WGN America’s Manhattan is basically Mad Men with atomic bombs, and it’s a brilliant show. Last night, the series returned, after an explosive season 1 finale that left viewers hanging as to the fates of several major characters. And it’s better than ever.
I’m pleased to report that this show’s season premiere showcases all the strengths that made Manhattan a critics’ darling: close attention to historical detail, bringing the era vividly to life; respecting scientific accuracy without sacrificing the story; a stellar ensemble cast with crackling chemistry; and top-notch writing. .
For those who haven’t seen to the show—Manhattan has the dubious distinction of being the best new series hardly anyone watched last year—it details the birth of the first atomic bomb (the “Gadget”) in the shadow of the staggering death toll of World War II. The future Los Alamos National Laboratory is just an unmapped, top-secret makeshift military camp (the “Hill”) in the New Mexican desert, where some of the greatest minds in physics struggle to overcome the daunting technical challenges in a race against Germany’s own such project. Whoever gets there first, wins the war.
But the series is about so much more than that. It’s ultimately about the human factor, exploring the tension between national security in a time of war and the right to privacy, and the toll this conflict can take on relationships and families. These scientists (who are mostly fictional, despite the historic setting) are brilliant but flawed, and they wrestle not just with the pressure of producing the most powerful weapon ever conceived, but also with the intrinsic ethical issues. Must peace come at such a high human cost?
Just to get everyone caught up, here’s a recap of what happened in Season 1:
On the Hill, everyone has just one burning question: where is Frank Winter (John Benjamin Hickey)? The prickly physicist sacrificed himself for the greater good—and also to atone for some of the sins he committed during his single-minded pursuit of getting his implosion model to work. We last saw him being carted off the Hill with a burlap sack over his head. The official story is that he’s been “transferred” to a different top-secret site. Nobody believes this, but they can’t prove their former boss has been “disappeared.” The episode’s title is “Damnatio Memoriae,” or “condemnation of memory” — it’s how the Romans used to punish traitors to the realm, by essentially erasing them from memory, as if they had never existed. But Frank has always inspired loyalty, despite his many flaws; his people aren’t willing to forget.
Nobody wants to find Frank more than Charlie Isaacs (Ashley Zukerman), the ambitious young physicist who found himself heading the whole shebang when Frank’s career imploded. Charlie is young and lacks the older man’s brash confidence—a major detriment, when faced with a roomful of skeptical physicists and an impatient military. In desperation, he turns to the mysterious Occam (Richard Schiff), the calm yet ruthless government interrogator who spread suspicion and distrust throughout the camp, in his pursuit of a suspected spy passing classified information to the Nazis.
The meeting doesn’t go quite as Charlie planned. Occam insinuates that Frank is dead, but Charlie doesn’t believe him (neither do I). He then tries to earn the younger man’s trust by pulling away the veil that shrouds his past: we learn he is from a tiny region in Eastern Europe, a haven for Jews, that had been wiped out by Hitler’s troops. And then he tells Charlie his full name: Avram Fischer.
I can’t help but feel this was his first mistake, because there is power in a name. “Occam” loomed so large as a menacing presence in Season 1 in part because he was never named—not until the finale, when Oppenheimer briefly addressed him as “Mr. Fischer.”
Occam knows perfectly well where Frank is, but he’s more interested at the moment in Jim Meeks (Chris Denham), a young scientist in Frank’s group. Frank may have taken the fall, but Meeks really is the suspected spy on the Hill. His motives remain murky, but clearly he wants to sabotage the Manhattan Project and prevent a nuclear bomb from being built. When Meeks learns that Charlie intends to make the bomb happen in the next 15 months, he panics and sends a coded message to his contact—using his copy of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, of course (et tu, Brute?).
And this is where Occam makes his second mistake: he tails Meeks, alone, to the remote drop site and confronts him with being a spy. Hasn’t this man heard of backup? He probably didn’t think the shy, nebbish-y physicist posed much of a physical threat.
But he doesn’t account for Meeks’ secret contact. And he forgets to roll up his window. People, always roll up your car window during tense clandestine meetings in remote locations with suspected spies. The accomplice strangles Occam through that window as Meeks looks on, frozen in horror. Occam puts up a good fight—it’s a brutal, ugly struggle—but in the end, he’s killed with his own gun.
R.I.P. Avram Fischer, we barely knew ye.
Here are the highlights from the rest of the episode:
- Charlie and his wife, Abby (Rachel Brosnahan), are estranged after their respective affairs. He is still seeing Helen Prins (Katja Herbers), the sole female physicist on the Hill, unaware that Abby is pregnant with their second child. Abby was considering an abortion, but when Charlie learns the truth, he begs her to try and salvage their marriage.
- Helen’s jilted suitor, Paul Crosley (Harry Lloyd), is angling for a transfer so he doesn’t have to work for Charlie. But the sympathetic Colonel Cox has been replaced by the hard-nosed Colonel Emmet Darrow, played by none other than C.S.I.’s William Petersen. Darrow refuses to sign the transfer, chiding Crosley for putting personal issues above the needs of the nation. He also seems to be a bit of a religious fanatic.
- Liza Winter (Olivia Williams) knows something bad has happened to her husband; if he’d really been transferred he’d have a taken a change of clothes. Colonel Darrow confirms as much, and informs her she cannot leave the base because Frank told her about the Gadget, making her a security risk. The only way to help Frank in his “re-education” at an undisclosed location is for Liza to stop causing trouble and be a good citizen on the Hill.
- However, Frank and Liza’s teenaged daughter, Callie, knows nothing about the bomb, and is summarily shipped off at Liza’s insistence. But she plays an offstage role as her father’s mathematical muse. When Crosley is perusing the equations Frank left behind on the blackboard, he notes Frank’s whimsical choice of letters for his variables: C, A, L, L, I, E. Show runner Sam Shaw is a master of planting the seemingly insignificant detail that later turns out to be relevant after all. This seems like one of those details.
- Everyone’s favorite plutonium-inhaling scientist, Fritz (Michael Chernus), had precious little to do this week, save serve as a foil to move the plot forward. He was planning on proposing to his “working girl” paramour, Jeannie; will she still charge him for “dates” after they’re married? And given how tight he is with the duplicitous Meeks, he’s probably in for a rude awakening when he discovers his friend’s betrayal.
- Fictional Oppenheimer (let’s call him “Foppie”) continues to be kind of a sphinx-like jerk.
- There is now no doubt that the seasonal arc will build toward the famous Trinity Test in July 1945 — a fitting choice, since 2015 marked the 70th anniversary. The episode opens and closes with a flash forward to the eve of the test: a dark and stormy night (literally!) as Charlie and his fellow physicists scramble to ensure that everything is in place as the countdown begins. Frank Winter isn’t there, and General Morrow gives orders to arrest him on sight (shooting to kill if necessary) if he shows up. But Meeks is there, volunteering to babysit the Gadget and make sure all the detonators are connected, when he’s secretly still intent on sabotaging the whole project. “You want someone you can trust,” he tells Charlie. Hah! Fade to black as the countdown begins.
My prediction: we’re in for one hell of a ride.