: If no one intervenes on Octavio’s behalf, how will it affect Aleida’s chances at pursuing her dreams? (Humble prediction: Aleida goes to Margo for help in the next episode, and Margo’s one condition is that Aleida goes to the Kennedy program.)
Capping all this off is Ed, disconnected from NASA, making a certain sort of contact with the Russians also hanging out on the edge of the crater. First, he encounters someone sneaking around the American ice-drilling station, a tense moment that dissolves into nothing eventually (though the close-up on the Russian’s hammer is more than ominous). And then, potentially that same man comes a’knocking on Ed’s door, with Ed surmising that he’s running low on oxygen. He lets the cosmonaut in, and activates the airlock so that the man can take off his suit …
… And then Ed decompresses the airlock, with the man scrambling to get back into his gear. It’s not just a potentially catastrophic diplomatic incident — Ed might be the first man to live on the moon, and he might also get to be the first man to murder someone there.
Giving this episode two stars feels rough, but it’s an example of how the specific quality of this particular hour is affected by its place in the narrative. “Bent Bird” is the penultimate episode of season one, and for a show that began with something resembling a mission statement about hope, boy does it end on a dark note. There’s still a whole hour to come, of course (not to mention a second season that’s already in production), but right now For All Mankind has me wondering just what it ultimately wants to say about both the past and the future. That’s potentially a good thing, going into the finale — but also a dangerous one.
Houston, We Have Some Bullet Points
• This week’s important plot point buried in a news broadcast: President Kennedy’s sex scandals and “failures of NASA” may keep him from getting the Democratic nomination for reelection. That could be a big shift for the show, though the primary way it might affect things comes down to how NASA keeps being treated like a political football.
• Best exchange: “What makes you think I’d do anything dumb?” “Married me, didn’t you?” This episode made a strong case for rooting for Gordo and Tracy to work things out.
• Maybe one of the things that made the Apollo 25 repair effort so nail-biting was Tracy’s earlier scene with her son Danny, in which she promises him a trip to Galveston, “just you and me.” All she needed to add was “it’s the day before my retirement” and “what could possibly go wrong?” to trigger memories of other classic pre-character-death clichés.
• Ed’s tombstone of moon rocks for Shane… just devastating.
• Margo’s stress candy of choice appears to be Tootsie Rolls. Sure.