Critics keep calling Manhattan the Mad Men of the ‘40s and I keep wincing at how off that description is (never mind that I’ve compared the two myself), but sometimes the shoe fits. “Fatherland” is the Manhattan version of a drug episode where Don Draper recalls some traumatic incident from childhood. Except instead of a chemical high, Frank Winter gets the mindfuck of being locked in an empty cell block at a Japanese internment camp, where he sees visions of Liza and hears phantom music. And instead of dying in childbirth, Frank’s mother abandoned her seven-year-old son to pursue a musical career in Leipzig. Where, when he finally tracked her down as an adult, she called the Gestapo on him. As General Darrow sums Frank up, “You’re ashamed of where you come from.” Well, not where. Whom. Frank was traumatically rejected by his Nazi mom.
The Nazi, as a character, is larger than life. Even when we’ve seen Nazis on Manhattan—the execution of Magpie—it was such an intense moment it’s hard to believe the Nazis are even the same species as the rest of the characters. Nazis don’t sound like an actual enemy force in the real world with the same issues of intelligence-gathering and war-making that everyone else has. They sound like a supervillain’s stormtroopers. As plenty of Breaking Bad commentators observed, Nazis are a comically outsize villain. “Fatherland” confronts brings horror down to Earth—we see Avram Fischer’s murder, we hear about the genocidal goals, we listen to the sympathizer’s justifications. It’s also a rare show set at a Japanese internment camp, a part of American life that’s too often ignored. The problem is treating the episode like a game dilutes the impact. Even the gamemakers, in this case the leaders of the US Army, come off more like Jigsaw the torture-porn villain than creative and desperate human beings.
It’s a joke when Fritz starts yammering about Nazis. “We’re looking for the Nazi version of the Manhattan project, right…” he trails off as the camera focuses on Meeks and gets caught up in a flashback to Fischer’s death. A telling phrase snaps Meeks out of it. “…Nazi Meeks, Nazi Crosley…” Fritz is still babbling. There’s comedy in the dramatic irony of Fritz looking for a Nazi Meeks right in front of Nazi Meeks (in the same episode Frank points out most solutions are hiding in plain sight), but it’s tough to even smile at it after that flashback. Even Meeks is repulsed. And he finds an object for his guilt in a dead animal. Does he consider himself a Nazi? Has he faced up to what he’s doing in those terms? Does he get that he’s already gotten one man and his wife brutally killed? That the ultimate goal of his collaboration is multiple European genocides? At one point it looks like Meeks was somehow able to smuggle Frank’s hand-written equations to the Germans, but that’s just an Army mind game. After “Fatherland,” I’m more worried he’s going to shoot himself than sabotage the bomb when he locks himself in the hangar weeks before Hiroshima.
The next reference is colder, but there’s some cheek in casting Justin Kirk as a Nazi. His name is allegedly Joseph (Josef?) Buker, but it’s probably as fake as Frank’s alias, Charlie Isaacs. Joseph gets locked in the cell block with Frank, and he seems to know what’s going on. They’re a human version of Tosa, a Japanese province where they celebrate dogfights. According to Joseph, the food might be drugged, the winner might get to go free, and there’s probably a reason these two were assigned to each other. Almost none of that turns out to be true, sometimes immediately (there’s no drugged food under their trays, just a gun and a bullet), sometimes in the end (Joseph is actually some kind of intelligence officer testing Frank). But it does make us think we’re seeing a bona fide American Nazi. When Frank accuses him of genocide, Joseph chooses his words very carefully. “I part with Hitler there. I have no complaints with the Jewish people, per se. I ask only for some…open debate about their effect on their host cultures. You’ve seen it. In academia. The conspiracy against good Aryans like us.” Kirk’s meticulous delivery grounds the crazy racist ranting.
After a few more twists in the game, like Frank finally busting open a telephone box to find it completely empty, our exhausted hero tells Joseph the story of his mother. This whole confession depends on the somewhat implausible idea that Frank keeps hearing Johann Scheibe’s “Mourning Cantata For King Frederik,” but then again Frank gets ragged pretty quickly. What’s more, Joseph may have just been pretending it was all in Frank’s head when it was actually being broadcast in the distance. We don’t really know. But in the end Frank doesn’t know Scheibe because he’s a Nazi. He knows Scheibe because his mother was a Nazi pianist. Not a bad reason to suspect him (also there’s his recorded confession), but still. Eventually Frank “passes out,” playing dead for tactical advantage, and when Joseph comes over to check on him, Frank grabs the gun and prepares to shoot him. I wonder if Frank’s willingness to kill a Nazi is a point in his favor. At the very least I don’t expect that particular expendable enemy to weigh on Frank the way his World War I memories do. At any rate, Joseph basically snaps his fingers and Ashton comes out with the camera crew and Frank discovers how punk’d he was.
But they don’t let him go. They believe his story that he’s just the spurned son of a Nazi pianist and that he’s probably not helping the Germans. At least, I think they do. After that episode it’s hard to trust anything. Frank’s driving concern this whole time is to alert the senior brass that the Germans are using his math, which he knows because he used the letters in his daughter’s name for variables, and according to some photos, whaddyaknow, the Germans are using the exact same variables. So for most of the episode you’re thinking whenever Frank gets out, at least he’ll know there’s a fox in the henhouse. But that alleged German math wasn’t German at all. It was just pictures of Frank’s math. It was a trap. So now Frank is back to not knowing there’s a spy on the hill. But that doesn’t matter much anyway at the moment. He’s still locked up. The man who locked him up disappeared. And Charlie’s moving on.
What really gets to Frank in those final moments is that the game didn’t begin when he got locked up in Tosa and it didn’t end when Joseph cries uncle. The game has been going on this whole time. I don’t mean that in a “free your mind” kind of way. The entire Manhattan Project has been manipulated by higher-ups. Season one thrives on the tension between security (compartmentalization) and science (collaboration), the careful control of who knows what when. That’s what “Fatherland” is all about, the way game theory relies on known unknowns and the way a single false premise (or, like, eight of them as the case may be) brings your knowledge tower tumbling down. Now Frank finds out the Germans aren’t any closer to a bomb than they are. The ticking clock that keeps Frank up at night is just a tool to increase productivity. It’s about time Frank realizes he’s just a rat in a maze.
- “Fatherland” is written by Scott Brown and directed by Dan Attias. And stars John Benjamin Hickey. I’m so happy Frank’s back.
- Fischer’s alive again! And now he’s dead again.
- Frank discovers the Germans are using his equations. “They’re building their bomb on the back of my goddamn math.” As Liza says, it’s turtles all the way down.
- Speaking of which, Olivia Williams is almost as unhinged as John Benjamin Hickey this week. If they’re gonna get to go this wild, it might be more fun to keep them apart for a while.
- How are the letters in “Callie” variables in Frank’s equations when C, i, and e are existing constants?
- Charlie dispatches the old implosion team to set up a test search for WAMD, which is the old term for WMD. In “Perestroika,” there was a whole to-do about Helen, Fritz, Paul, and Jim being promoted now that implosion won. They were all going to be heads of different sections of the lab. But now they’re back to being the B-team again?
- When Frank wonders aloud if there’s a phone in the cell block, Joseph almost pities him. “I don’t think they’re gonna give you your phone call.” Kirk is hilarious even on innocuous lines. I hope he gets to be the new Fischer. “You must know where Scheibe’s experiencing a resurgence right now?” Frank doesn’t get it at first. “What, Germany?” Joseph gives him a duh look. “Yeah!”