Starting with big-picture takeaways: Mammas, don’t let your children grow up to be astronauts. They’ll either pop pills and neglect their duties or get preggers on a distant orb and create obstetric emergencies. The ones who don’t go to space may (whoops) aid and abet terrorists. So much drama this season would have been avoided had Gordo and Tracy Stevens used contraception. Another big lesson: Do not carry on a decade-long, sexless affair with a Soviet bureaucrat: It only leads to a dreary one-bedroom in Moscow (decent view, though).
Yes, a passel of world changes ended season three on a grim, apocalyptic note. Kelly (Cynthy Wu) delivered her baby safely on Phoenix and presumably returned to Earth. But Ed (Joel Kinnaman), Danielle (Krys Marshall), Kuznetsov (Lev Gorn), Mayakovsky (Goran Ivanovski), Will (Robert Bailey Jr.), Rolan (Alexander Sokovikov), and the others? We don’t know if they got rescued by 1997 or ’98 or at all. We don’t know who’s running NASA—Aleida (Coral Peña) or Congress. We don’t know what Margo (Wrenn Schmidt) is doing in Russia (probably not jazz piano at a Moscow nightclub). We know that Molly (Sonya Walger) and Karen (Shantel VanSanten) are dead, casualties of the terrorist attack that Jimmy (David Chandler) idiotically helped. The other deplorable Stevens bro, Danny (Casey W. Johnson), is exiled to a crashed North Korean probe by his fellow Earthlings. And Dev (Edi Gathegi) may be banished from Helios, but he’ll be back with some ambitious interplanetary scheme.
In “Stranger In A Strange Land,” show runners Ronald D. Moore and Ben Nedivi went for movie scale, an 83-minute farewell to the Red Planet that has been FAM’s obsessive focus. The cold open explains how last episode’s North Korean astronaut got there ahead of NASA, Helios, and the Russians. It was a sneaky surprise Mars landing that turned into a crash landing. One of two astronauts died, and Pyongyang didn’t hear from its men, assuming them dead. Announcing you’re the first nation to send two dead guys to Mars sort of takes the shine off.
In the marooned-on-Mars montage, Lieutenant Colonel Lee Jung-Gil (C.S. Lee) buries his comrade under Martian sand, dutifully radios back home to zero response, eats food from cans, and tries to adjust his antenna, falling off the craft and spraining an arm. Time passes. His beard grows. He stares more and more desperately at the photo of his wife taped to the dashboard. He weeps. Collecting sand samples, he sees two of his boot prints in the sand, and swipes a curved line under them, making a smiley face. He laughs. Let’s just say, if this guy had a volleyball, he’d be talking to it.
On the day Jung-Gil has given up and prepares to commit suicide with the ship’s pistol, he sees Danielle and Kuznetsov roll up in their rover. His reaction is comically Cold War. If I had been marooned on Mars for several months and discovered other humans with transportation, I wouldn’t be asking for passports and waving my gun at them. But Jung-Gil has probably lived a life indoctrinated by propaganda and has buckled under the pressure of isolation.
Our new North Korean friend is not alone in the stress department. President Ellen Wilson (Jodi Balfour) scans the screaming newspaper headlines that follow her coming out as gay. A quick visit from Christian conservative VP Jim Bragg (Randy Oglesby), suggesting she resign, only hardens Ellen resolve to fight. After several episodes seeing the bright and appealing Balfour play endless variations on desperate, sad, and cornered, it’s good to see her fire again.
Margo, too, is under the gun. At Johnson Space Center, she has a meeting with Lenara Catiche (Vera Cherny), who informs the head of NASA that she’s under investigation by the FBI for espionage. Catiche says the Russians have an asset in the Justice Department, and they have reported one Aleida Rosales has fingered Margo as a Soviet spy. (This isn’t strictly true since last episode Aleida refused to cooperate.) The rest of Margo and Catiche’s conversation—kept off screen—was doubtless a negotiation about getting Margo out and when.
At Helios Aerospace, the combined NASA and Helios teams are working to find a way to speed up refueling of Popeye and creating methane fuel from carbon dioxide in Mars’s atmosphere. Dev pulls Karen away for a chat. Dev wants to rally Karen to oppose the board with foreign investors, but she tells him they offered her Dev’s job, and she’s going to accept it. After a brief and bitter exchange, they part ways. Dev feels betrayed, that Karen will sell his empire for scrap, as she did with the Hotel Polaris. In a later, somewhat pathetic scene, Dev tries to bring along as many Helios staff as he can, but Karen stymies him by pointing out there would be pay cuts, leaving Dev with no allies.
The Jung-Gil drama comes to a quick and humorous end when Dani attempts to communicate with the gun-wielding, wild-eyed astronaut through drawings in the sand. We just need a component from your probe to help us all return home, she tries to tell him. Distracted for a second, Jung-Gil is overpowered by Kuznetsov, who yanks his oxygen tube. Dani saves Jung-Gil by reattaching the tube. They (ill-advisedly) bury Jung-Gil’s gun in the sand with a lug wrench marker and bundle the tied-up North Korean on their rover to head back to Happy Valley. They now have the homing radar that allows the MSAM to dock with Phoenix.
But there’s still a problem: In order to launch the MSAM with the present level of fuel, they have to lose 1,000 pounds of weight. They’ve removed all the seats and non-essential hardware, but it’s still not enough. The solution: send Kelly to Phoenix, and everyone else stays behind. They won’t be rescued for one and a half years. With rationing and the plants Kelly was growing, Will Tyler estimates, it could be possible. Kelly is appalled at the suggestion but everyone raises their hand to volunteer to stay—beginning with Danny.
The Scurrilous Stevens Brothers both have chances to be heroes in this episode, just like their parents. Danny spectacularly saved the day in “Polaris,” but it’s been downhill from there. Danny volunteers to stay behind so Kelly can leave. Later he offers to pilot her into orbit, even if it means he’ll surely die in the return crash landing. But Ed angrily quashes the second idea.
As for Jimmy, he wakes up way too late. At Johnson Space Center, his band of merry pranksters are planning some sort of media jamming stunt. Beardo ex-Moon Marine Charles (Zac Titus) tells Jimmy that they’re going to expose what a corrupt institution NASA is and get his parents justice. Weak, craven Jimmy doesn’t look terribly convinced, but he goes along anyway.
Back to Mars Fetus Evac: Since the fuel can only get the MSAM 95 percent of the way into orbit, they need to make up the last five percent. After a fraught conversation with Margo in the hallway about the FBI investigation, Aleida has the lightbulb moment: Kelly herself can serve as the “second stage” to get to Phoenix. If she is strapped to the top of MSAM and connected to a Propulsion maneuvering unit (PMU) she can operate it to get her into Phoenix. Yes, they’re going to strap a woman in her third trimester to the top of a rocket.
This Hail Mary maneuver—depending on basic technology and human grit to overcome terrible odds—felt like a callback to Ellen’s catching the tank for the season-one finale. It’s not about crazy advanced technology, it’s about doing the math, buckling up, and giving it your best shot. Such moments, as much as the heroic sacrifices characters make, are the heart of For All Mankind.
As everyone readies for the climactic launch, things are getting terrifying on Earth. Jimmy sees Charles zipping up an Army duffel full of rifles in the back of the van and he suddenly realizes something bad is about to go down. The Squeaky Frommish Sunny (Taylor Dearden) interrupts Jimmy as he tries to call his sister-in-law Amber. Trying to escape, Jimmy’s knocked out by Charles.
Things are looking better for Sergei (Piotr Adamczyk), who has landed at Ramstein Air Base with his parents and video conferences with Margo. She got him out of the Soviet Union and Sergei is delighted. He says, a little shyly, we’ll see each other soon in a week or so. Margo can’t bring herself to respond, I may be in Federal prison by then. Or...Moscow?
Molly Cobb is brought back to Mission Control to coach Ed on bringing the MSAM to the Martian surface on fumes without smashing into it. Amber calls Karen to tell her about Jimmy’s scary phone call. She goes outside, hears a tied-up Jimmy kicking from inside a van, frees him, and sees bombs wired to go in the back of the van.
At Happy Valley Base, Danny begs Ed to let him fly Kelly up to Phoenix, reasoning that if the reentry of the MSAM is a suicide mission, it should be him. Then Danny confesses that it was his fault the drill exploded at the water extraction site. Ed slams Danny against the wall and points out that he’s even less likely to let Danny pilot his daughter off Mars. Ed hisses at Danny to get back to work and assures him there will be a “reckoning.”
Kelly suits up with baby daddy Alexei Poletov’s old cosmonaut suit, which allows more space for her protruding belly. And then, Operation Baby Launch, well, it goes off without a hitch. Ed gets Kelly nearly to Phoenix; she disengages and blasts the rest of the way through the bay doors; and Ed drops back down to the surface of Mars with dangerous speed. Meters from the surface, he taps his engines to slow and crash-lands.
Simultaneously, the unimaginable happens at NASA. The terrorists, realizing that Karen has freed Jimmy and is alerting security, detonate the bomb in the back of the van. An explosion that calls to mind the 1995 Oklahoma City Bombing turns JSC into a smoking inferno. Jimmy finds Karen under rubble, gasping her last breaths as she stares up at the sky. The wall of Margo’s office, where minutes ago she was practicing on piano, has been sheared away and she’s nowhere to be found. Aleida, in shock, stands in the obliterated space.
As the camera zooms hundreds of feet back from the ruins of JSC, it cuts to Mars. Kuznetsov is driving a rover to the site of Ed’s landing. Ed is alive and walking toward us. Kuznetsov grins.
Of course, Ed and his teammates’ victory turns to tragedy as they learn about the bombing and the death of Karen. It suddenly feels like getting off Mars is even farther away. Will these inadvertent Martian pilgrims be able to survive and adapt? For how long? In a neat bit of circular storytelling, Dani and Ed exile Danny to the North Korean probe with supplies, telling him that someone will come out and bring new supplies every few months. After all his crimes, Danny is getting solitary confinement. Cruel and unusual punishment?
So many questions about season four: Will it be a survival epic with the Helios, NASA and Soviet crews fighting, starving, and trying to hold it together for years and years? That Korean pistol that Dani and Kuznetsov buried in the sand with a helpful lug wrench marker: Pretty sure Danny finds that on Day 2.
Wrapping things up on Earth: Ellen, her Secret Service detail in the driveway, visits ex-lover Pam (Meghan Leathers) and the spark is still there. Pam as First Lady material? She could even double as Presidential Inaugural Poet. Next, a newspaper delivered to the (American) lawn of Sergei (dated 1995) bears a headline that reads “NASA Space Center renamed for fallen hero Molly Cobb.” A classy move not to see Molly die as she rescues people from JSC.
Finally—and I do mean finally—we get a time jump to 2003 for our big WTF cliffhanger/next-season setup. Margo wakes up, as she does at the top of seasons one, two, and three. She rises and presumably gets ready for work. Radiohead’s “Everything In Its Right Place” plays for maximum irony. Because when Margo opens her curtains we behold...Moscow. Yes, Catiche spirited Margo from JSC—minutes before the bombing. Felicitous timing? Will Margo make a better Soviet than Sergei ever was? Space makes strange bedfellows.
- The episode title is a nod to Robert A. Heinlein’s 1961 novel about a human born on Mars, who finds adjusting to life on a religiously divided Earth difficult.
- Headlines Ellen scans in the Oval Office: “Wilson: I’m Gay” (Houston Sentinel); “A double life: Wilson comes out as lesbian” (Chicago Herald Record); and “Liar, Liar” (New York Daily Telegraph)
- Kuznetsov: “He was first man on Mars. Motherfucker!” Kooz is spending too much time around Americans.
- Last week we learned how much radiation a fetus can safely take, but I could find no equivalent number for g-force. That’s one tough kid.
- Molly is a contradictory combination of “selfish prick” and selfless savior. Her willingness to return to the smoking ruins of JSC is reminiscent of her heroic rescue of Wubbo on the Moon in season two.
- Ed’s cutest moment all season is showing off his Korean. I leave it to speakers of Korean to judge the idiomatic accuracy of “my good dumpling.”
- The brainwashed and/or mentally unstable characterization of Lt. Col. Lee Jung-Gil was the episode’s weakest element. Let’s hope next season he gets more nuance.
- The brief shot of Kelly holding her baby reflected in the window, with Mars glowing red in the background, was very 2001: A Space Odyssey.