Space travel is so cool. The god-like views, the way everything syncs so well to pop music, the knowledge that history is being made. Yeah, it’s great—until you get incinerated in an automated engine blast, or crushed by a ship rolling over your body, or your visor is shattered by a cable whipping crazily in the void. Then it kind of sucks. For All Mankind shows both sides.
“Happy Valley” ends on a terrifying note that calls to mind the lapel-grabbing season opener, as well as the Apollo 24/25 disasters of “Bent Bird” (season one, episode nine), another rescue mission that goes to hell. It capped an outstanding outing that kept the focus on Mars with humor and suspense, while returning us to Earth only as strictly necessary, since Ellen’s presidency and conspiracy theories around NASA aren’t nearly as thrilling as a drag race in space.
Ego, duty, and self-sacrifice were the keynotes this week, with Ed (Joel Kinnaman), Danielle (Krys Marshall), and the (mostly) faceless Soviet cosmonauts jockeying for first one to the Red Planet. Any fears that older, bitterer Ed was going to forget his values in his lust to win were put to rest when he nobly agreed to rescue the Russian ship, which fried its engines in a desperate attempt to get ahead of the pack. The majority of the episode, written by Joe Menosky and directed (again) by Wendey Stanzler, was occupied with a series of chess moves to determine who would advance and who would drop out. And it’s not over, not by a long shot.
The packed eight-minute cold open—tense, insouciant, triumphant—reminded us why we love For All Mankind: the way it juggles humor, shiny F/X, and heroism without reverting to melodrama or cheap twists. (Well, it’s interplanetary space travel; anything can go south on a dime.) In the bravura opening, composers Jeff Russo and Paul Doucette’s urgent strings signal the pulse of the race from the opening frames. Phoenix is in the lead. Sojourner One’s zooming along second. The Soviets’ (not so imaginatively named) Mars-94 is pulling up third. At Helios Mission Control, Dev, tasting victory, says he’ll distribute the Interstellar Prize among all employees. Bill Strausser (Noah Harpster) is impressed but skeptical. Ed and Danny still look cocky as hell on the command deck of Phoenix. On a call to Dani in Sojourner, Ed is respectful but gloating. Dani has her diplomatic smile on.
Then Dani and her jaunty crew, including Kelly (Cynthy Wu), initiate Operation Jolly Roger. Kelly hits her iPod and a pirate sea shanty comes on, with Aleida (Coral Peña) and Margo (Wrenn Schmidt) back on Earth at Mission Control monitoring the process. Large armature units expand from each side of Sojourner’s hull and before you can say, “Captain Jack Sparrow,” massive golden sails unfurl around the tiny shuttle like gargantuan butterfly wings. Sojourner One is harnessing solar power to give it an extra boost that will put it into Mars orbit eight days before Phoenix. (I wonder if production designer Dan Bishop took inspiration from the James Webb Space Telescope’s golden hexagonal sunshield.)
Dev is inscrutable as ever, but he’s furious about being beaten by NASA. “First is what matters, it’s the only thing that matters, first is what changes things,” he fumes at an increasingly apprehensive Karen (Shantel VanSanten) before smashing a computer on the floor and exiting with scary calm. Of course, this Steve Jobs-like control freak will have the last laugh when the Soviet craft needs saving, and Ed volunteers to give up the mission to bring on the extra crew (Phoenix, being an ex-hotel, has the square footage and resources). Dev locks Ed out of the controls and forces Phoenix to continue to Mars. Dev throws the responsibility of saving the Soviets to NASA, and Dani glumly goes from nearly winning the race to losing it on humanitarian grounds. There’s a hint of hope that Sojourner can siphon fuel from the Soviet craft to allow the mission to continue, but with the two vessels colliding at the end of the episode, we’ll have to wait and see who’s even alive.
At any rate, Dani and Ed came off well, with the Soviets coming off as…crummy Soviets cheats, per usual. Tempering the anti-Slavic sentiment is the presence of long-suffering Rolan Baranov (Alexander Sokovikov) on Dani’s crew. Baranov was the Soviet cosmonaut who was (mistakenly) shot on the moon in season two, then defected to America while recovering in Jamestown. Ten years on, Baranov has an American wife (Jessica Galinas) and son who seem to do little else but complain. Enjoy the American Dream, comrade.
Baranov was one of several surprise callbacks to previous seasons. As the series slowly departs from alt-history to the realm of pure sci-fi, it’s closing the boundaries between its own legends and a pop-culture mythos familiar to the audience. Dani tells Sojourner crewmember Sylvie Kaplan (Heidi Sulzman) that the view from the cockpit looks like “an ant farm,” which she explains as “a little inside joke” (the ants that got loose on Jamestown in season one). Relaxing in the mess hall, the Phoenix crew quote their favorite lines from the Alien franchise. Nick Corrado (Daniel David Stewart), overdoing the class clown routine, starts acting out a cheesy bit from Love In The Sky, the movie made about Gordo and Tracy Stevens’ love affair and death on the moon. That’s when, of course, Danny walks in. Danny asks Nick to step outside to talk, and he proceeds to bully Nick, forcing him to quote some cringy lines. Ed shows up and warns Danny he has to lead by example. A very complicated father-son relationship is developing between them, one that might rise above the inevitable “I Had Sex with Your Wife” revelation on the Martian surface.
An entire episode bouncing among the three spaceships would have been fine with me, but we have to check in on stinky, boring Earth. Let’s see: Political stalemate is frustrating President Ellen Wilson (Jodi Balfour) in Washington, D.C., and Tracy and Gordo’s other son, the possibly more messed up Jimmy (David Chandler), is being exposed to conspiracy theories. On Larry’s advice, Ellen makes a surprise visit to Johnson Space Center to cheer on her old pals as they prepare to win the Mars race. The presidential motorcade is booed and protested by sign-waving groups by the side of the road, among whom is a listless Jimmy. He’s invited to post-protest beers by a hippie girl Sunny Hall (Taylor Dearden), and Jimmy goes. At an outdoor hang, Jimmy meets Charles (Zac Titus), who used to be a Moon Marine. Charles tells Jimmy he was trained by Tracy on the LSAM and was on the moon during the brief, bloody Soviet invasion of Jamestown—although he had been out guarding the mining site. Charles thinks the Jamestown incident, with the Russian attack and the near-nuclear-meltdown, was a coverup for something bigger, something to do with the discovery of Helium-3. Jimmy seems willing to listen. If Jimmy does gets mixed up in conspiracy theories and, say, infiltrates NASA for sabotage purposes, it will be a bitter irony that Tracy and Gordo’s son turned their heroism into terrorism.
Back to space. Kelly receives a furtive warning call from Mars-94, a Soviet cosmonaut informing her that his crew are planning some dirty trick to win the race. What? He has to sign off before he can say. You didn’t think the Russians were going to play fair, did you? The Soviet ship does a controlled burn to get it ahead of the pack, but only ends up wrecking its engines and requiring rescue. After a moment’s consideration, Ed decides that Phoenix has the room and resources to take on the five-person crew. Copilot Danny looks ready to mutiny but follows orders. The Phoenix crew falls in line, and Dani and Ed’s friendship feels patched up from Ed’s selfish and self-pitying behavior a couple of episodes back.
Dev loves to crowdsource big decisions to his employees and so when a show of hands indicates the majority favors letting NASA clean up the Soviet mess, they punt the ball to Margo Madison. Ed apologizes to Dani who gets the prize zinger: “No need to apologize, Ed. I work for the United States of America. You work for an asshole.”
Dani pulls up aside the busted Mars-94 to take in cosmonauts. Back at Mission Control, Aleida has a sudden realization from live data: The Soviet engines are overheating, and if the heat reaches the liquid hydrogen tanks, the explosion will take both ships out. There’s a 5.5-minute delay in transmission, so by the time they warn Dani, it could be too late. It is too late. As the last cosmonaut is traveling by tether to Sojourner, a leak springs in the side of the Soviet engine. It propels the craft forward and causes Mars-94 to start rolling over Sojourner, slap-crushing the last cosmonaut against the hull of his vessel and crushing the horrified Sylvie like a steamroller. The last thing we see is the severed tether lashing around and hitting Halladay in the visor as the screen goes black. Next week we’ll learn if Dani and her crew survived, and if the Soviet evacuees will cooperate, if they have to abandon Mars or jury-rig a way forward. If Dev gets his wish to be first, he may be on the Red Planet with red hands.
- The sea shanty played during Operation Jolly Roger is “Yo Ho (A Pirate’s Life For Me)” by composer George Bruns and lyricist Xavier Atencio, from Walt Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean (1966), the soundtrack album from the original Disneyland attraction.
- Sojourner crewmember Clarke Halladay is played by red-headed Scotsman Tony Curran, who was Vincent Van Gogh in 2010’s “Vincent and the Doctor,” the Doctor Who episode that I’m not crying you’re crying.
- In our timeline, the iPod was released October 23, 2001. Discontinued May of this year.
- Haven’t seen Margo’s Soviet counterpart Sergei (Piotr Adamczyk), the guy she was not sleeping with, yet definitely passing tech secrets to. But the dude’s job might have gone to Lenara Catiche (Vera Cherny), seen in the opening news montage.
- Nineties playlist included the smooth “Can I Kick It?” by A Tribe Called Quest.
- Report from the Larry Wilson Hairline Patrol: First Gentleman has implants.