The third episode of this season is all about maneuvering — even more than is usual on For All Mankind. Nearly every interaction is a play in miniature about one person attempting to impose their will on another, and how the other responds, typically by sticking to their guns. There’s a ton of exposition and contextualization that needs to happen before we can get to the Mars adventures we’ve been promised. Of course, we can’t do space stuff without a healthy dose of complex interpersonal (and in one very significant case, international) dynamics, so strap in! Again!
Helios’s announcement of their plan to launch their Mars mission in 1994 pushes NASA and the Soviets to do likewise; in turn, the Soviets’ need for Margo’s help with the flaws in their nuclear engine’s cooling system leads them to try to force her to divulge the details that would ensure their mission success. It doesn’t seem as though Helios’s prime objective is to throw down a gauntlet at the feet of the two biggest state-sponsored space exploration apparatuses, but the U.S. immediately following suit (with the USSR hot on their heels) makes for an almost giddy problem-solving atmosphere at NASA. We don’t get a hypothesis-test-evaluate-iterate competence-porn montage, but the buzz of at least a dozen conversations erupting around the conference room meeting table the second Margo gives the go-ahead is close enough.
The sequence of repeated vignettes that we do get — between Margo and Sergei in a hotel elevator in London at the Space Geniuses annual conference — is fantastic, though. Remember when I said this show has unexpectedly strong Jane Austen vibes? They’re back in this cold open! Years-long mutual pining! Pinkie fingers brushing together so lightly that you might think it didn’t happen at all! Significant glances! Awkward but socially and politically sanctioned running away! The near-identical sequence of tiny moments unfurls four times with only the tiniest variations. It almost begins to feel like a precious gem of a time loop. The elevator is a liminal space, a floating vestibule in a hotel, which is a way station playing host to a conference, which is itself a little carve-out in space and time, a seemingly apolitical annual international summit. We get rocket science as diplomacy as well as a dizzyingly high-stakes competition. And also flirtation progressing with all the deliberate speed of geologic time.
In 1992, Margo and Sergei work up the nerve to take their little time-out beyond the cocoon of the elevator. Can it be? Is it all happening? Once inside Margo’s suite, Sergei steels himself after a moment of cold feet but waits for Margo’s direct and unmistakable invitation to pivot from chummy colleagues having one more subtext-laden round of drinks to long-term super long-distance intense yearning partners who are finally, finally, finally going to smooch. As a longtime connoisseur of onscreen kissing, I can categorically state that Sergei’s moves — a mix of exquisitely tender and utterly frantic — are very good. Aside from how both he and we know he’s using a genuinely longed-for moment with Margo against her to gain access to the nuclear something-or-other, I rate this performance 18/10, with no further notes on form, content, or technique.
However. Sergei knows Margo, and so he also knows that this is likely his one and only shot with her in this lifetime, because when she figures out that he’s trying to pull a little honeypot maneuver on her, she’ll be furious. Sergei knows the gambit won’t work and is far too decent to go through with it, so he comes clean, asking outright for the information he needs, which Margo declines to give. Before Margo can throw him out, though, the KGB swoop in to try to blackmail her into divulging the information they need. After decades of watching spy shows and movies where the blackmail victim is instantly cowed by the prospect of public shame and/or prosecution, it’s a treat to see Margo being singularly unimpressed with their bush-league kompromat. This is the KGB’s A-game? Pfft. Margo’s confidence and the senior KGB agent’s near-courtly manner set up a devastating moment for contrast when the senior KGB agent very coolly gives the signal for one of his lackeys to garrote Sergei right there. If the threat of being charged with treason won’t fly, perhaps strangling Sergei before her very eyes will? This aspect of Margo’s story ends on an uncertain note: For Sergei’s sake, will she relent, call the private number, and go beyond the boundaries of information sharing (okay, espionage) she originally agreed to?
Meanwhile, Danny Stevens’s appetite for (self-) destruction appears to have no limits. Still unrequitedly pining for Karen Baldwin and on edge as his performance during flight simulation isn’t what it should be, he takes Dani’s kind offer to take the afternoon off and spends it not with his wife but on a barstool at the Outpost for hours, getting flirtatiously tipsy with a pretty brunette who he invites for an evening swim in the pool at his house. Well, his old house; the Stevens family home now belongs to another family, but Danny considers it spiritually his, at least until the police show up.
Danny’s position as the son of Gordo and Tracy Stevens gets him out of the worst possible trouble with Houston PD, but it also lands him in scaldingly hot water with Dani Poole. (As it should! We’re seeing red flags left, right, and center!) It’s so fitting and painful that the heroism of Danny’s late parents — something he reveres and resents — is what gets him out of being formally charged and booked. Houston PD gives NASA the latitude to evaluate and impose consequences on astronauts for their transgressions, protecting the space program’s good name while not addressing its personnel members’ problems in any substantive way. After seeing that Danny’s car is full of empty beer cans and considering what she knows of Danny’s dangerous history with alcohol, Dani puts her foot down: Captain Stevens is off her crew and will not be assigned to any other NASA mission crew until he goes to rehab and regains his sobriety.
It’s so disappointing that Ed swoops in to “save” Danny from these serious and lovingly-considered consequences of his behavior. Following Ed’s impressive leveling-up as a father and husband last season, he’s now alarmingly stagnant and selfish as an elder statesman of the space program. Ed and Dani are the only ones who remember how sick and unhinged and in need of care Gordo was up on Jamestown Base all those years ago, and now that his son is in real trouble, only Dani appears to remember the past clearly. After doing what she can at NASA to help Danny where he won’t or can’t help himself, her dismay at Ed’s careless decision to snap him up for the Helios mission is both palpable and justified. Ed thinks the mission will be bracing. Who wants to place a bet as to which one of these predictions is likeliest to bear fruit?
As mortifying as it would be for Danny to be booted from NASA’s first human-crewed mission to Mars, it’s better than subjecting him to the rigors of a two-year mission in his current condition and far better than subjecting everyone else on the crew to his behavior and likely impaired performance should his relapse worsen. Both Dani and Ed think they’re doing right by Danny and by his late father. Once again this season, Dani’s right, and Ed is wrong.
Credit where it’s due, though: Ed’s insistence on hiring a larger flight crew for Helios’s Phoenix mission and on being able to take control of the ship in a crisis is right on, and fortunately, Dev agrees. It’s also a relief to see him and Karen swiftly embrace Kelly’s decision to stay on as a crewmember of NASA’s more science-based mission rather than join her dad’s crew aboard Phoenix. This only adds to the disappointment of Ed’s poor decisions; we know he’s capable of much more, both as a leader and as a friend.
Further personnel shuffling from NASA to Helios closes out the main plot maneuvers before we jump ahead to 1994 as all three Mars missions commence, with Karen’s recruitment efforts succeeding in bringing Bill Strausser into their mission control. They fail with Aleida Rosales, whose husband, Victor, is aghast that she didn’t even discuss the possibility with him before turning Karen down. Her loyalty to NASA and her work there is unshakeable, superseding considerations such as salary and how a significant increase would benefit her family. She refuses to see that her cherished Papa is showing more signs of dementia and can’t grasp how hurtful it is to Victor that she barely recognizes how much day-to-day parenting work falls on his shoulders, even when she’s not on the moon overseeing essential fixes to Soujourner’s engines. In a little jump to the 1994 Mars launch window, we see Aleida in her element as, at long last, NASA flight director.
Houston, We Have Some Bullet Points
• Special mention of Wrenn Schmidt’s incredibly nuanced and fine facial acting in her last elevator moment upon her return to NASA from London. If we didn’t know Margo so well, it would be hard to discern her fleeting microexpressions of crushing sadness, fear, and loss, followed at last by the reapplication of her usual determined game face.
• What are we to make of Amber Stevens’s little perfect NASA wife moment just before Danny is saved by the bell of Ed’s call inviting him to join the Helios mission? Her fit-and-flare dress, her mixing up a pitcher of frozen lemonade, her sliding a pot roast in the oven just before Danny arrives home — but for the needle drop of Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton singing “Islands in the Stream,” she looks for all the world like she’s wandered into this episode from being Betty Draper’s body double on the set of Mad Men. Is this her routine thing? A lark? Either way, how long will it last?