WGN America’s Manhattan ended its critically acclaimed second season with a bang — the detonation of the first nuclear bomb on July 6, 1945. As the series awaits news on whether it will be cancelled or renewed, io9 caught up with creator Sam Shaw to find out how he turned real history into drama.
The broad narrative arc for Season 1 centered on the competition between two designs for a nuclear bomb: implosion and the gun model. (In the end, both were built.) How did you find your narrative arc for Season 2?
We spent a lot of time thinking about what kind of entry point we might give a new viewer. It’s a big ensemble cast of characters, and the moral topography of the world is complicated. We as writers try to construct the season in such a way that by the end, a lot of small detonations in the stories of this big ensemble cast will converge together and create a shock wave that leads to a concussive ending. We construct our own implosion bomb narratively.
Season 2 was all about the race toward this moment when the bomb is something real and material — a weapon of mass destruction. It’s no longer a thought problem or a set of numbers on a blackboard. As an engineering problem it was so incredibly difficult and complicated and it’s so amazing that we built it, in that respect. It’s a triumphant story about ingenuity.
But it’s fascinating to me that these same men and women who were able to wrap their heads around a technical problem that complicated, seemed not to focus very much on how messy the moral issues were. The show has aspects of a spy story and soap opera, but I like to think of it as a moral thriller. This was a season where all the characters had to confront a whole set of complicated moral problems. The hope was that along the way we’d begin to engage with some of those fascinating questions that are at the center of the paradox.
Ashley Zuckerman (“Charlie Isaacs”) on the set of Manhattan.
Charlie Isaacs had one of the most shocking character trajectories, going from a rather naive wunderkind who found the moral implications of the bomb deeply troubling in Season 1, to openly advocating for dropping the bomb on a major city in the heart of Japan. His reasoning: make the destruction so terrible that nobody would dream of doing it again.
The intention was not to take Anakin and turn him into Darth Vader. Charlie, in the very first episode, is a proxy for the audience. He’s the moral conscience of the show. So it made sense to tell a story that brings him to a place where he makes the most morally objectionable argument that anybody makes over the course of the series. Some of that had to do with watching Ash Zuckerman’s performance; there’s a certain darkness to Ash that was really interesting to us. Although I don’t agree with Charlie’s argument to the Target Committee, at least Charlie is honest with himself about what it is that they are building. He may be the most honest person in that room. He’s not going to let anybody hide behind evasive language.
One thing that’s always fascinated me about the Manhattan Project is, how is it that all of these secular humanist, mostly lefty scientists became the authors of this instrument of death? A lot of them came to the project with a great sense of moral urgency that was connected to Germany and Hitler, but then Germany surrendered and they didn’t leave. It became clear that they weren’t involved in a race, there was no other atomic project, and yet they went to work the next morning.
We get blinkered by life. That is something that the scientists from Los Alamos talk about so poetically in The Day After Trinity [a John Else documentary from 1981]: they talk about getting caught in the trap of science and losing sight of the human questions connected with what they were doing.
Manhattan creator Sam Shaw on set with Michael Chernus (“Fritz”) and Christopher Denham (“Jim Meeks”).
Frank Winter tells Meeks in their final face-off that he kept rationalizing all the lesser evils, hoping they would add up to a greater good: “But it’s just bad math. There’s always some variable you can’t account for.” That seems central to this season’s themes. So many characters try to follow their conscience, yet they end up doing morally compromising things, hoping the end will justify the means. And inevitably, they fail.
That was the animating idea for this season. Frank makes this crazy 180-degree turn at the beginning of Season 2 and becomes just as Ahab-like, just as dogged, about trying to put this atomic genie back in the bottle, as he was in Season 1 when he was trying to deliver the bomb. [By the finale] there’s a slightly clearer-eyed Frank, where the wisdom he’s arrived at is, who the fuck do I think I am to be trying to save the world? It’s never worked. He’s always approached history as a kind of math problem he can outsmart if he can just get it right. Maybe two lives surrendered today will save four lives tomorrow. I think he just arrives at a place of weariness and clarity, where he’s not willing to sacrifice anyone else.
Speaking of math problems, one of my favorite scenes was in the second episode, when Frank realizes that the equations from implosion that supposedly came from a German spy were his own. He knows because he’s coded his daughter Callie’s name into the variables. It’s just the sort of thing a physicist would do. What made you think of doing that?
That was a classic piece of puzzle writing. We knew what the shape of the [narrative] lock was: we needed some element in the storytelling to be the key to Frank recognizing that the equations he’s looking at are his own. It couldn’t just be wonky and mathematical, like the difference between an American decimal point and a German decimal point. It needed to be emotional. There is something a little bit self indulgent and sentimental to put that name in the math. As a writer, I may forget my anniversary with my wife, but write a line of dialogue as an homage to some aspect of our relationship — and hope that makes up for other shortcomings. So I love that Frank has the clarity to realize that he hasn’t been the greatest father.
Manhattan director Thomas Schlamme on set with the recreation of the Gadget.
Robert Oppenheimer observed after Trinity that the physicists had “known sin.” Perhaps the most heartbreaking moment of the finale comes in the final seconds: Fritz’s despairing suicide after learning his best friend was responsible (indirectly, at least) for his wife’s death. It’s like he symbolized the death of innocence at the dawn of the atomic age.
It may surprise some viewers that the story comes to such an explosive end in the final minutes of the season. To me that came out of a place of character. Frank offers to Meeks a way out, and this vision for a different kind of life tomorrow on the other side of Trinity, and I think Meeks just couldn’t accept it. And I think Fritz has come to a place where he sees something of the future when he looks off into that horizon, and that’s just not a place where he wants to live.
It was a choice we agonized over. We strike a more existentially dark note at the end of the second season, but it felt like the right note to strike. I’m not an emotional writer. But it was actually physically hard for me to write the end of that season; I kept putting it off, because it was painful. And I think that pain was an indication that it was the right ending.
For all the critical acclaim the show has received, the ratings have never quite hit the same level of success. What are the odds of getting a third season, and what themes might be explored?
The fate of the show is very much in question. Everyone’s talking about peak TV. I know my dance card with my DVR has never been more full, and there are lots of incredible shows that I lose along the way. It’s been tricky for us to find the audience that we think the show deserves, especially at a network that doesn’t have the track record of an FX or an HBO.
But this was never just a show about the first nuclear bomb; the most exciting storytelling is still ahead. It’s not just a question of what happens immediately when the bombs are dropped. The most interesting journey for the characters takes place on the other side of WWII, in this moment when Los Alamos becomes the most famous city in the world and when all of the clarity that they thought they had when they were waging war against fascism is lost. I hope we’ll be able to keep telling their stories.