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?
Welcome to an episode about how the past doesn’t just stay with us, it’s scarcely even the past, just a previous now. First up: the continuing wacky space high jinks between the U.S. and the Soviets. When are these two crazy world superpowers going to kiss and make up? On their way from enemies to … whatever it is they’re going to become, somehow the cosmonauts who are stationed on the moon have figured out exactly where the Jamestown astronauts were planning to start mining lithium and have taken over that site. How did they know where to go so quickly? And what are the Americans going to do about it?
After a few spins around the rhetorical carousel of needing to reclaim and hold the site and wondering how they’ll do so without any support from the United Nations, Bradford and Ed state the obvious: This new sub-mission requires round-the-clock security, which means the security team will need weapons. Specifically guns. On the moon. No one is surprised when Margo and Tom are aghast; Tom plaintively asks for “literally any other solution,” but economic sanctions would take months to have any effect and could backfire. Guns on the moon it is. Marines are the only astronauts with combat training, so they will provide security for the lithium mine, which the Americans want back for a host of reasons, not least of which is that a robust supply of lithium could be a reliable, nonnuclear source of energy for the Jamestown Colony.
Bradford later pays a gently probing solo visit to Ed, hypothesizing that perhaps the Soviets haven’t broken NASA’s communications encryption. What if Jamestown Colony is bugged? Didn’t Ed leave the cosmonaut Vasiliev alone for a brief period when he was up there nine years ago? A thorough sweep of Jamestown’s command center reveals that, yes, indeed, the Soviets have had ears on American space-doings since 1974. Although nobody blames Ed, given the extreme circumstances of the bug’s placement, this lapse in information security eats away at him. He’s still haunted by his memories of and guilt over Shane’s death while he was at Jamestown, and now all of that is being dredged up and combined with his unwitting role in the base being under surveillance for so long.
The past is also vexingly present for Gordo and Tracy, whose relationship is usually on the manageably shallow end of amicable, so much so that Gordo is Tracy’s first call when she crashes her car driving home drunk in the middle of the night. After Gordo gets her home (to their old home), Tracy doesn’t want to go to the mansion she shares with her new husband, Sam Cleveland, because he’s away, and the staff treats her like a teen caught out past curfew, so she helps herself to a spot in their old bed, forcing Gordo to take the couch. Moving on? What’s that? Gordo presses the issue the next morning by removing Tracy’s keys to the house from her keychain, which triggers a big argument about, well, everything: the past, the present, the future. Tracy is still resentful of Gordo’s past infidelities; he’s been trying to tell her he’ll be coming to the moon while she’s there, she’s incredulous that he’d pull focus from her PR mission, and he points out that it sounds like what she’s really concerned about is her press clippings. Whew. Neither of them is entirely over the other, and all of the emotional bruises they left on each other during their marriage are way more tender than they’d realized until this moment.
Speaking of tender feelings and the ever-present past, Aleida’s boyfriend Davy has succeeded in a bit of professional matchmaking by encouraging Margo to come to their trailer to help Aleida — by now a brilliant engineer possessed of a mighty chip on her shoulder and a string of lost jobs to show for it — get a job so she doesn’t get deported under Reagan’s immigration amnesty program. Aleida is mortified that Margo is aware of her situation, at first prickly and disgusted by Margo’s offer of an entry-level job at NASA, hurling it back in Margo’s face as a far-too-late attempt to assuage her own guilt about Aleida’s father’s deportation. But this is a job at NASA. NASA! She’s almost too proud to take the job, but she’s also too desperate not to. See you at JSC, kiddo.
We’ve saved the best (and by “best,” I mean “most emotionally devastating exploration of the long-term effects of lingering and under-addressed grief”) for last. Kelly’s interest in attending the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis is so strong that it’s become her first choice among colleges to apply to. The other schools on her list — the College of William and Mary, Georgetown University, American University, and the University of Virginia — signal how bright Kelly is and how excellent her grades must be. She’ll make an excellent applicant.
When she floats the idea of including Annapolis in her upcoming campus-tour itinerary, Karen first mistakes her interest as just a bit of daughterly pride in Ed’s alma mater, then briskly tries to shut it down when Kelly announces her intention to apply. Why hasn’t Karen heard about this interest before? Gee, I simply can’t imagine why that would be a fraught topic of conversation in the Baldwin household! Why does Kelly even want to do this? Kelly tries the public-service angle, to no avail. She progresses to declaring her desire to learn how to fly, and that really sets Karen off: Hands shaking just a tad, she starts folding up all of the itinerary materials and snaps at Kelly. The sound drops out as the camera pulls back through Karen’s office window, so we only see the end of their argument. Kudos to Shantel VanSanten for her performance in this scene: Her growing horror as she grasps what Kelly intends to do, the quavering note of grief and anxiety in her voice before switching to a classic “now listen here, missy” tone, the bit of business with the maps and notebook so she has something to do with her shaky hands. It’s all really well done, and Cynthy Wu holds her own, moving from tentative hopefulness that she can get her mom on her side to a steely refusal to back down from her dream. That Tom Petty poster in Kelly’s bedroom reflects a certain kinship, huh?
Fortunately, Karen listens to Tracy’s good advice — effectively, where there’s a will, there’s a way, parental control is an illusion, and don’t you want to cheer your daughter on as she pursues her dream? — and approaches Kelly with a more open mind. Being able to talk it through honestly from a place of sincere curiosity and care rather than burdening Kelly with the weight of memories and sadness that aren’t hers to bear makes a huge difference, as does Kelly’s discovery moments before of Shane’s beloved Popeye toy, tucked away in the air-conditioning vent years ago. It seems like a sign, and Karen boards the good ship Future Midshipman Kelly Baldwin.
The real barrier to Kelly’s dream is Ed. More specifically, Ed’s nuclear-grade emotional meltdown when he hears of it upon arriving home. Season-one Ed is back with a vengeance, and it’s terrifying. Joel Kinnaman bulked up a fair bit between seasons for his role in The Suicide Squad, and he uses his extra-imposing size to good effect here, towering over Karen and Kelly, stomping around, yelling at Kelly to go to her room, issuing threats to torpedo her application and to throw her out of the house, as if Chez Baldwin is a ship under his command, with Karen and Kelly as his underlings. That dog won’t hunt, as Karen makes clear when she hurls herself at Ed, screaming at him, slapping and beating on his chest with her fists.
At this point, I’m not even certain Ed is fully aware of his words and actions; this scene strongly calls to mind The West Wing episode “Noel,” where Josh Lyman’s PTSD manifests as a spectacular blowup in the Oval Office, prompting Leo McGarry to call in a trauma specialist to work with him. Ed is out of control, and it takes Karen’s equally wild response and Kelly inserting herself between them to break his emotional fever. As he crumples into a chair, stricken and folding in on himself, a bewildered Kelly quite rightly announces, “Whatever that was, we’re not doing it anymore,” with her parents agreeing immediately and Ed taking back his threats. Kelly again nails it: “What we’re gonna do is calm down and talk about what’s going on.” The most poignant element of this intense and earned scene is the entire Baldwin family’s dawning realization that despite Karen and Ed’s best efforts to shield her from the worst of their grief for Shane, Kelly is shouldering that weight, anyway. It’s a mark of what a well-adjusted person she is that she’s able to take the reins and be the adult in the room at this moment, and it’s completely unfair that she had to do so.
As awful as their argument was, it also breaks something open between Ed and Karen, giving them the space to have a conversation they should have had years ago, addressing the guilt they feel for Shane’s death. At least Kelly gets to see her parents having an honest, tough, and loving conversation about the worst tragedy of their lives and emerge from it with their relationship intact. Ed, Karen, and Kelly quickly find their way to a group hug, singing their lungs out in a family-jam version of the Naval Academy’s fight song, “Anchors Aweigh.” The camera pulls out through the living-room window, a lovely visual symmetry with Karen and Kelly’s less-promising earlier conversation about Annapolis.
Houston, We Have Some Bullet Points
• Needle drop of the week: Spandau Ballet’s “True,” which is used here as a bit of a head fake, playing over Gordo and Tracy’s arrival at home after a pretty frank heart-to-heart back from her collision with a guardrail. Their rapport is genuine and there’s still some love there, but Tracy passes out in what used to be her and Gordo’s bed. While Tony Hadley serves up a swoony blue-eyed soul, Gordo heads to the couch.
• Best little character moments: Tracy’s hair-of-the-dog breakfast swigs of flat Modelo from the open bottle on her bedside table, and Margo adjusting her excellent Coach bag just so as she steels herself to face Aleida.
Check the For All Mankind page this Friday for episodes five and six.