I can’t believe Manhattan gave us a season premiere without the star of the show. Absence defines “Damnatio Memoriae,” named for the Roman practice of denying a person’s existence in memory, but none so much as the shadow of Frank Winter. Frank’s the one with the vision and grit Charlie Isaacs is looking for, and he’s the one whose absence pulls all the main characters together. Fritz knows there’s something fishy about his departure, Charlie convenes a meeting of the team (sans Jim, who’s presumably dealing with “his mother’s death”), and Liza tries to raise hell about her husband until she realizes her daughter’s gone AWOL too. For a split-second Jim’s handler resembles Frank, but maybe I was just seeing what I wanted to see. Instead we get a completely different phantom Frank: his voice on that fateful recording, spilling secrets to his wife. At the time it was a desperate stab at selflessness. In “Damnatio Memoriae,” it reveals one last color: Frank has inadvertently given the Army leverage over Liza. He wasn’t just sacrificing himself for his people with that recording. He was leaving them in a new world of his own making.
What’s really spooky is how the premiere gradually introduces changes like prefab walls going up all around, slowly penning the heroes in. Mark Moses’ tough but reasonable Colonel Cox has been “redeployed,” which is high in the running for the episode’s watchword. Akley’s dead, Glen’s gone, Frank’s God knows where, within 36 hours a regular is dispatched and a major recurring character is murdered, and now Cox is gone, too. As Fritz says, “I don’t even know who we’re serving.” There’s a new colonel on site (William Petersen joining the fantastic Emmy-winning title credits as Emmett Darrow), and he’s prone to power trips specifically regarding who gets to stay and who gets to go. Our first real taste of Darrow is when he makes Paul drop to his knees to beg Jesus for forgiveness so he can be transferred away from Charlie and Helen. “What is the nature of your sin?” Darrow asks. “I don’t know.” “Yes you do. It’s weakness.” Request denied. Petersen’s space in the title credits bumps Alexia Fast out. Daniel Stern’s gone too, but that’s in continuity. Dismissing the Winters’ daughter with barely a face double is a troubling sign for her parents’ prominence. Finally, there’s Helen saying they’re not even sure Oppenheimer knows where Frank is. Without Frank, Glen Babbitt, or Colonel Cox, there’s nothing comforting or even familiar about the power dynamic at the hill, the new guy in charge doesn’t come off all that approachable, and the way people are forced to leave or stay is completely out of their individual hands. By the end the protagonists of the episode, Charlie and Liza, wind up in a figurative cell no closer to finding Frank than when the episode began, and possibly even further. At least they’re together.
Power looks good on Charlie. Last year, even when he was manipulating Thin Man, he was working for Frank, and the stress would just harry him. It’s notable that when both designs failed, in that chilling moment at Frank’s door, Charlie’s the one who asked what to do and Frank’s the one who decided to get to work. Now Charlie’s running implosion, which Oppenheimer and the War Department have put all their resources behind. (That’s a more backgrounded part of the power dynamic on-site, but an important one: The camp has been completely restructured from its competing labs to one giant bureaucracy with Charlie at the top of the middle.) And the fact that there’s nobody pulling the strings, no hand in his ass, nobody else’s words coming out of his mouth, it leaves everything on Charlie’s shoulders. He doesn’t have a choice. He can’t get overwhelmed now. That’s what made Frank such a shark, and it’s what’s getting Charlie to start throwing his weight around. “You have any idea who you’re talking to?” he asks the telephone operator trying to spare him some grief.
But he does have limits. The whole point of Frank falling on his sword for Charlie was that Charlie was supposed to be better able to do the political stuff, to sell implosion to the government. That quality is not really on display in “Damnatio Memoriae,” although it is Charlie’s first week. He’s only beginning to realize how much power he has. I’m not so sure Frank could have stared Oppenheimer down and told everyone what happened to Charlie if their situations were reversed, like they nearly were. And if he can’t stand up to power, how could you expect Charlie to?
Charlie starts to tell the truth about Frank, giving into his conscience after a climactic meeting with Liza. They share the stage all too briefly, but it’s a powerful moment seeing the two leads together at last. Charlie says almost nothing, because he has a lot to lose. Liza gives him some maybe crucial info about Frank—“He even left his security badge. Does that sound like a transfer to you?”—before being hauled off by guards. If there was any doubt before, now Charlie knows Frank hasn’t just been redeployed. But the most he can do is remind everyone that Frank is the only one who knew implosion was the way forward. He doesn’t say the government put a bag over his head and marched him off to some black site. Instead he tells everyone that Frank’s okay, he’s working on a secret project, and Charlie spoke to him himself. Helen’s right. She knows implosion better than Charlie and stands at least as good a chance of standing up to power. When Charlie veers into the lie, she just rolls her eyes and walks away.
Best case scenario: Charlie’s covering his tracks. He’s talked up the name Frank Winter, and he’s assured everyone that he’s fine, creating some nice conditions for him to continue his quest in secret. After all, our scientist-heroes adapting to and manipulating the protocols of the government forces on base is pretty much how season one worked, and building cover out of a big, public lie is the climax of the season. Maybe Charlie has a plan. But all we know for sure is 15 months down the line, Frank’s persona non grata at Los Alamos.
Without Frank, Manhattan loses a sense of mission. He’s the one haunted by the costs of war, wracked with personal guilt, determined to build this bomb no matter who he has to trample. It isn’t fair to say Charlie and Liza are more distractable, but they give more urgent thought to their loved ones. Frank sees the big picture. He’s Manhattan’s gravitas. Charlie has some big shoes to fill.
- “Damnatio Memoriae” is written by creator Sam Shaw and directed by Thomas Schlamme.
- Outside reading: I liked this piece by Alex Wellerstein on what it was like to be a historical consultant for Manhattan. I wouldn’t say the show is noir though, exactly. Like I said last season, these protagonists are more heroic, and obviously they will succeed in some fashion. But notice how Charlie describes his infidelity, like there’s an enormous cultural pressure to behave a certain way under the conditions of Los Alamos. Like he was being inexorably pulled down the drain.
- The episode is bookended in flash-forwards to July 16, 1945, 21 days before the Hiroshima bombing. Sometimes the fictionalization of the history works in the show’s favor, but I think reminding us that Hiroshima is inevitable and just around the corner takes some of the drama out of the final sight, Jim holding a gun and shutting himself in (and us out of) the building housing the test bomb. Best thing about the future: Charlie as master of his domain.
- Back in the “present,” Charlie’s reading Mein Kampf…in bed with Helen. Respect.
- In the final montage of season one, Abby clutches her stomach looking at her kid’s bedroom. Now we have confirmation: She’s pregnant and extremely conflicted about it.
- Charlie: “I can’t take credit for someone else’s work.” Oppenheimer shoots him a smirk and says, “Glen Babbitt gave an interesting exit interview.” Oppenheimer’s the one guy in power we know already, but as always, he’s distant, less an ally than an absentee parent type. And as Helen reminds Charlie, Oppenheimer put him in charge because he thinks he’ll make a good puppet.
- Great image of Liza slamming the door. I don’t know if it’s reasonable that force would have shattered the glass, but it makes her look like the star of a broken family photo.
- Another one: Oppenheimer’s giant silhouette overseeing baby Charlie.
- Abby: “Is it true that you were going to have a baby, and then you didn’t?” Helen: “Charlie told you that?” Glad to see Manhattan is still covering social issues of the ‘40s. One of the strengths of the first season is how it’s about a community, not just the big heroes but everyone supporting the endeavor. Helen asks, “You had an affair? Who’s the guy?” “You don’t know him.” Aww. Notice it takes Helen to say the word, “abortion.” I wonder if there were any restrictions on that.
- Another great thing about Manhattan is how democratic intelligence is. Everyone gets to be smart in his or her own way. That’s what makes the standoffs so great. Charlie: “I don’t think you’re a spook. I think you’re a bureaucrat. I think you’re the guy at the border checkpoint asking for papers.” Then on his way out, Fischer congratulates Charlie on the baby he doesn’t know Abby’s (not) having.
- Those “Manhattan Set Secrets” interstitials sure sounded like they were going to be about something else. There was a whole episode about Frank and Abby going at it like rabbits after all.
- Liza: “Premarital sex was not invented in 1944.”
- Private Dunlavey on Callie: “She’s the most perfect person I’ve ever met.” He’s such a child.
- Darrow: “Your husband is at another site proving his loyalty to his country. You can help him by proving that you can be a discreet, productive member of this community.” The bureaucratic menace.
- RIP X-4 aka Occam aka Avram Fischer. He died as he lived, aiming at the wrong guy.