Going Strong: “The Right Stuff” episode six continues skillful story development

by Breanna Beers

[Editor’s Note: The following contains major spoilers for “The Right Stuff” Season 1, Episode 6]

While episode six returns to telling separate stories after the cohesive climax of episode five, “The Right Stuff” generally continues its positive trajectory with engaging characters and palpable tension. 

NASA is at risk of dissolution under the scrutiny of the President’s Scientific Advisory Committee (PSAC). In a bid to keep the public on their side, they announce the first three astronauts in space: Alan Shepard (Jake McDorman), Gus Grissom (Michael Trotter), and John Glenn (Patrick J. Adams). However, they hold back the fact that an internal order already exists; the first man in space has already been decided.

This gives Glenn, currently number three, hope: “Until it’s public, they can still change their minds.” He goes from sulkingly faking smiles for the press to his old active self, but this time, it’s not a campaign we can get behind. He writes letters to maybe a dozen officials denouncing Shepard’s “moral turpitude” and declaring him “unfit for service.” 

Ironically, this is exactly the kind of backstabbing that Shepard accused him of in front of the team and that may have lost him the chance to be voted first. Glenn has gone from rationally unselfish, protecting the team for the good of the program, to irrationally selfish, exposing Shepard for his own gain even if it puts the entire space program at risk.

His wife Annie, who has been established as Glenn’s moral compass especially when he’s carried away with ambition, is understandably furious. She tries to talk him out of sending the letters and, when she fails, barely speaks to him on their anniversary. Nora Zehetner, who plays Annie Glenn, is perfect for this role, mixing innocent charm with quiet determination. Glenn has now lost credibility not only at NASA but also in his marriage.

Meanwhile, with the knowledge that his position is secure, Shepard has gained a calm confidence in front of the press even if he lacks Glenn’s stirring eloquence. However, he is still plagued by an unrecognized internal anxiety: a combination of fear that his secret medical issue will be discovered, angst related to his daddy issues and a new insecurity revealed in this episode—a deep-seated desire to be liked.

Shepard was practically-minded from the beginning. He wanted to go to space for the thrill; the publicity was more a pain than a perk. Over the course of the series, though, we’ve gotten glimpses that his motivation might go deeper than adrenaline, from his tense interaction with his father to his gradual growth in leadership with the team. In this episode, we’re given an additional data point: “I do want people to like me, of course I do, why do you think I want to be the first man in space?”

This is a different side of Shepard than what we’ve seen before. If anything, he’s been marked by not caring what others think of him. This layered character discovery is well-suited to the episodic nature of the show. Most of the other characters had their internal motivations laid bare in episode one or two; holding this element back adds a layer of depth to the story and to Shepard. We’re still learning what makes him tick, even as he grows throughout the season. He’s gone from the least likable character to the most sympathetic in just six episodes.

Gordon Cooper (Colin O’Donoghue) only really gets two scenes this episode, both of them short and isolated, presumably setting up for future episodes. We see that he’s still dealing with the trauma of losing his friend in episode one. Meanwhile, his daughter feels like there’s something wrong with her, and Cooper attributes it to her risk-taking parents. I’m not entirely sure where either of these arcs are going, but the show has regained my confidence in recent episodes, so I’m willing to trust that these stories will be delivered on in the future.

Deke Slayton (Micah Stock), by contrast, gets the most emotional moment of the episode, despite having been ignored in all but one of the previous episodes. Slayton had a sympathetic moment in episode four with NASA flight director Chris Kraft (Eric Ladin), in which they became friends and Slayton became the only one of the “other four” with an actual personality and audience investment.

In episode six, PSAC finds out about his arrhythmia, which NASA and the Air Force didn’t consider a concern but which PSAC determines is too risky to let him fly. Clayton is permanently grounded. He’ll never go to space.

It’s a powerful scene, and both actors are on point, with Ladin’s soft apology and Stock’s raw, deep-voiced grief: “Chris, don’t let them do this to me. You’re my friend. … Tell him what you think is best.” “This is best, Deke.”

Seeing some of the history of how these decisions were made has been fascinating in itself, including the contrast of Glenn’s character with the other astronauts’, the astronauts’ voting on who should be first, and Slayton’s being cut from the program for medical issues. (He later went on to work on the development of the space shuttle and in 1972 was cleared to fly again. He piloted the docking of the Apollo module with the Soyuz capsule to form the International Space Station.) The show is based on Tom Wolfe’s 1969 book of the same name, which contains all kinds of interesting details like these.

Overall, this is a solid episode. It’s less unified than episode five but still manages to weave the various story threads together into a cohesive story. I’m genuinely looking forward to what comes next in the series, and that’s an accomplishment, considering that after episode two I was closer to dreading it. 

This show has turned itself around in a remarkable space of time. I think maybe it just took the show’s creators a while to determine where the story was going, decide what they wanted to say, and establish a coherent tone and rhythm. However, if the current trajectory continues, I’m prepared to genuinely recommend the series as a whole. It’s nothing revolutionary, but it’s definitely an enjoyable and engaging watch. It’s not just for space nerds, either; in fact, it’s not really for space nerds at all, as it’s way more about relationships than rocketry.

Breanna Beers is a senior Molecular Biology major and the Editor-in-Chief of Cedars. She loves exercising curiosity, hiking new trails, and citrus tea.

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