Until the pulse-quickening final minutes of “All In,” I was marking it down as filler and housekeeping, the sort of episode that connects A to C, but doesn’t offer much in the way of revelation or reversal. And it was mostly that: another medium-paced episode about Loyalty and Values. Aleida Rosales (Coral Peña) and Bill Strausser (Noah Harpster) were forced to choose between NASA and the corporate glitz of Helios (Aleida said no; Bill went for the paycheck). Ed (Joel Kinnaman) asserted the primacy of the commander who has to pilot Phoenix to Mars, prompting Dev Ayesa (Edi Gathegi) to adjust the all-automated flight controls. Kelly (Cynthy Wu) had to decide between flying to Mars with her dad and following the science with NASA. And Danny (Casey W. Johnson)—bitter, boozing, Karen-besotted Danny—continued to fail upward despite serious warnings from Danielle (Krys Marshall).
By far the most emotionally wrenching track this week was Margo (Wrenn Schmidt) and Sergei (Piotr Adamczyk). There’s so much about Margo’s self-destructive and perverse “affair” with Sergei to process, given what we know about her family and psychological makeup. As we followed Margo from her twenties into middle age, she never showed a sexual bone in her body. She’s devoted to the space program and has a mind that responds to complex mathematical and structural problems, whether it’s solving O-ring malfunctions or savoring the jazz virtuosity of Mary Lou Williams. She’s wary around men in authority, justifiably: Her father was emotionally absent, and her mentor Wernher von Braun collaborated with the Nazis. But Margo is human, and when she found a kindred spirit in Sergei last season she started (slowly) to open up.
The cold open of “All In” is a montage of the glacial courtship of Margo and Sergei, a series of jump cuts across annual meetings of the International Astronautical Congress (IAC) in London. The two have a warm, easy rapport, but they’re not about to jump into bed, no matter how many times Sergei casts puppy-dog eyes in Margo’s direction. Finally in 1991, when Sergei tentatively touches Margo’s hand, and she responds, there’s a distant glimmer of carnality. Of course, they are immediately interrupted by a colleague entering the elevator.
Then, at a Mars meeting with Margo, Aleida, Bill, Danielle, Danny, and other staff, we learn that NASA is moving up the launch to 1994, per the insistence of President Gary Hart. “Sojourner One can be ready,” Aleida declares. Danielle and Danny can get the crew up to speed. But, Bill points out, this creates a huge problem: The Mars launch window is every 26 months. They need to pre-launch critical supplies and equipment—habitation units, fuel generators, life support systems—that will enable astronauts to actually, you know, survive once they reach the Red Planet. Aleida brainstorms sending the pre-launch supplies to Venus and using a gravitational slingshot to get it to Mars. “Not the worst idea,” Bill Strausser grumbles. “It’s a great idea,” Margo says. “And it’s what we’re gonna do.”
Update on world politics: Mikhail Gorbachev declares, to no one’s surprise, that the USSR will move its Mars launch up to 1994, and we see a clip of Presidential candidate Ellen Wilson (Jodi Balfour) debating Bill Clinton, rebutting his point that spending money on NASA takes away from food programs for the poor.
A spectacular tracking shot along the body of the Phoenix in orbit around Earth brings us to Dev, Ed, and Karen (Shantel VanSanten) touring the ex-hotel being modified with engines to get it to Mars. Not that he needs to, but Dev is giving Ed the hard sell on Phoenix: no longer astronauts crammed into tin cans eating “cat food.” Now they get gourmet MREs: “I’m talking Wolfgang Puck,” Dev gloats. The command station where Ed will occupy his captain’s chair inches the world of For All Mankind a teensy bit forward to the world of Star Trek. (I’m fully prepared by the fifth season for the IP to cross over into Roddenberry.)
The Danny scenes don’t do much to endear us to the damaged, self-pitying child of Gordo and Tracy Stevens. Danny makes fatal mistakes in Mars simulations with Dani. He falls off the wagon at the Outpost; picks up a strange woman there, and later trespasses on his childhood home for a dip in the pool with said woman; he gets arrested; he gets released into Dani’s custody. Exercising, as usual, the best judgment, Dani tells Danny he’s off the Mars mission and needs to go back to AA. “Find your peace, Danny,” Dani says. “Mars ain’t going nowhere.” Hearing the news, Ed phones Danny and offers him a spot on the Helios flight. It’s an impulsive, sentimental decision on Ed’s part, one he may regret.
Let’s pause and point out the main problem with Danny. It’s not that he slept with Karen many years ago or even that he still loves her. It’s not that he’s an alcoholic and narcissist. Or a privileged white guy who gets too many breaks. It’s that he’s not charismatic. All due respect to Casey W. Johnson, who does solid work as the young heel, but the role would be so much more palatable with someone who had the comic verve and irreverence that made Michael Dorman’s Gordo such a loveable, flawed, hangdog weirdo. Danny could be a chip off the old block, instead of simply a creep.
Speaking of creeps, I would not have minded if Soviet Goon #2 throttled Sergei to death. It’s the 1992 IAC, and Margo finally invited Sergei to her hotel room with a bottle of scotch. Margo initiates the sequence the only way she knows: “I would like you to kiss me.” Sergei does. Off come her glasses, his jacket, they’re speaking the international language of love. Then Sergei stops, stammering and apologizing. For a moment you think he’s going to confess that his Soviet handlers are fully aware, and directing, their relationship.
Instead he asks for, yes, tech secrets. “It’s just our nuclear propulsion reactor,” the distressed scientist mutters. “The cooling system is not functioning properly.” Margot, the workaholic, can’t believe he’s thinking about work. Sergei begs her for help, implying that his life is on the line. “This was a mistake,” Margo says curtly. (Tonally, this scene could have flipped into cringe comedy, but director Wendey Stanzler keeps it tense and tragic. Let’s just say it rides the edge of bathos.) Sergei begs for NASA’s engine design. Margo points out that anything nuclear is “outside the scope of our agreement.” There’s a heavy knock on the door. Sergei looks utterly crestfallen. Margo, already fearing the worst, asks, “Who is it?”
She soon finds out: A Soviet agent with incriminating photographs, trying to pressure Margo into cooperating. Demonstrating how serious they are, a Soviet thug strangles Sergei for a few seconds, then they leave Margo with a phone number for when she’s ready to play. I believe the word is kompromat, a term I first heard during the last Presidential administration. How Margo gets out of this mess is anyone’s guess. But here’s my challenge to the writers room of For All Mankind: Make me retroactively understand why this brilliant, cautious, rules-based woman would put herself into such a dangerous position.
At any rate, writer Nichole Beattie and director Stanzler are too busy yanking us ahead to a thrilling button that makes all the foregoing narrative tidiness worth it. After saying goodbye to Bill, who’s off to make the big bucks at Helios, Aleida pulls a long night in flight control and, in one of those delightful leaps, the series jumps ahead two years. Aleida is Mission Control Flight Director (wearing a chic red, beige and brown ensemble), Soundgarden’s “Black Hole Sun” rocks the soundtrack, and they’re about to send Dani to Mars.
Bill Strausser, Karen, and Dev are in Helios mission control. Phoenix launches with Ed and Danny in their ergonomic easy chairs; they look cool and boy, don’t they know it. Danielle blasts off from the lunar surface in the NERVA-powered shuttle Sojourner One, and the Soviets launch their bulbous rocket from the Earth’s surface. Margo watches the Soviet launch with a look of sadness and dread in her eyes—we don’t know if she helped the Soviets achieve this launch, out of fear for Sergei’s life and her legal culpability. Nuri (Sahana Srinivasan) informs Margo the President is on the line: Ellen Wilson, America’s first woman President. “You must be proud,” Ellen says to Margo, who, tellingly, remains silent. “Now let’s kick their asses,” Ellen commands. Only 34 million miles to go.
- Text on the monument to Gordo and Tracy Stevens: “In Memory of Gordo Stevens and Tracy Stevens, September 19, 1983. The Future Does Not Belong to the Fainthearted. It Belongs to the Brave.” Danny’s “gimme a break” look is unintentionally funny.
- Danny cracks a joke during the Mars meeting that there are “no turncoats” in the crew. Kudos to producers for not flashing “Irony Alert” button on screen.
- During Dev’s tour of Phoenix with Karen and Ed, Karen stops by the elevator with a mournful look. That’s where Sam Cleveland got crushed in the first episode.
- Peak Ed harrumph: “I’m not puttin’ any poets on my crew.” Can we meme that, please?
- Some of the protest signs in the background of a news report on Sojourner One: STOP THE WORLD I WANT TO GET OFF. TAKE ME WITH YOU. F**K THE [picture of Moon]. NASA ONLY BENEFITS THE RICH. SPEND ON EARTH, NOT SPACE.
- “Black Hole Sun” was released the year it appears: May 13, 1994
- Items on President Wilson’s Oval Office desk include a crystal jar in the shape of the Capitol dome filled with jellybeans (a nod to Reagan); a golden space shuttle figurine; a crystal Earth globe; model of an oil-rig; a bald eagle figurine; and a model of an old Apollo rocket on the table behind her.