Despite its elegant VFX and clever alt-history world-building, For All Mankind has always been a space-age soap opera that needs a good villain as much as sympathetic heroes. And anyone who follows commentary around the series knows that viewers don’t love that Danny (Casey W. Johnson) and Karen (Shantel VanSanten) featured so prominently this season. It’s sleazy, it’s cheesy, it’s contrived. Likewise, Ellen (Jodi Balfour) and Larry (Nate Corddry), their White House dreams about to be destroyed due to hiding in the closet, often strikes a daytime-TV note of camp hysteria. At least Margo’s (Wrenn Schmidt) tortured relationship to Sergei (Piotr Adamczyk) took unexpected turns. Showrunners Ronald D. Moore and Ben Nedivi never shy from tragedy and melodrama to ramp up stakes: There’s Shane’s death, Molly’s blindness, Ellen’s sexuality, Gordo’s mental instability, and Danielle’s (Krys Marshall) sacrifice at Jamestown, to name a few examples. Of course, one person’s soap opera is another one’s juicy storytelling.
As for villains, we’ve had homophobia, the Soviets, the fallibility of technology, and plain old deadly space. “I hate it with every fiber of my being,” mutters Jimmy (David Chandler) as he and Karen sit on the lawn gazing at the stars. For friends and families of astronauts, outer space is like a vast black monster that gobbles up their loved ones. This season, Danny—lusting after Karen, resenting Ed (Joel Kinnaman), getting hooked on pills—embodied both soap opera and villainy, and it’s not clear whether that was a wise choice. “The Sands Of Ares” (even the title sounds soapy) was fairly entertaining and well-paced but left me second-guessing writers Joe Menosky and Eric Phillips’s choices. We’re two episodes away from the finale, and it feels like they need to knock off Danny or drop a serious sci-fi bombshell, like a little-green-men bombshell.
Until then, we’re in rescue mode. In the aftermath of the Martian landslide—caused during a drilling operation in search of water because druggy Danny let the drill pressure get too high— Corrado (Daniel David Stewart) and Castillo (Ilza Ponto) are dead on the surface, their helmets cracked. A battered Poletov (Paweł Szajda) pulls himself out of the sand and establishes contact with Louisa Mueller (Anne Beyer). Louisa looks around at the swirling dust. “The MSAM, the Habs, the fuel factory. They’re all gone. Could we be the only survivors?” They’re not, in fact. They find their way to Hab 1, where Kuznetsov (Lev Gorn), Mayakovsky (Goran Ivanovski), and others are safe.
Over at Happy Valley, Danielle, Kelly (Cynthy Wu), Rolan (Alexander Sokovikov), and Will (Robert Bailey Jr) felt the seismic shock. They ID the source of the landslide—Helios’ drilling site—and get in their rovers to offer help at Helios base. When the engineers and technicians at NASA, Helios, and Roscosmos hear of the disaster on Earth, they suspend their rivalries and pool resources to find and save Ed and Danny.
On Mars—or, rather, 20 meters below its surface—Ed and Danny have no idea how far down they are or if the distress beacon is reaching anyone. Danny patches up Ed’s abdominal wound from shrapnel. Danny looks exhausted and perhaps chastened by the damage he caused, but he’s still resentful—and Ed’s clearly not thrilled to be trapped with this insubordinate lowlife in a sandy grave. They have perhaps seven hours left.
The survival narrative on Mars is gripping enough. It’s when we cut to Earth that things go wobbly. Ellen makes an unofficial, off-the-radar visit to her ex-lover, Pam (Meghan Leathers). Ellen confronts Pam with the breakup letter from season two and asks why she lied about the reason. Pam says she didn’t want to stand in Ellen’s way and, for a time, even hoped that Ellen might make things easier “for people like us.” I get the logic, but it’s weak, and when Ellen is called away by a Secret Service agent due to the Mars emergency, I wondered what exactly was the purpose of the scene? It didn’t advance the action, except maybe to erode Ellen’s resolve to stay in the closet. Pam and Ellen’s romantic arc was one of the most touching threads of the first two seasons, and I wanted more of Pam’s worldview.
Similarly, when we drop in on Jimmy, living with his sister-in-law, Amber (Madeline Bertani), and her son, the writing grows too sketchy. Karen arrives in Supportive Astronaut Wife mode (echoes of Marge Slayton from season one). Amber and Jimmy are watching TV coverage of the Mars disaster, not knowing if Danny is dead or alive. Jimmy bitterly calls the landslide “bullcrap,” and stomps upstairs, which raises the question: If Jimmy and his anti-NASA buddies disbelieve the news as regards the Soviet invasion of Jamestown and the Mars landslide, what exactly do they think is going on? Like the Pam and Ellen scene, it’s a missed opportunity for a character to take an active part in the story and tell us what they think or what they want. If Jimmy has a loony and baroque conspiracy, let’s hear it. If Pam has an inspiring vision for Ellen, I’m all ears. Otherwise, it’s just postponing story development.
We do get some character building in a scene between Margo and Dev in the Visitors Viewing Area at NASA as the teams crunch numbers in the other room. We learn of Dev’s surprising connection to NASA. His father (an immigrant) was an aerospace engineer at Kirkland. Thus he was implicated in the faulty LH2 valve on the Saturn V project, which led to the Apollo 23 launchpad explosion (season one, episode 6). In that same episode, Margo visited Wernher von Braun at his home to retrieve the report which concluded that Kirkland was responsible. After being let go from Kirkland, Dev’s father was a broken man, forced to drive a taxi. Now the son is facing the same possibility as he watches his Mars mission fall apart.
Dev bounces back from this fatalistic mood to offer an outside-the-box idea about how to reach Ed and Danny in the Hab before they suffocate. Instead of digging down with tools, which will take too long, Dev suggests they access a lava tube that runs underneath the Hab, travel right directly beneath the structure, blow a hole upwards to the hull of the Hab, and rescue Ed and Danny from below. Naturally, the idea of setting off an explosive under the Hab is risky as hell, but it’s their only chance.
Ed and Danny are running out of air—and Ed’s running out of patience for Danny’s sullen, defeatist attitude. Pill-popper Danny has withdrawal sweats and implies he won’t get into his spacesuit if the temp drops. “You’re getting into one of those suits if I have to stuff you in myself,” Ed growls. “With that hole in your belly?” Danny sneers. When Ed calls Danny a quitter, Danny taunts Ed with memories of Shane, who lived in fear of his domineering alpha father. When Ed was away on the moon, Danny says, “Shane came to life.” In rage, Ed punches Danny. A brief exchange of blows opens up Ed’s wound and Danny seals it, then goes back to jonesing for pills.
Rolan and Will, who have volunteered for the mission to rescue Ed and Danny, place the explosive to gain access to the Hab. Inside the Hab, it’s confession time for the men, who are panting for air. Ed expresses regret that his last conversation with Kelly was an argument at the end of which he dismissed her, and that he shouted at Shane before the boy was killed in the bicycle accident. Danny admits that he betrayed Shane by letting him take the blame for their schoolboy vandalism. Because Shane was grounded after one of Danny’s antics, Shane rode his bicycle defiantly to a basketball game and was hit by the car that left him braindead. Danny says that he’s responsible for Shane’s death. At that moment, Ed offers a tender, fatherly gesture: touching Danny’s check and saying it’s going to be alright. It’s a powerful, humane moment. Then comes the moment we’ve been dreading—ahem, waiting for—all season: Danny starts to tell Ed that he slept with Karen, when a perfectly timed explosion rocks the Hab and we go to blackout.
Amber is awoken by the phone ringing. Karen is still there; she answers the phone. “They made it,” she joyfully tells Amber, who weeps tears of joy. Jimmy looks numb but he hugs his sister-in-law. Soon he, too, is weeping. Perhaps Jimmy will extricate himself from whatever ill-defined conspiracy cult he has wandered into.
At Helios Hab 1, the rescued Ed awakes to find Danielle reading from her pocket Bible, Kelly sobbing over her lover Poletov’s body, and Danny glowering in the background. Dani informs Ed of the body count: Poletov, Castillo, Corrado. Kelly comes over to Ed and sobs on his chest. Poletov had survived the initial landslide but suffered a subdural hematoma that eventually killed him. Ed comforts Kelly. Danny looks surly and oozes out of the room in search of an unlocked pharmaceutical cabinet.
So soap-opera villain Danny lives to fight another day, even if we wish he’d snuff it in some final act of cowardice or heroism. But wait: The good ol’ reliable baddies from seasons one and two are back—the Commies. Kuznetsov (Lev Gorn)—who has been low-key lately—has a chat with Dr. Mayakovsky, shaken over his inability to save Poletov. They agree that Kelly’s pregnancy puts the whole crew at risk. Kelly! Preggers! They agree to tell Moscow first. Does the fetus belong to the Americans or the Soviets? Will Ed be first grandpa in space? We’re back to having sneaky Soviets as For All Mankind’s default villain, with Danny in second position.
- This week’s title is pretty straightforward. Ares = Mars, if you’re speaking Greek. Gotta wonder, though, if Ronald D. Moore is familiar with the Arthur C. Clarke’s 1951 novel, The Sands Of Mars, which involves a father-son subplot.
- Danny refers to them being buried under “regolith.” That’s a layer of loose, mixed deposits over solid rock: dust, broken rocks, etc., and can be found on Earth, the Moon, Mars, and some asteroids.
- For All Mankind never met an initialism or acronym it didn’t love. But this episode they were especially thick: GPR (Ground Penetrating Radar), UHF (ultra-high frequency) radio, MSAM (Martian Surface Access Module).
- A commercial break during the news features an ad for a fictional erectile dysfunction drug called Stelebris Plus. Another example of the FAMU accelerated timeline: Viagra wasn’t approved by the FDA until 1998.
- The white crystal Danny pours into Ed’s wound is probably blood clot powder, used in combat situations, such as microfibrillar collagen hemostat (MCH), a topical agent that attracts platelets and allows for the formation of a blood clot.
- Speaking of blood, we can assume that Mayakovsky discovered Kelly’s pregnancy due to the fact that she gave blood to save Poletov. If he knew they were having an affair (noisy trysting in the plant nursery), he might have tested for pregnancy.