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?
“I’m just drifting out here.” Tracy’s sorrowful, lonely insight is the heart of this episode, as quite a few of our space babies are feeling unmoored and miserable. Luckily for us, though, their ambivalence as they navigate their messy situations makes for good TV.
Ed is shaken by his near-death experience of having to eject from his fighter jet, and Karen would like to shake him herself. She’s having a good go at it by being frosty and mean — going so far as to spoil Wrath of Khan when he suggests going together — but that’s not built to last, that intensity of righteous fury and worry over Ed, with a hefty dash of second-guessing her own confident belief that she could handle the stress of it all. It’s a striking “I told you so” moment turning itself inside out.
Karen isn’t the only one wanting to have a stern word with Ed and Gordo. They’re in the vice-principal Margo’s office, being forced to listen to the audio of their dogfight and the engine fire that followed it. Their body language and tones of voice capture the essence of kids getting into real trouble for the first time. By contrast, Molly’s line delivery — snappy and fed up to here with these cowboys — is so crisp and authoritative that for a moment, I thought we were in a screwball comedy where Katharine Hepburn is on a roll and Cary Grant is about to sail into the room with a martini for that testy dame and a suave quip to defuse the tension.
Molly reads her wayward pilots the riot act but refrains from grounding them. Once they’re clear of the office door, Gordo and Ed’s faces are priceless, the picture of scamps who can’t believe they just got away with that caper. Tom and Margo’s faces are best described as aghast. Tom actually splutters, while Margo takes a more philosophical approach, encouraging Molly to set a highly professional tone for her tenure. Molly could not care less about what they think, though; she’s in charge of the Astronaut Office for the time being, so she will discipline her charges as she sees fit. Good day to you, Margo and Tom!
Meanwhile, Tracy is on the moon for the first time, arriving to much fanfare and initial excitement. That all sours pretty quickly, leaving her crushingly homesick and feeling ground down by the dull routine, the crummy living conditions, and the resentment her fellow astronauts feel toward her and her unearned moon perks. When Commander Rossi figures out that she’s been drinking heavily from the mission chemist’s moonshine stash as well as endangering the entire crew’s air supply by blocking the vent in her rack that keeps her from sleeping at night, he lays down the law.
Tracy needs to shape up, like yesterday, and in return for Rossi not writing her up and having her return to Earth under a cloud of shame, she agrees right away to work double shifts piloting the Lunar Surface Air Module (LSAM) to pick up cargo, and relinquishing her appearances on The Tonight Show, as well as her coveted single-person rack for a time-shared one. (And just think: Rossi doesn’t even know that she’s been smoking in the air lock, blowing the smoke into some vacuum to vent it out of one of the pipes above Jamestown Colony.) This tour is challenging in ways she didn’t expect, but the extra structure and being treated like just another astronaut may be exactly what she needs to do the work she knows she’s capable of, and to connect authentically and on equal footing with her colleagues.
The tension between dreams (the romance of flying!) and reality (having to eject and wasting a $2 million fighter jet!) is woven into nearly every moment of “The Weight.” The character and story beats that aren’t about navigating the space separating optimistic dreams from rueful-to-hopeful reality are, at most, tentative.
Gordo is whipping himself back into physical and mental shape for his upcoming tour on the moon, but it’s slow going. The jogging and clearing out the liquor cabinet are manageable enough, but he needs to do more. Danny and Jimmy find him at the bottom of the pool in a scuba suit, trying to train himself to feel like he’s in his moon suit at length without triggering an anxiety attack. The look and tone are so reminiscent of similar scenes in Rushmore and The Graduate that it seems not at all coincidental. If a man at the bottom of a swimming pool were a sound, it would be a heavy sigh.
On the other hand, this experiment in claustrophobia tolerance prompts a lovely and memorable scene between Gordo and his boys. He comes clean about how his impending mission is forcing him to confront and reconcile the opposing notions that he has a responsibility to maintain a happy face so his family won’t worry, alongside the knowledge that “it’s not always going to be okay … things can go wrong in a second.” A joyfully chaotic father-and-sons bonding moment ensues as they all leap into an impromptu pool party.
With a similarly tentative hopefulness, Ellen reconnects with Pam, attending her poetry reading at a cozy rabbit warren of a bookshop and having a nice chat afterward. A nice chat in which Ellen meets Elise, Pam’s longtime partner. Pam’s committed relationship notwithstanding, she invites Ellen to catch up with her over drinks when she’s in town again in a few weeks. Those drinks go so well that Ellen and Pam wind up in bed together. Will this heady reunion be a “Whoops, never again, it’s been real!” or an “Oh, wow, this is real, what do we do now?” A highlight from this scene I’d be remiss not to mention here: confirmation that disco is indeed thriving in this timeline. The gals being pals have a slightly incredulous and fond laugh thinking about how Larry, the buttoned-up engineer, loves hitting the town each week in his hustle-ready leisure suit and silver chain, with his boyfriend Peter along for the ride.
Aleida has indeed shown up to embark on what she hopes will be long-term employment at NASA. After a gleeful moment of pure exhilaration in the observation area of mission control, she puts on her mask of wary guardedness, batting away a colleague’s mostly good-natured “getting to know you” questions about how she landed the job. There’s a fine line between cultivating an air of mystery and being so reticent that you seem like a standoffish weirdo with something to hide, and unfortunately, that line is in the eye of the beholder. We’ll see how this goes.
We also have the first sighting of the moon guns in this episode. The marines who’ll be providing security for the lithium mine are in their suits, learning how to handle the all-white M16 rifles they’ve been assigned for the mission. One marine wonders aloud about why they’re white, and another helpfully expositions that standard-issue guns would melt in their gloves. The lunar surface can get up to 250 degrees Fahrenheit, and the white coating will bounce back enough of that light and heat to keep the guns functional.
Molly appears to deliver — at the last possible moment — the regulations on the use of force on the moon, and off they go. Her intention is to read and discuss the regs, which are clear as mud, with her astronauts, but her eyes are swimming, and she can’t focus on any of the text. She plays it off gruffly, which works, but is not a long-term solution. The cat is going to escape that bag sooner than later. Of all the people navigating a weird, unexpected path, Molly’s may be the loneliest. And wow, her two scenes do a great job of driving home the fact that this promotion (which she tried to talk Ed out of bestowing on her) provides not so much as a foot of runway. She’s been hurled up into the stratosphere, and has to hope she figures out how to stay aloft without drifting.
Houston, We Have Some Bullet Points
• Needle drop of the episode: “Shake Some Action”, by the Flamin’ Groovies, a masterpiece of power pop played over Gordo and his boys happily splashing together in the pool.
• Tracy’s radio announcements includes a fun little audio Easter egg: an allusion to Reservoir Dogs when she includes one for KBILLY Super Sounds of the ’70s. Pardon me, I’m going to go put the lime in the coconut.
• “Stacy’s Mom” alert: I regret to acknowledge that Danny Stevens isn’t just a thoughtful U.S. Naval Academy midshipman and reliable waiter at the Outpost; he’s also a teen with a wicked crush on his dead best friend’s very beautiful mom. Karen is doing her best to maintain an appropriate grown-up boundary with him, but the final scene of her dancing on her own to “Don’t Be Cruel” after Danny reminds her of this habit from long ago suggests that a less-desirable and supremely messy outcome is on the horizon.
Check the For All Mankind page this Monday for episode six.