As you’ll no doubt remember, season two of For All Mankind concluded with Gordo and Tracy Stevens sacrificing their lives for the greater good of continued space exploration and international relations between the US and the USSR. Viewers got to see their entire decision-making process, the development of their ersatz space suits, their mad, successful dash to the computer panel outside the galley airlock, all of it.
In fact, other than Gordo and Tracy themselves, we are the only ones who saw all of it. Gordo hung up their Not-FaceTime™ call with Molly Cobb to avoid hearing more of her cautions and reminders that it was likely a suicide mission, and everyone else at Jamestown Colony was trying to shoot others or attempting not to get shot themselves. The Stevenses didn’t leave behind a note of explanation for their sons, and whatever story Commander Rossi and Molly were able to reconstruct isn’t the full story.
Everything that’s happened since, from their nationally televised funeral to the Dennis Quaid-Meg Ryan tragic romance Love in the Skies to the commemorative statue of the duct-taped heroes, has attempted to place their story into a definitive, straightforward shape. They loved each other; they drove each other bananas; they were a sensational team who gave their lives for something bigger than themselves.
Season three of For All Mankind has been a long-form exercise in unraveling that tidy story. That story has been good enough for most people, but the sons they left behind remain bereft. Danny is frozen psychologically in the moment when he thought he had won Karen’s love, only for her to turn around and tell him he was 100 percent mistaken; Jimmy simply doesn’t buy the NASA party line and wants someone to take his skepticism seriously.
Jimmy’s best man toast and its withering references to NASA as fundamentally a PR machine that exists to sustain itself, no matter the cost to actual human beings, echo in all of his scenes. The problem with an echo is that if it doesn’t come to a natural end quickly, it starts to fold in on itself, becoming a cacophony of undifferentiated noise no one can understand.
That’s where we find ourselves in “Bring It Down,” an episode that reminds us that a story isn’t just about the decisions people make but also about the near and far-reaching consequences of those decisions. Jimmy’s acquaintances from the “Fuck NASA” rally earlier in the season are now the cornerstone of his social life, and they need him and his casual access to JSC to carry out a new, more daring scheme to expose The Truth. They think they know what that is, but their imagined story isn’t any less tidy than the current narrative.
Jimmy doesn’t seem particularly invested in the most out-there conspiracy theory beliefs of the group’s disillusioned Marine/low-key cult leader, but he is very invested in having a real group of friends. What a sweet relief to think that there are people who can appreciate him on his own merits rather than think of him first and foremost as Gordo and Tracy’s son. Most, unfortunately, he’s hopped from the frying pan of loneliness to the blazing fire of being brazenly manipulated.
Having fallen like an egg from a tall chicken for Sunny and her Unexpectedly Philosophical Girl Next Door look, Jimmy is pretty deep into go along to get along mode. It’s not difficult to convince him to use his superpower of being able to waltz into JSC any time so that Sunny can try to swipe a staff member’s security badge. It’s heartbreaking that he does so at all, and worse when Sunny & Co. later conduct a little heist to remove Gordo and Tracy’s commemorative statue, delivering it to Jimmy as a surprise. He’s been having second thoughts about stealing the ID badge, but getting rid of that statue is a meaningful act of friendship. How’s he supposed to act on second thoughts now?
All along, the Stevens boys have been going off the rails and self-medicating in their own ways to quell the riot of inchoate and often unnameable troubles in their hearts and minds. Jimmy needs people, community, answers, a big overarching reason for what’s happened to his family. Danny just wants to stop feeling so awful. Alone with his thoughts, he’s consumed from the inside out by guilt, resentment, rage, love, and longing. Jimmy has joined a cult, while Danny suffers in silence, punctuated by violent outbursts.
On Mars, Danny’s worsening drug dependency and Will Tyler’s continued existence as a gay man on Mars are both continuing to pose questions about authority and rules. Just as the crews of Phoenix and Sojourner can (and often can’t) get around making key decisions without consulting their higher-ups on Earth, so the crews are really only allowing their commanders to command them.
Accordingly, cracks are starting to show. Ed’s choices for exercising his authority over Danny are limited to what amounts to either “Go to your room, young man” or “You’re losing your rank but still working on this project, Buster.” And what’s Dani going to do about Will Tyler’s quiet defiance, tell her best mechanical engineer not to fix malfunctioning technology that they all need to survive for the next 18 months?
I give both Will and Nick Corrado a lot of credit for how successful they are at maintaining their respective core identities under the extreme conditions of working in a confined space, in a hostile environment, hundreds of millions of miles from home. They’re bringing their full selves to work and are figuring out how to make it work in ways that are soul-nourishing to them and don’t get in the way of them doing their jobs very competently.
It’s interesting that Danny’s worst decisions this season are those he makes by hurting the almost irritatingly wholesome, open-hearted, and fun-loving Nick. They start out being interpersonally cruel (tricking Nick into telling him how to hack their computer system so he could watch Karen and Ed’s video messages), move into Incomprehensibly Jerky (crushing underfoot the irritating but harmless robot dog Nick was robot dog-sitting), and end in a horrifying catastrophe (purposefully shutting off communications between the water mining site and the Helios base as the mining astronauts beg for assistance to prevent the operation from exploding). All along, Danny hasn’t really known who he is. Lovesick disaster? Astronaut, family man, and son of heroes? Screwed-up mess who never listens? Vengeful godlike destroyer of everything the joint Helios-Roscosmos mission has been working towards to sustain human life on Mars? It’s got to be even more difficult to keep hold of a bedrock identity when you don’t know what yours is.
Larry and Ellen Wilson thought they knew who they were, but suddenly they’re not faring much better than Danny is. Larry, in particular, has gotten a little too comfortable with being powerful and safe, blithely quipping his way through a congressional committee meeting regarding NASA’s relationships with outside contractors and walking directly into a trap. Totally unprepared for a question about his relationship with a junior White House staffer, he tries to deflect, accusing the committee’s chair, Willy Barron, and Democrats generally, of grasping at any opportunity to bring the Wilson administration low. But he can’t wriggle off the hook and is maneuvered into perjuring himself, stating under oath that he isn’t involved in an extramarital relationship.
As in the Whitewater lawsuit against Bill and Hillary Clinton that exposed the former president’s continuing history of both unwanted advances towards and illicit relationships with women outside of his marriage, Larry’s (wholly unrelated to NASA) seemingly small decision to engage in a wee dalliance with a White House aide now poses an existential threat to his wife’s administration.
Ellen and Larry’s loud, revealing argument afterward in the Oval Office is no doubt being recorded by the taping system, which surely will be absolutely fine and nothing to worry about in upcoming episodes. For now, the most significant outcome of Larry’s confession to Ellen is that he slips up by leading her to question her entire understanding of why Pam ended their relationship. All these years, Ellen thought Pam left her to resume her relationship with her former partner, Elise, but as Larry puts it, Pam “did for you what you couldn’t do for yourself. She knew it was her or your career.” The next thing we know, careful, deliberate, responsible Ellen is taking a spur-of-the-moment side trip to Texas to see Pam. Well, well, well.
Houston, We Have Some Bullet Points
• The poignant moment of the week goes to the scene between Jimmy and former Jamestown Base commander Al Rossi, who very sweetly reminisces with Jimmy about Tracy. Their chuckle over the cigarettes Jimmy acknowledges sneaking up to the moon for her is sincere, but it also provides an opportunity for Jimmy to swipe Rossi’s access card.
• I so dearly wish that Amber and Ed would triangulate their data points of concern about Jimmy and Danny. The Stevens boys are not ok! I know that’s important to the plot, but it’s so hard to watch!