I don’t know about you, but I just love to ease into a new season of a favorite TV show. A very leisurely hour spent catching up with the whole gang, keeping it light and breezy, you know? Hahahahaha yeah, no. That’s not how we do things on For All Mankind. Strap in because this season premiere has everything: NASA’s continued intense competition (and unbeknownst to most of them, collaboration) with the Soviet space program, reverberations and criticism of Gordo and Tracy Stevens’s heroism, and, of course, A Poseidon Adventure in space. Why not?
Thanks to catching up via a super-sized opening montage of alternate timeline updates delivered at rat-a-tat speed, we know that it’s 1992; Texas Senator Ellen Wilson is running against Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton for the presidency of the U.S. following Gary Hart’s two terms; Danny Stevens has followed in his late parents’ footsteps, becoming an astronaut; Karen Baldwin is now in the space tourism business with Sam Cleveland; Gordo and Tracy’s memories remain alive thanks to a memorial statue at JSC and a schmaltzy biopic starring Dennis Quaid and Meg Ryan; Communism is enjoying a golden age of economic growth and ideological success, as all of Latin America and now Mexico have gone red; and as the finale of season two strongly suggested, Reagan and Andropov did indeed sign a treaty governing moon colonization.
Given the booming Soviet economy and the security everyone feels thanks to the moon colonization treaty, it’s no surprise to see Margo’s good buddy Sergei on TV announcing that the Soviet space program is preparing to launch a manned mission to Mars in 1996. Mazels to them, but Margo, Aleida, and Bill would feel a whole lot better about it if the nuclear-powered engine NASA has been testing for their hoped-for Mars mission didn’t fail every time they test it.
As you may recall from last season, the KGB had leveraged Sergei’s genuine friendship with Margo (and her inclination to protect human life) to maneuver her into being an intelligence asset for them. This arrangement appears to be still in place, thanks to their system of Sergei special-ordering rare jazz LPs for Margo, followed by Margo using a payphone outside the record store to call Sergei at his payphone in the USSR. Their conversation — as awkward and halting as any call between people who both like and like each other but who are separated by thousands of miles and pesky laws about treason would be — reveals that it’s not just Margo sharing helpful suggestions and information with the Soviets. Sergei is doing the same for NASA.
It can’t all be a cute long-distance reciprocal espionage (with bonus tentative flirtation) situation, though, can it? The moment Sergei hangs up with Margo — after mentioning how much he’s looking forward to seeing her at their conference in London soon, aww — his KGB handler calls to remind him to push for more information about something to do with their nuclear engines. We knew it had to get more complicated, didn’t we? Sergei’s regrets are plain as day in his facial expression as he tries again to wriggle out of this request, reminding his handler that pushing Margo on something this sensitive and high-stakes is bound to make her clam up. Still, he’s reminded that he has his instructions, followed by a very pointed and abrupt end to the call.
Margo’s reluctance to speak on the issue may be driven by more than moral rectitude; the engine just isn’t ready, and perhaps she’s embarrassed about letting Sergei know. Aleida figuring out a likely solution prompts Margo to assign her protégée to the next flight to the moon so she can oversee its implementation, and a joyous Rosales family celebration erupts in their living room. Thinking about how much Aleida and her father had to endure to get to this place where she’s so professionally successful, her father now lives with Aleida, her husband Victor, and their young son Javi, a tear or two does tend to well up in the old eye. It’s so good to see how far Aleida has come in all of her relationships at home and at work.
Meanwhile, up at Sam and Karen’s luxury space hotel, shuttles full of guests are arriving for a wedding. Is the happy couple Sam and Karen themselves? Kelly and her intended? It turns out it’s Danny Stevens and his fiancée, Amber, who in profile bears a striking resemblance to Paige Jennings (as played by Holly Taylor on The Americans). Ed, Karen, and Dani are all sincerely thrilled to see Danny and wish him and Amber joy. In the intervening years since the end of season two, Ed and Dani have both gotten remarried, Ed to a woman named Yvonne and Dani to a young widower whose teen son, Isaiah, she dotes on.
Everything seems pretty normal (apart from being in a space hotel whose slow-spinning allows it to maintain the same gravity as Earth, which is objectively amazing); the happy couple says I do, everyone is wearing their best heavily beaded icy pastels at the reception, Danny kindly refuses champagne to stick with water only, and Amber’s maid of honor delivers a very sweet speech. Things get uncomfortable as Jimmy Stevens delivers his best man speech. After touching on how Danny always knows how to make others feel special and thanking him for being such a good brother (especially since he got sober, which accounts for the refusal of champagne), he sort of rambles his way into their parents’ deaths. Those feelings are still very raw for Jimmy, and after saying — his voice dripping with scorn and sarcasm — that they died for the country and the space program, his voice cracks a tiny bit as he nearly shouts, “but really, they’re just dead.” This hard, unvarnished truth hangs uncomfortably in the air for a moment before the dancing begins.
Last season, For All Mankind examined the meaning of heroism from the perspective of two characters who thought their best efforts were well behind them. Because this is a show that cares deeply about the effect of major events on individual people (and vice-versa), it looks like we’ll be exploring the long-term effects of Gordo and Tracy’s self-sacrifice on the boys they left behind. From Jimmy’s perspective, their deaths are meaningless, and the meanings others try to impose on it are revolting to him. His parents disappeared from his life altogether with no warning, no note left behind for him and Danny, no Not FaceTime™ goodbye, just a sudden, permanent hole in his life, which doesn’t even belong to him because NASA has taken charge of that narrative. Both Jimmy and Danny are in some ways frozen at the ages they were when their parents died, 17 and 19, respectively. Had Gordo and Tracy lived, it’s possible to imagine a future where Danny didn’t become an astronaut. Instead, it seems as though their deaths warped and sealed his career plans. Did no one suggest to him that he might be better off working in aerospace, but not as an astronaut, and perhaps not at NASA at all, in particular? To be continued, because a major crisis is a-brewing.
The opening montage mentioned North Korea abandoning its ballistic missile program to throw all of its support behind a space program of its own. Margo rolls her eyes upon learning that a North Korean rocket has exploded into a bunch of debris; apparently they’re using very flawed, old Soviet designs. The debris seems like it will not affect Polaris, but anything can happen, and something does. A piece of debris strikes one of the hotel’s thrusters, forcing it all the way open, which causes the entire craft to begin spinning faster than it should. The increased speed causes G-forces on board to increase in turn. A spacewalk by two astronauts Karen poached from NASA ends in calamity as they’re both hurled into the void by a wildly flailing structural cable, which then damages the space hotel so badly that everyone needs to evacuate. This is a race against time because it’s spinning faster and faster, causing G-forces to increase so much that eventually no one can stand, let alone walk. Oh, and also, the hotel is not built to withstand more than 4 Gs. If no one can turn off the thruster causing the problem, the entire structure will start ripping itself apart. Complicating this nightmare even further, the elevators that would take guests to safety aboard the shuttles malfunction, killing Sam in the process.
This show loooooves to revisit and revise story beats that have happened previously. To wit: in a mass life-or-death situation, Danny Stevens races down an air shaft to his shuttle, dons his space suit, and performs a successful spacewalk, closing the open thruster at the last possible moment. Whatever negative feelings he might be carrying around about Gordo and Tracy’s deaths, he doesn’t hesitate to step into their shoes. Instead of dying a martyr as his parents did, Danny performs an equally dangerous long-shot task to save lives and survives. Being a hero is great and all, but being constantly reminded of it and of how your late parents died may start to weigh heavily on his noble young brow.
Houston, We Have Some Bullet Points
• Needle Drop of the Episode: Danny and Amber’s first dance is to the sultry, slowed-down cover of “Don’t Be Cruel” by Billy Swann that Danny played to try to seduce Karen Baldwin last season, and it’s obvious that she recalls it with horrifying clarity. What’s he playing at?
• Shots shots shots shots shots shots shots: Ed injects his tush with an unidentified substance. His ease with the steps suggests this isn’t a new part of his life, but there are no further references to it in this episode.
• A Seamless Arc of Dawning Horror: The sequence of Ed and Dani figuring out individually that something’s very wrong is so good, moving effortlessly from the slightly funny (Yvonne’s shoe, hurled in vexation, doesn’t even make it close to hitting Ed) to unsettling (the bride and groom wedding cake decoration is sinking into the cake) to the life-or-death stakes necessitating a stymied evacuation.