Bitter rivalry between the United States and the U.S.S.R. is the original sin of For All Mankind. It drives the series’ alt-history space race (national shame at the Soviets getting to the Moon first), prompting technological advances decades ahead of our timeline, allowing the decrepit, corrupt Soviet Union to sidestep implosion in 1991. I say “original sin” because, in the science-fiction utopia that For All Mankind (presumably) aims at, earthly politics must be transcended if space exploration is to have a future.
To judge by “Seven Minutes Of Terror,” we are far from utopia.
Things start out civilized enough, with a joint American-Russian funeral service for the casualties of last episode’s collision between Sojourner One and Mars-94. Kaplan, Halladay, and a cosmonaut are being given a burial in space. Danielle (Krys Marshall) quotes Dr. Martin Luther King Jr: “There is democracy in death,” while Grigory Kuznetsov (Lev Gorn) speaks a touching short eulogy for his comrades. The dead, lashed together like a three-headed mummy, spirals into the inky void. That’s pretty much the last dignified collaboration between the Americans and Soviets, as paranoia spreads, and the final scene devolves into satirical slapstick, with Danielle pushing Kuznetsov off the gangplank to be first on the surface of Mars.
Not all space grudges are over capitalism versus communism. Thanks to software wiz Nick (Daniel David Stewart), Ed (Joel Kinnaman) regains control of Phoenix from Dev (Edi Gathegi). Nick rebooted the ship software and was able to delete the overwrite code that gave Helios mission control remote command of the ship. Ed sends a message to Dev that the Helios CEO dishonored the ship and crew and Ed intends to “wash that stain clean.” They’ll continue to Mars, but on Ed’s terms. As we’ll see, that means for better or worse.
Shaken by Dev’s reptilian megalomania from last episode, Karen (Shantel VanSanten) submits her resignation letter, which Dev refuses to accept. She points to the fact that her daughter Kelly (Cynthy Wu) might have died trying to save the Soviets and that three people did lose their lives. Dev rejects the notion that he’s responsible for the Soviets burning out their engines or for forcing the superpowers to move their launch window up to 1994. Karen walks anyway, daring Dev to sue her.
Aboard Phoenix, more dangerous rifts are forming: Danny (Casey W. Johnson) is still obsessing over Karen, watching enviously as Ed opens a video letter from his ex-wife, in which she tells Ed that she quit Helios and how proud she is of his earlier decision to rescue the Russians. Later, Danny gets the ship system password from Nick and hacks into Ed’s d-mail, spying on his exchanges with Karen. It’s all very seedy and sad, and we’ll see if or how Danny finds something he can use against Ed or Karen.
For her part, Karen seems relieved to be free of Helios as she visits Wayne (Lenny Jacobson) at his plush, ranch-style home with Molly (unseen this week). Molly, in the aftermath of getting fired from NASA, has taken up painting. Karen and Wayne get stoned on something Wayne fries up called “Goo Balls” and discuss their future. Karen hates space but loves business and building from the ground up.
The other Earth-based narrative is at NASA, with the walls closing in around Margo, who had passed tech secrets back and forth with Sergei for a decade. Tragedy makes strange bedfellows and now that cosmonauts have joined Dani’s crew aboard Sojourner, the Soviet space commission Roscosmos sends its flunky bureaucrat Lenara Catiche (Vera Cherny) to the Johnson Space Center to work alongside Margo for the Mars landing. Margo doesn’t trust the intimidating Lenara, who makes it clear behind closed doors that the Soviets intend to continue pressuring her for information.
Lenara wants access to Sojourner equipment so the Soviet cosmonauts can continue their mission once they’ve landed on Mars. Seems the Russians don’t care that America just saved their butts; they want to press their advantage, with their kompromat over Margo, to take advantage of U.S. tech. Margo quietly seethes, and counters that she’ll only work with Sergei: get him to Houston in two weeks or no deal.
Comparing the photos of Mars-94 taken (pre-collision) by Sylvie, Aleida notes shocking similarities between the Soviet nuclear-thermal engines and the ones she designed for NASA. “Once is happenstance. Twice is coincidence. Three times is enemy action,” Aleida mutters to herself as she compares measurements. “We should’ve known the second we could refuel,” Aleida later tells Margo. “Their LH2 drain coupling mated exactly with our in situ propellant hose. The odds of that being a coincidence are insane.” Margo says she can’t throw a monkey wrench into the Soviet-U.S. collaboration; after landing she’ll notify the Justice Department.
When Sergei (Piotr Adamczyk) finally shows up at NASA, he looks terrible. He’s bald, coughing, looks jaundiced. After years in KGB prison, being tortured for passing on more tech secrets than he was instructed to, Sergei is a broken man. Adamczyk does lovely work in the scene, and Schmidt matches him with a mixture of pain and disgust as she balances her feelings of outrage and pity for the fellow. Margo makes it clear that she intends to get Sergei and his family out of the Soviet Union, and somehow to protect them both from prosecution.
On Phoenix, Ed knocks on Danny’s door—rudely interrupting the kid’s casual perusal of Ed’s d-mail—inviting him to a game of cards. What follows in the captain’s quarters is a rather icky game of emotional cat-and-mouse as Danny pries into Ed and Karen’s divorce, a subject Ed would clearly rather avoid. Danny asks if Ed was unfaithful, and he replies of course not. Danny, playing ignorant, asks if Karen did, and then pretends shock when he sees Ed’s grim silence. Danny tries to turn Ed against Karen by implying she sullied their vows, but Ed takes the high road. “Forgiveness is a long, hard road, but at the end is grace.” Danny asks if Ed found out who it was, what he’d do. “There would be nothing left of him but a greasy spot on the carpet,” he growls with a sneer. So much for Ed’s idea of forgiveness and grace.
Not all of the U.S./U.S.S.R. interactions are fraught with distrust. Kelly Baldwin and Alexei Poletov (or, as I like to call him, Comrade Dreamboat) are doing their part to smooth out international relations. Attraction between them is growing (despite Poletov’s ham-fisted attempt to cram Marxist propaganda into small talk). Dani announces that the storm on Mars’ surface will delay Phoenix’s landing long enough for Sojourner to catch up with them in Mars orbit. “Me hearties,” Dani says in her best pirate voice, “I think we’re still in this race.” Kelly, having just been told by Poletov that’s she’s beautiful, pulls him aside for a furtive smooch. Since I refuse to believe level-headed Kelly can be turned, I’m expecting Poletov to be a future American asset.
Okay, enough kissyface stuff. Where’s the Mars landing already? The last nine so minutes of the episode are where the rubber hits the road. Phoenix command deck sees the dust storm lifting, so Ed and Danny go in, piloting Popeye, a small boxy probe with great thrusting and maneuvering capabilities. Down they go, through cloudy, pink clouds.
In Sojourner, Dani feels cautious about visibility from the storm, opting to complete another orbit around Mars before trying a descent, effectively handing the win to Ed and Phoenix. As the Go/No Go window closes, with seconds to spare, Dani sees visibility improving and makes the call: “Button up, people. We’re going straight in.” At NASA (several minutes later), they hear Dani’s command. Her husband, Corey (Sean Patrick Thomas), and stepson, Isaiah (Justice), watch from the Visitors Viewing Area. “She’s got this,” Corey murmurs.
Ed and Danny lose GPS in their descent to Mars. Phoenix control advises Ed to abort mission. Ed has a flashback to Apollo 10, when he ended the mission and missed the chance to be first man on the Moon with copilot Gordo. Popeye loses altitude information; they won’t know how close they are to the ground, the dust is too thick. Ed switches to manual, but it’s still going to be a blind judgment call: Will they touch down safely or crash into the side of a canyon? Mountains of Mars come zooming at them through the window. Ed looks over at Danny and makes the agonizing choice. Ed cancels a historic landing, again.
As Ed and Danny zoom back to Phoenix, Sojourner makes a bumpy, blind, but ultimately safe landing on Mars. Dani radios back, “Houston. Happy Valley Base. Sojourner has safely landed eight human beings on Mars.” Ed and Danny look miserable. Dev is blank but furious. Karen knows how terrible Ed must feel. Everyone at NASA erupts in cheers. Margo whispers to Sergei that she’ll get him out of Russia. It’s a jubilant time, and one wishes that Ed could welcome the sheer human success of Dani’s landing. But Ed’s got a lot more exploring—inside—to do.
The final tableau reminds us of For All Mankind’s original sin, its hamartia (tragic character flaw). As Dani prepares to step onto the Martian surface, Kuznetsov is already suited up and in the airlock. She reminds him of the deal: She gets to be first. He says he doesn’t remember any deal and exits. Dani comes raging after: “If you don’t step your commie ass back from that hatch, I’m gonna come over and smack you down!” As the world watches, Kuznetsov walks the EVA ramp toward the surface, is overtaken and jostled by Dani, and the two tumble awkwardly onto the Red Planet. One small spill for man, one giant wipeout for mankind.
- The episode title is a legit NASA term: the amount of time it takes to get from the top of Mars’s atmosphere to the surface through EDL (Entry, Descent, and Landing). Not to be confused with “Seven Minutes In Heaven,” which is what Kelly and Poletov are up to.
- Last week’s 5.5-minute lapse in communication between the vessels and Earth (14 or more minutes once you’re actually on Mars) was only partially observed in the previous episode. This week, the science advisor stepped up and insisted on consistency.
- Explaining how he learned English, Poletov quotes the opening verse of N.W.A.’s “Express Yourself” from 1989’s Straight Outta Compton.
- Wayne mentions that Monet painted while nearly blind. Other great artists who worked through partial blindness include Rembrandt, O’Keeffe, and John Tenniel.
- The Moscow prison where Sergei was sent after London—Lefortovo—was an infamous KGB incarceration and interrogation site. One notable inmate was writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.
- Recipe for Wayne and Molly’s Goo Balls (reverse engineered from freeze frame): 12 oz halved green olives (Cerignola or Gordal), 1/4 cup butter, 2 tbsp powdered marijuana, 2 minced garlic cloves, sprinkle of red pepper flakes, sauté slowly on low heat for one hour. Karen later calls it dessert, but don’t listen to her; she’s stoned out of her gourd.
- The end-credit music is Screeching Weasel’s 1991 punk cover of “I Can See Clearly Now.”