Everybody hates Danny. If you didn’t hate him in For All Mankind season 2, then you definitely hated him in season 3. It’s a shame really because there was great potential with the character for some interesting drama. The son of fallen heroes, struggling to follow in their footsteps, dealing with some of the issues his father faced, and ultimately not being able to live up to their legacy. He also had a thing for older women, namely the wife of his fellow astronaut Ed Baldwin, and he would just not let it go. I really enjoyed the first half of the third season, I think the race to Mars was a highlight of the show, but the intense personal drama with Danny dominated far too much as the season continued, with little development or subtlety. The very vocal Internet let its frustration be known and soon the writers were acknowledging that a universal hatred for Danny was all anyone was talking about. In season 4, they took action…
The big question on what would happen to Danny was answered in the season 4 premiere: death. Yes, the ultimate answer of writers acknowledging a failure, a problem character: kill them off. It was drastic but unexpected. Each season of For All Mankind is set about a decade after the previous and so each season comes with a shake-up of the status quo. The writers could have used this to reset Danny; to give him a new position, a decade of growth, and essentially softly transition him into a different character. But no, he was brutally culled from the show. And I do feel sorry for actor Casey W. Johnson. I thought he was good in the role and none of the ire aimed at Danny should be a reflection on him. It’s a shame he had to leave the show.
But the premiere teased more than it revealed. His death was discussed vaguely, characters like Danielle still hadn’t completely come to terms with it, and it seemed like the particulars of his demise were a mystery. Then, after half a season of hinting, the answer arrived. Flashbacks in the fifth episode to reveal what really happened to Danny. And what happened was… the most obvious answer to what could have happened to Danny.
Really, I thought, that’s it? It feels strange that the show decided to keep it back, to play it like a mystery and a reveal. It turns out the depressed man responsible for his colleagues’ deaths, shunned by the other survivors, forced to live a solitary life in a tiny North Korean Mars shuttle, who had recently heard of his taboo true love’s death back on Earth, killed himself. No shit. It’s certainly not out-of-character or unbelievable in any way, but it’s a bit of a disappointing reveal. No last fight with Ed, or even a conversation. Just a reveal of his dead body on the surface of Mars.
There must be more to it. Surely there must. For the five weeks since the reveal, I’ve been fooling myself. An extra twist is coming. More to the death will be revealed, at the moment of peak tension between Ed and Danielle. The 1990’s Mars crew were running out of food, barely surviving, and suddenly Danny’s corpse offers up some fresh meat. It’s a big move but I’ve been convinced this has been leading to a cannibalism subplot. That’s why Danielle feels so guilty. The new civilisation on Mars, pushing humanity forward, was built on a moment of brutal animalistic savagery. I like that thematically for the show. Maybe Ed’s neurological condition, causing his tremor, is a touch of Kuru or Creutzfeldt-Jakob from gnawing on a bit of bad brainstem or something. The reason why I’ve waited until the season is over before I write this is because I convinced myself some extra reveal must be coming. But it didn’t. Danny’s storyline, in life and death, was very quickly forgotten.
Now comes the real damning confession: after all the complaining and disgust, I missed Danny in season 4. Or rather, I missed some element of the drama he could have brought to the show. I enjoyed the fourth season overall. It had a real boots-on-the-ground feel with the regular folk on Mars, which brought to mind Battlestar Galactica, which is no bad thing. But the season did feel like it was missing something. An extra dramatic kink. Some personal conflict. I didn’t want anything to the extent of Danny’s troubles in season 3, but giving Danny a reduced role this season instead of killing him maybe would have been the better call.
There was still potential with Danny and Ed. The feud is fuelled by Danny’s guilt about his feelings for Ed’s wife Karen but Ed never found out about this. He never knew Ed was the one she had an affair with. It’s the basis of their entire conflict throughout season 3 and the show decided to hold back on the reveal for a future season. To keep a card up its sleeve. But then the writers killed Danny off before the big reveal, everything we suffered through suddenly felt for nothing. All the set-up was jettisoned just when it could have paid off.
Danny’s death was clearly never planned and what remains of the original ideas now just remain as messy loose threads. Danielle pointedly buries a gun right next to the North Korean module on Mars, marking its location with a tool stuck in the sand. That Chekov’s gun felt like it was never going to come back. It finally did in the season 4 finale, ultimately with little impact, and I doubt that was the initial plan for it. I thought for sure Danny would find it, or Ed would in one last deadly confrontation. And the way Danny died could be seen as a sacrifice. Everyone on Mars was starving and in killing himself he’s giving them one less mouth to feed. I really don’t like this, especially after the season 3 finale did a great job in Ed refusing Danny a cliché dramatic sacrificial death by not allowing him to be the one to fly Kelly into orbit.
In situations like this, I like a show to have the courage to stick with something that isn’t working. To commit to it being part of the fabric of the series and instead work to fix it. I wish the show had just done the bare minimum to wrap up Danny’s storyline with the pieces that were in play; it could just be in flashbacks in one episode, or have him appear in 2003 in one episode for one final conversation with Ed. There is still enough drama there to squeeze something out of it. Because what’s worse than a bad storyline is having that bad storyline ultimately serve no purpose. That’s what Danny Steven’s story now feels like in For All Mankind. And that isn’t season 3’s fault, it’s season 4’s.