Two episodes into season three and For All Mankind is rewriting the playbook—fast. A space race between the U.S. and USSR has split into three. And surprising and dangerous alliances are forming: Hospitality executive Karen (Shantel VanSanten) gets into bed with tech disruptor Dev Ayessa (Edi Gathegi); Republican Presidential hopeful (and closeted lesbian) Ellen Wilson (Jodi Balfour) woos a right-wing Christian for her running mate; and Ed Baldwin (Joel Kinnaman) basically dumps a 30-year career at NASA so he can ride a private-sector space hotel to the Red Planet. That’s not even counting Margo (Wrenn Schmidt) and Sergei (Piotr Adamczyk) sharing tech secrets for a decade.
At the top of “Game Changer,” Dev offers Karen a massive bid on Polaris, her disgraced space hotel, so he can attach Helios’ methane engines and send it to Mars. When Karen points out he’ll be putting himself in competition with global superpowers, Dev makes an inspiring speech about collective action. “If they divide up Mars like they did the moon, we’ll never escape this destructive cycle, this us versus them,” Dev says. “In Kenya there’s a key Swahili word, harambee. It means stronger together, mutual responsibility.” This guy promises an enlightened world like in Star Trek. Is Dev a utopian visionary, or an evil billionaire genius? Karen is moved, even as she seems to harbor doubts. She takes the deal.
At NASA, Molly (Sonya Walger) angrily navigates the hallways with her seeing-eye dog. Arriving at Margo’s office, she verbally dresses down Margo’s unflappable assistant, Emma (Teya Patt), infuriated by the Administrator’s meddling in the selection of astronauts. (That’s Molly’s job.) Margo has formed a new Astronaut Candidate Qualification Committee, which Molly labels a “backstabbing, underhanded” move.
Meanwhile, Molly moves fast to assert her power. She breaks the news to Danielle Poole (Krys Marshall): Ed will command the first mission to Mars. Dani is pissed (“This sucks”) but accepts the decision. Molly interrupts Ed’s Astronaut Candidate (AsCan) class to tell him he’s leading the Mars mission. Ed looks fairly fit for a man in his sixties, but he’s hobbling on a cast (injury from last episode’s Hotel Polaris emergency). This truly does suck for Team Dani. Molly’s decision is tainted by a desire to stick it to Margo (who favors Dani for Mars) and her own bias for Ed as a fellow ego-driven space cowboy. Remember in season one: On the moon, Molly and Ed mulled over the selfishness it takes to do what they do. Both are relatively un-tethered mavericks. By contrast, we see Dani at home as a confident, consensus-building wife and mother.
In the wake of the Polaris disaster, during which Sam Cleveland was killed, Karen cleans out her office at corporate headquarters. She runs into Danny, who was picking up Tracy’s astronaut pin from Sam’s office. Karen confronts Danny about the inclusion of “Don’t Be Cruel” at the reception. (They slow-danced to it years ago.) Danny says that his new wife, Amber, is a fan of Billy Swan (who sang the cover) and leaves. He immediately pops back in to confess he lied. Danny is still obsessed with Karen. She slaps him across the face—not exactly the foreplay he hoped for. “I’m sorry. It never should have happened,” Karen says. Danny, turning paranoid, accuses Karen of getting back together with Ed, “that son of a bitch.”
Cut to morning at Ellen and Larry’s house in Austin, where they’re getting dressed and discussing who would be the best running mate as VP. Ellen leans toward John McCain, but Larry (Nate Corddry) urges her to meet with “Bragg,” a hard-right conservative Christian, who can broaden Ellen’s base. She’s worried, naturally. Both Ellen and Larry are gay and theirs is a marriage of convenience. Just then, their young son runs into the bedroom and there’s a short, sweet scene of horseplay.
At NASA, Ed is cocky and glowing. Disappointed but not bitter, Dani congratulates him, notes his broken foot and, with a mischievous smile, says that she and her backup crew will be breathing down his neck. If he screws up, they take over. Ed video calls Kelly (Cynthy Wu), still researching in Antarctica, to share the good news. We learn that Ed is separating from Yvonne, and he invites Kelly to join the Mars crew. She’s focused on science; he’s in it for glory and adventure. After some tense but affectionate sparring, Kelly’s in.
Dani goes home and tells her husband Corey (Sean Patrick Thomas) the bad news. He’s relieved—after the terror on Polaris, space travel has lost some of its charm. Teenage son Isaiah (Justice) enters, learns that they gave the mission to the “old white man” and asks if he’ll bring his “walker and colostomy bag.” The kid’s not wrong. And Ed taking his daughter on the mission is basically nepotism.
Hey, here’s another old white man: At her campaign office, Ellen meets Governor Jim Bragg (Randy Oglesby), a cautious pol. They feel each other out as possible running mates. There’s some tense chat over stem-cell research. Bragg feels it violates his pro-life, Christian values. But he seems willing to work with someone he views as an American hero (referring to season one finale’s “the tank”). If Bragg becomes Ellen’s running mate, however, it could be her political undoing. He’s the kind of bigot Deke Slayton warned Ellen about before he died.
Margo returns from the ICSE conference to learn from Bill Strausser that Ed was selected to head the Mars mission. Molly went behind Margo’s back. Margo summarily fires Molly and later calls Ed in for a meeting where she explains that Molly “jumped the gun.” Dani has the right skill set. Flight crews will now be chosen by a selection committee. Ed seethes that “the weenies in the white coats are finally calling the shots.”
There’s a deep conflict between science and soldiering going on, expressing itself in subtle ways: between Ed and Kelly when she talks about bacterial life in Antarctica and he essentially blows it off, and to some extent between Ellen and Bragg. Ellen says she’s pro-life but believes in stem-cell research as an important tool in human progress. Bragg is clearly more of a soldier of Jesus than a technocrat.
Everyone seems to have left NASA that night except Ed and Molly, who share a bottle of whiskey and commiserate about their reversals of fortune. They clink glasses. In one of those classic For All Mankind space-rock jams, we hear Smashing Pumpkins’ “Today” as Aleida picks up a moonrock and gazes at the earth, thunderstruck by the beauty. She gets back into a lunar rover, which takes off as the camera pans way, way back to show how much the U.S. has colonized the moon. There are nuclear-engine test zones, shipyards, and power generators, and Jamestown base looks five times its original size, a village now.
Sometime later, at the Outpost, Dani meets Ed for a drink. “Guess I’ll always wonder why I didn’t land Apollo 10 when I had the chance,” mutters Ed, who looks like he’s had a few already. Ed implies that Dani, a Black woman, got the job because of optics. “If this were a level playing field, I’d be commanding this mission,” Ed grunts. The look of hurt and disappointment that crosses Krys Marshall’s face is incredibly eloquent. “I’ve heard crap like that my whole life,” Dani replies. “But I never thought I’d hear it from you.” And she leaves. Self-pitying Ed sits there. We may be at rock bottom for a character whose ego and entitlement were kept in check by innate decency and a sense of fair play.
Later, a drunken Ed crashes his car into rose bushes in front of Karen’s gated mansion. Karen takes him in. Working on his stalker game, Danny is parked a few feet away, grimly watching. Inside, Karen pours black coffee for Ed. “I guess this is the big, beautiful tomorrow we used to always dreamed of,” Karen notes sarcastically. “A lot less shiny than I thought it would be,” Ed agrees. Karen is worried about her ex and makes an appointment to meet Dev at his groovy Helios office.
Margo and Dani are meeting about Dani’s crew, and Dani pulls Danny Stevens’ file and notes that he’d be a worthy addition. (Is this a setup for a Mars fistfight between Ed and Danny?) The meeting is interrupted by Margo’s secretary: Turn on the news.
Dev’s press conference is a skillful appropriation of the patriotic myth-making that NASA usually spins. The Helios honcho argues that major advances in flight were made by private citizens and companies: the Montgolfier brothers, the Wright brothers, Godard. He then announces that Helios’ “Phoenix”—the modified Hotel Polaris—will establish “a free-enterprise zone on the Red Planet, so that innovation and economic development will thrive, building a new colony, a new society, benefiting all people.” He introduces the commander of the mission, Ed Baldwin, as Karen smiles from the sidelines. The kicker: Helios intends to launch in 1994, a full two years before the U.S. and USSR.
Everyone watching the news is horrified: Margo and Dani feel the knife in their back. Kelly is appalled by father the corporate sellout. Danny feels his Oedipal complex getting complexier. Everyone seethes except Molly, who smokes a joint in her bubble bath cackling, “Way to go, Ed. Stick it to the bastards” as Sinatra’s “Fly Me to the Moon” goes into full swing.
We could game this season out so many ways. Perhaps the Soviets will try to infiltrate or sabotage Helios’ Mars mission. If they could compromise Margo with Sergei, getting a mole into Helios would be child’s play. What about Ellen mirroring another Ellen of the ’90s and coming preemptively out of the closet? Speaking of LGBTQ+ topics, let’s see an openly gay crew member on the Helios mission—and Ed’s (no doubt awkward) adjustment. And do we really think that Helios, the U.S., and the USSR will all get to Mars intact without having to help each other out? Is there life on Mars? More to the point, is David Bowie there?
- The past decade has not been kind to Larry’s hairline, which is drastically receding in his scene with Ellen and their son.
- In Antarctica Kelly found a strain of Sphingomonas desiccabilis that could survive in the extreme cold of Mars. It’s a Gram-negative and non-motile bacterium from the genus of Sphingomonas. Oh, didn’t you know?
- Molly’s seeing-eye dog is Ollie. Yup, that’s Molly and Ollie.
- As a gay woman campaigning to be the first woman President of the United States, it makes bitter logic that Ellen should run as a Republican. Hiding in plain sight.
- In his video call to Kelly, Ed uses an Apple MessagePad 120 on the Newton platform, an actual device launched by Apple in 1993, discontinued in 1998. The real MessagePad had wonky handwriting recognition and definitely no international videoconferencing.
- The radical open-plan Helios workspace—casual clothing, foosball table, people wheeling bikes across the floor—looks more like Google circa 2002 than anything in 1992. Anything, that is, in our timeline.
- After Aleida’s video call with Octavio, I felt a little uneasy about his obsessing over where he left his keys. Is he having memory problems?
- Karen’s search for independence is far from over. Promoting Ed for the Mars mission is risky at best. He needs to work on himself. But also, she’s still attaching herself to powerful narcissists to find self-worth: Ed, Sam Cleveland, and now Dev.