Ignition Sequence Start: “The Right Stuff” Episode Seven Fans the Flames

by Breanna Beers

[Editor’s Note: The following contains minor spoilers for “The Right Stuff” Season 1, Episode 7]

As launch day approaches, the animosity between our two leads comes to a head. Strong writing and cinematography reinforce rather than distract from the key themes and storylines. This episode brings the moral ambiguity that has lingered in the background for much of the series out into the open, forcing both the characters and the audience to think through what the “right stuff” really is. 

Looking back on the season in light of this episode, it becomes clear that, at its core, this show is about honesty more than anything. We’ve seen that on a big-picture level when it comes to the portrayals of the press as both  Instagram-filtered fairy tales and greedy exposé rumor-mongers, both heroes of free speech and threats to NASA’s existence. It’s unclear whether the truth is more painful than the lies when the press learns that Alan Shepard (Jake McDorman) will be first and John Glenn (Patrick J. Adams) trades fake smiles for pity.

However, we also see this theme on a more personal level in the astronauts’ relationships with their wives, with each other and even with themselves. Cooper’s and Shepard’s infidelity is the most obvious example of lies in marriage, but this concept is also expressed on a subtler level. There’s clearly more going on with Shepard’s family than meets the eye; hopefully we’ll get some resolution on that in the season finale. Meanwhile, Gordon Cooper (Colin O’Donoghue) supports his wife in private but publicly mocks the idea of a female astronaut corp: “We sent up a chimp, didn’t we? May as well send up a lady someday.”

There’s also a certain amount of posturing going on within the Mercury team. Glenn and Shepard both talk to NASA higher-ups behind each other’s backs. More significantly, however, neither man is capable of honesty with himself. Shepard’s main gripe with Glenn is that he’s fake. Yet Shepard’s carefree, all-out-in-the-open attitude is itself just a thin veneer hiding his pent-up insecurities.

Meanwhile, Glenn’s fixed conception of himself doesn’t line up with his actions. He believes he deserves to be preferred to Shepard because of his character yet goes behind Shepard’s back in order to get there. Despite starting to show a bit of class once the news is made public, Glenn shows little sign of remorse for his previous actions. Yet in their final confrontation toward the end of episode seven, Glenn refuses to admit that he hates Shepard: “I can find love for you in my heart, Al. I want you to know that.”

This rooftop scene ties together all the threads of their roiling relationship: Glenn’s sanctimonious pride and Shepard’s brash arrogance, Glenn’s desire for a legacy and Shepard’s longing for affection, Glenn’s artificial moralism and Shepard’s open brazenness. Their differences are not only competitive; it’s a question of worldview. They fundamentally disagree on what “the right stuff” really is, which is why each thinks he is entitled to be first. Yet they’re more similar than either realizes: both ambitious, both dedicated, both discontent, both insecure, both proud. 

This concept of honesty vs. pretension is a constant theme throughout the show, but one of its most interesting expressions in this episode is the use of the song “Sixteen Tons” by Merle Travis. While Shepard is in the examination room following the announcement that the launch will be delayed, one of the doctors starts singing to himself: “You load sixteen tons and what do you get? Another day older and deeper in debt.” Soon, everyone in the room, including Shepard, joins in.

“Sixteen Tons” hit number one on Billboard charts in 1955, six years before Shepard’s launch. At its core, this song is about working hard without getting anywhere; perhaps this idea resonates with Shepard as his launch is delayed yet again, though only by two days.

On the other hand, maybe the producers were going for a subtler meaning. This is a dark song about dark times. Shepard has little in common with the coal miners breaking their backs and risking their lives only to end up deep in debt to the companies that paid them in corporate credit (scrips) rather than real money, forcing them to pay higher-than-market prices for necessary goods and services at the company store. Elite astronauts and doctors, even at a struggling NASA, sing the blues like a pop song in an ironic twist on the show’s themes of honesty and artifice.

Another interesting aspect of this episode is that Scott Carpenter (James Lafferty), who up to now has been little more than a glorified extra, suddenly takes a side. After Shepard convinces Kraft to cut Carpenter from capsule command following Carpenter’s errors in simulation, Carpenter looks to Glenn for help. Apparently, they’ve been friends this whole time, as Glenn says, “I think you’re a good man. Better than the rest of these guys. And yeah, I think that matters. Or at least it ought to.” 

This is another example of Glenn’s moody resignation, clearly exhausted by his own game of public pretending now that hope is gone. However, despite his bitterness thinly disguised as sympathy, his advice to Carpenter (and by extension, himself) is good: “Can’t just sit around crying about it though can we? And you definitely can’t go grousing up the chain of command.” At least he’s learned something.

Carpenter’s prima donna wife Rene (Jade Albany Pietrantonio) is furious, however. In retaliation, she tells Shepard’s wife Louise (Shannon Lucio) about Shepard’s one-night stand in San Diego. Louise holds her ground in front of Rene, but the news clearly affects her.

In characteristic forbearance, Louise declines to confront her husband the day before he goes to space. When the launch is delayed, however, she simply tells him quietly that she’s taking her flight home rather than waiting to see him off. She’s honest without being intentionally hurtful, despite having been deeply hurt herself.

While none of the couples in this show have especially compelling romantic chemistry (with the possible exception of the Coopers), casting Lucio and McDorman opposite each other was a strong decision. McDorman plays Shepard with pent-up energy ready to flare up at the slightest provocation, where Lucio portrays his wife with patience and calm, endlessly forbearing toward her husband without excusing his behavior. In some ways, they serve as a contrast to the Coopers, where Trudy (Eloise Mumford) is all tension and longing and resolve while her husband is a wavering reed in the wind. 

It’s also interesting what Louise says bothers her when Shepard asks her why she’s leaving—or, rather, when he asks her what the press will say when she isn’t there for the launch. It’s not his infidelity; instead, she’s unravelled by his indiscretion: “There were photos, Alan? Is it true that they would have been in the papers if John hadn’t fixed it?”

I think there are a few reasons why the publicity is her concern. First, it’s plausible that she’s aware of and accustomed to his habit of fooling around. Second, she’s thinking of what would happen if their children saw their father’s dalliances in the newspaper. Third, his imprudence displays another layer of disrespect that goes beyond mere infidelity. He wasn’t even aware enough to be ashamed until later, when John Glenn had to fix it for him. It’s the potential shame of their private problems being brought into the spotlight that magnifies the hurt a hundredfold. 

It says something about these astronauts’ situation, and celebrity in general, that the first thought of a scorned wife isn’t anger at personal hurt but fear of public shame. It’s another example of when artifice is maybe easier than honesty. And it’s something that I think matters for today, when we all have our fragment of fame in the form of our public profiles. It’s likely that more of us think like Louise than we realize.

Alan’s response is initially that tightly-wound anger, but as Louise speaks, soft and a little shaky rather than angry and aggressive, he remains silent. His anger lingers, but it’s mingled with deep remorse. Again, it’s a character moment for him; we’re still very much learning about his family dynamic as these odd hints continue to be dropped in throughout the show. 

Louise makes the decision to go home of her own accord rather than asking for permission, but she does so with quiet resolution rather than resentful defiance. In a way, it’s the most successful feminist moment of the series, perhaps because it’s so understated. Louise is acting like a person with agency and emotions rather than being used as a tool for the scriptwriters to make a point.

She’s also one of the few characters with the maturity to be honest without being brash. She retains her characteristic patience but refuses to continue to cave to artificiality: “I love you, Alan. I’m not going to go through this again. I’m not going to just sit back and smile and pretend to be your perfect little wife. I’m going back home.” 

Another character with that ability is the underappreciated Chris Kraft. Actor Eric Ladin’s ability to shift between stern optimism and resolute sympathy perfectly conveys Kraft’s growth in both leadership and rapport throughout the season. He has as much at stake in the launch outcomes as anyone and yet is one of the few characters who cuts through the artifice in any situation. Where program director Bob Gilruth (Patrick Fischler) is mired in political pressures, Kraft is uncorrupted, combining a would-be pilot’s daring with a flight director’s prudence. He is equal parts stern determination, honest idealism and steady trustworthiness. 

Without realizing it, we’ve watched him grow throughout the season. When we met him in episode three, the flight team feared and disliked his high-strung, critical management style that clearly stemmed from his own agitation about the program. Now, he’s settled into the pressure, and it’s clear that his team trusts him implicitly.

Kraft also handles the astronauts wisely. In episode three, he appropriately cuts through Glenn’s pretensions; in episode six, he conveys bad news to Deke Slayton with both quiet sympathy and resolute authority; and in this episode, he responds to Shepard’s complaints about Glenn with firm calmness. We haven’t focused on Kraft’s personal arc in any particular episode, but when we zoom out to look at the series as a whole, a clear and satisfying trajectory emerges.

In a way, that’s how I feel about “The Right Stuff” itself. Early on, the individual episodes weren’t doing much for me. As the show continued, however, I appreciated each installment more and more. And when I look at the series as a whole, I can enjoy the bigger picture and get invested in the storyline. I’m excited to see how episode eight finally ties all these threads together. 

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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