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 begin season two in May 1983, some nine years after the conclusion of season one. A handy opening montage confirms that Ronald Reagan won his first presidential term in 1976 amid rapidly increasing tensions caused by the space race between the U.S. and USSR, Pope John Paul II was assassinated but John Lennon was not, Prince Charles married Camilla Parker-Bowles (and presumably, Lady Diana Spencer went on to enjoy life far longer and less paparazzi-riddled than the 36 years she got in our timeline), and NASA’s Jamestown Base (now Jamestown Colony) on the moon is practically a thriving metropolis in comparison with the single-room space tenement it was in the first season.
As you’d expect with a nine-year time jump, everyone is older, and some are wiser. When last we saw our beloved astronauts and everyone in their orbit (I’m not even a little bit sorry), Ed and Karen Baldwin were mourning the sudden death of their son Shane, Gordo and Tracy Stevens disobeyed direct orders by rescuing Molly Cobb when she was adrift following the terrible accident on Apollo 24, Deke died due to blood loss from a puncture wound sustained in that accident, Ellen was deciding to stay in the closet for the sake of her career, Margo was a workaholic, and Aleida’s future following the arrest and deportation of her father was very much up in the air.
This brings us to one of the big themes of season two: middle age. The characters we got to know, love, and be confounded by in season one are all somewhere north of 40, and NASA itself is flourishing in a mid-career way thanks to licensing patents for cutting-edge technologies like digital mail and electric cars. What does ambition look like for people and institutions that have already accomplished the seemingly impossible several times over? What do those past accomplishments mean a decade after the fact?
As we get our bearings, we see pretty quickly that Ed is now an admiral and has taken on Deke’s former job of training new astronaut candidates and assigning personnel to all space missions. (He’s the Old Man now, roughly equivalent to Edward James Olmos’s beloved Captain Adama in creator and showrunner Ronald D. Moore’s previous landmark show about humans in space, Battlestar Galactica.) His wife Karen has purchased the Outpost, transforming Houston’s favorite dive bar into that rarity, a very successful spot catering to both locals and tourists. We also meet their daughter, Kelly, a bright high-schooler and Asian American who we’ll get to know better as the season progresses.
Kelly (along with the Stevens kids and Aleida, who we’ll catch up with shortly) also represents another of season two’s big themes: hope. If last season was partly an exercise in subjecting optimism to soul-crushing loss, this one is on course (again, I regret nothing) to let the next generation have their optimism while their parents continue to reckon with the necessarily adjusted, and somewhat muted, hopeful expectations of middle age.
Do you remember how tightly wound both Ed and Karen were last season? Get ready to embrace Ed and Karen 2.0; they’re not what you could accurately describe as chill, but let’s say that their priorities and relationship have shifted for the better since 1974. Ed leaves work at 6 p.m. on the dot so he can arrive at the Outpost in time for spaghetti night with his wife and daughter, and successful small-business owner Karen enjoys a joint and stargazing from the hood of her car out behind the restaurant. For the Baldwins, this is far out.
Meanwhile, despite how promising things between Gordo and Tracy looked at the end of last season, the Stevenses have divorced. Tracy appears to be thriving, working as a glamorous public spokeswoman for NASA and announcing her remarriage to a rich cowboy type on The Tonight Show. Poor Gordo is a textbook divorced-dad sad sack, also working as a public spokesman for NASA, but reduced to reciting the same tired spiel to various Rotary clubs about his experiences as an astronaut. He’s bored, he’s adrift, and he’s grown a very lamentable mustache. They could have stopped there, but no: Gordo’s got a beer belly to go with the ’stache. Fine, we get it, he’s a sad sack! Sheesh.
Margo, now a NASA higher-up who literally lives at the office (including a sofa bed, a closet with a complete wardrobe of work clothes, and an attached full bath), seems perpetually harried but has also developed some impressively effective fancy footwork to navigate the delicate interagency relationships she needs to cultivate and maintain. Chief among these is her working relationship with U.S. Air Force general Nelson Bradford, a man whose entire job seems to be anxious threat assessment and stern reminders that NASA needs Pentagon approval for nearly everything they do that veers even a degree or two off from regulation.
Bradford is a walking abundance of caution — he’s conservative in the truest sense — so when he recommends moving to DEFCON 3 in response to both U.S. and Soviet spy satellites being put briefly out of commission by a powerful and swiftly moving solar storm about to sweep across the moon, it’s as prudent as it is vexing. In a room full of adults, he’s the stern dad because he cares first and foremost about the big picture.
Oh, and about that solar storm: It disrupts the astronauts’ celebration of getting to see a sunrise for the first time in two weeks. Their a cappella performance of “Three Little Birds” is cut short; a bummer! But with good reason. Singing about how every little thing’s gonna be all right doesn’t really suit the moment once they learn they’ve got to take immediate shelter from the incoming radiation blast that could kill them all. One of For All Mankind’s strengths is its ability to remind us that the events contributing to large-scale geopolitical stakes on the moon and on Earth have real effects on actual human beings.
As everyone at Jamestown Colony races to what amounts to the cellar in the opening scenes of The Wizard of Oz, Molly Cobb and Wubbo Ockels (a fictionalized version of the Dutch astronaut) are stranded. Molly chooses to take shelter in a cave while Wubbo races back to Jamestown on a rover. Unfortunately, his rover overturns, spilling Wubbo out onto the rocky ground, where he suffers a small head wound and is unconscious. Having never once chosen protocol and direct orders above saving a friend and colleague, Molly leaves her radiation-measuring wrist band in the cave and runs to the rescue as fast as low gravity permits. She drags Wubbo to safety but knows their radiation exposure is dangerously high.
As the season premiere concludes, there’s a lot to look forward to and an equal amount of simmering dread. Strap in.
Houston, We Have Some Bullet Points
• Needle drop of the week: The astronauts’ endearing a cappella rendition of “Three Little Birds.”
• For All Mankind’s timeline is far more scientifically advanced than ours, featuring “digital mail” about a decade before our widespread use of email and widely available (if poky by Ed’s speed-demon standard) electric cars. This is fun, but it also gestures toward why and how NASA has the funds to run such a robust space-shuttle program and fund their plans for colonizing Mars; licensing the patents for these and other technologies ensures that they have multiple income streams to help them weather inconsistent federal funding.
• Blink and you’ll miss some references to Jamestown Colony’s nuclear reactor. It’s going to pop up throughout the season, and for quite a while, it will seem like just another little contextual flourish for verisimilitude. It is emphatically not that.
Check the For All Mankind page this Friday for episodes three and four.