Events are on the brink of going critical on this week’s episode of Manhattan. Frank Winter tries to rally the scientific troops to his cause—and wrestles with an infamous plutonium core.
There have been way too many accidents in the tech area on the Hill since New Year’s, and Helen gives a rousing speech to her colleagues about the need for more stringent experimental protocols, particularly where the highly dangerous criticality experiments are concerned—one near-accident exposed the scientists working on it to far too high levels of radiation for comfort. “This is what happens when matters of science are left in the hands of politicians and soldiers,” she proclaims, to thunderous applause.
Encouraged, she tries to get a similar response to the news that President Roosevelt is forming a committee to determine when and how the atomic bomb will be used, and on what target. Yet not a single scientist has been appointed, even though they’re the ones actually building the Gadget. This meets with pronounced apathy.
As it turns out, Helen is acting as Frank Winter’s mouthpiece, and he is not impressed by the lack of response. She retorts that the scientists have other things on their minds than politics: “They’re worried they’re gonna get their balls fried off!”
There’s very good reason for concern. The criticality experiments in question are famously known as “tickling the dragon’s tail.” The process involved very carefully bringing two half spheres coated with beryllium around a plutonium core, getting them as close together as possible without letting the two halves touch, thereby “waking the dragon” and setting off a nuclear chain reaction.
These experiments actually did claim the lives of two physicists, albeit after the Trinity Test: Harry K. Daghlian, Jr. in August 1945, and Louis Slotin, in May 1946, both of whom died horribly of radiation sickness within mere days of their exposure. (Kyle Hill at Nerdist has a great account of the so-called “Demon Core.” And Daghlian’s death was dramatized to great effect in the 1989 film Fat Man and Little Boy, via a fictional character based on him.)
When Frank finds out that Roosevelt’s science advisor, Vannevar Bush, will be visiting the Hill, he circulates a petition among all the scientists, and tries to get Helen to slip it to Bush. A disappointingly small number actually sign it, and Charlie finds out about the scheme and reports Frank to Darrow. Frank gets sent out to the desert to do a bit of dragon tickling as punishment.
And then Darrow makes a private call to the Justice Department. His plan is to let Frank “run his BVDs up the flagpole and see who salutes.” That way Darrow will find out who the potential “traitors” are in the tech area; the scientists will betray themselves by their own hands.
Frank realizes his mistake once he gets out to the desert. But how can he get back to the Hill in time to warn Helen to destroy the petition? Clearly he must deliberately botch his work with the demon core, exposing himself to a sufficiently high level of radiation to get him taken off dragon-tickle duty for the rest of the month. We see Frank placing tungsten-carbide bricks around the core, relying on a kind of Geiger counter to measure the radiation levels. Those bricks reflect neutrons. Stack enough of bricks around the plutonium core, and it will go critical.
Frank’s plan succeeds; the alarm sounds, and he is rushed off and hospitalized to be monitored for radiation exposure. But he slips out, rips up the petition, and ends up making a rousing speech in the tech area that inspires a walkout among the scientists. They line up en masse to confront Darrow just as Bush arrives with his military escort. Except the gesture falls flat when news arrives that Roosevelt has died, and vice president Harry Truman has just been sworn in.
In other developments:
- Fritz enlists Liza Winter’s help in setting up a research program to study the effects of radiation sickness, pointing out that he accidentally swallowed a teensy amount of plutonium two years ago (i.e., in Season 1) and “I still make the Geiger counter sing.” But she needs Darrow to approve her security clearance. She’s so effective in impressing upon him the dangers of the criticality experiments that he orders them moved off-base.
- A couple of local fishermen on a rather fetid pond pull up the rusted license plate from a submerged car on their line instead of a fish. Yep, the body of Avram Fischer (a.k.a. Occam) has finally been found, and Darrow is none too pleased about it. There’s a clever callback to actor William Petersen’s C.S.I. days, as Darrow investigates the damage to the long-submerged vehicle.
- Reluctant spy Jim Meeks is part of the chorus for a planned all-male version of Gilbert & Sullivan’s Mikado (think three gentlemen from Japan rather than three little maids from school), and during rehearsal, he gets promoted to the lead role of Koko. Alas, his erstwhile paramour, Nora, who is working as a stagehand, is unimpressed, dismissing the Mikado as “racialist” and reminding him that his only role is gaining Charlie’s trust: “Stick to the script.”
- Helen finally makes it into G Group after an icebreaking drink with Charlie Isaacs — or rather, more of a mutual dumping of drinks in the other’s lap, which dissolves their lingering acrimony into amusement.
- Abby once again stumbles on a secret at the switchboard. This time, she accidentally takes a call from Paul Crosley (at Site X) to Hogarth, intended for another operator, the British-born Constance Faraday. Once the call is patched through, Crosely transmits classified information from Site X to Hogarth.
Abby, naturally, can’t leave well enough alone. She manipulates Crosley into helping her carry a bunch of packages home, and offers him a drink. Just when the oily Brit is convinced he’s going to score — and get back at Charlie for taking Helen away from him — she tells him that she knows about the unlogged calls. “Even Oppenheimer’s calls are logged.” Crosley employs a very effective diversion tactic, insinuating that Charlie has picked up with Helen again.
- In the end, his diversion fails. Abby goes straight to Darrow with what she’s learned, and finally finds a willing ear for her grief over losing the baby. Like Liza, Charlie objects to the notion that Abby lost her baby for a reason, or that her miscarriage was some kind of punishment for her sins: “Things don’t happen for a reason, they just happen.” Spoken like a true physicist. The rigidly devout Darrow, on the other hand, thinks the Hill suffers from a lack of faith, and tells Abby, “Pain is God’s voice reminding you that you’re alive and at his mercy.” He invites her to kneel with him in prayer, and she does so. Awkwardly. Being Jewish and all.
Will Abby convert? Will the scientists get a voice on the newly established Target Committee, now that Truman is president? And just how long can Crosley and Hogarth get away with stealing classified data from Site X, because they are the worst spies ever?