A-OK: “The Right Stuff” Season Finale Splashes Down Without Fanfare

by Breanna Beers

[Editor’s Note: The following contains minor spoilers for “The Right Stuff” Season 1, Episode 8]

The eighth and final episode of National Geographic’s Disney+ exclusive series “The Right Stuff” closes season one with cynical commentary plastered over with a thin veneer of hope. The end of the episode leaves the characters with more tension than resolution.

The first 20 minutes of the episode are relatively straightforward: the same launch sequence copied and pasted from a thousand other space shows. There’s the swell of music as the astronaut boards, the delays on the launch pad, the anxiety in mission control, the shaky cam and clanging metal under staticky radio communication, and the long silence after capsule re-entry followed by triumphant  celebration as the astronaut’s voice comes through with the all-clear.

There’s not much in the way of character development in the first half of this episode. Alan Shepard (Jake McDorman) conveys a mixture of confidence and nerves; more than anything, he’s simply eager. Meanwhile, John Glenn (Patrick J. Adams) clearly feels the heaviness of not being the one to go even as he wishes Shepard well and prays for his success. They share a small joke and a reconciliatory handshake as Shepard boards the capsule, maybe indicating that their heated rooftop exchange in the last episode was cathartic for them both.

While this show has highlighted the thinness of the glamour surrounding the space program, it hasn’t focused much on what’s really there. We’ve seen the fragility of the program’s personnel and politics, and we’ve even been shown a few rocket explosions. Yet like most important facets of the plot, the audience has been told rather than shown how clunky the engineering really is. Thus, rather than tying up that plot thread, the little challenges during the launch are more historical easter eggs rather than narrative payoffs. Yes, Shepard did urinate in his suit. Yes, there was a washer floating inside the capsule. Yes, a carbon filter did get stuck over the periscope. This sort of feeds into the second half of the episode, but mostly, it just draws out a sequence that’s already too long.

Of course, the suspenseful launch sequence is an inevitable space-race cliche; the problem here is that it’s not well-executed, serving only to remind the audience of all the times they’ve seen it done better.  Moreover, there was the opportunity for this sequence to add to the character development and themes built up over the last seven episodes. As historical dramatization, it doesn’t even have the tension of suspense. Instead, the scene feels like a requisite inclusion meant merely to propel us into the second half of the episode, the part when the things we care about can happen.

Mainly, that means tying up  all the narrative loose ends. After the flight, Shepard and Glenn share an honest conversation. Surprisingly, Shepard is disappointed with his experience: “The truth is, the simulator felt more real than the real thing. … I bet it looked a whole lot better on television than it did inside the capsule.”

It’s nice to see them interact with one another without blatant hostility, at least at the beginning of the scene. Now that the launch is over, they’re no longer competitors. They still have inflated egos and divergent worldviews, but they’re also two of a select group and share similar aspirations. 

However, the writing remains as stilted as ever, as most lines clearly address the audience more than each other. The actors almost manage to make up for it, especially with McDorman’s portrayal of Shepard as vulnerable and defeated before his shift into the deeper darkness. That’s where the scene gets uncomfortable for me: “I think I am my hunger. And if you take that away, there’s not much left.… It doesn’t matter what you want, John. You are me. You are your hunger. And you know it.”

It’s a dark place for their relationship to end, and it’s never really further addressed. Is this supposed to be a commentary on ambition? And if so, what is it trying to say? Glenn tries to argue that the value of family is even more significant than space, but I’m not sure where that argument was in episode five when he worked through Christmas or episode six when he went against Annie and behind Shepard’s back. Additionally, this conversation is one part of the story that is not only not historically accurate (Shepard never seemed to retract his press comment about the thrill of weightlessness), but also feels jarringly out of character.

This conversation, this episode, and this series are all confused when it comes to tone and message. It seems a little like the Disney brand might be a bit at war with the production team’s vision. Is this supposed to be a cheesy lesson on the value of family over fame or a cynical take on ambition, celebrity and the patriarchy? 

Even the portrayal of Glenn throughout the series reflects this: is he our moral hero or a sanctimonious egoist? Similarly, Shepard has been alternately portrayed as a licentious, selfish jerk and the only honest guy in the room. If I wanted to be gracious, I could argue that this is a powerful reflection of how different personalities can be perceived differently from different perspectives, the fickle nature of the media, or even a meta twist on the show’s theme of artificiality. Honestly, though, it feels to me more like the accidental byproduct of a confused vision. As I’ve said before, this show clearly wants to say something; it’s just never really settled on what.

The Coopers’ story similarly reflects this muddled messaging. Gordon (Colin O’Donoghue) comes home to find Trudy’s packed suitcases. Despite his pleading with her to stay, she’s firm: “How would I explain to my daughters why I stay with a man who disrespects me so much?” Later, we see where Gordon ends up: sleeping with someone else, awake in the middle of the night with his anger, having lost not only his marriage but also possibly his position in the Mercury program. 

Meanwhile, Trudy (Eloise Mumford) is denied her place in Jerrie Cobb’s female astronaut corp, first for her husband’s comments, then for being separated from him. Later, though, we see her teaching her daughter how to fly. The episode ends on an extended shot of their plane disappearing into a perfect blue sky.

It’s an ambiguous ending, to say the least. Gordon remains in a dark place, and Trudy is prevented by the abstract patriarchy as well as her husband’s own sexist comments from realizing her dreams. Yet the plane and her daughter are clearly meant to symbolize hope. This would be powerful if only we had any real reason to believe it.

On the bright side, during this obligatory wrapping-up of all the subplots, we see Deke settling into his new office as Chief of Astronauts (although I would imagine this administrative position is small consolation given he’ll never go to space). Meanwhile, Kennedy announces his intentions to put a man on the moon, and I couldn’t help but laugh at the surprise of the NASA directors. Both Glenn and Shepard lean in intently as they watch the news from home.

This closing montage is full of hints like this at a second season. Critical reception has generally been mixed, and there’s no official announcement from Disney+ yet. However, the show was given a significant tax credit to move production from Los Angeles to San Diego, a major incentive that could push the team over the edge on renewal. Additionally, Disney+ remains a relatively new streaming platform, so the company might be motivated to continue production just to fill out its library of originals. 

There’s certainly more story to tell when it comes to the space program; I’d love to see new characters and themes brought in. I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Coopers dropped, since their story historically doesn’t really get happier from here. However, the ending montage seems to intentionally leave room to either continue with the current characters or shift the focus to new ones, depending on how audiences react.

For instance, we see Shepard and Louise (Shannon Lucio) reunited. Alan actually apologizes to his wife, and they share a quiet moment together. She hasn’t forgiven him, but she clearly still loves him. Her last line was a little dark and confusing, though: “I think that if I left [Alan] it would probably kill me. But that doesn’t mean that I would never do it.” That night, Shepard’s inner ear condition flares up, and it is suggested that NASA will be notified of his disease. It would be a nice twist for the show to follow him through what happens after his astronaut career is cut short, but it seems unlikely.

Meanwhile, Glenn goes to NASA director James Webb to ask to be the first to the moon with a classically inspiring patriotic speech. It’s the hunger Shepard described. Yet later, we see him home with Annie (Nora Zehetner). She’s surprised how well he handled launch day; he replies that coming home to her and the kids is what matters, reflecting what he said to Shepard earlier. It’s a sweet scene, but undercut by what happened in Webb’s office. It’s portrayed as honest, yet I can’t help wondering how genuine his claim of contentment really is, whether he’s only satisfied because he might have the chance to do something historic, to beat Shepard in the race for a legacy.

These scenes are meant to wrap up these stories, but most aren’t happy endings. I’m not complaining about history; I’m okay with sad endings if it’s at least the satisfaction of a set-up. Instead, many of these moments feel hollow. Most of the characters are exactly where they were at the beginning: Glenn is happily married to Annie but wishing for something more, Shepard has been to space but still dissatisfied, Louise is devoted to an unfaithful husband, Cooper is lost, and Trudy is a single mom.

 Meanwhile, there are a number of subplots that simply got dropped: Dee O’Hara’s role, Cooper’s PTSD and Shepard’s family issues. This is for the best in one sense, since they didn’t necessarily fit well with the general plot of the show, but on the other hand, why were they set up in the first place?

Overall, this episode was one of the most straightforward and one of the most forgettable. The series has played with this theme of artifice throughout, but while it has portrayed the glamour as a facade, it has failed to convincingly show us what exists beneath. Even so, if the show is renewed for a second season, I’ll probably be here to watch it. Despite the stiff writing and confused tone, I’m curious enough to be willing to keep following these characters.

I’ll be even more interested if the production team takes an entirely new direction. I feel like more than anything, I’m invested in the show’s potential. While overall the series has been trying hard and coming up short, the little successes have been enough to keep me going. I feel like the production team is still finding its creative voice; if it ever does, there’s the possibility of something really good. For now, at least, I’m willing to wait and see, but I’m hanging on more to promises than the product itself.

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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