Welcome to the retrospective recaps of For All Mankind season two. Season three debuts on June 10, and what better way to whet viewers’ appetites than by recapping the season that skyrocketed For All Mankind to greatness?
We arrive now at a transitional episode of For All Mankind, where we viewers can see a bit further down the road than the characters can, but we also know that with the season’s penultimate episode just ahead, some wild times are coming soon.
The theme of this episode is “Well, that happened; what now?” In descending order of Earth-and/or-literally-moon-shattering plot points: Chekhov’s space guns are indeed fired; Karen and Danny have sex; Gordo reunites with Tracy at Jamestown Colony; Kelly’s pursuit of information about her life before adoption leads her to track down her birth father; Aleida has to reboot a relationship that seems shattered beyond repair; Margo and Sergei are unbearably, quietly adorable; and Molly gets confirmation that she’s steadily losing her vision. Having put these things down, I’ll now flip them and reverse them for discussion and analysis.
Molly’s ophthalmologist diagnoses her with normal-tension glaucoma, which is progressive, degenerative, and unstoppable. She may be able to slow down the process of losing her vision, but the ultimate outcome is inevitable. This would be a tough diagnosis for anyone, but for Molly, whose true spiritual home is the air and space beyond it, it’s devastating. Having rewatched several times the subsequent scene where she takes a fighter jet up, up, up so high she can just about touch the void, I’m still not 100 percent sure if she intended to return to Earth alive from that flight.
Back on Earth, Sergei and Margo are also using a liminal space to navigate and test the boundaries of their increasingly tender friendship. The moment when they walk (well, crawl) around each other in the scale model of a docked Soyuz and Apollo as a dress rehearsal for the cosmonaut-astronaut handshake is almost too adorable. Their age, maturity, and awareness that their flirtation venue is a mission of international import all combine with their delicate, giddy sincerity, transforming a scene that could easily get away with just being cute and played primarily for laughs into one that suggests actual romance could be possible. Now that’s what I call an international exchange!
You may recall that when Margo visited Aleida to offer her the job at JSC, they alluded to the string of lost jobs Aleida has left in her wake. In this episode, we see one example of how that pattern unfolds. Aleida and Bill lock horns over the Apollo-Soyuz development schedule, and when she can’t convince him of her suggested changes on their merits, she throws in his face the cruel nickname he earned during a crisis in the Gemini VIII mission by staying on duty at his console for so long that he peed his own pants. Bill resigns immediately, stating Aleida’s behavior as his rationale. Margo regrets having shared this bit of gossipy NASA lore with Aleida in the first place and dispatches her to Bill’s house to make it right. She’s got to convince him to return to JSC or lose her own job.
This is no mean feat; both Aleida and Bill are a couple of prickly pears and are feeling vulnerable, which they both hate. Bill re-contextualizes his pants-peeing episode with his recollection of why he stayed at his console for so long, explaining that the moment he was meant to go off-duty, the astronauts had lost control of the ship and had to re-enter Earth’s atmosphere over China. He stayed to be helpful and to bear witness to what might well have been his colleagues’ last moments. In turn, Aleida shares her memories of how she dumpster dove to scrounge for meals when she was an unhoused, undocumented teen all alone in the world. One restaurant owner shot her shoulder full of birdshot, lots of which she still has in her body because she fled the hospital rather than being interrogated by the police. They agree that body shame is horrible, acknowledge each other’s genuine trauma, and settle in to watch Jeopardy! together. The start of a beautiful friendship.
Kelly Baldwin’s secret solo quest to learn more about her identity and family of origin before Operation Babylift leads her to Arlington (a town in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, about four hours from Houston), where her birth father owns and is the head cook at a Vietnamese restaurant. These scenes are so poignant; when the young hostess welcomes Kelly in Vietnamese, realizing just a moment too late that Kelly is only fluent in English and then manages to recover the interaction to dissuade Kelly from bolting, it’s a reminder of the emotional intelligence we’ve seen from Kelly herself across several episodes. We know before she does that Kelly has met her half-sibling. Tina helps Kelly choose what to order from the menu, explaining that if she likes Chinese food, she’s going to love Vietnamese food, and gently corrects her pronunciation when ordering Pho. A good choice; it turns out Pho is Tina’s dad’s specialty. Throughout her time in the family restaurant, a rapid succession of thoughts and feelings cross Kelly’s face — wonder, curiosity, hope, wistfulness — as she catches glimpses of Tina and their father interacting and considers what to do next. In the end, she just pays and leaves, not quite able to promise to return with friends.
Meanwhile, Gordo’s return to the moon is met with great fanfare, and he’s (mostly) in his element, though the younger crew members’ enthusiasm for reminiscing isn’t really his cup of tea. What he does appreciate is learning that Tracy’s rack is just across the aisle from his. His Great Big Plan to Win Tracy Back might take more time than he’d like due to her many hours of working with the marines, but when he immediately susses out that she’s smoking in the airlock off the galley, their bond is refreshed and strengthened. Apparently Jimmy has been smuggling cigarettes up to Tracy by stashing them in a stinky cheese included in the monthly supply runs. Let’s not think too hard about what that does to the flavor of both the smokes and the cheese, but a Stevens is nothing if not resourceful.
Gordo’s confession to Tracy of his intent to win her back and his declaration that he believes that his mental breakdown all those years ago was caused by his having ruined their relationship and his realization that “I knew I was never going to have another happy time in my life until I get you back” is the one genuinely feel-good scene of the entire episode. It’s the culmination of Gordo’s journey from the charming and vexing rake (bordering on wastrel) to a surprisingly worthy fellow. Both Michael Dorman and Sarah Jones play it soulfully, with enough humor and heat to keep the tone at the right, clear-eyed pitch. It captures both their decades of up-and-down history and the blood-fizzing chemistry that started it all. After hearing Gordo share Sam’s assessment that Tracy is a wild creature whose heart can’t be tamed, she hands Gordo the lit cigarette and murmurs, eyes locked on his, “well, catch me if you can.” Oh, it’s on. Report to your heart’s battle stations, friends, this is not a drill!
Also not a drill, however much we wish it were pretend: Karen and Danny have sex. Setting aside the inappropriate foolishness of this choice, let’s note that Danny Stevens is great boyfriend material for someone closer to his age: he’s smart, cute, attentive, romantic, and thoughtful; what’s not to like? Karen’s mind is on selling the Outpost, though, not the tryst partner gently running his finger up her leg, and Danny’s declaration of love is 180 degrees off from Karen’s perspective on the evening, which is that it served a specific, pressure-releasing function, like a valve that’s also a good kisser, somehow. Never has “you were great, sweetie” cut so deeply.
And now, the space guns. As I noted in my last recap, everything to do with guns on the moon is a mess. I believe we’re intended to view it as a mess, but it deserves to be called out anyway. The Catch-22 of deploying marines as your armed astronauts is that you have to do so because marines are the only astronauts with combat training, but then you’ve put armed people with combat training in the middle of a scientific mission, in unique climate and gravity conditions that require special extra training. How is any of this living up to the “we came in peace for all mankind” mantra?
Tracy and Gordo’s drop-off and pick-up mission to relieve the last shift’s exhausted mining site guards turns into a medevac mission to save a cosmonaut when Vance, Webster, and Lopez spot and then encounter two cosmonauts on the ridge above the lithium mine site. It’s worth noting that Lopez and Webster are the two marines due to be relieved; they’re running on fumes, which doesn’t make for the best decision-making in a tense situation. Predictably, good decisions are not what they make: thanks in part to the vague guidance from the Department of Defense regarding the use of weapons on the moon, they are authorized to use their judgment in threat assessment. Their judgment at this time is not good. They’re too tired, too stressed, too paranoid, and too uninformed about the cosmonauts and the reason for their presence. Thinking that the cosmonauts are reaching for weapons of their own, the marines shoot, causing one to burn to death when the oxygen inside his suit ignites from a bullet’s spark, and the other to need a rescue ride back to Jamestown in the LSAM. Too late, the marines’ inspection of the cosmonauts’ work equipment reveals that they did not have weapons and were reaching instead for their handy little English phrase cards. Because they weren’t going to draw on the Americans, they wanted to have a conversation.
Houston, We Have Some Bullet Points
• Shout-out to Teya Patt, who plays Margo’s hyper-competent assistant Emma, who seems happy in her support role while also clearly being shrewd enough to run NASA herself. Her gentle yet pointed, “Mr. Nikulov likes you in red” comment speaks volumes.
• Once upon a time, writer Alanna Bennett shared a grand unifying theory of onscreen relationships: ”The number-one thing a man in a rom-com needs, TV or movie, is the ability to LOOK at their love interest really well. The man barely needs to speak if he knows how to really LOOK at a person.” The Look doesn’t need to be in a rom-com, either — it works just as well in a host of genres, including sci-fi workplace drama. I humbly submit that Michael Dornan and Sarah Jones are master practitioners of The Look and deserve retroactive Emmys in the brand-new category I have helpfully invented for The Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, Best Romantic Looking by an Actor/Actress.
Check the For All Mankind page next Friday for episodes nine and ten.