by Breanna Beers
[Editor’s Note: The following contains minor spoilers for “The Right Stuff” Season 1, Episode 4]
As fledgling NASA fumbles, “The Right Stuff” finally starts to hit its stride. The narrative is allowed to breathe in this character-focused episode, a literal Christmas vacation from the confused pacing of the last two episodes.
The script is flipped as we see Alan Shepard (Jake McDorman) spending time with his family over the holidays while John Glenn (Patrick J. Adams) spends the season making calls and connections.
The space program is in a tailspin with a presidential election on the horizon and the Soviets’ successes on the front page. However, as Glenn’s dream is threatened, his drive is only amplified. He evicts his kids from his office as he calls every Democrat in Congress, trying unsuccessfully to gain the ear of presidential candidate John F. Kennedy.
Yet while the show seems to present this in contrast to Shepard’s fraught but family-oriented Christmas, Glenn’s children are shown playing in their dad’s office not once, but twice, and don’t appear fazed when he sends them out so he can answer the phone. What’s more, his wife Annie (Nora Zehetner) is actually the one who suggests he try to influence Kennedy to save NASA rather than endorse Nixon (a Republican) to secure his own spot as the first man in space. She’s not only his support, but his counselor, conscience, and compass in this endeavor.
Despite all this, his efforts are frustrated as he is repeatedly shunned by Congress and by Kennedy. So far in this series, we’ve only seen Glenn’s success, albeit tainted by loneliness. I’m looking forward to seeing how our hero handles failure; it could drive him back toward the relationships that support him, but it could also deepen the rift that has already begun to form.
Glenn’s working holiday is framed as a clear foil to Shepard’s Christmas. Shepard’s wife Louise (Shannon Lucio) takes in her niece, Judith, after the death of Judith’s mother. Alan shares a poignant moment with her on his front lawn, an interesting development since we’ve never really seen him interact with either of his own two daughters.
This episode is the first time we’ve really focused on Shepard’s family relationships, and they’re surprisingly tender. He’s not an especially emotional guy, more of the macho hold-it-all-in type. But his framing in past episodes as a playboy and a partier led me to believe his home life was unstable or unsupportive. This episode makes it clear that his relationships with his wife and kids certainly aren’t to blame for his unfulfillment in life, and so I’m left wondering: what is? This episode is almost presented as though it’s part of a growth arc, but we haven’t been shown any cause for this apparently sudden change.
Meanwhile, Shepard continues to disdain the press and is clearly amused by Glenn’s picture-perfect posturing. We get a glimpse of why when his visiting father sneers, “Are you going to defeat the Soviets with your press conferences and your photo shoots?”
While Alan’s relationship with his parents is clearly fraught, his father’s final jab hits home primarily because deep down, Alan is wondering the same thing. He joined the program to be a pilot, not a poster child. However, the administration is rapidly growing less and less interested in playing to the astronaut’s egos. I’m guessing the breaking point is coming, especially given the volatile tendencies we’ve seen from Shepard and the others in the past.
Finally, Gordon Cooper’s (Colin O’Donoghue) arc lands at long last, in the first moment of the series so far that has eked an actual emotion out of me. His ex-girlfriend Lurleen’s name was dropped in episode one and never mentioned again; now, we finally get the payoff when she slips Cooper a note asking him to meet her at the hotel on Christmas night.
Instead, Cooper’s wife Trudy (Eloise Mumford) confronts Lurleen (Elizabeth Blackmore) and, later, her husband. It’s a powerful scene that ends with reconciliation: “Trudy, I didn’t get you back so I could go to space. It’s the other way around. The first thing I thought when I got that call from NASA was that maybe, just maybe, it would give me one last shot with you. So yes, I love you.”
It’s the first arc of the season with an actual setup and payoff, and its climax is successful. It resolves the unspoken tension in their relationship since they moved back in together and clarifies Gordon’s previously perplexing motivations in signing up for the space program in the first place.
Unfortunately, the scene is undercut if the viewer’s logic kicks in. Cooper never actually explains his cheating, and in the end, he’s rewarded rather than held accountable. We are left confused by both his actions and Trudy’s fast forgiveness.
Of course, it’s only episode four, far too early to assume this couple will have smooth sailing for the second half of the season. This climax gives me hope, though, that the rest of this show is actually going somewhere.
Meanwhile, a new subplot is introduced as flight director Chris Kraft chafes against the addition of former Nazi engineer Wernher von Braun to his team. Previously irrelevant astronaut Deke Slayton shares a moment with Kraft as he works late to try to uncover what’s been going wrong with their rockets. It feels late in the season to be introducing new characters or giving personality to characters previously ignored, but it’s also a welcome break from our melodramatic leading trio.
Overall, this episode’s focus on character development combines with improved writing to make a far less tense and more enjoyable watch than the last two. I’m hopeful that this trajectory continues as we start to see the various story threads pull together to form a cohesive whole by the end of the season.
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.