We’ve been building up all season for this: Last night, Manhattan ended its second season with a stunning recreation of the historic Trinity Test 70 years ago—and one last innocent casualty of the race to build the bomb.
Stay tuned for my interview with series creator Sam Shaw, for his own thoughts on Manhattan’s second season. Bonus: over the summer I had the chance to interview cast and crew on set about their experiences recreating the Trinity Test for Scientific American. You can watch the resulting video here.
Anyway, spoilers for the finale below....
Last week, budding intelligence agent Paul Crosley figured out that the spy code-named “Brooklyn” was his mild-mannered colleague, Jim Meeks, and now he goes straight to Frank Winter with that information. Frank asks for proof, and Crosley hands him a phone number for Meeks’ supposedly deceased mother (Meeks pretended to attend her funeral to meet his handler). When she answers, Frank is convinced.
He and Crosley rush to the Trinity site, knowing that the only chance to save Meeks from the electric chair is to get to him before he gets to the Gadget. One small problem: neither of them has a pass, and Colonel Darrow thinks Frank is the saboteur, because of his shenanigans with the detonators on the pretest. So he’ll have to sneak onto the site.
Our spy/saboteur, Meeks, is already en route with “Perseus,” a.k.a. the patent lawyer who’s been romancing Helen Prins. Meeks wants to go back to the original plan of simply ensuring the Trinity Test fizzles, rather than Nora’s revised scheme of rigging the Gadget to go off prematurely, killing most of the scientists and military brass before they have a chance to clear the blast perimeter. Perseus is having none of it—and once again, Meeks’ better nature kicks in. When Perseus gets out of the car to check the trunk for his missing site pass, Meeks takes him out of the equation. (It’s unclear whether he knocks him out and locks him in the trunk, or just leaves an unconscious Perseus on the side of the road. We don’t see him for the rest of the episode.)
Helen stole her boyfriend’s site pass, determined to see the test along with everyone else. And Fritz decides to attend, too, telling Liza that it’s what Jeannie would have wanted. So all our main players converge on the site to await the big kaboom.
And then the storm begins—literally and figuratively. This is historically accurate: the weather was dreadful the night of the Trinity Test, raising concerns about high winds scattering radioactive fallout far beyond acceptable limits. On the TV show, it’s Fritz who corners Charlie, asking him to tell Darrow to delay the test. Charlie says he’s sympathetic, but the military is not: “They’re not gonna call the game for rain.”
As Charlie watches the Gadget being raised to the top of its 100-foot tower, he gets a note informing him that Frank sabotaged his pretest, then pretended to help “solve” the problem. (Side note: the series built an exact replica of the original Gadget for the finale, right down to the last connecting wire; all that was missing was the plutonium core.)
This brings us to the season opener, when we saw Meeks volunteer to babysit the Gadget, supposedly to make sure things go off without a hitch, but really intending to mess with the detonators again—and an unsuspecting Charlie approves. A soldier makes sure Meeks is armed for good measure, since Darrow has given orders to arrest Frank Winter on sight, and to use any force necessary should he resist.
Frank manages to sneak onsite anyway and finds Meeks in the tower mid-sabotage, rewiring the firing system so there will be a big bang but no nuclear chain reaction (and also no mass murder of nuclear physicists, because screw you, Perseus). Meeks is panicked enough to draw his gun, as the 90-minute warning rocket goes off. Frank assures him he’s there to help, not stop him.
With 30 minutes left to go, the mass evacuation of the site begins. Frank tells Meeks to go ahead and he’ll finish up—clearly intending to fix Meeks’ sabotage —but Meeks refuses. He intends to stay with the Gadget and end his life as penance for all the lives lost because of him: “It’ll be over in a thousandth of a second.”
Frank needs more time to talk him down, so he wires up the tower to act as a giant radio antenna, picking up interference all the way from Texas. Without a clear channel, the test can’t go forward, and the scientists on the ground halt the clock and scramble to fix their communications. (This also is true to history, minus Frank Winter’s role.) Unfortunately, Meeks figures out what he’s up to and brings out the gun again.
Frank argues that it’s pointless to sabotage the Trinity Test. It won’t stop the Army from dropping a nuclear bomb, because they have Little Boy as a back-up—and Little Boy is already aboard the U.S.S. Indianapolis en route to Tinian island, where none other than Helen Prins will oversee its deployment.
“Somewhere along the line, someone set off a chain reaction,” he tells Meeks. “It’s snowballing exponentially, and nothing you or I do tonight is going to stop it.”
Meeks thinks there is no way out for him; his life is already over. But Frank has a plan: Meeks can cooperate with the government and become a double agent, thereby avoiding execution for treason.
And then Fritz bursts in, having delayed his own evacuation to find his best friend, only to find Meeks holding a gun on Frank. Frank covers for him, telling Fritz he tried to sabotage the Gadget and Meeks stopped him. The three of them work together to fix the wiring—just in time to make it to one of the bunkers beyond the blast perimeter. As the weather finally clears, Fritz radios Charlie with the All Clear with just five minutes left until detonation.
With the whole world about to change—Meeks and Fritz, the uber-geeks, used to liken their idea of the post-bomb age to colonizing Jupiter—Meeks confesses his role in Jeannie’s death to a stricken Fritz, telling Frank, “He deserved the truth.” But the shock of his best friend’s betrayal proves too much: Fritz grabs the gun and trains it on Meeks, with 30 seconds left on the clock. Meeks accepts the judgement, smiling wanly: “See you on Jupiter?”
Then the bomb goes off. As a giant mushroom cloud forms in the sky, a despairing Fritz turns the gun on himself. And... curtain.
So the atomic age dawns, and innocence dies. It’s quite the conclusion to a fantastic second season. I don’t know if Manhattan will get a third season; the ratings haven’t come close to matching the stellar quality of the show, because there is no justice in the world. But I hope so, because there are still a lot of stories to tell. And I’d love to follow these characters (the surviving ones, anyway) into the atomic age.