For All Mankind - Season 2
A couple of years ago, I talked about one of Apple TV+’s first breakthrough hits, For All Mankind. One season in, I was thoroughly intrigued by its creative take on the Space Race and the questions it asked on what would’ve happened if the Soviets successfully landed the first man on the Moon instead of America. Besides this already intriguing premise, I thought it was off to a good start with nicely laid out characters, some compelling storytelling, and a continued sense of mystery and intrigue as the pressures of the Cold War started to build up.
One season later, not only had the excitement that came with the premise steadily grown, but in so doing, it allowed the show to grow into something far more robust thanks to that.
Whereas the first season took place in the late 60s, early 70s, this one hopped forth to 1983. The Cold War continued to escalate on Earth, to a point where the USA had to put up with a rise in civil attacks on the USA from Panama, plus continued combat methods by the Soviets. However, while that went on, NASA’s dedication to space travel and their determination to ready the fellow Americans for their journey beyond the stars remained firm. On the Moon, the Jamestown base steadily grew, too, becoming something equivalent of a tiny extended branch of NASA. But while that went on, the astronauts on the Moon discovered hints of Russian intel and devices sneaking closer to their Moonbase, starting on Site 357 Bravo. Because of the escalations in war activities back on Earth and the accompanying cosmonauts, also on the Moon, the NASA personnel took drastic measures to ensure their safety and progress in their missions to space. This led to their, and President Reagan’s, controversial decision to arm the astronauts with rifles to use against invading cosmonauts who continued to infiltrate their base. Once this settled into place, the effects and stakes of the Cold War started to spill onto the Lunar surface next.
That’s the general story I feel makes up Season 2 from a pseudo-historical point of view. And I think that this has become, I believe, one of the strengths of this season even compared to last season. When the show first began, the most significant alternate events that reshaped the nation’s history were the landing of the first Cosmonaut, not the first Astronaut, on the Moon, and the induction of women into the Space Race. Outside of those two, there wasn’t much else I can recall that continued to explore all the many different things that went on in this universe, especially those that concerned the Cold War. This season, however, the effects and consequences of the Cold War, different as the outcome became, became more prevalent than ever, creeping up even onto the Americans on American soil or the Moon, and some lives were even lost in what escalated into personal wars and vendettas held against the Soviets.
But alternate history and different outcomes are one thing. So how do the characters in the show hold up?
Well, I’m happy to report that, also like last season, they still held the show together. Many of these characters returned from last season, and they had arcs that added some meat to their adventures in this show. Meanwhile, it had the courtesy of introducing a few new characters in the mix, and they benefited from some engaging arcs of their own. And if that wasn’t enough, this season still excelled at juggling all the characters in this show while giving them all the narrative progress they deserved and ensuring that no one outshone the other.
Let’s start with the Baldwin family. Ed got busy training recruits for NASA, including a young man named Gary Piscotty, a redhead, and Ed had to try to teach him the ways despite Ed not being a fan of redheads. And this got me thinking…is it just me, or had Ed Baldwin become a little cockier and more arrogant this season than he was last time? Meanwhile, his wife, Karen, turned out to have bought and operated the Outpost Tavern Bar for over ten years. In the meantime, they also adopted a daughter, a young Vietnamese teenage girl named Kelly. Since Kelly first appeared, she was looking for colleges to apply for, but as she did so and wrote her introductory pieces as to who she was, this conjured an inner urge to dig deep and discover her real identity. Where did she come from? What family was she born to? What was she to the Baldwins, even?
However, things got a little more complicated on the Stevens family’s side of the story. Ever since his panic attack on the Moon last season, Gordo continued to slip into states of severe depression and unresponsiveness, and it started to take a toll on his wife, Tracy. She decided to leave him and settle for a millionaire she met named Sam. However, things got more unclear and complicated when Tracy still chose to keep her Stevens name despite her new re-engagement. It all took a toll on Gordon and even slightly on their children, particularly Danny, who returned home from serving in the Military. And, ever since the death of Shane last season, he and Karen started to grow even closer. Too close, in fact, for one of their fun nights out resulted in the two of them having sex together, resulting in a potential rift among the Baldwins.
Margo, the only woman in the NASA operating room from last season, became the chief head of the NASA boarding room and navigated her way around the tosses and turns within NASA, especially during the hurdles of the Cold War and with the help of Air Force General Nelson Bradford. Of course, her intertwinements with a Soviet spy NASA held captive, named Sergei, and the intel she gathered from him about the Soviets’ ongoing strategies kicked things up a notch in testing Margo’s abilities on trust and her reliability in the eyes of the NASA board.
This leads us to the one character whose experience and outcome felt vague and yet compelling at once: Margo’s protegee, Aleida Rosales. Despite getting her shot at NASA, she was not ready for all the harassment and humiliations that came with it, partially because she was an illegal Mexican immigrant. So, she quit all the jobs she ever worked in the past ten years that came with all that in store, especially at NASA and McDonald’s, until she settled in a mobile RV. Let’s say she did eventually find a way, thanks to Margo’s influence, to lurk back into NASA and pursue what she always dreamed of doing there. But once she came face to face with the source of such belittling as those she tried to avoid, her ways of confronting them put her in uncertain waters.
Last seen promoted as Commander of the Jamestown base, Ellen Wilson continued to uphold her position in the NASA headquarters and keep it all together, just like Margo. But in her case, she was a lesbian, and because homosexuality was still treated as utter taboo back in the 1980s, she had to prove her worth while still doing everything she could’ve done to keep her sexuality hidden. She only had her husband (by public preferences) Larry to lean on for help, especially with her real lover, Pam Horton, who had since become an author, particularly of poems. However, upholding the secrecy of their sexuality aside, their different goals in life started to split them apart, as Pam became more uncertain over Ellen’s absolute devotion to her, which, in and of itself, stemmed from Ellen’s need to prove herself to her NASA subordinates. Ellen’s work ethic continually got her promoted within the NASA rankings as a result. It even got to a point where she started making telephone conferences with President Ronald Reagan himself.
Molly Cobb continued her job as a continuing astronaut of the Apollo missions. But on one of her missions, she made a bold but extremely risky attempt to save one of her comrades, Wubbo Ockels, who was stuck in the middle of a massive solar storm that swept across the galaxy, the Earth, and the Moon. Because of this, Molly ended up risking getting a possible level of radiation in her system. At first, she didn’t experience anything wrong and just continued doing what she did best in her smart-alecky demeanor, even down to being promoted as head of the astronauts by Ed. Then, however, Molly started having problems with seeing, so after getting her eyes checked by one of the NASA doctors, it turned out she was experiencing early symptoms of Glaucoma. Because of the solar radiation, this meant she would eventually have become blind soon. It led her into a state of pure disbelief, and she became confident in doing anything possible to keep her eyesight unhinged and unchanged, even if her husband, Wayne, was uncomfortable with her intentions with her vision and ways of fixing it.
Danielle Poole still maintained her position as a chief astronaut for NASA, but she started experiencing things a little differently. Despite breaking her arms last season, even if it was due to her helping Ed and Gordo, she was pressured into believing that these methods of action may have been racially motivated. So, in preparing for her next mission together with Ed and Gordo, she confronted Ed and asked him about the possibility of being promoted to Commander of the newest NASA mission.
While the layouts of the characters and what they went through this season may be hard to swallow on the first reading, I didn’t mind it because the characters still felt like one of the most substantial parts of the show. Once we, the viewers, ventured into unfamiliar territory with its approach to the Space Race’s historical deviations, it would not have been interesting if the characters were not engaging enough to keep us invested throughout the journey. And this show knew how to keep the characters engaging to keep us engaged. The way the characters grew and interacted stemmed from either new adventures or ripple effects from last season’s events.
The most interesting characters were the Stevens family, particularly Gordo and Tracy. If you’ve seen the first season, Gordo was slightly rambunctious until he had his panic attacks on the Moon, which started to take a toll both on him and his wife, as was demonstrated by her leaving him for Sam. Gordo found it hard to readjust himself onto Earth ever since his misfortune on the Moon, and he felt like he had to return to the Moon even if he could have experienced the same problems all over again. And Tracy said that she wanted to announce her engagement with Sam on live television in the hopes of strengthening her public image, something that both Ed and Gordo thought was ridiculous. But the issue went deeper when Tracy was invited back to NASA, to which she retorted over the idea of being seen as the ‘Astro-wife’ all over again. She felt like she went for as long as she tried to with Gordo when he was in a mental state. Though messy, Tracy and Gordo both tried to make sense of the whole situation, and all it took to (hopefully) salvage things for them was a little reunion back on the Moon.
Now, the Baldwins’ story throughout Season 2 didn’t feel as super exciting or engaging as last season. Ed did his job of training new astronauts on top of operating the next mission at a last-minute request. Karen demonstrated her bartender expertise before selling the tavern off to Sam by the end of the season...on top of her accidental sexual escapades with Danny, which I found uncomfortable when you realize that this is a mother and her son Shane’s best friend getting acquainted. The only thing outside of those that genuinely kept them interesting was how much they still reeled in the death of Shane after he was killed in a car accident. Not only was Kelly, their adopted daughter, aware of this, but this connection and dynamic between them all led to this exchange:
Kelly: So, I was your Band-Aid?
Karen: What? No. You were not a Band-Aid, Kelly. Honey, you were our heart transplant.
And you know what? Karen was not far off. If it wasn’t for Kelly, their newly adopted daughter, the Baldwins’ story might have become staler than last season. She provided the most heart into the Baldwins’ side of the story, and she even became the voice of reason when it looked like, just like the Stevens, Ed and Karen’s marriage was also about to be on the rocks, unlikely as it seemed.
How do I know this? Because you know things had gotten out of hand with the Baldwins when their heated arguments were so volatile and their relationship so fractured that at one point, Kelly, their adopted daughter, would have asked them if a divorce was inevitable.
And on her own, Kelly had some fascinating moments about her, too. At first, she started as just your everyday teenager looking for the right school, before settling to the Naval Academy in Annapolis, just like Ed and even Shane before her. However, Karen and especially Ed were against the idea, but only because it brought back memories of Shane. However, once that storm had passed, Kelly still decided to go ahead and apply until she thought about who she was. It kickstarted a personal odyssey of her own, where she did some research on her originating family, her birth records, and even what happened with her back in Vietnam, culminating in the ultimate discovery of her real identity before the Baldwins took her in. Ever since I saw Kelly in Season 2, I have always wondered how she was ever adopted and how she ever came to be part of the family. So, I appreciated how the second season cut to the chase and demonstrated what happened throughout its last half to such satisfactory results. Kelly, in this season, felt like the story of identity.
But if that’s so, then I must say that Aleida’s story this season felt like the story of resilience. She always felt like she was unfit to be in a position where there was inevitable harassment at every corner in whichever job she worked. And I reckon part of that came from how her father worked in NASA as a janitor and potentially felt mistreated. But, through encouragement from Margo and her determination to prove her worth, she demonstrated the possibilities to be had once she braved her way through any messy situation and made it through.
Even Margo and her role in the season took a life of its own when she talked more with Sergei. Of course, she knew that he was not to be trusted. Still, the idea that Sergei, a Soviet spy, was able to confide in her about the more suspicious goings-on in the Soviet Union was bound to raise some interesting questions about where their allegiance lay, whether between them or for their respective countries. The idea that this all occurred amid the now-flaming Cold War only added fuel to the fire of intrigue.
The other part of this season that I thought felt so strong, besides the characters and their acting, was the creative sociopolitical circumstances that spewed about from the possibilities of its alternate universe. Ever since the first man on the Moon was a Cosmonaut, it invited multiple outcomes worth exploring in this universe, but primarily those of greater importance that would’ve done an excellent service to the story. And being that the Cold War was still ongoing in this universe in 1983, the situations all felt like they could’ve happened in our world but were so different in the outcomes that they helped give the show its intrigue and unpredictable edge. All kinds of unpleasant—and pleasant—scenarios cropped up between the USA and the Soviet Union, including the USA’s need to be one step ahead of the curb and consider making peaceful amends with the Soviets. President Reagan shook things up with such a demand when he proposed that the USA and the Soviets engage themselves with a formal handshake between the commanding Astronaut and the commanding Cosmonaut, an idea that people like Margo thought was absurd. But it also introduced many other outcomes that would’ve worked against the favor of the USA and the Soviet Union, such as when a Soviet plane, flying over the North Pacific, shot a missile at a passenger airline as it flew toward Korea. It angered the USA since they proposed a formal agreement for the Soviets, only for them to slap it away.
And like I said, the severity of such situations started to leak onto the Moon as well, beginning with the precautionary method of arming the astronauts with weapons to defend themselves from the incoming Cosmonauts once they invaded Base 357 Bravo. However, when the astronauts, armed with rifles, found the cosmonauts and shot them down, one was left in a pretty gruesome situation where the bullet wound ignited a chemical reaction that left the man burning to a crisp inside in his suit. And to make things even worse, the Cosmonauts were not even attempting to intrude against the American astronauts; as the astronauts discovered, they tried to learn English so they would’ve reached out to the astronauts in peace. In other words, the shots, wounds, and murders the astronauts inflicted on the cosmonauts were all accidental, but it still put the USA in hot water as much as the missile put the Soviet Union in hot water. When the rest of the Cosmonauts came on the Moon, they were not happy with the treatment the first two cosmonauts received from the astronauts and retaliated as such. Only then did the cosmonauts intrude, this time onto the Jamestown facility, setting up the stakes for the season finale.
In the middle of this conflict, the USA launched the Sea Dragon, a vessel that contained mounds of plutonium, from the middle of the Pacific Ocean for the astronauts to use on the Moon. But the strategy that the USA took to deliver it and launch it the way they managed to wasn’t easy. First, they had to occupy a good section of Panama to provide more traction for the shipment of the cargo and vessel, and the Panamanians felt turned off by this forceful intervention and attacked America for it until finally, they swore their allegiance to the Soviet Union in response to this.
And the conflict didn’t stop just at the Panamanian site. It was later revealed that the plutonium the Sea Dragon carried to sustain the Jamestown base could also have been used for more nuclear measures on the Moon, in and of itself a controversial tactic.
There were plenty of compelling episodes this season, some of them feeling like more notable standouts than last season, even. They include:
Best-Laid Plans: This episode was where the Apollo-Soyuz mission, proposed by President Ronald Reagan, was further focused on. It started by having three of the most elite astronauts from both sides attend each other’s country to achieve more mutual understanding between the two nations. But whereas the three Cosmonauts came into America with the most welcome and legitimate camaraderie developing between them, the three Astronauts went into the Soviet Union greeted by tightened security, and, as the following episode showed, were instead held captive as war prisoners.
And Here’s To You / Triage / The Grey: These last three episodes of the season heightened every possible conflict that could have brewed up by this point, from the Baldwins to the Stevens, to the main attraction, which was the showdown between the Astronauts and the Cosmonauts on the Moon. The tensions continued to rise, the race was on, the show was firing on all cylinders, and it ended with pretty drastic changes along the way, including one that I’ll dive into very shortly. They were exciting and a fabulous way to test the characters’ and even the nations’ strength and resilience.
Though not as bombastic as the episodes I mentioned, the episode that stood out to me the most was Rules of Engagement. Much like Best-Laid Plans, it introduced the significant dilemmas that would have played a more progressive part down the road, with the proposition to train the Astronauts and Marines with weapons for self-defense and the reintroduction of Aleida as Margo approached her in her RV. But the whole subplot with the Baldwins made this episode for me. Kelly rediscovered the toys that Shane used to have when he was alive, and that discovery, plus her decision to enroll in Navy school, reopened scarring memories for Karen and Ed, who was flat-out against the idea of losing Kelly by sending her off somewhere where her life could’ve been in jeopardy. It led to a meltdown that felt so heated, scathing, and insane that you have to see it for yourself as long as you know what’s coming. This episode was a floodgate of compelling quests throughout Season 2 that started to leak through here and hold our attention for the rest of the season. It was one of the better episodes I’ve yet seen of For All Mankind, period.
But what makes the characters this season so appealing? I might’ve already mentioned this last season, but they were all held aloft by the acting. These people knew how to convey their characters with such an amount of depth, complexity, and tenderness, you’re just left in intrinsic awe over them as you watch them do their thing. Coral Peña injected a reasonable amount of sarcasm and frustration into Aleida, Sonya Walger still shone in the sassy attitude she exalted in through Molly, Cynthy Wu made a splash with the amount of respectability and humanity she gave Kelly Baldwin, Wrenn Schmidt thrived on the dignity and conviction she expressed through Margo, Michael Dorman nailed the downheartedness and inner struggles that Gordo felt after his return home, Sarah Jones breezed her way through as Tracy thanks to her showy narcissism that soon melted into innermost concern for Gordo, and Joel Kinnaman played Ed with the classic modesty, but also, as I said, with a twinge of cockiness.
This leads me to discuss what it was about Rules of Engagement that left such an impression on me, and it all may have come from the acting, especially by Joel Kinnaman. Watching Ed react with 100% primal fury against Kelly before calming down and breaking down over losing Shane was a powerhouse of acting. Now, some people may find that manipulative, but it still would’ve left you feeling a myriad of different emotions as you wrap your head around what had just happened in the past ten minutes.
One other thing about the show I forgot to mention was the soundtrack. Whether they came from last season or this one, the songs helped lend the show a vibrant undercurrent that correlated to the time periods in which the show was set, the characters, and their dilemmas. It was even eclectic in its artists, including Frank Sinatra, Elvis, David Bowie, and Huey Lewis. It felt so widespread, yet the songs playing all did an excellent job of adding a more cultural flavoring to everything this show had to offer.
However, I had one nitpick with Season 2. Surprisingly, it stemmed from Danielle and her motivations to get herself promoted after enduring what she came to believe derived from racial relations. Her husband, Clayton, had committed suicide, so she came to pay her respects. But she also endured some pretty callous remarks about Danielle’s NASA comrades and how she believed they did what they did because they were white. Sheesh, and here I thought Gordo’s comments to Clayton about savagery last season were extreme! So, then, as Ed prepared to leave his office behind for his next mission, Danielle barged in and demanded to him that she be promoted as the Commander of the forthcoming Apollo mission, especially since there weren’t many black astronauts before. Then, Ed saw an opportunity with this demand: he thought that by promoting Danielle as the first Afro-American Commander of a space mission, they would’ve given the nation more hope in their space missions. Now, on the one hand, this tied back to what NASA started with early last season, with the intent to reach out to as many people as they can reach regardless of gender or race, to further their space explorations, significantly to gain a sociopolitical advantage over the Soviet Union. The same thing with Danielle and the position she requested. I also noticed how many people celebrated this exploration with Danielle this season, whether for Afro-American recognition or to endorse her character development, so I can see where they’re coming from. But it felt out of place because last season, when the show took place in the late-60s, early 70s, racial issues were still a big topic, so anything addressing their race during then would’ve felt appropriate. But here, this was 1983, and racial issues may not have been as heated, I don’t think, as they were before then. In a way, Danielle’s subplot this season felt more like Aleida’s subplot last season, where it felt like a story of current-day issues addressed in a period show, so that just felt a bit out of place to me. Not by a lot, but just enough to stick out.
Ultimately, of course, once the season wrapped up, it opened doors to all-new exciting adventures to come. It included one where it seemed like Margo and Sergei were about to grow closer as friends, only for us to discover that he was still in cahoots with the Soviets and legitimately hoped that Margo would’ve joined them. Now that I didn’t see coming. Who knows if Margo would’ve remained defiant to the end or if she would’ve given in to his manipulation? But the last shot of the season got me pumped like never before. First, the camera flew away from the Earth and moved toward the Moon. But then the camera kept on moving until finally, it settled on the surface of Mars. Next, an astronaut stepped onto its surface, and a subtitle flashed saying this occurred in 1995. This was a super exciting and epic endeavor for the show, but seeing that this will be the focus of Season 3, I am now very anxious to know where the show will go with this setup until it arrives.
Until then, this show came back feeling more experienced than ever and displayed it all as progressively and as effectively as a budding chess champion. The characters were more engaging, the story was exciting, the creative liberties with the 80s were solid, the sociopolitical dilemmas were fascinating, and the action, both on Earth and the Moon, kept me hooked. It further established its unique edge in showing an alternate reality where our limits in human potential were not only explored but continually pushed. We all strive to prove ourselves as the absolute best with just a little dedication and hard work, and this show lays it all out for us, just like it did last season. And, there’s even a strong likelihood that because of the scope of the time periods For All Mankind plans to cover season by season, it may also chronicle the evolution of the Space Race – the one that could’ve been – with a generational edge along the lines of The Godfather. So that also makes it feel unique even among sci-fi space epics.
I really liked the first season, I loved the second season, and I freakin’ can’t wait for the third season!
A strong A-
Just after writing this review, I noticed that plenty of people was appalled by the romantic, so-called, subplot between Karen and Danny and that the idea of them having sex was repugnant and dragged down the story. Well, two things. First of all, yes, I, too, find it uncomfortable, but I’m a little more open-minded to the consequences it may provoke, depending on who learned their lesson first. Danny started the kiss, and Karen went along with it, up to their sexual routine, until she realized the error of her ways and nipped it in the bud before things got too heated. Yes, it left her and Ed’s relationship shaken a little, but she still learned her lesson, so what’s the big deal? Second, at the time I’m writing this, I braved my way through Nabokov’s Lolita. Twice. By that point, nothing of this particular nature can disturb me now.
Watching Kelly dig through her adoption records and birth certificates reminded me, did the Vietnam War still ever happen in this universe? I am curious about this because, in our universe, after the Cold War, the Vietnam War was one of the most controversial and talked-about wars in American history. But here, it seemed like the Cold War was still the supreme war. The travesties that occurred this season even spurred fears among NASA that they would’ve triggered a potential World War III.