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?
Once again, we are treated to an episode nestled entirely under the broad umbrella of tentative hopefulness and wariness in both interpersonal relationships and matters of international relations. A contingent of Soviets — engineers, cosmonauts, a coterie of nameless political apparatchiks — have arrived in Houston to great fanfare. The Americans are behaving like the golden retrievers of world culture we are, happy faces plastered on while a marching band plays peppy tunes to honor our guests. The Soviets are considerably more reserved.
We could even describe them as playing hard to get, an impression only strengthened by their flat, grudgingly accepting to actively hostile responses to the mission approach Margo lays out in their first big meeting. The cosmonauts must not be referred to as astronauts, and they must be given the (ornamental) honorifics of Cosmonaut One and Cosmonaut Two. Sure, fine, whatever. They also want the mission referred to as Soyuz-Apollo rather than Apollo-Soyuz. Okaaaaaay. Most significant, they do not, cannot, and will not assent to a docking mechanism that suggests visually that their ship is the passive recipient of the, uh, equipment that NASA’s ship is using to dock with theirs. Good-faith negotiating on vitally important and in no way picayune details! We love it!
Following the absurd meeting, Margo wonders aloud how NASA can be expected to have a successful mission under these conditions. Bradford immediately responds that they’re not: The Soviets will stall and make petty demands knowing the Americans will eventually do some stonewalling of their own, and then the Soviets can throw up their hands and return home. This is exquisite, a shining example of peak bureaucracy.
Outside the uncomfortable formalities of that day’s meeting, informal conversations between individual people yield much more promising results. After realizing they can’t make any progress on an acceptable and functional docking system for Apollo-Soyuz-Apollo, Margo and Sergei hold a secret rendezvous at 11:59, the jazz club where Margo is the pianist in a trio performing that night. Sergei recognizes immediately what a gesture of trust this is on Margo’s part, making it possible for the conversation to turn quickly from toasting shared secrets to the horrors of a war that Sergei believes is inevitable between the U.S. and the USSR. These two don’t have the flashiest jobs, but they are the ones who will make or break this mission, and they’re very invested in contributing something worthwhile to help calm relations between their home countries. Sergei gets a flash of inspiration from the radioactivity symbol on their drinks coasters, and the totally androgynous interlocking petals docking system begins to emerge. With Aleida’s crucial input on incorporating shock absorbers, by Jove, they’ve got it!
Dani and Stepan set up their own adventures in one-on-one international relations at the Outpost over shots of Jack Daniels and delve into finding substantive common ground rather than the happy-face talking points both of their governments expect them to stick to. Unsurprisingly, that proves very difficult; each of them is such a product of their respective cultures and political systems that being a pilot and going to space are the core quality they have in common.
A few shots in, Stepan quietly mentions that he had gotten to hold Laika, the dog that was the first living creature from Earth to go to space. Dani’s face lights up as Stepan describes Laika’s winning personality — she was assessed as being spirited but balanced and adaptable to new situations, all crucial qualities for any species embarking on space travel — and droops with sadness when Stepan tells her the legend of Laika dying peacefully in her sleep while in orbit is a lie: There was a malfunction with one of the systems in her spacecraft, and she died in pain. But her story is too important and powerful as a foundational myth for the USSR’s space program for the truth to be widely known. Dani tries to frame Laika as an example of making a noble sacrifice for the motherland and the people she loved, but Stepan won’t have it. He’d rather sit with the contrast between his affectionate memories and the bleak reality of her death. Left unspoken is the knowledge they share that when they’re talking about Laika, they’re also talking about themselves and the expectations of service and self-sacrifice they may be held to in the name of either providing justification for or preventing a war.
Elsewhere in personal myth-busting, Kelly’s getting a head start on her application to the U.S. Naval Academy by drafting her admissions essay. Ed’s casual suggestion that she just tell them who she is triggers a cascade of existential questions: Okay, who is she? What makes her a Baldwin? How might her life be unfolding now if she had not been placed for adoption? What if she had been adopted by another family in the U.S. or one in Vietnam?
She knows she’s a Baldwin by a series of events she had no hand in: being in an operation airlifting women and children out of Saigon in 1972, being placed in an adoption center in Houston, not having been adopted earlier so she was there when Ed and Karen decided to pursue adoption after Shane’s death. The love between Kelly and her parents is deep and sincere, and at the same time, Kelly’s feelings about her presence and role in the Baldwin family are deeply contradictory. Kelly presses Ed and Karen on the story of her adoption and learns some details she probably should already have been privy to: Ed and Karen, in the depths of their grief for Shane, were in a trial separation with Ed living at a local hotel. The news about Operation Babylift, which brought Kelly to Houston from Vietnam, prompted them to talk on the phone more and eventually visit the adoption center where Kelly was living.
Kelly summarizes all she’s heard with a reductive but by no means unfair observation/question: “So I was your Band-Aid.” In her haste to be reassuring, Karen’s response that Kelly was really their heart transplant is quite revealing. Again, in their attempts to move past their grief and to make sure Kelly knows how much they love her, Ed and Karen have inadvertently placed a crushing burden on their daughter. No child is responsible for the health of their parents’ relationship! I recall vividly that adoption was a taboo subject in the ’80s — there was even a very special episode of Family Ties about it — and Karen and Ed have worked hard to get to their current place of more emotional openness than they were capable of nine years ago. Unfortunately, it seems they’ve missed a couple of crucial steps. The Baldwins have gone this long without at least a couple of more frank conversations with Kelly about Shane and grief and, unsurprisingly for the time, haven’t taken any steps to help Kelly connect with her original cultural and racial identity. The transition she’s navigating from the family myth (rooted more in being comforting than the truth) to a new self-understanding is abrupt and dramatically shifts her perspective on her entire existence. After scrapping the first few sentences of her admissions essay, Kelly summarizes herself as “the genetic daughter of people I have never met.” It’s as much a mission statement for Kelly herself as it is an introduction to the admissions committee at Annapolis.
Rewatching this episode, I realized that it’s jam-packed with tropes from romance novels. Who knows if it was intentional, but it works. Dani and Stepan have a sincere conversation about one thing that is also about another thing. Sergei and Margo have a secret rendezvous. Ellen and Pam decide to take a second chance at love (more on this in the next recap). And then there’s the mother lode: Gordo and Tracy. Let’s get into it!
During a Not FaceTime™ with Jimmy for his birthday, he and Tracy have a fond chuckle about Gordo’s kitchen incompetence — as Jimmy dryly puts it, “He baked a cake and then bought another cake … we destroyed all of the evidence” — and reminisce about the fun they had together as a family prior to his parents’ divorce. Gordo first overhears, then eavesdrops on their conversation, agony and hope just flickering across his face. Because this show loves narrative symmetry, when Gordo goes outside to mull over the idea that Tracy misses him, he winds up gazing fondly up at the moon, where Tracy is gazing fondly down at Earth through a little window at Jamestown. Mutual pining, unbeknownst to the other? Check. A second chance at love? Check. (Maybe) a record-setting long-distance relationship? Check, check, check!
Gordo is now all in, drawing on reserves of previously unimagined courtliness to go to Tracy and Sam’s mansion to notify Sam, calmly and in person, that he intends to win Tracy back while he’s on the moon. Where did this Regency romance hero come from? Whence this frank gentlemanliness? What is his wealth in comparison with Mr. Darcy’s or Lord Bridgerton’s? Little japes aside, Gordo and Tracy’s character development here is both welcome and earned. How lovely that in this maybe romance plot, the character pining the most is the infamously unfaithful hotshot pilot who — perhaps too late, but how will he know unless he puts his heart on the line? — now understands the value of the love he lost. Now, for Tracy, he goes to the moon. For her alone, he thinks and plans.
Houston, We Have Some Bullet Points
• Needle drop of the episode: Instead of selecting a song we actually hear, I’m going to suggest two that would have been great at underscoring Gordo and Tracy’s mutual pining. First, “Somewhere Out There” from the 1986 animated classic An American Tail. Too on the nose? Too sweet? No problem, because Wreckless Eric’s bracingly swoony “Whole Wide World” would also be perfect.
• A great deal of my understanding of Kelly’s plotline as a transracial adoptee who wants to know more about her family of origin is informed by Nicole Chung’s memoir All You Can Ever Know. It’s as beautiful and tender as it is unflinching; I can’t recommend it highly enough.
• It’s been noted elsewhere, but this episode is where we really begin to lean hard into the irony of Wrenn Schmidt — who played a pretend American handler of Soviet spies in The Americans — now playing an actual American starting to get cozy with a Soviet who isn’t a spy probably. What I would give for a crossover event!