After the emotional terrorism perpetrated on an innocent viewing public via the horrors of last week’s final five minutes, we deserve to take it a little bit easy. Thank goodness this episode comes through with a timely breather. Not that much actually happens here, and that’s just fine. (Private to the writers’ room: I see what you did there with titles suggesting something entirely other than what happens in “Happy Valley” and “Seven Minutes of Terror,” you bait-and-switching evil genius authors of my waking nightmares.)
“Seven Minutes of Terror” lets us shake out the tension in our necks and shoulders, prioritizing the relative leisure of extended character moments and using them to get the chess board for the second half of the season. As far as the plot goes, it’s not as though nothing happens, but the story beats seem aware that their job this week is to establish mood and deepen relationships.
Let’s get into all of it by just ripping the Band-Aid off right away and diving into whatever it is Danny Stevens is doing. Danny has put himself in an untenable situation by impulsively leaving NASA for Helios in a successful effort to skirt the logical consequences of his falling off the wagon. Unfortunately, all he accomplished was exchanging one bad problem for another, which is quite possibly worse than the first problem. By now, even Danny himself is starting to think that perhaps the shame of being publicly known for having an imperfect substance-abuse-recovery process wouldn’t have been as unbearable as a two-year mission in an enclosed space with his mentor–father figure–object of his most murderous Oedipal impulses is proving to be.
Pouring his heart out to Jimmy in a letter-home-style video, Danny reflects that this mission has been harder than he anticipated, mostly because working with Ed makes him whiplash back and forth between guilt and rage on a daily basis. He knows that both he and Ed often have Gordo on their minds, that Ed is trying to fill his late dad’s shoes, and that the tender and the furious can’t coexist, much less stay in equilibrium indefinitely.
That friction leads Danny to manipulate the guileless and eager-to-impress Nick Corrado into revealing how to get around Phoenix’s various password-protection systems. Realizing a few seconds too late what he’s done, Nick’s face crumples while Danny walks away smirking, ready to put that knowledge to work in his scheme to watch Ed and Karen’s private video messages to each other.
It’s hard to know what Danny thinks watching these videos will accomplish for him. They aren’t helping him get over Karen; if anything, he looks more miserably lovelorn by the second as he witnesses the ease she and Ed share even at a distance of tens of millions of miles. They’re also not much use in his working relationship with Ed, but his desire for more contact with Karen is overwhelming any qualms he might feel about hitting play again and again.
This poor dumb baby hungers so desperately for a relationship that he knows he cannot have that he’s playing a game he knows he cannot win. Well, probably he knows? During a card-game conversation that Ed thinks is a sincere heart-to-heart with his dead best friend’s son, Danny first tip-toes and then struts right up to the line of telling Ed that he’s the one Karen risked it all to sleep with. He plainly longs to throw this in Ed’s face but also can’t bear the thought of an open physical conflict with Ed, to say nothing of the damage a prideful confession would do to his own marriage.
Speaking of Ed and Karen’s private video messages, are you getting a vibe? After 50-plus years of genuine affection for each other and their shared commitment to being good parents to Kelly, there’s not nothing there. A friendship like that can certainly get a little flirty from time to time, but these two are mature enough to know that flirtation isn’t necessarily an invitation to action. A second chance at love? Choosing the stability of their hard-fought friendship over the risk of attempting romance again? Things could go either way down the line with these two, but we could fairly call it a tentative vibe — a vibe with potential.
After the dust has settled from the successful/failed rescue mission, Ed and Dani’s contrasting arcs for the season have become more distinct. Who knows what Ed and Dani think about their performances as mission commanders, but there have been so many moments this season when Ed has faltered (or been dead wrong) while Dani has flourished (or been proven right — not that she’s an “I told you so” kind of person). It feels as though the show is making a case that her steady, earned confidence is unquestionably equal to Ed’s greater spontaneity and risk tolerance. In fact, her expert piloting of Sojourner during the ill-fated Mars-94 rescue mission and gutsy successful landing of Sojourner’s lander are just two more examples of how expertise, experience, and emotional intelligence can combine to work as fluidly and successfully as intuition does at its best.
I think the difference between Ed and Dani is a question of scale. Ed’s abilities and mistakes appear more consequential because his performance spectrum is wide. That’s largely a reflection of his white-man-ness: He can take up more space, so he does. That’s not territory Dani has been afforded before leading NASA’s Mars mission. Still, as we keep seeing, the increasingly long communications lag between Earth and the spacecraft gives mission leaders more latitude to make executive decisions of their own.
When Ed is on form, he’s still an exceptional leader, and he couldn’t be more right in his video message to Dev and Helios’s mission control that Dev’s attempt to subvert his authority and decision-making ability dishonored Phoenix’s crew and the mission as a whole. Ed and Dani are both still hypercompetitive, of course, but it was reassuring to see in “Happy Valley” how they reprioritized the mutual respect and affection that’s undergirded their friendship for so long.
Back on Earth, Margo seems to be developing a keener taste for the high-stakes world of leveraging her knowledge and authority against the Soviets. I’m both into this and filled with trepidation about it. Insisting on getting Sergei to Houston as a condition of assisting Roscosmos with their cosmonauts’ assignments was a bold move, but it didn’t feel risky. She knew director Catiche would agree because what else could she do? Margo had leverage and Catiche didn’t. I’m not sure Margo knows what she’s getting into with her plan to rescue Sergei and his entire family from the lung- and kidney-based torture methods of the KGB. It would be an enormous coup for the U.S. to assist in the defection of the former director of Roscosmos. The expertise and insights Sergei would very gratefully bring to the table would be one thing; the blow to the Soviets’ pride and morale might be the thing that motivates the U.S. most of all.
Margo will need to clear a bunch of hurdles to get beyond a firm initial “No,” but as we’ve seen, she’s very skilled at negotiating relationships with colleagues outside of NASA. Having carried so much water for the armed forces and various presidential administrations, she should have some juice there. And perhaps throwing a slice or two of that sweet, sweet NASA revenue to other federal agencies would help, too.
This raises the question of how Aleida’s independent investigation factors in here. She’s going all Veronica Mars with her hunch about the uncanny similarities between Mars-94 and a NASA design from 1992 — one can only assume it’s just a matter of time before the jig is up. That said, this might be a more dangerous game than Margo’s foray into Operation Defection. Additionally, Margo, of all people, knows how tenacious Aleida is, and now that Aleida’s suspicious gaze is turning to her NASA colleagues, she’s going to suss it out in very short order. Margo thinks she has a good rationale for her espionage, but will that convince Aleida or anyone else in her orbit?
Houston, We Have Some Bullet Points
• I’m growing more curious about the gathering storm of the whole populist “Fuck NASA” movement and what Jimmy’s role in it will be. Jimmy is a mess. He’s a lost soul primed to latch onto conspiracy theories, and I dread to think how his association with Sunny and her crew will play out. It’s poised to merge with the clunky plotline about Not-Fox News’s skepticism about Helium-3 and how the economic and social collapse of the fossil-fuel sector is affecting President Wilson’s implementation of her agenda.
• While we can’t call Kelly and Alexei’s introduction via secret emergency radio transmission a meet-cute, their chemistry is pretty delightful, and I’m rooting for them. On the other hand, Sojourner is not a huge ship, and unless the base they build on Mars is palatial by comparison, there’s no way they’ll be able to keep this under wraps in the long term.
• Finally, the White House tapes: I’m at a loss, and it’s driving me bananas. Who is creating these tapes? Is it Ellen and Larry themselves? Are they recording every conversation in the Oval Office? If so, does anyone other than Ellen and Larry know about their audio documentary work? If the recordings are being made without their knowledge by an entity to be revealed, will the tapes’ contents illuminate Ellen’s decisions exclusively to future historians, or will they become For All Mankind’s Nixon tapes equivalent?