The physicists on the Hill face a crisis of leadership in their quest to build an atomic bomb on this week’s episode of Manhattan, as Robert Oppenheimer contemplates relinquishing the throne for love. And it makes for an interesting case study of the challenges involved in the fictional portrayal of a beloved historical figure.

Spoilers below....

We open with a shot of Faux Oppenheimer (a.k.a. Foppie, played by Daniel London) dressing after an obvious romantic rendezvous. His paramour taunts him from the bathtub. This would be Jean Tatlock, a psychiatrist, whom the real Oppenheimer met when she was a student at UC-Berkeley. Foppie is skirting his duties on the Hill for the sake of love. Meanwhile, back on the Hill, his wife, Kitty (Neve Campbell), is about to give birth to their second child.

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Foppie is so taken with his mistress—despite her bohemian Communist leanings—that he has resolved to leave his wife and the Manhattan Project in hopes of building a new life with Jean. This does not sit well with Charlie Isaacs, who is forced to deal with all the administrative tedium Foppie is avoiding during his San Francisco trysts. Charlie’s wife, Abby, thinks this is a prime professional opportunity for him. Meeks and Nora, the two spies, think it’s wise to encourage a coup since this will delay the building of the Gadget for several months, and extra months count a great deal in a world war.

In fact, pretty much everyone assumes Charlie is angling for Foppie’s job (including Foppie), but Charlie really just wants to head the implosion group and focus on science. He’s not temperamentally suited to the administrative role that Foppie inhabits so well. So he tells General Darrow about Foppie’s affair and his plans to leave the Hill. The general already seems to know about it. Even Kitty tells him it’s no use: Jean has that strong a hold on him. It’s looking more and more like Foppie will leave the Hill and name Charlie as his successor.

In the end, Abby believes Charlie when he insists Foppie is the only person who can run the Manhattan Project, and intervenes, thanks to her job as a switchboard operator. She places a call to Jean, initially pretending to be a reporter from Redbook magazine, and quizzes Jean about her romantic life. When Jean catches on, Abby pretends to be Kitty, telling Jean she is about to have their second child—something Foppie had failed to mention—and swearing Foppie doesn’t really love her and she will never see her paramour again.

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When Foppie next tries to call Jean, a man’s voice answers — one of the policemen processing Jean’s home because she has committed suicide. Or did she? In the scene just before, Charlie tells General Darrow that if the military can make Frank Winter disappear, the mistress of a physicist should pose no problem. It is left to the viewer to ponder whether Jean’s suicide is due to Abby’s meddling, Darrow’s maneuvering, or the woman’s own tragic instability.

It’s rather touching to see Foppie’s pain when he learns of her death—the most nakedly vulnerable this character has been so far. Clearly he will now be staying on the Hill, at great emotional cost.

I expect some folks will find this depiction of Oppenheimer disturbing, but physicists are just as flawed and complicated as the rest of us, and Oppie was no exception. I.I. Rabi, who knew him well, once said he was made of “splinters of a man that he was never able to integrate into a single personality.”

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I did a bit of fact-checking with Alex Wellerstein, the history consultant for Manhattan. He told me that Oppenheimer did consider quitting the project a few times, mostly because the pressure on him was enormous and he constantly feared he would fail. His friends talked him out of quitting each time. The military certainly knew about his affairs, and his many Communist associates; head honcho General Groves intervened repeatedly on his behalf because the race for the bomb was so urgent.

Oppie’s daughter, Toni, was born in December 1944; Jean Tatlock died in January of that year, almost a year earlier, and 19 months before the Trinity Test, compared to six months on the show. And while the FBI did tap her phone, all that graphic sex talk between Foppie and Jean is the work of the writers. But the real Oppenheimer’s grief over her loss ran deep—he may have named the Trinity site in her memory—and there really were several fishy things about her cause of death. According to Wellerstein, these are “not just brandished by cranks.” He puts the possibility of a staged suicide “in the realm of ‘plausible but lacking firm evidence.’”

I was sure Kitty’s story about the cyanide apple Oppie made to poison one of his professors was pure fiction, but Wellerstein said it’s a story often told about Oppenheimer, although whether it’s true is hotly contested by historians. At the time, Oppenheimer was a young, insecure grad student under a future Nobel Prize winning physicist named P.M.S. Blackett, and not doing particularly well as an experimental physicist. It was only when he went to Europe to study physics theory that he gained confidence and transformed into the Oppie we know and love.

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“In short, they do take some liberties, and they change the timeline a bit,” Wellerstein said via email. “But many of the things here are ‘inspired by’ real events in one way or another, but not strictly based on them, of course.”

Personally I think this episode is a fine example of successfully skirting that thin line between historical fact and fictional dramatization—right down to Jean Tatlock’s love for the poetry of John Donne and her (unsigned) suicide note. We only catch a glimpse of the text, but it’s clearly the same wording:

“I wanted to live and to give and got paralyzed somehow. I tried like hell to understand and couldn’t... I think I would have been a liability all my life — at least I could take away the burden of a paralyzed soul from a fighting world.”

As for the other plot developments:

  • The gun model isn’t quite dead yet! That letter from Foppie that Helen received last week assigned her to head up the group. Helen insists the gun model could still work. “The problem with Thin Man wasn’t the gun, it was the bullet,” she declares. Swap out plutonium for uranium as the fuel, and the design could work.
  • This is precisely how the U.S. ended up with two different bomb designs (Fat Man and Little Boy). Now Helen just has to get the team to follow a woman, instead of the lazy, lecherous William Hogarth. Technically she answers to him, and he thinks it would take far too long to manufacture enough enriched uranium for a bomb. His attitude is, “We’re here to wank out numbers until the implosion group gets its ticker tape parade.” I predict the show will follow history, and Helen will get her way.
  • Speaking of Hogarth, you might recall that the British physicist has an acrimonious history with Paul Crosley, who lied about having aristocratic lineage to bed Hogarth’s daughter and then abandoned her and his infant son. Crosley asks Hogarth to fire him, since his attempts to get transferred have failed. Hogarth prefers to watch Crosley twist in the wind. But eventually he assigns him as liaison to Site X (the future Oak Ridge National Laboratory), the reactor facility where the uranium and plutonium is being made.
  • Liza’s appeal to Einstein worked, and Frank has been released. He emerges from his Texas prison to find her waiting for him, with plans to return to their quiet academic life in Princeton. Frank wants to go back to the Hill, though he’s persona non grata there—even as news come over the radio that U.S. troops have invaded Germany. Yes, it is is “D-Day.” Eventually Liza relents and agrees to drive him to the gate. When they get there, Frank has a change of heart: he tells Liza this time, it’s her decision. And once again, she gives in. The last shot is him showing up at Charlie Isaacs’ home. “They told me you were dead,” a shocked Charlie says. And Frank retorts, “They lied.”

For those new to the series, I highly recommend catching up on Season 1, readily available on DVD or via streaming on Hulu. Alternatively, I recapped all the episodes for Scientific American last year.