One of the best things about alternate history stories — good ones, at least — is the way they illustrate how tiny changes get magnified into enormous historical ramifications. The butterfly effect isn’t just a fun thought experiment; it’s a mesmerizing narrative premise of exponential change, with all the same satisfying payoff of watching one domino tip over and hit two dominos, and then four, and then eight, and eventually 16 branching lines of dominos are all collapsing in parallel. The first season of For All Mankind suffered a little from early-stage exponential change syndrome. The changes in its “what if the Russians beat the U.S. to the moon” story felt small and slow, and the mixture of known historical figures to newbies was off. Too much of it was a timid, slightly ahistorical re-creation, and it was hard to see how things would eventually escalate.
Wow, was that ever not a problem in season two! It’s difficult to think of another TV show where the stakes increase so dramatically from the first season to the second, but For All Mankind started with the premise that early Russian wins in the space race might’ve prompted the U.S. to train women as astronauts much earlier in the process. By the end of season two — here come the spoilers, you have been warned — multiple threads converge in a potentially humanity-destroying four-front crisis that plays out on Earth, on the surface of the moon, and in several spacecraft orbiting both of those bodies. Russians are invading the U.S. base on the moon, the U.S. is playing chicken with a Russian space blockade, a U.S. and a Russian spacecraft are attempting a goodwill photo-op docking maneuver, and nuclear missile sirens are going off down on Earth; at the same time all of that is taking place, Tracy and Gordo Stevens are sprinting across the surface of the moon to avert a nuclear meltdown while wrapped only in duct tape.
Wrapped in duct tape! They fell in love and got married and got divorced and then Gordo started jogging again and Tracy remembered how much she loves being a pilot, and then in the finale, they stare deeply into one another’s eyes while twisting giant rolls of duct tape around each other’s bodies in order to save the moon. It’s that old classic love story, like Pyramus and Thisbe or Romeo and Juliet. And like those tragic love stories, Gordo and Tracy save everyone else but ultimately die in the process, because running across the surface of the moon essentially naked means all your blood vessels start bursting and the adhesive on the duct tape starts melting in the 200-degree heat. Plus, also, there’s no oxygen to breathe. It’s the sort of absolutely bananas plot device that beggars belief; it’s so wild that it almost inevitably pulls any viewer out of the fiction, because how could this possibly work? How could they possibly survive long enough to get this job done, and why was there a secret second nuclear reactor up on this moon in the first place?
Somehow it does work, though, and on a large scale, it works because For All Mankind has woven together a network of interlocking crises that are all coming to a head at the same time. The whole finale does not rest on this one wild development. While several of the other crises are equally apocalyptic in scale — characters on Earth are hunkered down in bomb shelters because sirens are going off across the country — Tracy and Gordo are on the far end of the plausibility spectrum. On the other end, there’s the Apollo-Soyuz docking, a story For All Mankind adjusted to fit into its timeline, but one that’s based on a real landmark moment in the space race, when U.S. astronauts shook hands with Soviet cosmonauts after docking an Apollo capsule with a Soyuz capsule on July 17, 1975. That real event is the anchor for everything else.
The finale is a triumph of a particular kind of TV plotting that many a ten-episode prestige drama aspires to, and very, very few actually achieve. The season puts pieces in place carefully, balancing and maneuvering among a half-dozen interlocking stories: Tracy and Gordo; Ed and Karen and their daughter; the Pathfinder mission; the Jamestown base; Margo and Sergei negotiating the Soyuz docking; Ellen’s political ambitions versus her sexual identity, Molly’s blindness, Margo and Aleida’s past. That is an almost impossible slate of character notes and developing plots to keep juggling in the air, and For All Mankind does struggle to give it momentum in the early episodes. By the finale, though, all the little bits and pieces that seemed inconsequential actually pay off, and it results in this glorious collision.
So something as outlandish as Tracy and Gordo running across the moon wearing only duct tape is just one particularly bright, wild-looking strand inside the larger fabric. But on a smaller scale, it’s also easy to see in retrospect that For All Mankind has been laying the groundwork for this one, incredible blaze-of-glory moment. Gordo’s character arc this season has been overcoming anxiety attacks triggered by wearing a spacesuit. Early in the season, he can’t even breathe with the helmet on. It’s one of the things I found a little tedious in the early run — do we really need to spend so much time with Gordo, still having these panic attacks? Turns out, yes, we did need that time, because it sets up the wry tragedy of Gordo needing to save everyone by … not having a suit to wear. It also takes Gordo’s adorable middle-aged-man training montage from early in the season and turns it into a killer payoff one-liner. “I think I can get to them,” Gordo tells Houston. He can run across the moon and switch these cables, because as he reminds Tracy, “I started jogging again.”
Tracy and Gordo’s final act of heroism even ties back to the opening scenes of the first episode, a plot I also found a little superfluous at the time. Molly Cobb disobeys a direct order and marches out across the lunar surface to rescue a fellow astronaut caught in a massive solar flare exposing him to deadly amounts of radiation. She and the astronaut are both exposed, but she refuses to abandon him entirely, and this event is what causes her progressive blindness. It’s the season’s big opening setpiece, but on its own, it feels unmoored. Molly’s not a primary character this season! There’s no big returning-solar-flare story. It’s an inciting event the season seeds from the start and then almost entirely tosses away. Looking back, though, that sequence is a gorgeous establishing premise for so much of what happens in the finale. Molly’s decision mirrors Ed’s choice to disobey orders way out there in the darkness of space. Her excruciating, damaging march across the moon echoes Tracy and Gordo’s desperate sprint. Even the radiation is there, a threat looming in the distance that Molly has to confront. By the finale, radiation is the nightmare on the brink of global and lunar disaster — the U.S. and the Soviets have both threatened nuclear annihilation, Ed is shepherding a nuclear payload, and of course, there’s Tracy and Gordo, preventing a reactor meltdown on the lunar surface.
The finale does not end with the crushing scenes from Gordo and Tracy’s funeral, and it doesn’t even end on that sneaky, last-minute revelation that Sergei’s friendship with Margo is actually part of a Russian effort to develop her as an American asset. (My personal headcanon involves a throwaway shot of Elizabeth Jennings sitting at one of the computers in NASA headquarters, wearing a wig and watching Margo from afar.) No, the last gift of For All Mankind’s special is a Ronald D. Moore special, a final Nirvana-infused time jump to 1995 — with a shot of boots walking on the dusty red surface of Mars. Especially by season two, it’s easy to get lost in the details of For All Mankind’s version of history, but it’s worth stopping to appreciate how beautifully the show has incorporated ’80s culture. The clothing and furniture is all exquisite, and the finale’s decision to hang the fate of the world on Ronald Reagan’s love of good TV optics is a perfect tie-in to our timeline’s ’80s Reaganism. That sharp, short taste of what the ’90s could feel like on this show is a tantalizing hook to the next season.
Still, the second season was not a perfect one; For All Mankind never figures out what to do with Karen, and rather than reduce her role, the show buries her in ennui and then gives her the absolute worst possible source of conflict by having her sleep with her friend’s son. (Tracy and Gordo’s son! C’mon!) But that development is mercifully over by the finale, leaving the ending unmarred by the show’s few real missteps. Instead, the last episode benefits from all of For All Mankind’s strengths. It’s the result of many plots all coming together, the payoff of long-simmering character work, and the really impressive combination of real history and this imagined alternate timeline. At the end of For All Mankind’s first season, the prospect of a second season felt mostly like a curiosity. The second-season finale, with its last-minute leap to Mars, turns the show into appointment viewing.