by Breanna Beers
[Editor’s Note: The following contains minor spoilers for “The Right Stuff” Season 1, Episode 3]
The cracks in everybody’s armor are starting to show. Episode three of “The Right Stuff” develops characters in compelling ways, but suffers from uninspired writing and choppy editing.
John Glenn’s (Patrick J. Adams) articulate geniality has always set him apart from the rest of the team, but, seemingly for the first time, it’s not in a good way. First, he can’t take a harmless prank from a fellow astronaut. Later, when he volunteers to represent the project to a visiting Congressman, flight director Chris Kraft (Eric Ladin) shoots him down: “Be a team player, John.”
His distance from his peers is not only due to his charm in front of the camera, however, but also to his moral standards. Despite Cooper’s urging to join the rest of the team, Glenn repeatedly turns down the offer to go clubbing with the other astronauts: “You sit that close to the fire, you’re bound to get burned.” Instead, he goes to church alone.
How much of his moral decision-making is about internal character vs. external expectations? John Glenn signed up for the Mercury project knowing the astronauts would be icons, and where his peers take advantage of that, Glenn wants to live up to it. It’s not yet clear whether his motivations are rooted in integrity or image.
While his saintliness initially comes across as holier-than-thou, we start to sympathize with Glenn as we see his loneliness in Florida. He wants to matter: we see this in his desire to “fix it” when the team is disappointed, his “how was that?” after dropping a quote to the LIFE journalist, and his searching for community at church (which ultimately only results in further temptation). This is why he wanted to go to space in the first place. It’s a longing that goes deeper than mere attention; it’s a longing for significance.
Glenn is by far the most situationally aware of all the astronauts, but ironically, his self-awareness is low. He’s still trying to find his way, but lacks the honesty to let himself really be seen by those around him. This episode exposes that vulnerability in a way that starts to give at least a little bit of personality to that perfect hero we saw in episodes one and two.
Meanwhile, Alan Shepard (Jake McDorman) remains arrogant and unlikeable, but in this episode he finally manages to win some sympathy. Maybe it’s because the other astronauts are showing themselves to be just as womanizing and volatile as he is. Maybe it’s because his motivations are at least unpretentious. Or maybe it’s because he finally shows us something close to honesty.
In episode two, Shepard made it very clear that he didn’t join Mercury for the glory; he joined to fly. He’s uninterested in charming the press or his peers; he’s banking on his skills as a pilot. “Compared to the stuff we do [as test pilots], it [the astronaut training] is a breeze,” he boasts to a reporter.
So when he finds himself unable to control his vertigo on the weightlessness simulation machine, he’s shaken. His playboy machismo falls away and he slips into the training center to practice alone at night. For once, he’s working for something, and it’s something we can root for instead of cringe at. Until, of course, he starts flirting with the cute nurse who works the night shift, with whom he later exchanges a meaningful glance in front of his visiting wife.
It’s still better than what we suddenly start to see from the rest of the team, though. While Shepard buckles down in determination, Gordon Cooper (Colin O’Donoghue) goes off the rails. In a scene reminiscent of “Say No to This” from “Hamilton,” he ends up in a pool with an undressed woman from the club, clearly uncomfortable but unable to look away until the other astronauts interrupt. He also gets in a fistfight with fellow astronaut Gus Grishom (Michael Trotter). Cooper is a pendulum swinging wildly, and I’m not entirely sure where his arc is going.
As promised, this is a story about celebrity more than it is about space. Within the story, the astronauts are told the same thing about their role when the Mercury capsule is delivered without windows. “How are we going to fly if we can’t see?” The answer? “You don’t.” The capsule is controlled from the ground. In Shepard’s words: “We’re spam in a damn can.”
It’s one more example of the artifice being constructed around these seven men. Yes, they’re training for launch, but the real work is being done by the engineers who design the rockets and the mission control team who flies them. Yes, their stories are being written, but they’re being written through a filter. Shepard says “Make it sound good,” to the LIFE reporter at the start of the episode; the journalist responds, “You can always rewrite me if I don’t.” Even the dresses their wives wear to the test launch are dictated by the administration.
The Seven were selected to give America heroes. Who they actually were and what they actually did was, at the time, secondary to that role.
Of course, I’m only speculating on where the show is going from here. But if this is what they’re trying to convey, it’s a rather cynical take for a Disney+ original. The thing is, cynicism only works if there’s something to be said. I’m not sure this retelling adds anything new to the historical narrative around these seven men. But if it’s not contributing to the dialogue, it needs to be judged on its storytelling merits, and the jury is still out on whether it can even do that successfully.
These characters and their motivations are compelling. The acting throughout the series has been satisfactory, but they’re working with a mediocre script. Every line is either bland or far too direct, like the characters are speaking for the benefit of the audience rather than to each other.
This problem is compounded by the editing style, jumping between different perspectives in various locations seemingly every minute. This keeps the story moving, but also diminishes the emotional impact of each individual thread.
Similarly, these themes of celebrity and artifice have great potential, but their development has so far been muddled and inconsistent. Ultimately, I’m not sure this show knows who it’s for. Its handling of sex, for instance, is the strangest dance between a celebrity exposé and the Disney brand that you can imagine.
Right now, this show is lacking the right stuff for me. It’s not actively bad; it just feels a little lost. If it can recover these story arcs and tie up the loose ends with powerful payoffs, it will be worth it. That said, if a bingeable watch with a cohesive story that only satisfies at the end was the producers’ goal, they should have released the episodes all at once rather than doling them out week by week.
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.