Well, here we are, friends. The end of For All Mankind’s second season is a doozy. It holds up very well, too: Having rewatched twice recently, the story beats work, the tension is sky-high, the characters get their moments to shine, and my tear ducts have gotten quite a workout. Let’s get into it.
Over the last nine episodes, we’ve seen this show come into its own by exploring some rich and complicated themes, including a long-form internal conversation about the challenges and pleasures of being middle-aged; the tensions between ambition and love (Gordo and Ellen’s respective big ambitions have to do with winning back partners they lost), hope and wariness, identity and belonging, how every moment of our present is a reckoning with our past, and the value of questioning authority.
Part of middle age: identifying a new purpose in life, and what’s next/is this all there is?
Given this context, it’s perfectly understandable that every single one of the high-stakes plot developments of the season is on a collision course with everything else. Any one of the crises featured in the season finale, all urgent, would be plenty to deal with! Having to navigate them simultaneously is nearly impossible, but we’ve seen our precious space babies do the impossible many times before, often by bucking the rules. What if I told you that’s exactly what they do, again, only more so? Thanks to a crackerjack combination of writing and acting, this formula manages not to be formulaic.
Across the high-stakes crises, this episode includes at least four prime examples of authority-challenging done well. First up, Apollo and Soyuz are in orbit and theoretically are go for docking and the historic handshake of cooperation and international friendliness they’ve been planning for so long. The Soviets keep postponing the maneuver, offering the same, nearly transparent excuse: they need more time. This is technically true in that the cosmonauts who have breached Jamestown Colony need more time to convince the astronauts to surrender the defector Rolan, but Mission Control doesn’t know that, and eventually, Ellen calls it, ordering Dani and her crew to return to Earth.
Dani refuses, instead convincing her Soviet counterpart Stepan to dock Soyuz with Apollo and hang the consequences. For a publicity stunt that everyone but Tom Paine hated the very idea of and resented having to work on with a bunch of taciturn, suspicious Soviets, this one turns out very well. In addition to fulfilling one of Dani’s dreams, the sincerity and excellent optics of the gesture convince Reagan and Andropov to meet in Moscow for good-faith negotiations about the moon and how to live and work there in harmony. A win! One that would not have been possible without Dani’s moral courage and the genuine friendship she shares with Stepan.
Elsewhere in space, we get a two for the price of one defiance experience. Pathfinder’s mission to protect Sea Dragon as it crosses the Soviet blockade of the moon grows increasingly tense as it dredges up Ed’s worst memories of the Korean War. Bradford and Ed feed each other’s paranoia, believing that Buran must be part of a broader strategy to spread communism by … doing space stuff? This is murky, but they’re experiencing a literal Red Scare, and to both Piscotty and Sally Ride’s horror, Ed seems ready to carry out his orders to protect Sea Dragon at any cost. Sally’s refusal of Ed’s order to lock weapons on Buran nearly leads to them shooting at each other. Only Piscotty shouting about how this situation isn’t entirely black and white gives Ed a flash of insight, and thank goodness it does. Ed fires Pathfinder’s missiles at the unmanned Sea Dragon instead, preventing Buran from doing so, which prevents Ed from having to fire on Buran and her cosmonauts. Whew!
When last we saw the crew at Jamestown Colony, they were being invaded by armed cosmonauts. That’s going super well: The cosmonauts are beating Rossi to a pulp and forcing him to lie to Mission Control about the status and safety of the base. He refuses to tell them where their colleague Rolan is, but they have time to extract the information from him even less pleasantly if needed because his lie to Mission Control was so believable that JSC has no idea that anything is wrong. For now, the Russians are in their (punching) corner, and the Americans are in theirs.
Fortunately, Gordo and Tracy are in the galley and can see through the little window onto the hallway that it’s been de-pressurized. The galley contains no space suits, so they’re stuck inside, but other than that, they have no idea what’s going on because no one on base is answering their comms messages and whatever is happening hasn’t hit the news yet. Rossi announces that the Russians are holding him and that his crew should not agree to trade him for Rolan. The marines decide to engage with the cosmonauts to force them to leave without Rolan. I like their gumption and their inclination to protect their colleagues and the defector, but this is, yet again, a plan that is at best half-baked.
The said plan goes about as bad as possible: cosmonauts on patrol kill Vance and wounds Lopez before Webster kills both cosmonauts and gets Lopez back to safety. Worse, in the thick of the fight, both the cosmonauts and astronauts exchange a lot of fire, and one of the bullets tears through the nuclear reactor’s control computer, which disables the primary reactor coolant loop. This is bad enough, but when Margo informs Bradford and Ellen of the situation, they have to inform her that the Department of Defense has secretly installed a second nuclear reactor on the moon, which they intend to use to refine weapons-grade plutonium. The presence of a secret reactor installed for a war-mongering purpose is bad enough, but the secret reactor, while not yet online, is also connected to the backup cooling system. There’s no failsafe in place. I had thought that Ellen had gotten the Department of Defense off of NASA’s back by being preemptively hawkish, but between the marines and their space guns, DoD taking over Pathfinder’s mission, and the installation of a secret reactor on the moon, it seems like there’s still quite a bit of inter-agency disentangling yet to be done.
Meanwhile, Gordo has figured out how to re-activate some old-timey but still functional Not Facetime equipment and reaches JSC. Molly and Margo bring them up to speed on the situation with the reactor. Once Gordo learns that it’s theoretically possible to hot-wire the reactor by attaching it to the backup cooling system, he volunteers for the longest of long-shot tasks. Molly (who is back to her old self after struggling mightily to accept her encroaching vision loss) very capably and calmly walks him through everything he needs to do to pull this caper off, but has he thought this all the way through? Running 25 meters to the cooling system, switching its hookup and rebooting the computer controlling the nuclear reactor, and then running 25 meters back to the airlock in a jury-rigged space suit made of duct tape that will be melting in the 200-degree heat of the lunar surface as they run, without the ability to breathe, all in 15 seconds is not something you can bluff your way through. Gordo’s response is the wildly, foolishly, sincerely optimistic justification that he’s been jogging again. He’s in good shape and can easily cover that much ground in the time allotted before he’ll lose consciousness. That’s obviously ridiculous. Equally obvious, Tracy will not allow him to do this alone, pointing out that if they work as a team, they have some chance of surviving, and furthermore, “Don’t you dare make me tell our boys their daddy didn’t have to die.” Friends, I have to tell you that I broke my own heart at this moment in the episode by jotting down in my notebook, “Oh, no, they really are doing this for all mankind.”
And, after confessing their mutual love, blowing all the air out of their lungs, and running for all they’re worth, they do. It takes a little too long, and misty puffs of blood are emerging through the gaps in their ersatz space suits caused by the melting adhesive, and Gordo nearly collapses on the way back to the airlock, but they accomplish their task and do make it back, re-pressurizing the airlock once inside again. We have reason to hope but not to be optimistic. One more act of genuine bravery, undertaken by two people who could never leave a dangerous situation to be solved by others.
As Gordo and Tracy clamber back into the airlock, Dani’s insistence on going through with the handshake in space pays off in abundance. The rich symbolism of an American and a Soviet shaking hands in sincere friendship moves him to direct Air Force One to Moscow to offer his own hand to Andropov. Good faith negotiations between these fractious superpowers are on, and the cosmonauts at Jamestown Colony receive orders from home to depart at once, without Rolan! And thank goodness for all of that, because the combined effect of all of the episode’s crises was going to DEFCON 2 and running air-raid sirens to encourage all civilians to get to their nearest fallout shelter. Oh, yeah, there are non-astronauts still there in Houston! Let’s check in with them, shall we?
Karen has sold the Outpost to Tracy’s husband, Sam, who is a successful wheeler-dealer investment guy. As she explains to Kelly, it just felt like the right time, and who knows, maybe she’ll go back to grad school? Kelly shares her own bit of news with her mom, explaining how she tracked down her birth father and visited his restaurant in Arlington. At first, taken aback, Karen gets back into supportive parent gear pretty quickly. Maybe Kelly will visit again actually to speak with him one day, but for now, both he and she have their own families.
At Gordo and Tracy’s massive funeral in Washington, D.C., the official mood is somber respect, but once we get to their graveside and the 21-gun salute and flyover are done, it’s total devastation all the way down. Everyone is in tears; Ed is ugly-crying while Jimmy and Danny are standing in front of their parents’ caskets totally stricken, holding their ceremoniously-folded flags. Afterward, it’s clear from their body language that Ed and Karen have broken up, and Kelly’s voiceover from her college essay — about how we all stumble around haphazardly, trying to make sense of and give meaning to our lives — is particularly apt. Finally, as Margo walks towards the eternal flame at JFK’s grave, she takes a call from Sergei, who shares his condolences and says he hopes to see her at an upcoming conference in London. As the camera pulls back to show the other men in Sergei’s office, it’s clear before any of them says a word that Margo is already a Soviet intelligence asset, whether she knows it or not. We then zoom all the way out to space, past the moon, to the surface of Mars, where we see an astronaut taking a step on the Red Planet while Nirvana’s “Come As You Are” blares over the announcement of another time jump, to 1995.
Get ready for season three, everyone; I think it’s going to be quite a time!