Once again we are confronted with an episode that lies well under the broad umbrella of cautious hope and caution, both in human relations and in matters of international relations. A contingent of Soviets — engineers, cosmonauts, a clique of nameless political apparatchiks — have arrived in Houston to great fanfare. Americans act like the golden retrievers of world culture that we are, with happy faces while a marching band plays upbeat tunes to honor our guests. The Soviets are much more reserved.
We could even describe them as hard-fought, an impression only reinforced by their shallow, grudgingly accepting to actively hostile reactions to the mission approach Margo lays out in their first major meeting. The cosmonauts shall not be referred to as astronauts and shall be given the (ornamental) honors of cosmonaut one and cosmonaut two. Sure, fine, whatever. They also want the mission called Soyuz-Apollo, not Apollo-Soyuz. OK. Most importantly, they do not, cannot, and will not, agree to a docking mechanism that visually suggests that their ship is the passive receiver of, uh, equipment that the NASA ship uses to dock with theirs. Good faith negotiations on vital and in no way picayune details! We love it!
After the absurd meeting, Margo wonders aloud how one can expect a successful NASA mission under these conditions. Bradford immediately replies that they are not: the Soviets will stall and make petty demands, knowing that the Americans will eventually wall something up themselves, and then the Soviets can throw up their hands and go home. This is exquisite, a shining example of top bureaucracy.
Aside from the awkward formalities of today’s meeting, informal conversations between individuals lead to much more promising results. After realizing that they cannot make any progress towards an acceptable and working Apollo-Soyuz-Apollo docking system, Margo and Sergei hold a secret rendezvous at 11:59 am, the jazz club where Margo is the pianist of a trio is performing there that evening . Sergei immediately recognizes what a gesture of trust this is on Margo’s part, allowing the conversation to quickly shift from toasting at shared secrets to the horrors of a war that Sergei believes is between the US and the USSR is inevitable. These two don’t have the flashiest of jobs, but they’re the ones who will make or break this mission, and they’re keen to contribute something worthwhile to soothe relations between their homelands. Sergei gets a flash of inspiration from the radioactivity symbol on her drink coasters, and the utterly androgynous interlocking petal docking system begins to emerge. With Aleida’s crucial contribution to installing Jove shock absorbers, they did it!
Dani and Stepan plan their own adventures in personal international relationships in the outpost over footage of Jack Daniels, delving into the search for substantive common ground rather than finding the light-hearted talking points that both governments expect them to adhere to. Unsurprisingly, this proves to be very difficult; Each of them is such a product of their respective culture and political system that being a pilot and spaceflight are the core qualities they share.
After a few shots, Stepan softly mentions that he got to hold Laika, the dog who was the first living being from Earth to fly into space. Dani’s face lights up when Stepan describes Laika’s endearing personality – she was found to be feisty but even-tempered and adaptable to new situations, all crucial traits for any species embarking on spaceflight – and grows sad when Stepan tells her that the legend of Laika dying lying peacefully asleep in orbit is a lie: there was a malfunction with one of the systems in her spaceship and she died in pain. But their story, as a fundamental myth for the USSR space program, is too important and powerful for the truth to be widely known. Dani tries to present Laika as an example of making a noble sacrifice for the Motherland, and then for the people she loved, but Stepan doesn’t want it. He would rather be left with the contrast between his fond memories and the grim reality of her death. Unspoken is the knowledge they share that when they speak about Laika, they are also speaking about themselves and the expectations of service and self-sacrifice they may be bound by in the name of justifying or preventing war.
Elsewhere in the personal myth busting, Kelly gets a head start on her application to the US Naval Academy by writing her admissions essay. Ed’s casual suggestion that they just tell them who she is triggers a cascade of existential questions: Okay, who is you? What makes you a Baldwin? How might her life have turned out now if she hadn’t been put up for adoption? What if she was adopted by another family in the US or Vietnam?
She knows she’s a Baldwin through a series of events she wasn’t involved in: participating in an operation in 1972 that airlifted women and children from Saigon, being taken to an adoption center in Houston, having not been adopted earlier to be, so she was there when she was there Ed and Karen decided to seek adoption after Shane’s death. The love between Kelly and her parents is deep and genuine, and at the same time, Kelly’s feelings about her presence and role in the Baldwin family are deeply conflicted. Kelly presses Ed and Karen on the story of their adoption, and learns some details she probably should have already been privy to: Ed and Karen were probationally separated in the depth of their grief for Shane, and Ed was living at a local hotel. News of Operation Babylift, which brought Kelly to Houston from Vietnam, prompted her to make more phone calls and eventually to visit the adoption center where Kelly was living.
Kelly sums up everything she’s heard with a reductive but by no means unfair observation/question: “Well, I was your band-aid.” To soothe her haste, Karen’s response that Kelly really was her heart transplant is quite revealing. Once again, Ed and Karen have inadvertently placed a crushing burden on their daughter in their attempts to overcome their grief and make sure Kelly knows how much they love her. No child is responsible for the health of their parents’ relationship! I vividly remember adoption being a taboo subject in the 80’s – there was even a very special episode of family ties about it — and Karen and Ed have worked hard to get to their current place of emotional openness when they were able nine years ago. Unfortunately, they seem to have missed a few crucial steps. The Baldwins have gone so long without at least a few more open conversations with Kelly about Shane and grief, and unsurprisingly for the time, they haven’t taken steps to help Kelly connect with her original cultural and racial identity. The transition she navigates from family myth (rooted more in comfort than truth) to a new understanding of herself is abrupt and dramatically alters her perspective on her entire existence. After cutting out the first few sentences of her admissions essay, Kelly summarizes herself as “the genetic daughter of people I’ve never met.” It is both a mission statement for Kelly himself and an introduction to the Annapolis Admissions Committee.
As I watched this episode again, I realized it was packed with romance tropes. Who knows if it was intentional, but it works. Dani and Stepan have a sincere conversation about one thing that is also about another thing. Sergei and Margo have a secret rendezvous. Ellen and Pam decide to give love a second chance (more on that in the next recap). And then there’s the mother vein: Gordo and Tracy. Let’s get into that!
During a Not FaceTime™ with Jimmy for his birthday, he and Tracy laugh fondly at Gordo’s incompetence in the kitchen — as Jimmy wryly puts it, “He made a cake and then bought another cake… we destroyed all the evidence” — and revel reminiscing about the fun they had as a family before his parents divorced. Gordo listens first, then overhears their conversation, agony and hope flickering across his face. Because this show loves narrative symmetry, as Gordo goes outside to contemplate the idea of Tracy missing him, he ends up looking lovingly at the moon while Tracy looks lovingly down at earth through a small window in Jamestown. Mutual longing without the other knowing? Check. A second chance for love? Check. (Maybe) a record-breaking long-distance relationship? Check, check, check!
Gordo is now all in and, using reserves of previously unsuspected courtesy, goes to Tracy and Sam’s mansion to calmly and personally notify Sam that he intends to win Tracy back while he is on the moon. Where did this Regency fictional hero come from? Where does this open gentlemanliness come from? How does his fortune compare to that of Mr Darcy or Lord Bridgerton? Jokes aside, Gordo and Tracy’s individual character development here is both welcome and deserved. How nice that in this perhaps romantic storyline, the character who lusts after it the most is the infamously unfaithful Hotshot pilot who – maybe too late, but how is he supposed to know unless he puts his heart on the line? – now understands the value of the love he lost. Now it’s off to the moon for Tracy. He thinks and plans for her alone.
• Needle drop of consequence: Rather than picking one song that we actually hear, I suggest two that would have beautifully highlighted Gordo and Tracy’s longing for one another. First, “Somewhere Out There” from the 1986 animated classic An American cock. To the nose? Too sweet? No problem, because Wreckless Eric’s refreshingly dizzying “Whole Wide World” would be perfect too.
• Much of my understanding of Kelly’s storyline as a transracial adoptee wanting to learn more about her birth family is influenced by Nicole Chung’s memoirs All you can ever know. It is as beautiful and delicate as it is fearless; I can’t recommend it highly enough.
• It’s been mentioned elsewhere, but this episode is where we really start to lean heavily on the irony of Wrenn Schmidt – who played a fake American handler of Soviet spies in it The American – Now you play a real American who slowly becomes friends with a Soviet who is probably not a spy. What I would give for a crossover event!
https://www.vulture.com/article/for-all-mankind-season-two-episode-six-recap.html ‘For All Mankind’ Season Two Episode Six Summary