‘For All Mankind’ Season Two Finale Takes One Giant Leap
This column contains full spoilers for Season Two of Apple TV+’s For All Mankind. If you want to know more about the season without being spoiled, read our pre-season review.
“I started jogging again.”
This sentence is uttered by astronaut Gordo Stevens (Michael Dornan) midway through the Season Two finale of For All Mankind, the Apple TV+ series depicting an alternate history where the Soviets landed on the moon first, triggering a never-ending space race. Gordo’s statement will likely not go down in the annals of quotable dramatic television with “I am the One Who Knocks!” or “That’s what the money is for!” It seems an utterly banal statement of fact, not nearly as colorful as those iconic declarations. But in the context of this FAM season, it feels just as potent, and serves the same purpose that all serialized television ideally should: It makes the viewer feel as if, to borrow another famous line, all the pieces matter.
Let’s back up. When FAM Season Two begins, Gordo is a sad, middle-aged man with a beer gut and a droopy mustache. He is technically still part of NASA, but hasn’t flown a mission since suffering a nervous breakdown during an extended stay on the moon years earlier, which was covered up by crew mates Dani Poole (Krys Marshall) and Ed Baldwin (Joel Kinnaman). He remains smitten with his ex-wife Tracy (Sarah Jones), who is also an astronaut in name only at this point in the story, spending most of her time appearing on The Tonight Show and otherwise trading on her celebrity status to promote the space program. Ed insists on putting Gordo back in the flight rotation in a desperate attempt to get his buddy out of his decade-long funk, and Gordo goes to extremes getting himself back into the physical and emotional shape necessary to return to the lunar surface. The space suit itself is terrifying to him after he nearly died the last time he wore one, so he spends a lot of time wearing approximations of it in his closet and swimming pool. And to ready himself for the mission and his attempt to woo back Tracy — whose upcoming stay on the moon will overlap his — he does, indeed, start jogging again.
This comeback story plays out at length over much of the season. At times, it’s a subplot that seems to be getting way too much attention, especially when FAM is juggling so many others. There are personal stories, like Ed and wife Karen (Shantel VanSanten) continuing to cope with the death of their son Shane during Ed’s last mission, as well as the desire of their adopted Vietnamese daughter Kelly (Cynthy Wu) to follow in Ed’s footsteps by attending the Naval Academy. There are professional ones, like Dani and NASA administrator Margo Madison (Wrenn Schmidt) navigating the complicated politics of a planned joint mission where an American Apollo spacecraft will dock with a Soviet Soyuz module in orbit. And there are mixes of the two, like astronaut-turned-administrator Ellen Wilson (Jodi Balfour) taking on greater responsibility within the agency even as she keeps her sexuality hidden.
And that’s only a fraction of what happens over the course of 10 extremely busy episodes. After a while, a viewer couldn’t be blamed for wondering if FAM, like Ed Baldwin, was perhaps entrusting Gordo with more responsibility than he deserved, especially since the show only truly found itself in its first season when it began focusing more on the women like Tracy, Dani, Ellen, and cocky pilot Molly Cobb (Sonya Walger). Dornan’s great, but why devote so much time to Gordo’s midlife crisis when FAM shines brightest with its heroines in focus?(*)
(*) In that way, the series has a lot in common with one of the underrated gems of recent years, AMC’s Halt and Catch Fire. Like FAM, Halt started out seeming like a mash-up of Peak TV drama cliches, then turned into something special when its female characters elbowed their male partners out of the spotlight.
But then… oh, my goodness, but then… Gordo’s jogging saves the world. Well, technically the moon. Dani’s handshake saves the world. But we’ll get there.
Serialized television is often much less planned out in advance than you might think. Vince Gilligan loved to write himself into corners on Breaking Bad and find an escape route later. When he ran the Battlestar Galactica reboot, Ronald D. Moore, who created For All Mankind with Ben Nedivi and Matt Wolpert, often liked to try ideas simply because they seemed cool, and only decided what they meant after the fact. (He was more successful at this at certain times than others.) While some of that improvisational spirit surely exists in the making of FAM, the final episodes of Season Two feel like Moore and company spent a lot of time very carefully setting up dominoes in an intricate pattern only they could see, then began knocking them over to reveal something more wonderful than we could have expected.
As the moon becomes the hottest spot in this expanded Cold War, all of the season’s stories begin to collide. A group of armed NASA astronauts kill one cosmonaut and wound another over a disputed area on the lunar surface, and when the surviving Russian wakes up inside NASA’s Jamestown base, he asks to defect — a classic spy-movie trope given new life by the locale. Dani’s Apollo-Soyuz mission (or, from the Soviet point of view, Soyuz-Apollo) launches around the same time that Ed pilots an armed space shuttle to safeguard a resupply mission through a Soviet blockade of the moon. And just when things couldn’t seem more tense or exciting, rifle-toting cosmonauts open fire on Jamestown and invade the base in search of the would-be defector.
At the moment of the breach, Gordo and Tracy happen to be reliving old times while sharing a cigarette in the galley. (Tracy’s struggle to get a nicotine fix on the moon is yet another idea that the middle chapters of the season seem to linger on too much, only to prove crucial in the end.) Rather than send the ex-spouses on some kind of Die Hard in Space mission, the finale gives them a much grander and more difficult adventure. It turns out that automatic weapons fire and moon bases are not a great mix, and Jamestown’s nuclear reactor is on the verge of a meltdown as a result of all the gunplay. There’s a way to prevent everyone on the moon from dying, but it requires equipment accessible only from the outside of the base. Gordo and Tracy are the only ones not pinned down by the Russians, and there aren’t any space suits in the galley. There seems to be no hope, until…
“I started jogging again,” Gordo announces, along with his belief that he can run the 25 meters from the nearest airlock to the required panel and flip the necessary switches before succumbing to the harsh lunar vacuum.
It is simultaneously an absurd idea and the perfect culmination of Gordo and Tracy’s story, not to mention Season Two as a whole. Every piece of it has been diligently set up over the previous chapters, including Gordo and Tracy’s rekindled feelings for each other, along with her realization that she’d become a lousy astronaut during all that time she spent on Johnny Carson’s couch. She of course insists on joining him — wrapped from head to toe in duct tape, the only vaguely protective material available (“I make this suit sing!” she boasts, and she really does!) — in the hopes that her presence will speed up the task and thus allow both of them to make it back alive. The season even began with Molly making a perilous moonwalk of her own, running through the middle of a solar storm to save a fallen colleague from a fatal dose of radiation, and gradually losing her vision as a result. It’s like all the pieces preparing us for this ridiculous, miraculous stunt were hiding in plain sight all season long.
Then again, a lot of the last two episodes feel like that. An encounter with her late husband’s bitter sister makes Dani realize that she’s still more or less a token diversity hire for NASA, and she pushes Ed for her own mission to command. As with Gordo’s fitness routine, the season lingers longer than seems advisable at times on Dani bonding with her Russian counterpart. But the violence on the moon threatens to start World War III down on earth, and Margo and Ellen want to cancel the planned Apollo/Soyuz handshake. Suddenly all those training scenes retroactively add a lot of value as the two mission commanders choose to defy their leaders on the ground, and dock anyway. In our reality, the handshake was a glorified photo op years after Neil Armstrong took one giant leap for mankind; in the FAM timeline, Dani’s insistence on finishing the mission, even as nuclear apocalypse draws near, winds up inspiring Ronald Reagan to instead make peace with the Russians. Everything accumulates, and in almost every case, the whole ultimately feels much greater than the sum of its parts.
The moonwalk sequence plays in slow motion, the better to milk suspense on a mission that we’ve been told over and over can only last about 15 seconds before Gordo and Tracy die. It eschews the show’s usual (and clearly very expensive) classic rock soundtrack in favor of a simple piano variation of the series’ ordinarily bombastic theme song, to allow us to focus on the impossibility of what these two are attempting, and the unlikelihood of their survival. Even as they move, you can see blood leaking out of their bodies wherever the duct tape’s adhesive has started to melt under the harsh lunar heat. There’s no flinching from how dangerous life in space is — and, by extension, how crazy the notion can seem of relocating our global conflicts to other celestial bodies. And while Gordo and Tracy make it back inside and close the airlock, this is the last we see of them until Dani and Ed’s missions conclude and peace has been declared back on Earth. The rest of the Jamestown crew finds them in the airlock, holding hands in a way that makes their bodies intertwine into a heart shape — an unsubtle yet entirely appropriate choice for a show this big in its ambitions and emotions — the life gone from their eyes. They saved everyone and proved they still had the right stuff, but of course they didn’t survive. That would be too much, no matter how appealing both characters are.
The season proper — all of which has taken place in an alternate version of 1983 — concludes with heroes’ funerals for the two Stevenses, and a tease that the Soviets are going to try to turn Margo into an asset for them within NASA. Then the ominous opening chords of Nirvana’s grunge anthem “Come As You Are” kick in, and the camera flies up from Margo’s position, through the clouds, out of the atmosphere altogether, and across the solar system until it races along the Martian surface and reveals an astronaut’s boot taking a not-so-small step, with a title card telling us it is now 1995.
It’s an even bigger and bolder time jump than the one that concluded the first season, and one that speaks to how confident FAM has become. When showrunners brag about how the “10-hour movie” model allows them to go deeper into characters and story arcs, it’s usually a lot of hot air trying to disguise a padded tale that exists at that length solely for financial reasons. Those shows feel sluggish in the middle in ways that aren’t earned by the end, where nearly every seeming misstep FAM takes over these 10 episodes instead turns out to be crucial to making the conclusion as powerful and fun as it is. It’s absolutely terrific television that climaxes with that moonwalk sequence, which I have watched an unhealthy number of times, and will likely continue to re-watch as we push through whatever our own timeline’s future has to offer.
Gordo started jogging again. Thanks, FAM.
Some other thoughts:
* The season’s one big miscalculation, which feels particularly head-scratching given how smartly everything else goes: During a period where Karen Baldwin is feeling distant from Ed, she sleeps with Gordo and Tracy’s young adult son Danny (Casey Johnson). The show seems unwilling to reckon with the implications of Karen having an affair with the best friend of the son she lost, nor with Danny doing the same with the best friend of the mother who was absent for so much of his childhood. It’s just… a thing that happens, perhaps because Karen is the show’s only main character who doesn’t work for NASA and thus stories can be harder to generate for her. (Though VanSanten, Kinnaman, and Wu all do very well in scenes addressing the fragile state of the reconfigured Baldwin clan.) And it winds up a distraction from the otherwise potent funeral sequence, since Danny and Karen are mourning the same people, but with this unresolved messiness attached.
* If you watch a lot of prestige drama, the plot twist with the Soviets working on Margo takes on added resonance as a role reversal for Wrenn Schmidt, who spent a season on The Americans as Philip and Elizabeth Jennings’ handler, who in the FAM reality would likely be helping to compromise a woman like Margo.
* Finally, the season was a mixed bag in terms of aging up the actors from how they looked when the story began in 1969, with Kinnaman and VanSanten in particular looking too young. With Season Three apparently starting off a quarter-century after the events of the series premiere, it’ll be interesting to see if any roles are recast, and also how many characters are still alive and active by 1995. Gordo and Tracy are already big losses, and Molly’s health seems likely to deteriorate rapidly over the intervening years. Meanwhile, you can probably place money on at least one, if not all, of Kelly, Danny, and young NASA engineer Aleida (Coral Peña) — who has a poignant season payoff of her own, as she gets to be the one to give Dani the official go-ahead to dock with Soyuz — being part of any Mars mission.