This season of For All Mankind has been a steadily paced story of a looming disaster on the moon. The minute that the Chekhov’s guns were packed up to be sent to Jamestown base there has only been one possible outcome for the story, an outcome that we will see more of in the final episode this Friday. However, that incredible, literally out-of-this-world disaster has in some ways eclipsed the other steadily progressing tragedies taking place on Earth among the women of the show.
Ellen Wilson (Jodi Balfour) is the character who inspired me to write this piece. Despite her early and repeated statements that she wants to start distancing herself from NASA, so she can live a more honest and satisfying life for herself, she can’t seem to pull away from the agency. Worse, people around her keep making decisions for her that will keep her firmly in the public eye. Her husband, Larry Wilson (Nate Corddry), seems to be the most intent on shoving her further into a career she seems ambivalent about, even as he’s left NASA for private industry and gets to live a version of his own true self with her blessing. With the introduction of Lee Atwater and the idea that Ellen could become a Republican presidential candidate, it seems like we’re waiting for a massive fall from grace as Ellen’s desire to live openly as a lesbian will come into conflict with the pressure to maintain a public image that is further and further from the person she actually wants to be.
But Ellen’s story isn’t the only one that seems doomed to a bad outcome for the time being. Molly Cobb (Sonya Walger) is struggling with the understanding that by rescuing fellow astronaut Wubbo Ockles, she has doomed her career as an astronaut. She is going blind, and that is likely the least of her problems since she has not probed further to find out what other effects of radiation she might be suffering. Even though she backed out of a risky experimental treatment after her husband Wayne (Lenny Jacobson) threatened to leave her, we’re still watching a woman who is seeing her dreams, and possibly her life, slip away. I think Molly is a woman who assumed she would not live to a ripe old age, but that assumption was based on her understanding of herself as a woman of action. She probably anticipated that her death would come as a result of a high-risk situation with a clear outcome. While she deliberately put herself at risk to rescue Wubbo, the consequence of that risk is murky and silent. She will not go out with a bang and will see more and more of her independence and ability to take action slip away from her.
Finally, there’s Karen Baldwin (Shantel VanSanten). While she’s not an astronaut, the space program has had an indelible effect on her life, she seems to be careening toward another personal crisis because of it. I was impressed early on that she seemed to have carved out an identity of her own after she spent most of the first season as Ed Baldwin’s Wife and clawed her way back from the devastation of her son’s death while her husband was trapped on the moon. She owned the Outpost and was making successful business decisions! Her relationship with her daughter Kelly seemed genuinely warm and supportive! But all that seemed to turn when Ed made the decision that he was going back to the moon on the Pathfinder mission, Kelly announced that she wanted to attend the Naval Academy like her father, and then Ed managed to get himself lost at sea after ejecting from a jet. Since then Karen sold the Outpost, kissed, and then slept with Danny Stevens. Danny is a midshipman at the Naval Academy, probably 18 or 19 years old, and also the son of Gordo and Tracy Stevens. Karen is steadily falling apart and with Ed now on a mission that will again bring him face to face with mortal danger, it does not seem like things are going to get better for her in the next episode.
There’s been a glut of shows and movies lately that make their stakes the fate of the world, and it’s mentally exhausting and distancing to watch over and over again. While the situation on the moon is not quite at “global destruction” levels, the setting in the Cold War era does make it feel likely that we’re waiting for a turn in that direction. However, For All Mankind has managed to weave together a story with very high stakes and very small, personal stories that are easier to grab onto. I don’t know what’s going to happen on the moon in the upcoming episode, but I do know that I’m just as worried about the fate of these women with their feet planted firmly on Earth.
Image sources (in order of posting): Sony Pictures, Apple Inc.