Frank’s back, baby! In the course of a single episode he gets an honorable discharge, permission to see his wife, his old place and something similar to his old job, he fixes the gadget, and he gets what he wanted from the target committee, an advocate for a demonstration of force rather than an actual show of it. The first part comes easy. Darrow kept him around all this time, as Frank puts it, as a manufacturer’s warranty. Whenever Charlie screwed up, Frank would be there to fix it. All he has to do then is negotiate.

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That’s the recurring format of scenes in “Human Error,” the episode that introduces Charlie’s scam artist father and pivots on the revelation of two long cons. Every interaction is a negotiation. It’s all about finding the right leverage. When a guilty Jim spends the night with Nora, he finds her notes in the morning detailing the effective methods she uses to manipulate her spies. (Yes, there is another, but she can’t say who thanks to our old friend, compartmentalization.) Jim she manipulates with appeals to the memory of Sid Liao. But she gives up her major piece of leverage over Jim when she tells him her notes were about another Soviet spy. Now that Jim isn’t the only hope for global bipolar hegemony, he thinks Nora and company can do without him. We’ll see how that works out for him.

Abby and Darrow throw the Bible at each other until one of them is forced to acknowledge the other’s righteousness, Liza has to convince Fritz that nuclear reaction byproduct concentrations in plants is relevant to helping people, Hogarth learns in dramatic fashion just how little influence he actually has over Paul. Everyone is trying to figure out what makes everyone else tick so they can use it to their advantage: duty, honor, country, family. The funniest such scene is when Abby goes to see her father-in-law, a scurrilous Brad Garrett as Eli Isaacs, fresh from the Missouri state penitentiary. After a bit of chat, she tells him how important it is to strengthen ties in the Jewish community. Suddenly he turns his Jewishness way up, telling a sob story about how he took his ancestry for granted in prison and throwing some Jewish self-defense into his pitch for an arms business. That’s just good salesmanship. He’s trying to speak her language. In return she pays him to get lost. That’s what she thinks, and I wager she’s right, makes him tick.

Frank’s appeal to Jewish identity is just as gauche. Charlie tells him how everyone’s reacting to Hitler’s suicide. “Guy puts a bullet in his head, everyone acts like it’s Christmas morning.” Frank replies, “More like Hanukkah.” It’s hilarious watching Frank butter Charlie up by telling him how everyone looks up to him. Now I haven’t done all the legwork, but I think it’s safe to say nobody looks up to Charlie Isaacs. I love him, but he’s a condescending little pipsqueak who seems to have forgotten he goes by the grace of Frank Winter. But, like Nora’s second spy, Charlie likes to be flattered. After all, this is a man who comes from a beloved paper he partly plagiarized. A fictional better version of himself is kind of a thing with Charlie. Ultimately Frank gets what he wants from Charlie, an advocate for dropping the bomb away from a civilian population center, but he doesn’t get there by flattery alone. Once Charlie’s good and puffed up, Frank administers a careful one-two punch of appealing to Charlie’s conscience and then shaming him by solving the gadget problem.

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It helps that Frank’s the one who broke it. Well, probably Lazar actually did the breaking, but Frank has been getting around pretty stealthily these last couple episodes. In the final scene Lazar asks, “How long did it take him to figure it out?” Frank responds, “He didn’t. I had to feed him the answer.” Lazar says, “I told you not to bet on that boy.” It’s amazing what Frank gets out of this episode. It’s alchemy. He spins a miscolored detonator into pretty much everything he wanted. It’s all a plot that had been in motion since before the episode began. No wonder he’s so quick to commiserate with Charlie about the sins of leadership at Los Alamos. He confesses to Sid Liao’s death, not quite lamenting that he chose his team over Sid, and it turns out even that confession is a cynical calculation. Leave the comics with Fritz. Frank Winter’s the real man of steel.

Stray observations

  • “Human Error” is written by Mark Lafferty and directed by Julie Ann Robinson.
  • Fritz is in mourning. The official story is Jeannie wandered into a dangerous construction site at night and I guess something fell on her. We first see Fritz in a tight profile in shadow. He can’t even muster up the enthusiasm to witness the first test of the gadget. Things don’t improve from there. He’s sour in his assistance of Liza’s project. He volunteers to eat barium. And at the end he stares at a wedding photo and pulls out a straight razor. Luckily he moves into position over a sink to trim his mustache, if not shave it altogether, but it’s touch and go there for a bit.
  • Helen: “No holding hands, I told you.” Stan the patent lawyer: “I need it for stability. I got an inner ear disorder.” He pretends to be happy with a purely physical relationship in that locker room kind of way, but he really wants an emotional relationship too. “This isn’t real life,” she says. “It’s just some twisted holiday.” But he sees green in her talents. What’s worthless to the US Army atomic bomb project is incredibly lucrative in the oil business. These two could be very happy, or at least very wealthy, together.
  • Three uncomfortable connections: First, Stan and Eli Isaacs are both trying to spin gold from our heroes’ scientific talents, but Eli is a clear-cut case of opportunism. Is Stan too? Second, Nora and Frank both use Sid Liao’s death to manipulate others. That’s not a great look. Third, Hogarth says, “This place was always a safari, not a home,” which sounds a lot like Helen’s “twisted holiday” line. That’s how far she falls to avoid commitment. She becomes Hogarth.
  • While I wish this season were twice as long and we had time to really get a feel for Paul Crosley as a British spy, the end of that plot is very satisfying. Like Frank, Paul’s been playing a long game. For the past five months he’s been working with Darrow to catch Hogarth and his allies at Site X. And just when Hogarth prepares to leave, right after he tells Paul how happy his son will be to see him again despite not actually knowing what happened to Paul’s son, Paul turns the tables and is rewarded with an American citizenship.
  • “That’s good enough, Paul. I hereby declare you a citizen of the United States of America. Welcome home, son.” It’s funny that Darrow cuts off Paul’s oath or whatever, but I’ll be damned if that patriotic tight-ass would actually grant someone citizenship without them saying the exact right words.
  • Paul: “Well, they’ve already invented a novelty cocktail. Hitler’s brains: schnapps and red grenadine.”
  • Nora: “The girl is gone.” Jim: “She has a name.” “It didn’t happen. And you’ll believe that, eventually.”
  • When Frank says that no bomb means no civilian deaths, Charlie says, “No, we have no idea how it’s gonna be used.” He has to believe he isn’t making a weapon to be used on civilians.
  • Someone delivers a message from Abby to Charlie. “She said it’s important.” Charlie opens message, then crumples it. “She has no idea what that word means.”
  • Maybe my favorite line in the episode comes when Frank has a fake House moment brought on by Charlie saying the phrase, “turned around.” Charlie chases him, completely bored by the thought of Frank saving the day and keeping it to himself, and almost whines, “This isn’t a game. If you figured it out, tell me.”

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