This week’s episode of Manhattan gives us a case study in how small compromises can eat away at a person’s integrity over time—as Jim Meeks makes a critical choice, that transforms him from well-meaning spy to true villain.
Tongues are still wagging about a rumored spy on the Hill and the murdered security agent. A maid named Marisol Vargas (Candice Costello) overhears the gossip. She comes forward with the news that her 10-year-old son, Pablo (Peyton Witt) saw a mysterious man burying something in the desert. Sure enough, when Darrow and his crew investigate, they find a small tin box containing a Hershey bar, with a coded message written inside the wrapper. That wrapper also contains traces of polonium, a radioactive element only 23 workers in the tech area would have reason to use—among them Jim Meeks. What’s more, Pablo says he would recognize the man if he saw him in a lineup. So all 23 receive a notice to show up at the medical clinic for a “blood test.”
This sends Nora into a panic: she knows it’s really a lineup. First she tells Meeks to leave the Hill and go to a safe house in Texas, but she is too late. Darrow has already prohibited any technical staff from leaving the base until further notice, forcing her to consider more drastic measures. Nora has another accomplice on the Hill, a man identified only as The Handler (Victor Talmadge), and he gives her a couple of extra cyanide tablets, reminding Nora that their families back in Russia will suffer if they fail in their mission. It’s clear young Pablo is in trouble.
Meeks protests when he hears the plan to poison a bottle of orange soda and give it to Pablo: “He’s just a boy!” But for Nora, an atomic bomb will harm many more ten-year-old boys in Japanese target cities if they don’t stop the Trinity Test. He tries to buy time with a counter-plan which—it must be said—really sucks. He visits Marisol after dark behind the house where she works, in a very bad disguise, pretending to be from the Bureau of Indian Affairs. He tells her Pablo will be relocated to a boarding academy in Pennsylvania in exchange for his testimony, with a new foster family, since if he testifies he won’t be safe on the Hill, and Marisol will never see her son again.
Unfortunately for Meeks, he is a terrible actor and Marisol is no fool. She demands to see his credentials, and things quickly escalate. She pulls a knife and shoves him onto the ground as he protests that he’s trying to help: “If you say another word to anyone, you’re dead. Your kid too.” Small wonder she interprets that as a threat instead of a warning.
By the time Meeks is escorted to the clinic for the lineup, he’s convinced his goose is cooked, especially when he sees Pablo brought in, clutching a bottle of (poisoned) orange soda Nora has given to him. Plan B is underway. In the end, Meeks intervenes, barging into the room and “accidentally” breaking the bottle of soda, saving the boy’s life. Pablo looks at him closely as he picks up the pieces —then shakes his head “No” when Darrow asks if he recognizes him.
So Meeks has dodged that particular bullet—or so he thinks. Backstage that night, preparing for his big debut as Koko, the Lord High Executioner in The Mikado, he realizes his pitch pipe (he’s been using it constantly to practice for this night) is missing from his pocket. Meanwhile, Fritz’s WAC wife, Jeannie (Lauren Myers), takes Pablo back to his mother, and a clearly terrified Marisol tells her they will be leaving the Hill for good. Pablo finds a pitch pipe in the yard, where it fell when Meeks fled the scene, and Jeannie begins to realize that her husband’s BFF—the best man at their recent wedding—is not who he seems.
But she still can’t quite believe it, which is why she makes the unwise decision to confront Meeks backstage during the intermission. He comes up with a lame story about how someone must have stolen the pitch pipe. When she doesn’t buy it and asks if he’s the spy, he tries to convince her that Fritz had recruited him to sabotage the project before he’d met Jeannie. She wavers then—but not for long. She trusts the man she married (with good reason.) She calls Meeks a liar and runs off, warning him, “Stay away from me!”
And thus does Jeannie seal her death warrant, because of course Nora overhears the conversation. Act II of the Mikado is about to start. She tells Meeks to go back to his performance: “I’ll take care of it.” When Meeks asks what she will do, she just gives him a hard look and stalks off. And Meeks? Once again, he hesitates—but not for long. And then he goes back to playing Koko onstage, with an unsuspecting Fritz smiling and laughing in the audience, as Nora clocks poor Jeannie on the head among the clotheslines.
There are sins of commission, and sins of omission. Thus far, Meeks has been able to rationalize most of the deaths that have occurred (Sid Liao, Avram Fischer). After all, it’s not like he’s killed anyone—he leaves the sins of commission to Nora and her cohorts lurking in the shadows while he stands helplessly by. This moment is a major turning point for Meeks. Sure, he takes action to save Pablo, but he then makes the conscious choice not to save Jeannie from Nora to save his own skin. He can try to rationalize this death away just like the others, but now there really is innocent blood on his hands. He’s become the Lord High Executioner that he thought he was only playing onstage.
In one final irony, we get a look at a sketch artist’s depiction of the man Pablo saw, and it wasn’t Meeks after all. It was the Handler.
Elsewhere in this episode:
- Poor Helen Prins made it to the elite G Group for all of 24 hours, before siding with Frank in last week’s protest. Now she’s back on the B team working on the gun model. But she has a new love interest: a patent lawyer named Stan Javits who actually read her 1938 paper on thorium and expresses his admiration for her as a scientist. That may be true, but he seems pretty aware of her as a woman, too.
Out at the Trinity Site, the tower that will hold the Gadget is taking shape, and Frank Winter is among the soldiers helping to build it. He’s still angry that there’s no scientist on President Truman’s Target Committee, but the ever-cheerful Fritz is just happy he and the other tech area workers now get a bit of hazard pay. But he is wondering why Colonel Darrow didn’t outright court-martial Frank for last week’s insubordination.
- Liza arrives at the site to conduct her study on the health effects of radiation. She’s been seeing Woody, the embedded reporter (he even sent her flowers on her first day onsite), and isn’t thrilled at being so close to Frank again, even though they’re still technically married. Liza is only allotted two GIs to assist her in gathering plant specimens in the area, and they really aren’t into the assignment, coming back empty-handed. “You couldn’t find sage brush. In the desert,” a disgusted Liza observes. They shrug. And then she sees several sheafs of all the plants she needed— courtesy of Frank, of course, his own way of giving her a bouquet.
- Abby’s religious revival deepens, encouraged by the equally zealous Darrow. She visits him, seeking penance because she feels responsible for the suicide of Foppie’s mistress, Jean Tatlock, and is convinced this is why “God” took her child. He tells her there are better paths to redemption. There is an oddly touching bond developing between them, although Abby really should heed her husband’s warning: “He’s not your friend.”