Welcome to the retrospective recaps of For All Mankind season two. Season three debuts June 10, and what better way to whet viewers’ appetites than by recapping the season that skyrocketed For All Mankind to greatness?
In the penultimate episode of season two, For All Mankind returns to one of its favorite themes, the sometimes thrilling, sometimes sickening continuous loop of international and interplanetary stakes, individual actions, and the consequences of both.
Let’s dive in with some shining examples of how to escalate an already terrible situation so the threat of war on both Earth and its moon is not just possible but seemingly inevitable. To be maximally effective in destroying what fragile goodwill that exists between two superpowers with nuclear weapons, here’s what you need:
- A horrifying precipitating incident such as U.S. marines shooting two cosmonauts in a communications misunderstanding, causing one to burn to death in his spacesuit and possibly fatally wounding the other.
- A fun way to intensify and further complicate the world-consuming potential military conflict is for the injured cosmonaut to declare his intention to defect the moment he regains consciousness. (The Soviets will not believe the defection is real, instead concluding that their man is being interrogated by … well, they’re not sure by whom, as we do not (yet) have a Space CIA, but they believe it deep in their bones, and by Lenin, they’re going to do something about it.)
- Deep-rooted, decades-long mutual distrust between both superpowers. (It’s ideal if there are both legitimate and paranoid reasons for the distrust and no consensus as to which is which — in order to be maximally effective at sowing chaos and violence, you want the waters to be as murky as possible, so that calm, good-faith decision-making is nearly impossible, but if you don’t have this type of fast-acting political and military disaster sourdough prepared from scratch, store-bought is fine).
- Saber-rattling in a wide variety of forms including but not limited to: loud, incensed political speeches broadcast around the globe; launching a space shuttle that can be described as “armed to the teeth”; establishing a space blockade; launching a space convoy of nuclear weapons in defiance of that space blockade; issuing handguns to the astronauts tasked with protecting the nuclear weapons en route to the moon; moving entire naval fleets to highly strategic locations and canceling leave for all military personnel; and you know what? Let’s just go ahead and move to DEFCON 2 because that will really signal to the world that emotional temperatures here are as high as possible. Let’s get everyone involved in the existential dread!
- If you want to keep alive the hope of getting out of this interplanetary bucket of syrup, it’s always good to have one nice little thing to look forward to, such as the Apollo-Soyuz-Apollo space-handshake mission continuing as planned.
Mixing and matching your interplanetary catastrophe likelihood boosters, or ICLBs, is also a very effective way to throw individual people for a loop. For example, Karen is already an on-edge mess as she processes her decision to sleep with Danny and its ripple effects on her relationship with Ed. But when Ed’s mission as the commander of Pathfinder is moved up two days so spacecraft can protect NASA’s nuclear-capable Sea Dragon from the Soviets’ armed Buran space shuttle, the news throws her for such a loop that she winds up blurting out the bare-bones basics of her infidelity. She slept with someone else; it was a decision she made, not an error in judgment that can be explained away by having been drunk or high; and she wants Ed to go with her to counseling when he returns from this mission. Here’s where ICLBs move in for a third kill with one stone: Ed is already on edge himself, knowing the increased risks of the adjusted mission, and Karen’s news makes him so furious he demands several impossible things right away, wanting to know whom Karen slept with and what her plan is for their relationship in the future.
Of course, ICLBs also present opportunities for people to rise to the occasion, as we see with Ellen’s continuing to wrestle with how to reconcile her professional ambitions and abilities with her desire to build a life out of the public eye with Pam. All along, Larry has been supportive, agreeing to an amicable divorce down the line, functioning as her effective and shrewd chief of staff throughout crises that keep rolling downhill and acquiring more momentum and momentousness as they go, embracing Pam as she moves into their home. Pam has gotten a much clearer picture of Ellen’s responsibilities and how skilled she is at meeting them. It seems as though Ellen has been pleasantly surprised by what a good job she’s doing under the least ideal conditions and in the midst of her grief for Tom. Understandably, the quickly unspooling crisis on the moon has overshadowed the tragedy of Flight 007 being shot out of the sky, but it’s always lurking in the background.
We see Larry sharing a drink in his and Ellen’s breakfast nook with someone called Lee, talking about what a great Republican candidate Ellen would make for a congressional run in Texas’s 22nd Legislative District and, in the future, maybe even the first female president. Pam overhears the end of this conversation. Following a conversation with Larry, she decides to break up with Ellen, leaving her a “Dear Ellen” letter explaining that she’s decided to get back together with her former partner, Elise. Ellen is shattered, and Larry is of course very comforting, but there’s a tiny seed of uncertainty here: Is some of his apparent surprise at Pam’s departure performative? Did he ever-so-slightly maneuver Pam into breaking up with Ellen? We’ve seen in previous episodes that Pam is keenly aware of what a gifted politician and devoted public servant Ellen is, and even as she sincerely admires Ellen’s gifts (or maybe because of that admiration), she’s had a visible-to-the-audience worry that she could be standing in Ellen’s way. She doesn’t want to be the reason Ellen doesn’t pursue her ambition. On the other hand, Ellen is the person who should be making decisions for her own career and life.
Speaking of making life decisions, we now return to Second Chance at Love: The Gordo and Tracy Stevens Story. When last we saw our maybe once and future lovebirds, Gordo had come clean about his intent to win Tracy back, and she’d made no commitment, just left the door open to the possibility. In this episode, he surprises Tracy by waiting in the galley and popping out (from behind a curtain?) to serenade her. I love that Tracy becomes the audience surrogate for a moment here — wondering aloud how long Gordo has been there waiting, what he thinks he’s doing, why he’s serenading here. Aren’t these the kind of cheap moves he employed with other women during the bad old days when he was rapaciously unfaithful to her? Her tart unimpressed-ness balances out the silly, heartfelt sweetness of Gordo’s corny moves, which he describes as representing “no expectations, just feelings.” I consider this a quietly explicit homage to the scene in Sense and Sensibility in which Edward Ferrars (Hugh Grant) makes a strikingly similar speech to Elinor Dashwood (Emma Thompson) about having no expectations, only wanting her to know at long last that his heart is, and always will be, hers. The reigning king and queen of making eyes at each other pop into the airlock for a smoke and maybe more.
This brings us at long last to the episode’s final scene, one which belongs in the Harrowing, Dread-Filled Cliffhangers Hall of Fame. The team of astronauts tasked with repairing and bringing Jamestown Colony’s nuclear reactor back online is this close to completing their work and switching power back on from the backup source they’ve been using. They’re just about done when one of them notices a cosmonaut outside. Before you can say “Uh, détente?” the cosmonaut fires at the window, shattering it and causing total panic among the astronauts in that little control room. Within seconds, the astronauts depressurize the room, three of them narrowly escaping as everything not bolted to the floor goes flying out the hole in the window, including a fourth astronaut, who is sucked out onto the lunar surface to his near-instant demise. We next see a single gloved hand grabbing the window frame, and then three, four, five armed cosmonauts climb in. Turns out the Soviets have space guns, too, and they’ve come to get their man.
Houston, We Have Some Bullet Points
• Special commendation for the way For All Mankind presents parent-child relationships. It adds more texture and nuance to the characters. Gordo has been more honest with his sons than ever before, opening up about his mental-health crisis during his last mission. In the midst of a major marriage crisis, Ed is actively listening to Kelly and being super-warm and loving. Karen is having a rough go of it in this episode, but we’ve seen her successfully navigate a serious conflict with Kelly already this season.
• The Lee encouraging Larry to encourage Ellen in her political career is Lee Atwater, the brilliant and repugnant conservative political strategist who brought a broad conservative coalition together under his very successful “Big Tent” theory of Republican politics in the 1980s. Karl Rove was the chief inheritor of his cynical mantle and tactics, so dead or alive, he has a lot to answer for.