For All Mankind S4E2: Have a Nice Sol

People can get used to anything. There’s an old saying that the Apollo astronauts participated in a miracle; the Space Shuttle astronauts were truck drivers in space. Even the most astonishing feats of human achievement pretty quickly settle into the mundane.

That’s a problem for For All Mankind, as this year’s season-long asteroid-mining arc doesn’t have the hook of building the first base on the moon or landing the first humans on Mars. While each milestone in space is exponentially further away from Earth and more difficult technologically, dramatically there are diminishing returns. When Exxon has an operation on the moon, it’s just another natural resource to be exploited, and the wonder quickly fades.

That’s the experience our new character, Miles Dale, has on his first day of work on Mars. One minute, he’s looking out at the surface in awe, the next he’s being told that, because of last week’s asteroid debacle, he’s been reassigned from refueling on the surface to doing maintenance on the underground levels of the base. Being an HVAC worker in space seizes the imagination even less than being a truck driver. And the Mars base wifi is so bad he can’t see the messages his family sends.

The greatest adventure in human history has turned into just another day at work. (Or “sol,” in this episode’s parlance, as the Mars crew have to keep track of both local time and time passing back on Earth.) And the Mars base has a very clear upstairs/downstairs divide, as the NASA science staff eat fresh pasta in a bright, windowed cafeteria, and Miles and the other blue collar private-sector workers eat burnt-looking hunks of meatloaf in a dimly lit breakroom. And when Miles complains to Ed about the demotion and lousy pay (the cost of everything from the food to his uniform comes out of Miles’ paycheck), Ed gives him a lecture on “personal responsibility.” Ed had to suffer in the inhospitable early moon and Mars bases, and because he’s a glutton for punishment, he expects everyone else to be. So Mars exploration hasn’t just become a job, it’s become a shitty one.

And on Earth, the job isn’t just a job. The stress of the asteroid mission failure and PTSD from last season’s bombing has taken its toll on Aleida. She stopped showing up for work, she’s up at all hours, and her husband and kids are worried. She refuses to go back to therapy or back to the office, but she knows she has to do something. So she tries to go back to work and new boss Daniel Hobson immediately sees through her insistence that her mental health issues are fine. Just that observation is enough pushback that Aleida quits. Whatever Margot’s faults, she always knew how to manage her brilliant, temperamental protegé, and a well-intentioned stuffed shirt doesn’t quite have the finesse.

Kelly Baldwin is also still on the job at NASA, working with Boston Dynamic-style robot dogs — a technology that arrived 20 years earlier in the FAM timeline — to eventually search for life on Mars. But new NASA chief Hobson is putting her research on hold as all of the agency’s resources get diverted to rescuing the asteroid program. 

So the two women end up sharing drinks at The Outpost, the first time they’ve ever come face-to-face, despite Aledia’s risky plan to strap a pregnant Kelly to the top of a rocket saving her life last season. They quickly bond over each other’s career ambitions going off the rails, and as always, the thing that gets Aleida going again is a project. She can’t help herself, but she can help Kelly. And that’s the one moment we get this week that suggests we’re getting out of the routine. We haven’t seen Kelly and Aledia together so far, but their team-up makes so much sense. They’ve both spent the series chafing under Ed and Margot’s respective outsized shadows, and the actresses have an easy rapport. That bodes well for future seasons of the show, as at some point we have to move past aging Ed Baldwin, the “Old Man of Mars.”

Mankind typically swings between outsized tragedy and triumph for its characters, but now tragedy is when your paycheck feels light and triumph is when the Mars crew get the TV working again. This demoralizing daily grind is a new gear for the show and these characters, and it’s an interesting new direction for the show. But it remains to be seen whether lower highs and higher lows will be enough to keep things compelling.

Stray asteroids:
• Ed’s old-man makeup is a little iffy. Dani’s a lot more convincing because all they did was put some gray in her hair and didn’t try to give her more than a few faint wrinkles. Black don’t crack!

• Gorillaz’ “Clint Eastwood” is a great needle drop, with Daman Albarn’s affectless “the future is coming on” over a montage of workaday life on Mars for Miles and Dani.

• Lee Jung-Gil, the formerly stranded North Korean astronaut who was the unlikely first person on Mars, is back on the red planet, as North Korea is one of the nations cooperating on the Mars base. Lee’s being watched carefully by his Communist handlers — with the Cold War defused, the show needs another country to replace the USSR as the secretive hostile ones.

• Aleida has mixed feelings about Margot, but even in absentia she’s still a valuable source of parental-figure disapproval.

• Amid all these brilliant scientists and daring astronauts, regular-Joe Miles just isn’t all that interesting as a character, even if his perspective is necessary for the drudgery of space we haven’t really seen thus far. Don’t make us start to miss Danny Stevens!

• At one point, Dani gives Ed an assignment with a cheerful, “make it so!” Series creator Ronald D. Moore cut his teeth writing for Star Trek: The Next Generation, so no doubt that show still aired in the FAM timeline.