It was inevitable that the second season finale of For All Mankind would end in tragedy, because that’s just how this show rolls. The question was how big of a tragedy would it be? Would the entire Jamestown base with Gordo and Tracy be lost to a shooting battle on the moon? Would the decision to launch the nuclear-armed Seadragon capsule lead to the start of open hostilities in space AND on earth? Would something go awry with the “handshake in space” planned between the Apollo and Soyuz capsules? But, perhaps most urgently, why were all of these things happening at the same time?
This show has been very careful about its pacing in a way that builds good interpersonal stories against the background of the bigger space stories. For most of the season, the smaller dramas have been at the forefront of the show with the bigger pieces playing out alongside them. The problem is that this has led to overstuffed finale episodes where multiple disasters are taking place simultaneously in space. The first season did have an explanation for why multiple missions were in play at the same time; one was a rescue and one was a rescue FOR the rescue. Slightly implausible, but at least you could wrap your head around it. With the season two finale, I could not find a good reason why the Pathfinder and Apollo/Soyuz missions had to happen at the same time. It seems like NASA would want to avoid having that many astronauts at risk at once, even if they were unaware of the hostile takeover of Jamestown in progress. Perhaps it’s a logistical thing, it means that a lot of the space scenes are concentrated into fewer episodes. The effects on the show remain very high quality (if particularly gruesome at times during this episode) which helps immerse you in the story, but when the story starts to feel nonsensical the effects don’t fully replace a cohesive narrative.
That said, watching the astronauts of the fictional Apollo 22 individually and collectively save the world was an emotional journey that felt earned on all their parts and provided a strong connection back to the first season. Dani, who sacrificed her own reputation to save Gordo’s on Jamestown, took the chance to grab her moment in the spotlight and became the face of international cooperation in space at exactly the right moment. Ed, who almost caused an international incident by kidnapping a cosmonaut while in the depths of his grief and who has been shot down before, made the call to sacrifice an American military asset rather than shoot down another spacecraft while grappling with new and different emotional turmoil. And Gordo, who both feared and courted death on the moon while stranded at Jamestown watching his marriage fall apart from thousands of miles away, willingly put himself in mortal danger to save the base and everyone on it with the love of his life by his side. The storytelling for these three characters wrapped around incredibly effectively to the problems they were all battling the last time they were all in space together, and it led to a very satisfying, if also very tragic, finale.
Gordo and Tracy were not the only people who died on the moon in the finale, but they were the ones we knew best. We’d watched their journey from a troubled couple in the first season who supported each other’s careers even as their marriage was falling apart, to their tentative drifting back together this season as they both overcame personal demons, to their very brief reconciliation at Jamestown. As frustrated as I was with Tracy’s insistence on going out with Gordo, knowingly risking leaving their boys orphans and sacrificing resources like time and extra duct tape that could have been better focused on preparing one person for the death run, it was an end that made sense for the two of them. Would another layer or two of duct tape have saved Gordo? Could he have made it back to the airlock on his own? The questions are pointless because Tracy was not the kind of person to stand by and wait to see what happened. If she was, she never would have become an astronaut in the first place.
As I suspected, the stories of the characters on earth got moved aside this week in favor of the battles in space. With the jump forward to the ’90s teased at the end of the episode, I expect that we’ll have to wait until the start of the next season to see what the fall-out is for those women and the other astronauts. I am curious to see how they manage to continue the story with the characters we know. It’s one thing to jump about ten years and keep the same cast together. I don’t know that we can stretch credulity to buying an early-40s Joel Kinnaman as looking virtually unchanged for the better part of 20 years over the course of three seasons.
Header Image Source: Sony/Apple+