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For All Mankind’s season 2 finale is the best TV episode of 2021 so far

Five big reasons this episode is so fantastic, explained by showrunner Ron Moore.

Danielle Poole, played by Krys Marshall, captains a space shuttle.
Danielle Poole’s quick thinking saves the world in the season two finale of For All Mankind.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

Spoilers for For All Mankind season two follow after the introduction.

“The Grey,” the season two finale of AppleTV+’s alternate history series For All Mankind, is the best TV episode I’ve seen so far in 2021. It’s tremendously exciting, packed with game-changing moments, and full of character beats that hit perfectly. I haven’t seen a drama series have a season finale this good in ages.

The entire second season, which is set in a world where the US and USSR colonized the moon in the 1970s, has built, slowly but surely, to what amounts to a Cuban missile crisis on the moon, as showrunner Ron Moore puts it. As the season nears its end, hostilities between the two countries ramp up on the moon, leading to casualties on both sides. That escalation of tensions reaches its apex in the penultimate episode, where Soviet cosmonauts overrun America’s moon base, killing several astronauts, some of them thrown out into the merciless vacuum of the moon’s surface after an explosion.

The finale takes place in the hours after that event, as the cosmonauts attempt to take over the American moon base, the remaining astronauts hide out and try to save the day, and a handful of American and Soviet space voyagers on their way to the moon attempt to figure out what’s happening before war breaks out. Oh, and did I mention there’s an unstable nuclear reactor in the American base that needs to be fixed? And nobody knows about it but the US military who had it secretly installed? Yeah.

“The Grey” did the thing I want a great season finale to do, which is bring all of the season’s storylines to a head, knit them together in surprising ways, then leave lots of intriguing threads dangling to pick up in the next season. The finale’s tease of season three (which is already in production) is deliciously enticing.

So for those of you who have seen the finale — or don’t mind spoilers — here are my five favorite things about it, with thoughts from Moore throughout.

1) Every single storyline from this season pays off in the finale

The second season of For All Mankind had a massive number of stories to juggle. That’s in keeping with how sprawling the show’s cast has become. There are 11 series regulars who all have storylines that need to wrap up, and that’s before you get to recurring characters both fictional and historical.

Yeah, we don’t need to hear Ronald Reagan tell everyone just how much he liked seeing the US and USSR come together for a handshake in space — which somehow eased international tensions by reminding everyone on planet Earth of their better angels — but it wraps up his storyline nonetheless. (That this show gave a tiny storyline to a real-life president who appears onscreen almost entirely via telephone calls is part of why I love it so.) And the storylines that do matter, both global (the battle for the moon) and personal (Ed Baldwin’s ongoing pain and frustration), get wrap-ups that dovetail beautifully.

What’s even more impressive isn’t just that every storyline wraps up but that every storyline wraps up in a way that ties its resolution into the larger struggle for dominance of the moon. Ed’s journey this season has largely been defined by powerlessness, for instance. His sorrow over the death of his son, Shane (in season one); his inability to stop his daughter, Kelly, from going to the Naval Academy; his wife’s infidelity — all combine to give us a very good idea of just why Ed might listen to the devil on his shoulder and blow the Soviet spacecraft out of the sky at the episode’s climax. But he doesn’t. He chooses to listen to Sally Ride(!), who tells him he doesn’t have to do the violent thing. An uneasy peace lasts another day.

Knitting together personal and global stakes like this is incredibly difficult, but, again, “The Grey” manages this feat for nearly 20 separate characters in ways both big and small. According to Moore, that was possible because the writers decided early on that the season would culminate with a “Cuban missile crisis in space” scenario, then gave themselves enough freedom to determine precisely what that would mean. (For a while, they thought the final showdown would be in Earth’s orbit, not on the moon.) Thus, they could also subtly tilt every single storyline toward knowing that World War III would nearly break out — then be averted — in space.

“It was a lot of just sitting in the writers room and rebreaking the story and moving the cards around on the board to figure out what the rhythm of it was,” Moore said. “But we did know from the beginning of the season that our people in the space program were going to be caught up in the missile crisis and ultimately provide the solution to it.”

2) The series’ alternate history utopia feels earned

Ed Baldwin (Joel Kinnaman) sees a Soviet spacecraft.
Ed Baldwin has to choose between the devil on his shoulder or the angel on the other one.

I’m absolutely fascinated by how For All Mankind plays with alternate history. It’s clear that the show is setting up a world where things are just better because the Space Race never ended. But it never sets up a world free of conflict either. For All Mankind is utopian but not set in an actual utopia. It’s about the kind of ideals that might lead us to a utopia, even if we won’t get there in our lifetime.

The season finale ramps this up to almost absurd degrees. After all, the threat of space war is averted not by last-second diplomacy between leaders but by an American woman and a Soviet man deciding, against orders, to go ahead with a planned docking of their spacecraft in orbit around the Moon. They shake hands. Everybody realizes just how far things have gone, and cooler heads prevail.

When I break down the plot like that, it sounds ridiculous, right? Global geopolitical tensions are eased by a handshake? But For All Mankind understands the power of a symbolic gesture, and it offers a fundamentally hopeful view of humanity without ever becoming naive about our many failings. It has carefully built its storyline in a way that makes you say, “Oh, of course!” when a handshake saves the day.

Moore’s previous work on space-set shows has always complicated the utopia/dystopia divide. He spent the first several years of his career working in the fundamentally utopian Star Trek franchise — but his most notable contributions to the franchise were on Deep Space Nine, a series about how hard it is to keep utopia once you have it. His later series Battlestar Galactica was famed for its grim plot twists and serious tone, but Moore would rather you not call that series a dystopia.

“I thought of Battlestar as hopeful in that it was people who were in an incredibly nightmarish, apocalyptic scenario but were always struggling toward the light. They tried to make tomorrow a better day. They held on to their democracy and cared about civil rights and tried to make a better world in the face of almost insurmountable odds,” Moore said. “For All Mankind is saying it can all be okay. If we try hard enough, if we work hard enough, if we have the courage of our convictions, we can achieve great things.”

Does living in a world that’s ... not a utopia (to be charitable) make it harder to work on a show with utopian ideals? Not really, says Moore.

“The world that we’re in makes me want to write a show like this more. It drives me to encourage people, to inspire people, to touch people. To make them think and hope and to give them the impetus to do bigger and greater things. The world is such a mess, and we’ve screwed it up so badly. It makes me want to do a piece that makes people want to make change,” he said.

(Because I just wanted to know, I asked Moore why, if everything in For All Mankind world is different, the pop music is the same. He said the production briefly considered having artists record new songs in the style of their old ones as a nod to the differences in reality, before realizing just how much work that would be. Plus, having a few tethers to our reality helps keep viewers oriented in what happened on this version of Earth. The familiar pop hits stayed.)

3) Those surprising deaths!

Tracy (Sarah Jones) realizes that she has to do something incredibly dangerous to save lives.
Not Tracy! She was my favorite character!

Alas, Gordo and Tracy Stevens — whose rekindled attraction to each other drove much of the last few episodes of the season, once they were both on the moon — sacrifice themselves not just for their fellow astronauts (whom they save by averting a nuclear meltdown) but for each other.

The two run out onto the surface of the moon, wrapped in duct tape to protect themselves as much as possible (which is not much), stop disaster in its tracks, then try in vain to get back to the base. But when Gordo stumbles, Tracy stops to help him, and their bodies simply can’t take that long in a vacuum (where a body can survive maybe 15 seconds). They get back inside the base, but they both die.

Moore’s explanation of why this happened is so much better than anything I could say, so I’m turning it over to him:

I’ve always been fascinated with the idea that you can survive in a vacuum longer than what science fiction usually says. It usually says your head explodes, and that’s not true. So I thought it would be cool to show somebody survive in a vacuum. So we knew one of them would have to run across the lunar surface and back. Then it was about which one of them it would be.

But once just he or she does it, it’s not that exciting. It’s predictable. Then somebody said, “Unless he dies.” And oh, shit. Do we want to kill Gordo? I don’t want to do that. Well, what if it was Tracy? I don’t want to kill Tracy. Everyone kind of shied away from it. But the next day, somebody said, “I still keep thinking about killing either Gordo or Tracy.” We had the same arguments. “You can’t do that. They’re the best characters. People would lose their minds.”

Then someone said, “What if you kill both of them?” That’s even crazier! What are we talking about? They’re two of the best characters on the show, my god. But it just kept coming back. It was that story that wouldn’t let go of you. And at one point, I said, “Tell me what’s a better ending to the Gordo-Tracy story? Say we don’t do this, and say we bring them back in season three and four and beyond — what’s the best ending to that story that’s better than this?” It took a few weeks before we reconciled ourselves to it. It was undeniable as the best ending for them. As much as we love the characters and the actors, we couldn’t say no to it when it was that good.

4) The series nods to its future as a multigenerational saga better than it ever has before

For All Mankind has called its shot from its earliest moments. Its very first episode features a montage of characters watching the Soviets land on the moon, beating the US there by a few weeks. (This is where the series’ history splits off from ours.) Included in that montage is a family of undocumented Mexican immigrants crossing the American border, who include among them a little girl named Aleida. Why does the montage feature this seemingly random child? The show plays coy, but season two begins to unspool Aleida’s destiny.

Aleida is really, really smart and has all the makings of being a fantastic NASA engineer. In season two, she gets a job working at the space center as an entry-level problem solver, and the show is very smart about finding ways to let her be smart without making her a genius whiz kid. She’s still a woman in her early 20s, rough around the edges and terrified of being abandoned. (Her father was deported at the end of season one, and she spent most of her adolescence surviving all on her own.) But she gets to make small suggestions that help solve big problems, and that makes her a character whose future you’re invested in.

For All Mankind has a roughly seven-season plan, with each season jumping forward to a new decade. That would take the show, ultimately, to the 2030s. Therefore, most of its cast won’t be able to continue for the entire run of the show, as they will simply become too young to play their parts. Already, the core characters from season one — who were in their 30s in the 1960s and ’70s — will be in their 50s or even 60s when season three jumps forward to the 1990s. The actors will still largely be able to play those parts with the help of makeup, but that won’t be true forever.

Therefore, it’s vital that the series develop new characters who will take over for the original ensemble, then prepare characters who will take over for those characters in the series’ final years. And Aleida is almost perfectly positioned to be present in every season of the show. If it runs seven years, it would trace her life from childhood to old age, giving the show one single touchstone present in every season.

Plans, of course, can change. Gordo and Tracy were originally meant to continue with the show for at least one more season, and the big event that closes the finale (more on that in a second) wasn’t always scheduled to happen in season three. But “The Grey” underlines that this show is about something bigger than any one character. It’s about the idea of something better, waiting out there in the solar system.

5) Mars?? Mars!

Margo and Ellen watch the mission from the control center.
Who’s going to Mars? We don’t know, but we can be pretty sure Margo and Ellen will be there to talk them through it (if they’re American, at least).

The finale ends with the familiar chords of Nirvana’s “Come As You Are,” signaling that season three will take us to the 1990s (1995, to be precise). And, yes, there are a bunch of character notes that will surely spool out next season, from Ellen’s continued rise through the ranks of a Republican-controlled government, even as she’s having to hide that she’s a lesbian, to Margo unwittingly becoming someone the Soviets think they can recruit as a spy.

But that’s not what I remember about that closing montage in the slightest. No, I remember the camera swooping up into the sky, past the moon, and on to Mars, where a boot lands in the red soil. Originally, Moore says, there was talk of having Mars be the goal of season four, but getting humanity there in season three ended up being way more exciting.

So somebody is going to Mars in season three, and even though we don’t know who it is (or what country they’re from), it’s a delicious tease for what’s to come.

The first two seasons of For All Mankind are available on AppleTV+. The third season is in production.

Correction: The boot that lands on Mars arrives in 1995, not 1994, as this article originally stated. The year was changed between the screener I wrote this off of and the final broadcast of the episode.

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