Throughout “The Sands of Ares,” I kept heaving little sighs, thinking, What if this were normal? Not about the terrifying life-or-death situations that form the episode’s scaffolding, but about how the characters respond to them. What if NASA, Roscosmos, and Helios were collaborating more and competing less right from the beginning? What if it were commonplace for men to seek care when they need it instead of self-medicating in gloomy silence until they cause a deadly workplace incident? What if we could all agree that it’s just not worth the cost of human life and well-being to view all work toward scientific progress as a series of competitions to be won or lost?
I know, I know, it’s a flight of fancy, nothing to get too attached to, because who would go for it, in any timeline? But. A functional model for all of the above dreams already exists, right in these 60 minutes. Hear me out: Once the Earth-based space agencies learn of the Catastrophe on Gagarin Ridge (by an incredible coincidence, also the title of my forthcoming album), they immediately merge their engineering teams to plan a search-and-rescue mission. Helios and Roscosmos decamp to JSC so they can put all their pointy little genius heads together on this.
If collaboration with an adversary were the norm, Margo’s years of assisting (okay, spying for) the Soviets could be the norm, too. Reciprocal, aboveboard arrangements like that wouldn’t be treason. If she led the shift to such a model, Margo might be considered a visionary, and Aleida’s one-woman investigation into who shared previous designs wouldn’t have to happen at all. Aleida knows deep in her bones that it has to be Margo, and keeps trying to prove herself wrong, going so far as to ask her ex-husband to review her work, and even accusing Margo’s devoted executive assistant of being the mole. A more collaborative international model could reduce mistrust, improve spacecraft design and safety, and give everyone involved more opportunities to apply their expertise creatively. Just putting it out there as an option for season four!
The Earthbound folks are a few steps behind their colleagues up on Mars, who have been lending each other a hand, with or without explicit permission, for several episodes now. As the remnants of the Helios and Roscosmos team members straggle back to their surviving HAB and are joined by their intrepid NASA colleagues, everyone’s relief at seeing so many of their sometime-adversaries alive is palpable. No less an imposingly frosty person as commanding Cosmonaut Kuznetsov is shown trying a little tenderness, greeting Dani with … what is that? Not just professional cordiality, but honest-to-Lenin sincere warmth? We’re going to need a vibe check up at the HAB, friends! Clearly, anything is possible!
As the space explorers experience one terrifying emergency after another, they’re drawing closer together. We see these developments in both literal, obvious terms — the cosmonauts have to bunk with the astronauts because they destroyed their ship attempting to beat the competition to the Martian surface — and in slightly more poetic ones, such as Ed bringing high-quality MREs from Helios as a hostess gift to the Happy Valley crew and Kelly’s romance with Alexei.
It’s nice to see the full trio of teams reunited and working together without reaching “Thanksgiving with your racist uncle”–level squabbling. I don’t think it’s just relief that so many of the three teams have survived and regrouped. Perhaps it’s making it through these life-threatening crucibles as a routine part of their lives that’s tempered them all? In an episode so loaded with grief and worry, it’s emotionally restorative to see something nice and reassuring, even when what’s reassuring is the gentle humanity of taking a beat to grieve the deaths of Nick Corrado and Isabel Castillo.
Back on Earth, the brain trust hunkering down in one of JSC’s big conference rooms graces us with one of For All Mankind’s signature competence displays, sifting through the facts, options, and math until Dev suggests rescuing Danny and Ed from below rather than from above. Alexei and Kelly’s successful search for the HAB has located their rescue signal, buried under 20 meters of landslide debris. Any attempt to rescue them from above will fail before their oxygen and water supplies run out. A wildly improbable attempt to use explosives to create a hole that will allow the HAB to fall just a few meters down into the lava tube below will likely fail, but a likely failure is still a big improvement over a definite failure. They may as well try, right?
As a bonus, this strategy will require Rolan and Will to work closely together again. Dani’s pep talk to them as they get the band back together is as apt as it is punchy: Set aside your interpersonal nonsense and do the work. It does the trick, as we next see the self-proclaimed Odd Couple contentedly bickering over the precise placement of the explosives that will either save or kill their colleagues (and that could kill them, too).
Speaking of odd couples, way down in the HAB, Danny and Ed are alive. Against all odds, the air lock they’re in hasn’t sustained any leak-causing damage, so their oxygen supply is intact. It’ll only last them six hours, but that’s better than anything less than six hours: Any search and rescue team that exists will have a fighting chance at finding and rescuing them, rather than retrieving their bodies. Danny is physically unscathed and easily able to tend to Ed, who has shrapnel causing all kinds of internal bleeding in his abdomen. Their cramped quarters and dwindling oxygen supply weigh more and more heavily upon them as the hours tick by, and their now-typical dynamic reasserts itself. Danny is seething with the two-decade jumble of emotions he can’t disentangle, while Ed wonders why all his fatherly love and guidance is never enough with this kid.
One thing they can agree on is how disgusted each is with the other, and because they can’t strike a wobbly détente and retreat to their respective corners to cool off, a near-volcanic argument and airing of unpleasant home truths erupts between them. This time everything is on the table: Danny’s dependency on downers and uppers; Ed’s long-standing habit of self-injecting anabolic steroids; the importance (or foolishness) of maintaining a hopeful attitude even in dire circumstances; and Shane.
Memories of Shane have hung over For All Mankind since his death in season one. His long-hidden Popeye toy seemed to give his blessing to Kelly’s dream of attending the U.S. Naval Academy last season. His memory is back again, but as more of a specter than a guardian angel this time. As I noted last week, we’ve been watching season three unfold as a critique of Tracy and Gordo’s heroic self-sacrifice, and now Danny’s childhood memories of Shane come tumbling out of him to join that revisionist cause, his heart’s reservoir unable to contain his guilt, grief, and rage any longer.
From Danny’s perspective, it’s his fault Shane is dead. He let Shane take the blame every time they got up to no good as kids, and had Danny taken responsibility for any of it, Karen would not have grounded Shane, and Shane would not have died. He’s been hanging onto that guilt for over 20 years now, having devoted himself to doing all that he imagined Shane would have done had he lived, with the end result being that Danny doesn’t really know himself at all.
That’s hard enough for Ed to hear, but a bit later, Danny really lets fly. As he remembers it, Shane’s fear of Ed was overwhelming: Shane withdrew far into himself for safety when Ed was around, and only came alive when Ed was on the moon. Danny’s anguished accusation that Ed enjoyed terrifying his young son hits a tender, largely buried nerve, suggesting that he’s at least a little bit right about that. Ed has enough self-awareness to acknowledge deep regret at what a poor father he was to Shane, and to worry that he might be on his deathbed having made a hash of things with Kelly by being just as dismissive of her as he had been of Shane. He’s a product of his time and place, and has gotten an astonishing amount of professional mileage out of being a hard-ass, black-and-white man’s man’s man’s man. But we’ve also seen Ed treasure his far more emotionally healthy relationship with Kelly; that’s just as real as his profound failings as a father to Shane.
True change may be possible, but before we can think about that in detail, Danny must leap into lifesaving action to stanch the flow of blood from Ed’s wounds, which have now reopened. There’s something particularly poignant about how the conflict between them is punctuated by Danny expertly and doggedly keeping Ed alive. As they are finally having the big fight they’ve been cruising toward all season, even amid all that anger and pain and concern, there’s never any question that Danny will keep Ed alive and conscious for as long as he possibly can.
For All Mankind loves narrative symmetry and echoes and continues to provide a veritable buffet of both in this episode’s final act. As Ed and Danny are letting all their vexations hang out on Mars, back home Jimmy confronts Karen about sleeping with Danny. The Stevens sons are aware of their own failings, and they’re not going to let the Baldwin parents off the hook for theirs. In an echo of frantic family-member vigils from past seasons, this time Karen has shown up to make dinner for and sit with Amber and Jimmy as they wait for news. She probably needs their company as much as they need hers, and it’s a mark of her skilled veteran status that Ed’s and Kelly’s names barely come up while she’s there. Her own grief and cares are there, but her main objective is to be a supportive rock for her junior colleagues.
In the end, the rescue mission is a success and flight surgeon Mayakovsky removes the shrapnel threatening Ed’s life. As Ed regains consciousness, Dani welcomes him back and does her sad duty of informing him that his crew members Castillo and Corrado have died, as has Alexei. Who knows why Mayakovsky didn’t require some neurological triage before letting Alexei go out in the rover with Kelly to find Ed and Danny, but his bad headache eventually revealed itself as a fatal subdural hematoma. Ed manages to beckon his daughter over for some fatherly comfort as she howls out her grief, and as Kuznetsov and Mayakovsky confer quietly about the pregnancy Kelly herself isn’t aware she’s carrying.