Manhattan still doesn’t quite feel like Manhattan yet this year. On the one hand, the producers are sticking to their guns about Frank, refusing to undermine the gravity of their cliffhanger. On the other, Manhattan is such a classical show it wouldn’t be inappropriate to get back into the swing of things as soon as possible. The stickier problem is how much apparently went undone when Frank swapped himself for Charlie. I could let it go when things were fuzzy, but now it’s clear: Helen, Fritz, Jim, and Paul were all on the verge of promotions—if they wanted them; Paul didn’t—but now they’re not even on the short list for Charlie’s test team. Well, Fritz made the cut. The others, three of the five (or seven, given some help from Glen and Charlie) people who worked out implosion on a shoestring plutonium budget aren’t only denied lieutenantships for figuring out how to make an atomic bomb. They don’t even get to see if it works. By the end of “The Threshold,” that’s about to change, and so is Frank’s absence. Manhattan ought to be back to its old self in no time. But Liza’s doctor is right. “Self is a fluid concept.” And “The Threshold” is a mighty example of the show caught between the old state of things and the new one.
Why “The Threshold?” Well, one character is on the threshold of marriage, three are about to be promoted, and the Manhattan project is about to test its gadget. But I think it refers mainly to the physical definition. The 1939 cold open and the 1945 episode as a whole both end with characters crossing the threshold into someone’s house. Albert Einstein’s to be specific. And it’s a kick both times. Leave it to Manhattan to turn Albert Einstein into an exciting cameo. Scientists are celebrities in this world, and despite Liza’s intelligence and Helen’s appeals to morality, it looks like celebrity clout is the only way to save Frank.
There are other houses broached for the first time by new characters, such as Mamie Gummer’s Nora (and, I think, the audience) paying her first visit to Jim’s fabulous studio apartment and the Oppenheimers coming to dinner at the Isaacses’, but there’s also a major scene that takes place across a threshold. After Liza enlists an old flame and current reporter, Griffin Dunne’s Woodrow Lorentzen, in her quest to track down Frank, Darrow has her guarded. By the boy who turned in her daughter, no less. The other guard jokes, “A spy-killer on guard duty. Colonel must really be scared of this broad.” Liza isn’t going to let this pipsqueak with half a chinstrap stop her, so she goads him from the open door. But without looking back, Dunlavey reveals that he’s going to help her. Callie and her aunt, Liza’s sister, are safely in Canada as of that morning. Frank’s in a Crystal City, Texas internment camp. And Dunlavey’s going to smuggle Liza off the hill in his jeep. Boy must feel awfully guilty about Callie. (Although trying to keep Liza Winter under lock and key would be a challenge to any of us.)
Two connected themes of the episode come out in the Dunlavey scene, all the mud these people have tracked into this place, and all the people who know it. There’s a strong sense of sad, shared history among the residents of Redacted, New Mexico, like they set up camp on an Indian graveyard and now it’s haunted. Sid Lao and Reed Akley’s deaths are what motivate Fritz to propose to Jeannie. At the happy event of Fritz’s bachelor party (where someone even reminds us that Helen introduced Fritz and Jeannie), more history comes up. Paul gets too surly for Helen’s liking, so she tells him, “You think I would have made a good wife, Paul? Huh? I didn’t love you.” Katja Herbers doesn’t lean into cruelty or even cruel casual-ness with her voice. She’s just being open and matter of fact, trusting that to be enough. She flashes this look like “there’s nothing else to it.” She just didn’t love him. “I’m sorry.” Paul, on the other hand, gets cruel. “Let’s not delude ourselves, tulip. Love didn’t enter the equation. You traded up for the prince of the project.” And it didn’t even come in handy. He says she slept her way to the bottom and saunters off.
There’s more dirty laundry at Abby Isaacs’ dinner party, including the fact that it all started because Abby eavesdropped on Oppenheimer’s phone call and found out he sees a dominatrix in San Francisco and enjoys Arabian-slave-themed neck ties. I don’t think you’d call a windowsill a threshold except in a figurative sense, but there’s also a killer moment all about the semi-permeable barrier of a window screen. Charlie and Oppenheimer are outside smoking and chatting when Helen walks up shouting about her mistreatment. Suddenly we cut to inside the house, where Abby quietly, deliberately closes the window. And then Neve Campbell’s Kitty Oppenheimer, who can still faintly hear the shouting outside, says, “It is chilly in here, isn’t it?” That should be our first clue that there’s a veneer of politeness, and it can cut both ways. Kitty can let Abby off the hook, that is, acknowledge and join the lie that neither of them can hear Helen Prins talking in front of their husbands about her affair with Abby’s husband. And a moment later Kitty can dump the dirty laundry that Abby “likes the taste of girls.” And all because Abby lost sight of the goal. The whole night to that point had been about snooping into the Oppenheimers’ marriage. When Kitty helps cover for Abby’s embarrassment, she transforms from an object of voyeurism into an actual social companion, and that’s why Abby tells her new friend her husband is cheating on her. The entire pretense of this dinner party comes crashing down when Abby tries to make it real. I’m trying to think of whose advice would be best for Abby, Paul’s line about delusion, Charlie’s about staying out of other people’s marriages, or maybe Glen Babbit’s line to Frank back in 1939. “Some genies belong in their lamps.”
The sense of pretense pervades the episode. Everyone’s crossing the threshold between their fake self and their real one, though almost none use dance therapy to do so. Abby and the Oppenheimers are in a social game, Liza, Lorentzen, and Dunalavey are playing parts in their mission, and Fritz and Jim are literally dressed up as fictional characters, the stars of Planet Comics issue one. Jim’s the one most clearly playing a part. An early scene has Liza triumphantly overlooking from afar a meeting between Darrow and Lorentzen. As exciting as that shot is, it’s equally worrisome when Jim’s the one silently taking notes on the comings and goings of the hill, and he has the aid of his spiffy new 8 mm. camera. You’d think the army would have some strict regulations about recording devices, but the army hasn’t been especially good at any of its functions on base so far.
“The Threshold” is a great, necessary close-up on Jim Meeks. Of the two of them, Fritz was the star last season—swallowing plutonium, hooking up with Jeannie—and Fritz further proves his decency in this episode, refusing to take a promotion because he doesn’t want to work apart from his friends. But for once Fritz doesn’t overshadow Jim. It’s kind of sweet seeing Jim meet a woman, especially given the way he meets her. Paul’s chatting up Nora, Jim’s filming from across the room, and suddenly she just walks away from Paul and makes a beeline for Jim. She looks him up and down in his saber-toothed tiger costume. “D’you kill that bedsheet yourself or what?” After seeing her childish performances on The Good Wife and Ricki And The Flash, Mamie Gummer’s a revelation on Manhattan. She commands her stage, and she wields as much authority with the way she moves as with the way she speaks. At one point Jim starts to chicken out, so she moves inches from his body, invading his personal space, and says, “Did you want me to apologize for the blow job?” Moments later she’s playing scared—of her Soviet handlers—to get Paul to want to protect her, but I never for a second doubt that she’s the one in charge.
After the blow job, Jim asks Nora to the theater. She quotes Shakespeare, and he jokes that she’s so perfect she probably has Planet Comics number one in her purse. Nora methodically reaches for her purse, ratcheting up the tension. She even has that comic? This is unreal. How exciting for Jim. Maybe things could turn out okay? She pulls out half a Hershey’s wrapper. Half the Hershey’s wrapper. Which brings us to the last crucial piece of history in “The Threshold,” how Jim got involved with whoever he got involved with, which it turns out is the Russians. European relatives? Blackmail? No. Better. “I’m not a communist! I only reached out to your associates because the army shot my friend.” It’s the line on foreign intervention creating the terrorists it seeks to neutralize. “If we are the only ones who have [an atomic bomb], we’ll probably blow up the world. But if Stalin has a bomb in his pocket too, the game ends in a draw. It’s a stalemate. Nobody dies.” Jim believes in a bipolar version of Frank’s history of peace. No matter the consequences, everyone’s acting from their conscience. That’s why Abby tells Kitty about the affair, that’s why Helen demands a promotion, that’s why Fritz rejects one, and that’s why Dunlavey and Liza are giving the colonel the run-around to spring a man who confessed to violating the rules of confidentiality in a time of war. Even the spy is trying to do the right thing.
- In January 1939, Liza was a guest of the Seneca Falls Sanatorium. When Frank comes to get her out in April, she’s dancing with another patient, and she gives him a fantastically amused, self-aware look. And that’s nothing next to the dreamy look on her face when she finds out Princeton has a job for her if she wants it.
- “Town council is disbanded.” So there’s another aborted consequence of the season one finale. Why so little follow-through, Manhattan?
- Oppenheimer’s dominatrix: “Bring the neck ties to San Francisco. I’m gonna make you beg for air.”
- Fritz’s romantic proposal: “I know that I’m no war hero or even brave, and I have sciatica…”
- Ultimately Lorentzen gets coopted. “I’ve been hired to write the official chronicle of the Manhattan engineering district. Unfettered access.” Darrow has more resources than Liza.
- Paul: “Meeks had one task: to find a projector for the stag film. I found Wartime Stripper, designed to stiffen the resolve of our service members.” In case you haven’t gathered, that clip is NSFW.
- Helen breaks it down for Charlie: “I had to work 10 times harder than any man to get here. It was just sex, Charlie. Get over it.” Once again, Helen is more comfortable with casual sex than the men and gets punished for it, but I’m not sure I believe it was “just sex.” When she storms off Oppenheimer just says, “Remind me of her name.”
- Now that Jim’s more fleshed out, it’s actually kind of sweet to see his friendship with Fritz. “Let’s go to Jupiter together.” “Bombs away.” Even though it’s partially motivated by espionage, I know, I know.
- “The Threshold” is full of good quotes, but here’s one last exchange between Glen and Liza, respectively: “One thing I know about Frank: He always manages to find a chair when the music stops.” “This one may be electrified.”