What It Should Have Been All Along: “The Right Stuff” Episode Five Hits All The Storytelling Beats

by Breanna Beers

[Editor’s Note: The following contains major spoilers for “The Right Stuff” Season 1, Episode 5]

As we enter the second half of the series, “The Right Stuff” is only improving. Episode five is by far the most engaging, most suspenseful and most cohesive watch of the show so far.

Up to this point, each episode in this series has felt disconnected from the others. While their isolated vignettes are supposed to be pushing the plot along, there’s never the satisfaction of feeling the story really going anywhere. We’re spending time with characters but not really investing in them.

By contrast, episode five not only contributes to the development of the overall story but also has its own self-contained arc with a gratifying beginning, middle and end. Yet instead of being isolated from the larger story, it builds on previous episodes, contributes to the show’s overall theme, and effectively sets up the second half of the series. I cared more about what happened in this one episode than the previous four combined.

The filmmaking in this episode is radically improved, especially compared to the first three episodes. We actually stick with our characters in one location for several minutes rather than jumping every 30 seconds from character to character in wildly different contexts. We have the time to commit to an emotional buildup and payoff, to actually see our characters interact with one another, and to have a coherent story instead of a collection of anecdotes.

Honestly, before this episode, I had forgotten that the main tension of the show was supposed to be about which member of the Mercury Seven would be chosen to go to space first. The astronauts (and the show, for that matter) have gotten so caught up in petty drama and self-indulgent navel-gazing that the actual reason for their competitive posturing got lost somewhere in the mix.

The episode opens with an (albeit melodramatic) vignette of the astronauts waiting for the administration’s announcement before cutting to three days prior. This conference room scene bookends the episode. It’s not a shockingly original technique, but it is deployed effectively to serve a strong purpose within the story.

First, it resets the primary motivation that will drive the story forward, tying the conflict of the episode into the broader theme of the series. The primary arc of the episode begins with a focus on the astronauts’ tense but growing camaraderie. When competitiveness later destroys that trust, the specific moment is connected back to the arc of the show as a whole.

Additionally, those two identical shots at the beginning and end of the episode highlight the significance of the context we’ve been given in the intervening forty minutes. A scene that initially provided incidental information at the beginning carries intense emotional weight now that we’ve seen the events that lead up to it.

Episode five made me unambiguously root for characters I previously wasn’t sure I even liked. For once, we get to see the astronauts enjoying each other outside of the context of clubs, women and immature, egotistical competition. Instead, they escape a publicity party to share a drink around a campfire and tell pilot stories.

Wonder of wonders, John Glenn (Patrick J. Adams) even joins them, and not only that, he even drinks something that isn’t water! He’s vulnerable instead of posturing in their conversation, and the team responds well, validating him instead of tearing him down.

In fact, this scene allows a cathartic character moment for each of our three protagonists: we see Glenn included, Gordon Cooper (Colin O’Donoghue) forgiven, and Alan Shepard (Jake McDorman) brooding. Yet it happens with all the astronauts together rather than in solo vignettes, a brief moment of friendship that feels relieving more than anything else. It’s one of the longest scenes in the show so far at a full six and a half minutes, and it earns every second of it.

Then, later that night, Shepard knocks on Glenn’s hotel room door: “I messed up. I did something stupid. … John, this could ruin the program.” Shepard, in his characteristic fashion, got drunk, got a woman and got caught—by a photographer for the San Diego Herald, who said he would run the story the next morning.

Glenn’s response? “I’m going to take care of it.” He calms Shepard down and sends him back to his room to sleep. Glenn, meanwhile, stays on the phone all night trying to reach the Herald. He finally reaches the Herald’s editor and begs him to drop the story with his characteristic eloquence: “The news is the first draft of history. Think about that last draft of history. The one that never gets rewritten. Think about what you want that to say.”

In a way, the entire exchange between Shepard and Glenn feels comforting. It’s a release of tension to see them respect each other. It matters for Shepard to admit his mistake, let alone to trust Glenn or even think to come to him. And it matters for Glenn to help him, and to do so with discretion. It feels like not only a positive exchange but a growth moment for them both.

The next morning, though, Glenn gathers the team for what is basically a lecture. Initially, he comes across as preachy, albeit self-aware: “We all know I’m a square, but I do understand the allure of the female form.” (This is a moment where Glenn’s eloquence hurts rather than helps him.) He avoids using Shepard’s name when he talks about “something [that] happened last night,” but Shepard speaks up and owns it, again demonstrating responsibility for his actions.

Glenn’s point, though, is that their conduct matters: “We’re heroes here. We haven’t even done anything yet, but that’s how folks see us and all we’ve got to do is not screw that up.” He doesn’t just want to say it; he wants them to agree. 

When Shepard quietly thanks him in an effort to end the sermon, Glenn becomes agitated: “Do you all understand what I’m saying, though?” He wants them to understand that it took him work to cover their mistakes—and as he continues, it becomes clear that he’s not just thinking of the previous night. He calls out the other guys as well, including his friend Cooper. 

During Glenn’s frustrated rant, he mentions that he called NASA PR rep John “Shorty” Powers in his efforts to track down the Herald reporter. Shepard, who had been humbly reserved up to this point, is infuriated, thinking Glenn brought his misconduct to NASA in an attempt to sabotage him: “I can’t believe you, John. This is about being first.”

The episode leaves the truth of this allegation ambiguous. When we saw Glenn call Shorty earlier, he didn’t mention Shepard’s name, referring more generally to “one of the guys.” However, Glenn doesn’t bring this up in answer to Shepard’s accusations, possibly indicating that there’s more to the story that we didn’t see.

Regardless of whether it truly was strategic or not, the tables are turned on Glenn. Already frustrated by how much he has to do to “help” the others, he’s now accused of betraying them. Rather than his characteristic self-control, however, his suppressed resentment comes bubbling explosively to the surface. He openly admits that he thinks he’s better than the rest of the team and practically demands their gratitude in return. Shepard’s final quiet response speaks volumes: “I trusted you, John, and you stood against me. It’ll probably work. You probably will be first. But the men in this room, all of us, will know what you did to get there.”

Anyone with a conscience can feel the crushing blow that response deals, perhaps deservedly, to Glenn. It’s the feeling of exposure and vulnerability. It’s the feeling of knowing you’ve lost respect, integrity and trust that might be impossible to ever regain, no matter what you do. For a man like Glenn who cares about legacy, that’s everything. Even if he is the first man in space, the nagging thought that it’ll be viewed as unearned will embitter what would otherwise be a moment of victory.

This is when we return to the conference room from the opening scene. Where at the outset of the episode, NASA director Bob Gilruth (Patrick Fischler) had to tell us the astronauts were anxious, we now feel the many layers of tension filling the room as the Seven sit down together for the first time since Glenn’s outburst. We feel that tension spike when they’re told that Gilruth isn’t announcing the first three men in space; he’s asking them to vote on it. 

I felt the disquiet in that room even as a space nerd who knows how the story ends. That’s how you know you’ve succeeded in storytelling. 

Similarly, the subplot of Trudy and Gordon Cooper’s relationship followed its own mini-arc in this episode while also contributing to the development of their respective characters within the context of the entire show. Their romance is nothing short of reassuring. There’s tension there, certainly; Trudy’s longing but defeatist attitudes toward women in flight come through loud and clear. But rather than excusing Gordon or making him a feminist’s villain, the show lets him react with nuance—initially hesitant but ultimately supportive.

Of course, this episode is not above criticism. The show has generally struggled to write believable dialogue between women. The opportunities for it here are too few to really trace whether that’s improved. Trudy’s interaction with Jerrie Cobb (Mamie Gummer), a female aviator who underwent astronaut training as part of a privately funded program, was similarly stilted, though not as egregious as her conversation with Annie Glenn in episode two.

Additionally, the show still can’t get me to care about the other four astronauts or even be able to tell them apart. This problem is significant enough that when the astronauts vote on who should be the first three in space, I’m expecting Cooper to make the list, even though I know Gus Grissom was the second American in space.

This isn’t necessarily bad; it makes sense to narrow the list of protagonists. Still, it becomes painfully obvious that the others are purely instrumentalized for the character development of our main three. For instance, Wally Schirra’s (Aaron Staton) grief over a recently deceased friend is primarily an opportunity for Shepard to save him from reporters. Similarly, Gus Grissom’s (Michael Trotter) near-death experience serves mainly as a spotlight for Cooper’s character growth from reckless and self-destructive to responsible and apologetic.

This episode generally handles the theme of celebrity more gracefully than the first half of the series. It’s woven into the story instead of tacked on. All the astronauts are increasingly aware of their role as public figures, and as their fame grows, so too does their cynicism. Even Glenn is annoyed, especially as his efforts fail to pay off in his favor. Where Glenn is tactful, however, Schirra is blunt in his description of the LIFE magazine stories: “They’ve whipped a bunch of bullshit into chocolate cake.”

This episode tells its own story in a way that none of the others yet have, while also participating in the narrative of the series as a whole. Writing, directing, and editing all combine to create a cohesive, emotionally rich plot populated by complex, authentic characters. Whatever “the right stuff” is, episode five is chock full of it. 

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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