As we cruise into the home stretch of For All Mankind’s third season, let’s look at some of the major themes that have emerged in this wild tale of humans who lit out for Mars full of what they thought was hope but was actually competitive hubris — that’s most likely why so many things went wrong.
As penultimate episodes of TV seasons often do, “Coming Home” does a lot of table setting for the season finale. Over the course of the past 20 episodes, For All Mankind has been asking if true collaboration among nations is possible. Must we always treat our geopolitical antagonists as antagonists in every context? The second season’s escalating squabbles over lunar turf presented some important lessons about international cooperation off Earth’s surface. The third season has shown us how well the space explorers have learned those lessons and how badly their home agencies have to play catch-up.
In the second season, U.S. and U.S.S.R. leaders on Earth were so anxious about the other country gaining any kind of advantage on the moon that they literally weaponized space. This led to horrifying armed confrontations, including a cosmonaut burning to death in his space suit after being shot by a U.S. marine, followed by a Soviet invasion of Jamestown Colony to “rescue” a defecting colleague. If these superpowers had instead negotiated their way to a space-exploration alliance, there would have been no shoot-out, no near-nuclear meltdown, and no need for Gordo and Tracy Stevens’s heroism. Even a rickety agreement riddled with mutual distrust would have been a bulwark against anyone feeling compelled to sacrifice their life to save space exploration.
It seems true collaboration across nations in space is possible, but so far only thanks to intense crises. When we drop in on the merged crews representing NASA, Roscosmos, and Helios, they’re five months past the landslide and the deaths of Isabel, Nick, and Alexei. The three crews are fully integrated in their work and living arrangements, and they’ve settled into an easy camaraderie as they pour most of their time and energy into getting the MSAM Popeye ready to dock with the Phoenix in the next launch window. They need to get Kelly Baldwin up to the safety of the Phoenix for the remainder of her pregnancy, adding a degree of urgency to their work.
Despite the seriousness and urgency of the mission, and the grief and disappointment hanging over it all, it seems as if things are pretty good up there? Well, except for the toilets, which were not built to handle the waste of so many people. Waste-management problems and dwindling rations aside, though, the atmosphere is pretty light. Will and Luisa have an intricate and adorable daps thing going on. Even the previously frosty and tightly wound Kuznetsov has relaxed so much that he casually informs everyone that they can nab a replacement for the docking system from one of the many Soviet probes already on Mars. Necessity forced them to merge all three missions, but time has done its work too.
The Mars mission has also shown us the relative unimportance of what’s happening on Earth. As we’ve seen with Will Tyler coming out and instantly stepping into an unprecedented gray zone — continuing to serve his government with distinction while in space, knowing that the second he arrives back on Earth, he’ll be dishonorably discharged from the Army — there’s not much the earthbound space-exploration agencies can do as authority figures when the mission’s leaders are 10 million miles away. Their role is now limited to mission support, advice, and rescue.
Most of the remainder of this episode concerns itself with the fundamentals of identity and making a case for the idea that the intrinsic, immutable characteristics of an individual will supersede other factors such as nationality, policy, and personal risk. For better and for worse, people just can’t stop being who they are.
Aleida’s intense bedrock need to know who at NASA shared her designs with the Soviets has fueled a long, independent, unofficial investigation, and now that it’s coming to a head, she’s losing control of the whole thing. Bill Strausser reassures her that she isn’t deluded; the evidence does point to Margo, and then immediately involves the FBI, which Aleida can’t tolerate. With or without her assistance, they’re going to investigate Margo and will probably subpoena her to testify at any hearing or trial. Now she’s going to have to grapple with the boundaries of loyalty, friendship, and duty and with the equally important question of what she thought would happen as a consequence of chasing down answers.
Margo’s unshakeable belief in science as a collaborative effort has led her down a stubborn, idealistic path too. Remember her wistful look around the empty conference room at the end of the previous episode? Remember her delight and excitement at developing — notably, in partnership with Sergei — the docking mechanism for the historic Apollo-Soyuz handshake in space? She loves to get the band back together and hates to see them split again. Her devoted belief in scientific advances being literally for all mankind is what led her to cross the line from being a helpful colleague to a Soviet intelligence asset.
Meanwhile, Ellen’s surprise coming-out neatly weaves together a few arcs: her entwined, messy (and perhaps still loving?) relationships with Larry and Pam; her continued growth as an astute politician and a full human being; and the fates of LGBTQIA+ American service members, especially Will Tyler’s. This is another big-swing moment for Ellen, something she has proved to be very good at executing. Her clutch performance in the Apollo 24 rescue mission in season one became the foundation of her bona fides as a NASA administrator, while her unsanctioned authorization of last season’s Apollo-Soyuz handshake spurred Reagan and Andropov to meet and hammer out the historic moon treaty. Decisions she makes while just doing her job seem often to lead to significant change well beyond whatever she hopes to accomplish.
What long-term, wide-ranging ripples will Ellen’s choices here yield for queer rights in general next season? For now, we can read her big swing as a moment of self-sacrifice to protect Larry and their son or as a bold statement of independence from a woman finally beginning to insist on being fully known and understood. Most likely, it’s a bit of both.
As alert viewers will have noticed, nearly every episode this season has concluded with a cliffhanger. “Coming Home” is no exception, and it definitely feels as though the writers heard our pleas for mercy and chose instead to show us that they had not even begun to hang a cliff before now. They couldn’t serve us just the nerves-decimating twist of Kelly falling unconscious due to the preeclampsia that any viewer of Call the Midwife knew was coming the moment Dr. Mayakovsky (a classic graduate of the Caring Grump University Medical School) noted her blood pressure was a little high. Oh no. They just had to pile on the total shock of Dani and Kuznetsov walking into yet another space-gun situation when they most unexpectedly come across an armed (and equally shocked-looking) North Korean in the last five seconds of the episode. It’s enough to make one holler and throw the remote at the TV. It’s a (furious) compliment, I swear!
Houston, We Have Some Bullet Points (But No Space Bullets!)
• Finally, some answers about the audio recording setup in the Oval Office! And as a bonus, a little Easter egg to viewers who think about Watergate every time we see Ellen’s beloved mammoth portrait of Nixon. I hooted aloud when she and Larry considered and then immediately discarded the possibility of erasing the most damning portions of the tape and blaming it on some technical difficulty that would coincidentally shield them from being publicly outed.
• Speaking of Ellen and Larry, why does their son exist? He has appeared in a grand total of two scenes, accruing maybe three minutes onscreen, and I don’t believe we’ve even heard his name spoken aloud. He’s clearly unnecessary!
• What about the homeless encampments full of fossil-fuel-energy workers who lost their jobs owing to the switch to nuclear energy powered by Helium 3? I can’t tell if this plotline — which so far is exclusively an exposition tool — is seeding an important theme for next season or is simply a half-baked nod to the fraught socioeconomic and environmental position of coal workers in our timeline.
• I am once again asking for a vibe check way down in the HAB. Kuznetsov’s behavior toward Dani is now undeniably fond and low-key flirtatious. He addresses her by her first name, he leans way more than necessary into a brief conversation with her, and then he smiles to himself when she easily wins their friendly little banter-laced disagreement. Maybe I’ve listened to “Something to Talk About” one too many times, but I think there’s something there there.