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?
Just about any TV show can end an episode on a cliffhanger. It’s not that they’re easy to pull off, it’s just that good cliffhangers work well at the end of a chapter of serial storytelling, and it’s a narrative device that audiences are trained to anticipate and enjoy as an inflection point in a show’s plot development. You know what takes chutzpah? Starting an episode with a cliffhanger, especially one where a great character dies. I love the opening credits of For All Mankind, but the second Korean Airlines Flight 007 exploded after being hit by a Soviet missile mid-air, I hit that skip button so fast I thought I’d tear a ligament.
Part of what makes a good cliffhanger so effective is our viscerally sickening dread of the inevitable while the characters onscreen go about their soon-to-be-unimaginably-disrupted lives. Tom is in the zone lately, on good, easy terms with Margo, mentoring Ellen, and best of all, relishing his precious 14 airborne hours of being able to focus on a complicated budget matter rather than the hundred little interruptions that usually mark his day at JSC. He has no idea that a Soviet fighter jet has locked on to the jumbo commercial jet, no notion that his life, and the lives of everyone aboard, will be snuffed out in a literal flash. We see it unfolding, and are powerless to do anything but yell at the screen.
Here begins another episode examining one of For All Mankind’s favorite subjects: the difficulties and conveniences of being forced by circumstances to rise to the occasion at work while equally important stuff in one’s life is put on the back burner. It’s so much cleaner that way, isn’t it? In the era where we first met the astronauts and everyone revolved around them, the astronauts were all men, and those men all had wives to manage everything for them that wasn’t training for or being in outer space. Now, we have Ellen, Margo, Molly, Karen, Dani, and Aleida, who are, respectively, a lesbian in a healthy platonic marriage with a gay man who she has asked for a divorce so she can pursue a relationship with the love of her life; a hyper-competent engineer married to her job; a prideful, prickly astronaut who exposes her soft underbelly to no one but her unfailingly kind and loving husband; a former model of NASA wife perfection who is just starting to understand her own business acumen; the first Black female astronaut in NASA history, widowed but in a pretty good place overall thanks in part to being named NASA’s first Black female mission commander; and a brilliant engineer at the dawn of her career. Of the six women in this sample, only two are in relationships with men who have taken on the NASA wife work of putting their wives’ careers first.
In the aftermath of the Soviets shooting down a commercial flight filled with civilians and subsequently making no comment, much less offering an apology, the U.S., USSR, and China are making increasingly aggressive military moves. These actions ratchet up the already-palpable tensions among those nations, pushing NASA farther down the path of being subsumed by the Department of Defense. Indeed, despite General Bradford’s best efforts to play the dual role of military-to-civilian agency interlocutor and the most mature adult in the room, Margo, Ellen, and Molly are all somewhere on the spectrum of vexed to furious with him, all while grieving. And why? Well, Flight 007 was somehow hundreds of miles off-course, flying over Sakhalin Island north of Japan. And as it turns out, the Soviets are very touchy about foreign aircraft in that area because they have a secret military base on the island, where they happen to be building an armed space shuttle of their own, Buran, using blueprints they stole from NASA a few years ago.
This is a lot of unwelcome information for Margo to absorb all at once, but she collects herself sufficiently to notice that the out-of-date blueprints don’t account for the freezing O-ring problem that NASA caught prior to the launch of the Challenger. She wants to warn Sergei about this likely fatal flaw so that it won’t put hundreds of lives at risk, but Bradford flatly refuses. Margo’s desire to do the right thing from a human perspective doesn’t wash with him, and his insistence on letting the Soviets think that NASA is unaware of their blueprint theft doesn’t wash with her. I understand both of their positions and don’t envy Bradford one bit. He is such a model of integrity and is in an impossible position, knowing what lines he has to hold while also watching the credibility and trust he’s built with NASA colleagues fraying as they get within a hair’s breadth of instigating World War III. He can’t see that Margo surreptitiously letting Sergei know about the O-ring flaw could improve Soviet-U.S. relations. Which is too bad because it becomes one more reason for Margo to circumvent a protocol she’s been chafing at from the jump.
Ellen, having stepped into Tom’s shoes as interim NASA Administrator, is working through official channels to learn the precise whereabouts and safety status of Dani and her crew. She’s also authorized informal one-on-one diplomacy, so Margo will speak with Sergei about the possibility of getting a working phone to Dani. Unbeknownst to her colleagues back in the U.S., Dani will draw on her own considerable stores of cultural literacy to make headway with the tight-lipped Soviets keeping her and the other Apollo-Soyuz crew members prisoner in their hotel rooms in Star City, USSR. Thank goodness for her sharp memory of the order of toasts when doing shots.
We need to talk about the many very important phone calls Ellen takes in this episode. She’s now involved in a host of conversations that the day before were above her paygrade and security clearance. The thing is, she’s great at this kind of complex and demanding work. Before she missed their flight to check in on her ailing father, Tom told her what a natural she is at listening to others, assessing complex situations, and making good decisions. It’s too bad he’s not present to kvell over his protégé flourishing under pressure, followed by pressingly shrill rings of every phone available wherever she goes.
Fortunately, Ellen has Larry, who immediately pivots to being her full-time consigliere and at-home war room manager, keeping track of papers, conversations, messages, and so on. Both he and Pam, who has moved in following her heart-to-heart with Ellen in the previous episode, can see that whatever personal hopes and dreams she has for the future, this work is genuinely appealing. Pam took her leap into a renewed relationship with Ellen on the premise that she would come out, leave NASA, and find other suitable employment along the way, but seeing Ellen in action, she can’t help seeing and telling her that she’s “pretty fucking amazing.” Support from the two most important people in her life, and a late-night pep talk from President Reagan, seal the deal: Ellen will be a NASA lifer.
Her investment in really leaning into leadership is signposted for her colleagues when she shows up to a meeting in a navy power suit that invites comparison with a military dress uniform and informs everyone else that the marines stationed on the moon will retake their lithium mining site, and that NASA will exercise their option to arm Pathfinder with nuclear missiles. Margo and Molly are both horrified, but Ellen’s hawkish moves help squelch any plans for the Department of Defense to formally absorb NASA.
As Ellen throws herself into her work at NASA, Karen is trying to figure out how to minimize the Agency’s influence in her life, impulsively selling the Outpost to Tracy’s husband Sam for a pretty penny ($390,000 in 1983 amounts to $1.32 million in 2022) and grappling with the dawning realization that she overpromised on being able to handle the reality of Ed returning to space on Pathfinder and Kelly’s plan to become a fighter pilot and astronaut. As she puts it to Danny at the end of a long shift, she’s ready for her next chapter but isn’t sure what that is.
Danny thinks there could be an opening here for his feelings for Karen. So far, she has been shutting down Danny’s very ginger steps towards making their relationship physical, but there’s just enough wiggle room for him to boldly go over to the jukebox and add a 45 of a slowed-down and sultry cover of “Don’t Be Cruel” by Billy Swann. Karen’s first instinct is to dance on her own, lost in the music, but then invites Danny to join her, leading to them sharing an intense kiss. Karen wisely leaves to surprise a sleeping Ed with some spontaneous late-night sex with him instead.
I’ve been thinking that this ill-fated relationship shift between Karen and Danny exists primarily as the thin end of the wedge between Karen and Ed, but now I wonder if it’s more of an inversion of one of the clichés of a male mid-life crisis. If so, that would make this subplot the rough equivalent of a “sleeps with the secretary” situation. Then again, it could also be another homage to The Graduate, something the title of the next episode definitely wants viewers to have in mind as they’re watching.
Lastly, the Space Guns. Woof. Has anyone thought this through with as much care and detail as it deserves? The marines’ target practice in the previous episode was not great, and now their mission to retake the lithium mining claim has been bumped up. Tracy is enthusiastic about being the LSAM pilot so they can be assured of a safer journey, and it’s been great to see her thrive as a teacher and colleague with this group, but the cowboying up that goes along with this mission is very troubling. The show seems to want to have it both ways, giving us the triumphalism of the marines easily running the Soviets off the mining claim while also conjuring the barbarity of Apocalypse Now by having them sing “Ride of the Valkyries” as they swoop in, clinging to the back of the LSAM.
Houston, We Have Some Bullet Points
• Needle drop of the episode: not for nothing, that Billy Swan cover of “Don’t Be Cruel” is hot. Like, lunar surface-hot.
• Relatedly and respectfully: Joel Kinnaman’s back.
• Kudos to Jodi Balfour’s performance in the moment when she tells President Reagan that she’s a Christian. She’s facing away from Pam at this moment, so only we are privy to the emotional wall coming down in her facial expression as she allies herself with Reagan’s platitudes.
Check the For All Mankind page next Friday for episodes nine and ten.