What to Watch Verdict
A high octane episode that delivers an emotional and tension-filled finale full of surprises.
🚀Gordo and Tracy's chemistry.
🚀Women getting the job done.
🚀So many tense sequences that shine a light on the entire creative team.
🚀The final credits song choice and what it leads to.
🚀Kelly's adoption storyline.
🚀Everything to do with Karen and her relationship with Danny.
This post contains For All Mankind spoilers.
Sending guns to the moon was never going to end well on For All Mankind when two Super Powers are jostling for territory. Even in outer space, similar issues can flare up as on Earth and it doesn’t take much to pull the trigger. Events at the end of Episode 8, which saw the first bullets being fired on the moon led to the horrifying death of one Soviet cosmonaut who was burned alive in his suit (after the bullet caused a spark and ignited the oxygen). The other Russian survived his gunshot wound and instead of being angry at this act of aggression, he instead asked for political asylum. Yes, you can even defect on the moon, and while this initial flurry of gunfire was over a misunderstanding — the Soviets were reaching for translation cards not weapons when approached — the penultimate episode cliffhanger suggested peace is no longer an option when the USSR attacked the US Jamestown lunar base.
The premise of the Apple TV+ drama is, of course, a historical “what if?” In the case of this alt timeline, Ronald D. Moore’s series kicked off with the Soviets beating Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin to the first moon landing in 1969 and the changes this would cause. Most notably for this narrative, women astronauts were introduced far earlier and NASA was not defunded. In the second season, Reagan was elected as president in 1976 rather than 1980, and the moon has become a hotbed of action. The DOJ has been running top-secret operations on a need-to-know basis, which has seen Ellen (Jodi Balfour) on a video hotline to the president. Meanwhile, Margo (Wrenn Schmidt) might be the Space Center’s director but she has also been kept in the dark about some major operational nuclear additions that come to a head in the finale. Running at nearly 80 minutes, the extended finale has a lot of different threads (and conflicts) to tie up before propelling the audience further into the future. Director Sergio Mimica-Green manages to keep up the tension switching between the various pressure points. It is an emotional end to the season and an episode I won't be forgetting in a long time.
When the Soviets entered the Jamestown base last week, they effectively sealed off the majority of the US crew. Unbeknown to them, Gordo (Michael Dorman) and Tracy (Sarah Jones) were in the galley having a potential romance rekindling moment and this gives them a secret weapon. Gordo has spent the whole season trying to shed the pounds (both literal and figurative) and rid himself of the ghosts that have haunted him since he was last on the moon. Jamestown was a lot smaller back then and he experienced hallucinations that almost caused him to take his helmet off while outside the safety of the base. It got so bad that Danielle Poole (Krys Marshall) broke her arm so Gordo wouldn’t get declared medically unfit to return to the moon if the day arose. That day did come nearly a decade later and while Tracy has since remarried, he has already declared his intention of wooing her back. Normally, I would find a plot like this to be an annoying sideshow but the writers have put in the work with this pairing and it is far from a derivative distraction. The chemistry between Dorman and Jones crackles with the ease and intensity of a couple who still have something cooking. Gordo has made plenty of mistakes but instead of deflecting, he owns his terrible behavior and his words are far from hollow. Tracy’s arc this season has seen her grapple with America’s Sweetheart tagline while still being an active astronaut. She’s impulsive and messy without becoming a caricature, and her initially listless time on Jamestown established her as more than just a love interest.
I could easily write an entire review based on this pair being stuck in this dire situation but that magnum opus will have to wait. Instead, here is a shorter version of why this particular storyline resonates and caused me to well up every time they appeared on my screen during a second watch. The galley is a reminder of Gordo’s trauma, but he has reclaimed this room and it is no longer represents his cycle into madness. Contacting Houston using the old video link-up, the divorced couple is told about the imminent nuclear meltdown (caused by the tense gunfight Tracy witnesses) that will kill everyone on the moon. The solution to this disaster would be easy but they are without suits, so it becomes a suicide mission for the person who undertakes it. Gordo immediately offers his services and his trip back to the moon is even more eventful than the one before.
Fashioning a suit out of duct tape feels like a Project Runway astronaut twist (very on-trend!) and Gordo is told to cover every inch of their skin because the surface of the moon is more than 200 Fahrenheit. He has about 15 seconds to complete the task before he will pass out, but he doesn’t end up making this trip alone. Defying orders is a running theme in the finale and Tracy refuses to let her ex go out alone because it is unlikely he will be able to flip the switch and change cables within this timeframe. “The hell I’m not, Gordo,” she tells him when he rejects her offer. What follows next is an objectively hilarious moment involving duct tape followed by an incredibly stressful sequence. They do look ridiculous in the DIY suits (okay, Tracy does make hers sing) and this absurd quality is quickly forgotten when the adhesive quickly gives way and the peril becomes pronounced. I was convinced one of them was going to die, so the elation I felt when they made it back before passing out was high. Cut to the cruelty of the reveal when both of them are found lifeless lying in each other’s arms. They saved the base and everyone on the moon (American and Soviet) but died doing so.
Unity is a distant prospect when the episode begins and it isn’t the courageous act by Tracy and Gordo that changes the course of the Cold War. Instead, the PR opportunity that was never meant to go ahead is at the root of the shift from DEFCON 2 (the only time the US has gone to DEFCON 2 was the Cuban Missile Crisis) to Reagan flying to meet his Soviet counterpart Andropov to offer his hand. At the start of the episode, the never-ending cycle of escalation and de-escalation in the Cold War is referenced. Someone always backs down but not to the point in which the conflict is resolved. It is why it dragged on for decades and had so many different moments of calm and chaos. Danielle is fed up with being a smiling pawn who is given a tiny modicum of respect before it is snatched away and she bravely goes against orders to complete her mission.
In a montage reflecting the different threads occurring simultaneously, we see this handshake alongside the duct tape suit making, and Ed Baldwin (Joel Kinnaman) potentially blowing this all to hell while John Lennon’s “Well Well Well” accompanies the intercutting moments. The Lennon thread loops back around at the end and this season-long “voice of peace” motif is a good use of an alt-timeline reference without overshadowing the overall narrative.
Ed’s rage colors his choices and this has been a consistent flaw — including his grief turned to anger at his cosmonaut captive last season after the death of his son. Karen’s (Shantel VanSanten) affair confession before he departed for this mission was poorly timed as images of his marriage swirl clouding his judgment. In this pivotal moment, his decisions are shaped by hot-headed emotion. When the Soviets threaten to fire on the unmanned Sea Dragon, Ed’s military experience kicks in and he is ready to engage with all the might his craft has on board. Thankfully, Sally Ride (Ellen Wroe) refuses the order, and once again, a defiant woman makes a choice that changes history for the better. After a standoff, Ed realizes there is another way and destroys Sea Dragon himself — therefore stopping an act of war from both sides. Sally might not be the first American woman in space in this timeline but her impact is vital.
Back on Earth, Margo bristles at being kept in the dark, and hands-down my favorite moment of the finale is the face journey Wrenn Schmidt takes us on when Margo discovers there is a second nuclear reactor on the moon that does not have a failsafe. Cycling through fury and bewilderment this is her breaking point and yet she still goes ahead and finds a way to save the day via the Jamestown dream team. Margo’s love life has been slowly simmering and one of two major cliffhanger moments involves Sergei (Piotr Adamczyk) setting a proposed date in London, which is actually his bosses using him to work Margo as an asset. How this story will play out given the time leap is unclear, but Margo looks set to have her heart broken. Speaking of the time leap, the end credits revealed 1983 would be the Season 2 destination and this finale follows suit. As the strains of Nirvana’s “Come as You Are” take us sky-bound it is clear the 1990s are upon us. A title card reading 1994 accompanies a space suit-clad foot stepping on the rusty Mars terrain, revealing how far this program will go (for context, this week a NASA unmanned helicopter flew on Mars). Where this leaves the regular cast is a major question as it was easy to ignore the minimal aging effects over a 10 year period but 20 years is a taller task. Perhaps Ellen will be president in 1994 instead of Bill Clinton?
For All Mankind is ambitious in its plotting and on the whole, Season 2 has been a success with the exception of one major character trajectory. A month ago, I wrote about the interesting path astronaut wife archetype Karen Baldwin was on, but I did ponder whether an ill-advised romance with Tracy and Gordo’s oldest son Danny (Casey W. Johnson) was on the cards. Alas, those red flags proved to be true and this ill-advised attempt at showing Karen’s ennui was portrayed via an affair with someone she has known all his life (and was BFF to her son). It would have made more sense for her to sleep with Tracy’s new husband Sam (Jeff Hephner) but that would have muddied Karen selling The Outpost (eagle-eyed viewers will notice Sam’s office is the same space used in Amazon Prime’s Homecoming). And while they whiffed Karen’s romantic arc, the adoption storyline with Kelly (Cynthy Wu) was far more successful. When they venture down to the fallout shelter as the sirens blared, my main concern was her teen daughter would find some evidence that her mother had slept with Kelly’s crush, but the only confessional was regarding finding her birth father. Another crisis averted!
Kelly gets the final voiceover of the season, in which she talks about different paths and the moments they diverge. In one respect, this is the thesis statement of a series exploring another version of our timeline, and it is one filled with political tension, trauma but also hope. “Maybe we’re just drifting from moment to moment” she ponders before ending on a quote attributed to John Lennon. “Everything will be okay in the end and if it’s not okay, it’s not the end,” and thankfully, it is not the end of the road for this NASA team.
Emma Fraser spends most of her time writing about TV, fashion, and costume design; Dana Scully is the reason she loves a pantsuit. Words can also be found at Vulture, Elle, Primetimer, Collider, Little White Lies, Observer, and Girls on Tops. Emma has a Master’s in Film and Television, started a (defunct) blog that mainly focused on Mad Men in 2010, and has been getting paid to write about TV since 2015. It goes back way further as she got her big start making observations in her diary about My So-Called Life’s Angela Chase (and her style) at 14.