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?
This week, we begin our analysis with a quote from the great poets of Loverboy: “Everyone’s watching! To see what you will do! Everyone’s looking! At you!” This is literally true, of course, as we hit play on each new episode. It’s true as NBC’s TracyCam tracks her Space Shuttle launch on live TV, and it’s true at a more granular level between characters, as well. Karen is watching out for Ed’s next career move, which will lead to Molly’s next highly visible role at NASA; Ed and Dani are keeping an eye on Gordo as he navigates his anxiety and (wobbly but genuine) renewed ambition; Tom turns his laser focus on Ellen and her political future; and the eyes of the world will soon be on a joint PR mission between the U.S. and USSR. Let’s dig into this buffet of narrative and thematic riches, shall we?
The morning after they survive their family’s near-collapse over Kelly’s desire to attend the Naval Academy, Karen and Ed have a heart-to-heart about their own future plans. It’s really more Karen talking and Ed’s head spinning at how well his wife sees and understands him, but he catches up eventually. He isn’t satisfied with staying on Earth, he does regard it as a sacrifice, and while she’s glad that his presence has given him a chance to grow into a better father and husband than he was before, Kelly is heading to college and Karen has the Outpost to run. He can return to following his dreams, so why wouldn’t he? It seems like taking command of Pathfinder’s inaugural flight would be a perfect fit for him, so why doesn’t he just do that? Once again, the women in Ed’s life run rings around him. You love to see it.
His fellow crew members on Pathfinder will be Gary Piscotty (a name I can never hear without thinking about biscotti) and Sally Ride. Yes, that one! Ed’s mission-commander pep talk at their first team meeting in Pathfinder’s hangar is an aerospace nerd’s dream, all about identifying and fixing every bug they can find and culminating in this show’s version of the St. Crispin’s Day speech from Henry V: “We’re going to train our asses off!” Let’s hear it for triple-checking every calculation!
Speaking of Pathfinder and other new space-flight advances of the last nine years, they might be getting swept up in the fallout from the recent international-relations drama stirred up by the solar storm and the Soviets’ attempted takeover of NASA’s lithium-mining site. American Space PR Dudes think it would be simply lovely to invite the Soviets to dock one of their spacecraft with one of ours for a bracing handshake of international … well, “friendship” is a strong word, so let’s call this dynamic “acceptable levels of mutual enmity” instead.
At NASA, everyone but Tom Paine thinks this is a terrible idea and a waste of time, but nobody has been investing much energy in thinking about it because it’s all going to come to nothing, anyway. The Soviets will see it for the pointless PR stunt that it is, and they’re too paranoid to want to do anything the U.S. suggests. Except this time, those wily Soviets have called the Americans’ bluff, and now our heroes have to figure out a way to pull this off without also precipitating several new international incidents. The thought of letting the Soviets see our fancy new space-flight technology is, understandably, galling to Margo, so when Ellen suggests using one of the old Apollo modules instead, thereby preventing the cosmonauts from seeing any new-to-them technology, everyone embraces her elegant solution. No fuss, no muss … for now.
In his last act as chief of the Astronaut Office, Ed puts forward Dani for the handshake mission’s commander. This is minutes after Dani’s impassioned demand in his office to be appointed to the lead role. A fractious but very worthwhile visit with her late husband’s sister has led Dani to a fresh understanding of what she deserves for her years of service and sacrifice to an institution that doesn’t seem to respect her nearly as much as she deserves. In that interaction, Ed was defensive, tying himself in knots to excuse himself, and by extension, NASA, from blame. Changing his mind so abruptly is the kind of thing Past Ed probably would not have done, anticipating lots of resistance from Tom (he’s right). Still, there’s freedom in not having to bear any consequences for making a principled call, and besides, Dani (using some of her sister-in-law’s words and some of her own) is right. Drawing on the 205 members of the astronaut corps (11 are Black), it’s shameful and nonsensical that so far into the program’s history, there hasn’t yet been one mission led by a Black woman. Dani’s professional experience and excellence merit a mission command, making her an ideal candidate for this overdue historic milestone. The eyes of the world are always on NASA missions, and this would send a message that they’re getting with the times. Plus, girls of every race right here in America would see Dani and think that could be them someday. Ed holds firm, and Bradford is supportive right away, cheerfully (and pointedly) offering to get the secretary of Defense onboard to help Tom ensure Dani’s assignment is approved.
Tom is frustrated enough with Ed to drop by his nearly empty office afterward to register his irritation at being blindsided by Ed’s recommendation to make Dani mission commander. He’s got to let that go, though, having set his sights on a new protégé, Ellen. In what’s ostensibly a little venting session about her frustration about yet another delay on the languishing Mars project, Tom briefly and unwittingly makes her feel like a butterfly being pinned to the felt. Absolute dread sweeps across Ellen’s face when Tom announces that she’s not fooling anyone, but he’s not referring to her mutual beard situation with Larry. Instead, he advises her to develop a better poker face, so she can successfully deploy a range of personas in her dealings with politicians, colleagues, and the public, all in the name of the gamesmanship required to ensure that NASA continues to flourish. It turns out that Tom is not just a Nixon and Reagan–era political lackey; he’s a political lackey who’s also a dyed-in-the-wool space nerd with just as much enthusiasm for the Mars project as Ellen. These two characters, beginning to see each other with fresh eyes and in subtly different lights, could be on the cusp of a beautiful (and politically savvy) friendship.
Ellen’s story line is another version of Ed’s trade-offs. Where he chose Karen and Kelly regardless of the cost to his career, she has done the opposite, sacrificing an authentic romantic and sex life to fulfill her professional dreams. The conversation with Tom has the wheels of her mind shifting into overdrive; if she masters this compartmentalization thing, maybe there’s a chance at a long-term relationship out there, after all. Maybe with Pam, the Outpost bartender turned poet she loved in season one? Pam did just send Ellen a chapbook of her latest work, including a flirty inscription. Possibilities!
Not to end this on a negative note, but things are not going great for Gordo, and Ed is not helping. Gordo keeps thinking he’s hallucinating as he did during his last mission at Jamestown, but he isn’t: The red lights he sees are just LEDs on his VCR, and the ants he sees turn out to just be ants. Gross, but not necessarily a problem. More worryingly, being in his spacesuit with the helmet attached is triggering his anxiety so badly he can’t breathe normally. That is a problem. Gordo’s appeal to Ed for advice and support goes sideways when Ed tears into him, mercilessly berating and taunting his best friend with an unforgivable viciousness and disgust. It does the trick, though, and once in the air, Gordo’s confidence is right back up to cocky-bastard levels. He wins an all-in-good-fun dogfight with Ed, but one of Ed’s engines bursts into flames, forcing him to eject over the Gulf of Mexico. The romance of flight, though, right? Right?
Houston, We Have Some Bullet Points
• Needle drop of the episode: You might think it’s the pre-credits use of “Working for the Weekend” as Ed decides he’ll command Pathfinder. That’s a reasonable expectation, but I’m going to give it to Frank Sinatra’s classic interpretation of “I’ve Got You Under My Skin.” The song serves two functions: As an Ed-centric selection, it’s a reminder that he loves Sinatra (as he told Vasiliev, he prefers Sinatra to Elvis) and is one of several hints that he’s so swept up in his enthusiasm for heading back to space that he’d do well to temper that a little by heeding Cole Porter’s lyrics sooner than later: “Use your mentality / wake up to reality.”
• Speaking of music, if Larry’s wide collar and silvery-chain-bedecked ensemble for his night out at the drag show are any indications, disco appears to be thriving in this timeline. Anything that’s good news for Donna Summer is a boon to us all.
Check the For All Mankind page this Friday for episodes five and six.