Are we recovered from “Polaris”? That disaster-movie sequence was hell on my nerves, so now I think we deserve a little breather. We should know better than to expect much in the way of recovery time from an episode named “Game Changer,” but hope springs eternal!
This week’s standout themes include work relationships (old and new), workplaces (staid and freewheeling), the many vexations of legacy tending, and, most regrettably, simmering, brewing, steeping trouble.
Ellen Wilson’s presidential campaign is entering the home stretch, and she needs to select a running mate already. She favors everyone’s most beloved maverick (who actually voted on strict party lines for most of his career), John McCain. Larry — still Ellen’s most trusted adviser, the wearer of a scandalously unappealing going-bald wig, and the fun and loving father of her child (!!) — pushes for Governor Bragg, a genial arch-conservative Evangelical Christian who doesn’t understand the first thing about science. His white masculinity, grandfatherly mien, and, most of all, his pull with Evangelical voters win the day. His gesture toward a tiny shred of progressive thinking — the humility-filled remark that “people who look like me” have been in charge of everything for too long — is tantalizing, but old habits die hard, especially old habits that have benefited him his entire life.
Back at NASA, Molly and Margo have never been super-sympatico, but over the decade between the end of season two and now, things have taken a hard and seemingly irrevocable turn into mutual seething resentment. Molly openly loathes Margo’s priorities and considers herself the last remaining bulwark against what she perceives as the progress-inhibiting staidness of NASA’s preference for scientists and engineers as flight-crew members and commanders over test pilots. To Margo, it’s Molly who is being an obstructionist stick-in-the-mud owing to her inability to reconcile herself to NASA’s priorities of scientific discovery and engineering innovation. The worst days of the Cold War are behind them, so Margo thinks cowboying up is something the astronaut program should be growing out of.
Incensed by Margo’s bureaucratic end-run around her flight-personnel-selection authority and taking advantage of Margo’s being away from the office in Huntsville, Molly chooses Ed for the Mars 1996 mission commander post and names Dani mission commander for Mars 1998. Their responses are about what you’d imagine: Ed is thrilled to the marrow (if secretly trepidatious given his age and the mission’s duration), and Dani is deeply disappointed again but determined to do what’s best for the space program. Again. NASA does not deserve Dani and doesn’t begin to understand what it owes her.
Upon Margo’s return to JSC, she promptly fires Molly and gives the Mars 1996 command assignment to Dani. Of course, this switcheroo throws Ed for a loop. He expresses all of the typical entitled older white guy feelings you’d imagine — frustration, disappointment, resentment — as though he’s been shoved out. If he were just a tiny bit more self-aware and reflective, he’d ground his next conversation with Dani in curiosity about how she has dealt with professional disappointments and being passed over after proving her mettle in every situation for decades. Instead, Ed gets drunk at the Outpost and manages the great trifecta of unexamined self-pity by being cruel, sexist, and racist toward Dani, saying, “If this were a level playing field, I’d be commanding this mission, and you know it.” Do we know that, Ed? Not sure that’s a universally acknowledged truth, but good job being so efficient at showing everyone that you can be a selfish, rotten friend, I guess? Dani leaves, disgusted and unwilling to subject herself to more of Ed’s wallowing, while Ed gets absolutely blotto and crashes his car into the gate at Karen’s house.
This offers us another glimpse at how divorce and time have improved Ed and Karen’s relationship. Whatever pain they’ve caused each other in the past seems to be forgiven, smoothed over by their joint commitment to Kelly and grounded in how well they know each other. Their knowing conversation at Danny and Amber’s wedding wasn’t a one-off; impressively, they’ve figured out how to pay attention to and talk with each other about things like how their lives are at crossroads again, and each of them feels a little at sea professionally. They’re not ready to retire, but they know good and well that whatever’s next is likely to be the last act of their careers. Echoing Tracy’s one-sided heart-to-heart with Deke from last season, Ed frets mightily over his legacy, knowing that sooner than he’d like, his name and accomplishments will fade from historical memory. Welcome to the club, bud! That’s how life on this mortal coil works for nearly everyone who has ever existed! Keanu Reeves has this figured out, and you’d do well to do the same.
Karen’s big takeaway from this late-night talk is that Ed needs her help. She’s long since shucked off her perfect NASA-wife persona, but many of the better characteristics at its root — determination, savvy, persuasiveness — are all still hers in abundance, which made it pretty easy for her to negotiate a very profitable sale of Polaris to young scientist-entrepreneur Dev Ayesa. She knows he’s planning a mission to Mars using the former space hotel, and she thinks she knows just who should command that mission.
Sure enough, Karen’s pitch works like a charm, snagging an unexpected job offer for herself, as well as bringing Ed aboard as the commander of Phoenix (not subtle, but effective) for launch in 1994, a full two years before NASA’s and the Soviet space agency’s planned launch dates in 1996. Dev’s announcement about Ed, and Helios’s ambitious mission timeline, made at a splashy event reminiscent of Steve Jobs’s product rollouts of yore, sets Margo and Dani’s teeth on edge and makes Molly — relishing a joint in the tub at home — cheer.
The differences and tension between NASA and Helios as workplaces are so clear it’s almost comical. As a furious Ed puts it, when Margo retracts his assignment to the Mars 1996 mission, the pencil pushers have now fully taken over, draining the agency’s lifeblood as they go. There’s a lot to be said for having both more cautious, deliberate problem solvers and more spontaneous, divergent thinkers on staff. When the mix of personalities and aptitudes is right, those conditions lead to better decision-making and work across the board. On the other hand, people tend to get set in their ways over time, calcifying norms, behaviors, and attitudes. That’s what we see in these scenes: Margo, Ed, and Molly, by now three of NASA’s oldest hands, are stuck in their respective corners, unwilling to see the value in the other’s perspective and preferences.
When we see Helios through Karen’s eyes on her first visit to their offices, it seems like they’re already on another planet. Dev works in a cubicle in the middle of his staff and consults them in a spontaneous all-staff meeting to discuss Ed’s viability as mission commander; nobody has titles; you can get a latte in the canteen; and in perhaps the most “You’re not in Kansas anymore” moment of them all so this season, we’re treated to a slightly lingering shot of someone wearing Birkenstocks. It’s a (multimillion dollar) collective, man! The more freewheeling spirit is a closer match to what Ed misses about NASA in the golden days.
Now we come to the most troublesome plot strand. Let’s call it Danny Stevens and the Terrible Horrible No Good Very Bad Decade. The reasons for his agony are sympathetic and understandable. Who wouldn’t struggle with appropriate emotional attachments after losing one’s childhood best friend and the three most important adults of one’s life (now that Sam is dead, Danny and Jimmy are left without even a stepfather)? What stiff-upper-lip Navy man of this period wouldn’t self-medicate rather than go to intensive therapy to work through and manage his crushing grief?
The two remaining significant adults in Danny’s life are, respectively, his boyhood crush and a man he loves, admires, and loathes in equal measure. His declaration to Karen that he still carries a torch for her reveals some key context from the last decade that we’ve only heard hints about so far: his drinking, his low-key stalking behavior toward her, his utter revulsion at the idea that she might be on more-than-friendly terms with Ed again. This is a young man locked in the throes of a youthful romantic obsession, one preserved in emotional amber by the traumatic inflection points of Shane’s death and his parents’ deaths. And not for nothing, but having to walk past a statue commemorating his parents’ heroism at work every day cannot be good for him.
All of which is to say: I get it! I really do! Of course Danny is flailing around while trying to keep it together; of course he hasn’t moved on from Karen; of course he’s self-medicating; of course he’s hiding it from and lying about it to everyone. He is the Lucy Honeychurch of the space program, always thinking that if he keeps meeting certain expectations and milestones, eventually it won’t matter that he’s deceiving the world, until it’s too much to bear. Ignorant of all of this, Dani is enthusiastic about choosing him to be her first mate, citing his excellence as a pilot and his expertise in advanced avionics as major assets on Sojourner I. Let’s see how that goes!
Houston, We Have Some Bullet Points
• Needle Drop of the Episode: Frank Sinatra’s “Fly Me to the Moon.” It’s another clever little callback to season one’s conversation about Ed’s preference for Ol’ Blue Eyes over Elvis, and using it in each of his two moments of triumph in this episode underscores how old he is.
• Speaking of which: How old are the Baldwins supposed to be? Ed grouses that he’ll be “pushing 70” by the time the 1998 mission to Mars rolls around. Let’s say this means he’ll be 68 in four years, putting him at 64 during that conversation with Karen. Even if Karen is a couple of years younger than Ed, that makes her at least 60 years old in 1992. Sure. While you’re here, can I interest you in the purchase of a bridge in Brooklyn?