The first two episodes of Manhattan season two brought explosive plot twists and intense set pieces. This week’s offering, “The Threshold,” is all about strategy, carefully moving the various chess pieces into place for the eventual endgame. And we also learned a lot more about the motives of our unlikely spy, the aptly-named Jim Meeks.
Things appear to be looking up for Meeks after his harrowing body-disposal experience. Okay, he wasn’t selected as part of the elite “G” Group who will be building the prototype implosion Gadget under Charlie Isaacs. In fact, Fritz (Michael Chernus) is the only member of the original implosion group to make the cut, and Fritz wants to turn it down because he’d rather stay with his friends. But Meeks has kind of soured on the whole “spy” endeavor anyway. Being an accessory to murder really isn’t his style.
Following a freak accident in the lab that electrocutes a lowly technician, Fritz decides to seize the day and propose to Jeannie. And he asks Meeks to be his best man. Apparently there was this one time when Fritz had food in his teeth and Meeks was the only one who told him the truth. That makes him Fritz’s best friend for life.
Even better, at the bachelor party, Meeks catches the eye of Nora (Mamie Gummer), a newcomer to the Hill and a member of the Women’s Army Corps (WAC). She ignores the suave, practiced pickup moves of Paul Crosley in favor of Meeks, who gets his first ever blow job behind the barracks while wearing a tiger costume.
But then things take a surprising turn: Nora quotes Julius Caesar and reveals herself to be his new spy contact. Meeks is angry and tells her he’s out of the game. He was never a Communist; he only reached out to the party when the Army shot his friend, Sid Liao. This isn’t just any bomb, the chess-playing Meeks tells Nora, it’s “the Queen—that’s what we’re building for an army that shoots its own citizens.” His reasoning is that giving the bomb to Stalin will result in a balance of power: “the game ends in a draw.” Stalemate. “Nobody dies.”
So Meeks has been trying to do the right thing. But “it didn’t feel that way when I was shoving a body in the trunk of a Buick.” This is news to Nora, who had no idea that the people she was working for had the cojones to murder a government agent. She’s expected to give weekly reports on the information Meeks passes on to her; if he won’t play ball, what will keep them from shooting the messenger? These are the people who killed Avram Fischer, after all. “What do you think they’ll do to a dropout from Pittsburgh, or a scientist who’s got cold feet?”
It seems Meeks has no way out: he might be willing to risk his own life, but not Nora’s. Still, he no longer has access to the really top secret stuff. What’s a reluctant spy to do?
Answer: betray his best friend. Right before the desert wedding ceremony, Meeks urges Fritz to take the plum assignment, and find a way to bring him on board, too. That way he’ll still have access to all that highly classified information, and he and Nora won’t end up dead and dumped in the trunk of a Buick.
Meanwhile, plenty of other maneuvering was taking place among our other characters:
- Helen Prins is furious to discover that she was not selected for G group. After having a few too many drinks at Fritz’s bachelor bash, she angrily confronts Charlie in front of Fake Oppenheimer (a.k.a. Foppie), accusing him of still being hung up over their affair: “I had to work harder than any man to get here. It’s just sex, Charlie. Get over it.” And she lashes out at Foppie too, sneering that everyone knows he was the third choice to run the project. Foppie seems to admire her spirit, because she gets an assignment letter to G group the very next day, signed by Foppie himself.
- Abby breaks protocol and listens in on one of Foppie’s private calls, which just happens to be a racy exchange with his mistress in San Francisco. Charlie tells her mind to her own business, but she can’t resist inviting Foppie and his wife, Kitty (Neve Campbell) to dinner. When the men go outside for a smoke, Abby tries to tell Kitty about the affair, but the other woman cuts her off. Kitty has heard things, too, about Abby’s taste for women: “I do not need marital advice from a deviant.” Ouch.
- A hard-drinking newspaper reporter named Woodrow Lorentzen (Griffin Dunne) has gotten wind of Frank Winter’s disappearance, and Colonel Darrow is none too happy with the article that appears in print. He assumes Liza is the leak—and technically she is, via her daughter Callie. The reporter is a former college lover. But Darrow is no fool; when the reporter shows up at the base, he offers him an exclusive on the Gadget, writing the official chronicle of its development. And Woodrow promptly abandons Liza’s cause, even though she tartly informs him that “they don’t give out Pulitzer Prizes for propaganda.”
- But that’s okay, because Liza finds a new ally in Dunleavy, the soldier who’s in love with her daughter. He tells her Frank is being held in an internment camp in Crystal City, Texas, and he smuggles her off the base. Lisa finds her way to Frank’s old mentor, Glen Babbitt—now in academic exile because he helped Frank last season. He’s not too keen on getting sucked back in, plus he says, “I don’t have any strings left to pull.” Except one: the final shot is Babbitt and Liza visiting Albert Einstein in Princeton—much like Frank insisted on doing back in 1939, when he enlisted Einstein’s help in convincing the government to back the Manhattan Project.
So the chess pieces are moving into place. Will Einstein be able to help spring Frank from his internment camp? Will Fritz succeed in getting Meeks assigned to G group? And will Meeks get any more blow jobs from Nora, now that he knows who and what she is? I’ll be eagerly tuning in next week to find out.