It’s rare for a single plot development focusing on a character with approximately ten lines in five episodes to become the backbone of an entire episode. However, the casual-seeming revelation by Major Will Tyler — astronaut, Detroiter, Black man — that he’s gay, and how his disclosure reverberates through organizations including NASA, the U.S. Army, and the office of the president, informs about 75 percent of “New Eden.”
The topic is of a piece with For All Mankind broadly; the show has had a strong and sincere interest in the lives of its queer characters ever since Larry and Ellen agreed to be each other’s beard in the first season. In fact, they are the characters through whose eyes we’ve seen what navigating closeted gay life is like in the show’s timeline. We briefly saw flashes of what could have been Ellen’s future if she’d reunited with Pam for the long term, but the door to that potential future snapped shut once Pam broke off their relationship to make sure Ellen could enter national politics.
From our vantage point in 2022 — when queerness is both commonplace to so many and under terrifying attack by a virulent and malignant right wing — it may be worth a reminder that in the show’s timeline, Larry and Ellen chose to marry largely because Larry was under intense scrutiny by the FBI. It wasn’t enough for them to be an established couple; to avoid being hounded out of aerospace entirely, he had to put a ring on it.
Their arrangement has gone on to protect both of them and allow them to continue their distinguished careers in private industry and public service, but we’ve also seen what it cost each of them. It’s been particularly hard on Ellen, and we see a bit of that when she tears up, alone in the Oval Office, as she watches Will’s full statement on his life as a gay man.
When we first see Will’s coming-out video, it seems very matter of fact, almost spur of the moment, as he reflects on the boundless potential of humans colonizing an entirely new planet. He talks about everyone being entitled to a fresh slate. Will’s full video message is an initially bleak “It gets better,” including allusions to having been bullied and experiencing suicidal ideation, and concludes with a quietly defiant, hopeful parting shot for all viewers: Queerness isn’t evidence of being broken or wrong — “it’s the world that’s broken, not you.” Seeing the first woman to hold the highest office in the U.S. government privately letting her guard down, a single tear making its way down her cheek as she contemplates what might have been in her own life, is deeply poignant.
Responses elsewhere are less openhearted. The U.S. Army is furious. In For All Mankind’s timeline, policy across the armed forces mandates the dishonorable discharge of any active-duty servicemember who is revealed as being not heterosexual. Understandably, nobody wants this for Will as he is a decorated Army major who has served the nation with distinction for years, but the policy is what it is. For now.
Vice-President Jim Bragg may have struck a welcoming note to more moderate views in his interview with Ellen way back when, but his blood is well and truly up now. He all but storms into the Oval Office in high anger, reminding everyone present that fully 73 percent of Americans polled recently consider homosexuality very bad. (According to the Pew Research Center, in our 1994, public opinion was more evenly split, with 49 percent saying it should be discouraged and 46 percent saying it should be accepted.)
As Larry and Ellen plead with Bragg to take a moment to calm down and review all available options before issuing a formal response, he loses his temper altogether, insisting they nip the entire situation very aggressively in the bud with an appeal to think of the children: Astronauts “are supposed to be role models! We are talking about the sanctity of the military and the future of this country!” Aw, Mr. Vice-President, most of the words you’re saying are true; they just mean the opposite of what you think they mean. His spleen thus vented, Bragg lays out the conclusions that the president and First Gentleman have already arrived at, specifically the likely demise of the jobs bill and a routing at the ballot box come 1996.
Over at NASA, beyond Margo’s exasperated reaction as she watches the breaking news, this is primarily an HR issue for Dani to deal with. Will’s coming out is a distraction from the mission, but beyond Dani’s reminder about adhering to the chain of command, there’s not much NASA can do for the next two years. Will is 100 million miles from Earth, he’s an essential crew member, and nobody has discussed the timeline for the crew’s return to Earth in any great detail so far. What happens outside of Earth’s orbit stays outside of Earth’s orbit for once maybe?
Dani and Will’s conversation about his announcement is one on one, and it’s so well done. Here are two thoughtful people who have both shared and diverging experiences of being marginalized in American society generally and within the space program in particular. Everything matters: their race, genders, sexualities, and military and scientific experiences, as well as their professional rapport.
Aside from Dani’s directive that Will refocus his time and effort on repairing the climate-control system so their team can stop its (absolutely disgusting-sounding) strict water rationing, nothing is resolved by the end of their talk, a type of shared dissatisfaction that rings a deep and true note. Dani is exasperated by Will’s philosophically rooted scope advance — “Reconstructing the moral fabric of the universe is not our mission!” — and he’s disappointed to have to remind her that life in the closet is not the luxury she seems to think it is.
From all this chaos and heartache emerges a solution that could make a lasting improvement for active-duty military personnel and shift control of the public conversation back to the international success of the Mars mission: Uniform First. The armed forces will no longer invest time, money, and human resources in so much as asking active-duty military personnel about their sexuality, and so long as the gay ones don’t let it be known, they can continue to serve. It’s an analog of our timeline’s Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy, which was in effect from 1994 to 2010 and will be a bridge too far for the Republicans while falling badly short for the Democrats. It’s far from being what anyone wants, though it is something. Unfortunately, Uniform First comes too late to benefit Will. Equally unfortunate, it may also get smothered by a sex scandal looming over Larry thanks to his lover on the side overconfiding in a fellow political operative who — surprise! — spills the salacious beans of their relationship to someone likely to do some damage with it.
Most immediately for our friends on Mars, Will’s coming out spells difficulty for his long-standing easy-working relationship and close familial friendship with Rolan. Rolan’s homophobia is quite literal; he’s afraid of the vanishingly small likelihood that Will might be HIV-positive, putting everyone he has contact with at risk. He doesn’t want to touch Will or, if he’s injured, come into contact with his blood. It turns out Rolan’s misery is probably more rooted in feeling hurt that Will didn’t come out to him individually, as it feels like a blow to their deep bond of trust and friendship.
Other stuff does happen in this episode. Briefly: Alexei and Kelly are resorting to enthusiastic quickies that they think are surreptitious in Happy Valley Base’s greenhouse; Alexei overcompensates in the first meeting with Ed by pretending not to know Kelly at all, a move that goes over like a lead balloon to Mars’s proudest papa; Danny suffers an injury to his hand that is fairly minor but, by policy, necessitates a trip back to Phoenix. Ed bends the rules for Danny to allow him to stay on base, thinking it will help buck him up and feel more of the respect Ed has for him as a colleague. Instead, it puts Danny in a place where it’s troublingly easy for him to self-medicate by filling his pockets with a bunch of oxycodone and amphetamine pills. The opioid crisis going interplanetary is not an outcome anyone wants, but here we are.
As we look back on “New Eden” and the two episodes preceding it, we can see more clearly the theme of shifting alliances taking center stage. This time, the Soviets are willing to accept help from NASA, but it’s strictly a marriage of convenience. They’ve discovered an enormous underground reservoir of water on Mars and strike a deal with Helios to use its equipment to access it (at a price of 50 percent of that water thanks to Karen Baldwin’s shrewd negotiating) but plan to say nothing to the Americans stationed at Happy Valley Base.
Yes, the same Americans who rescued them and shared quarters and rations with them. The Soviets are pragmatic to the point of possibly putting their hosts and fellow human beings at risk. It’s hard to tell who among the crew is a true believer and who thinks keeping mum is inhumane bullshit because they are so well trained in staying on message. It’s a point of pride for their mission commander, Grigory Kuznetsov, who simply cannot believe the lack of discipline among the Americans, who seem unreliable and overemotional to him.
But who wouldn’t be sorely tempted to get in a good old-fashioned shouting match and maybe a bit of fisticuffs upon learning that the people whose lives you saved just a month ago are plotting to hoard an abundant secret source of the most precious life-sustaining substance in the universe? The chutzpah!
• The presidential portraits on the Oval Office wall facing Ellen’s desk tell a particular tale for those with eyes to see. Nixon is front and center, of course, flanked by Lincoln and Washington with Eleanor Roosevelt on the far left.
• We’ve got some M*A*S*H fans aboard: In the second season episode in which Tracy Stevens arrives on the moon, we got an establishing shot highlighting a moon-specific destination sign à la the one at the 4,077th, noting the mileage to each astronaut’s hometown. In “New Eden,” the hydroponic lettuce lab and tryst destination of choice bears a sign announcing it as the Swamp (a.k.a. the tent Hawkeye Pierce shares with, variously, Trapper John, B.J. Hunnicutt, Frank Burns, and Charles Emerson Winchester III).
• Also spotted in the medicine cabinet Danny raids: lorazepam (Ativan) and zolpidem (Ambien). I’m not a medical professional, but perhaps stricter access protocols and storing the powerful, habit-forming medications separately might not go amiss?