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Manhattan gets wild off the record

Illustration for article titled iManhattan/i gets wild off the record
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“The World Of Tomorrow” is the story of the story of the Manhattan project. That’s not a typo. It’s the episode where Lorentzen’s official history is written. A couple other recent shows revolve around discrepancies between the historical record and a fuller description of what actually happened. Outlander contrasts history books with a time-traveler’s lived experience of those events, and it plays a momentous lashing scene different ways with different meanings. Game Of Thrones is more methodical. With secrets that don’t come out for years and a day-to-day close-up on the people quietly manipulating the people who technically wield the decision-making power of the kingdom, it’s all about the differences between how governance appears and how it actually works.

“The World Of Tomorrow” is looser. It’s a chronicle of the last half of 1944 told in separate subjective episodes by different characters. Which seems straightforward enough, although let’s not downplay the exciting “six months later” cut to Frank in an Army hat leaning against a tree. Season one has ghosts. Season two has time travel. But then at the end, the episode shows its hand with the anachronism of a “Colorblind” cover as the official story puts a happy face on the Manhattan project. Lorentzen says it’s easy to bend the narrative toward a biography of a great man. “But those stories are myths.” Synonyms keep popping up to clue us in, like when Frank says Darrow’s full of fables. After all, this episode is the direct aftermath of Frank telling Charlie, “They lied,” meaning the higher-ups, the officials, the powers that be. Frank also accuses Lorentzen of writing propaganda, but Lorentzen surprises him and us by wanting to know the real story. He’s not half bad at this.


Or maybe he is half bad, or half good to you optimists. He sees through the façade but doesn’t make it to the inner sanctum. After all, it’s a slippery episode. Even at the end of this exposé, the episode keeps some secrets from us, like what exactly is going on between Lorentzen and Liza. It’s almost impressive that Lorentzen doesn’t just take the party line. “Here we find men whose achievements will be snatched for the glory of others, whose sacrifices will be forgotten for detritus.” That leads him to reject Paul’s version of how the uranium problem got solved (Oppenheimer came in one day with a solution), but he opts for the explanation that Frank figured it out and anonymously tipped Oppenheimer off, which gives a fuller but not the fullest picture of events. Because for some reason Loretnzen buys into a self-described myth. He thinks the Manhattan project really is a Great Man narrative, just not about Oppenheimer.

If what we’re seeing during that story is what actually happened as opposed to another fabrication, then the visuals undermine Lorentzen’s story. We’ve already seen Lorentzen get Frank’s enlistment wrong. That wasn’t to keep him around so he could help out. That was a sentence. Darrow’s running a prison for Paul and Liza and now Frank. Maybe the goal of this season isn’t to build a bomb but to break out of jail. Anyway, Lorentzen’s wrong about Frank solving the uranium model, because Helen’s right there with him at the chalkboards, taking turns working out equations. That’s when you realize it’s too late in the episode for Helen to get an interview. Her accomplishments won’t make the cut, and she’s head of the gun group. She’s the woman in charge of Little Boy. Frank, Fritz, Jim, and Paul get to throw in their version of events, as Fritz says, to get their names on the record. Helen doesn’t. And, knowing Helen, that wasn’t her decision. That was an oversight on Lorentzen’s part.

The episode doesn’t call attention to Helen getting written out of the story. That’s kind of the point. Instead the big dramatic punches go to the men. Paul finds out the reason Hogarth promoted him over Helen is because he’s English. “Information is the new gunpowder. Information is the future. And Britain needs a future.” He takes a drink for emphasis. “You need a future.” He wants Paul to help him protect the interests of the Home Office while working on the gun model bomb, which Lorentzen tells us in December is named Little Boy. To lure Paul, Hogarth dangles his daughter Lucy and their (Lucy and Paul’s) son Henry. “So help me, Paul. You won’t just go home a man. You’ll go home a father.” Which brings him to a heck of an act-break line. “You’ll go home to your little boy.”

The way this season is going, I suspect Lucy and Henry aren’t exactly as Hogarth described. But given “your little boy” is the carrot to get Paul on board and at the end of the year the bomb is called Little Boy, it looks like Paul fell for it anyway. So now two of our five scientists are working with a foreign government. The natural follow-up is to wonder what the implosion bomb is called (Fat Man) and how it got that name (Fritz), but again, “The World Of Tomorrow” has its secrets.


The third inkling that “The World Of Tomorrow” is playing with us, after Frank’s line that “it’s all science fiction” and the time jump, is a moment of huge cognitive dissonance. Darrow strolls into the barracks where Frank is outranked by Dunlavey, a bizarre enough situation as it is (especially given Frank served in the first world war), and he’s happy to report that some of the grunts are being deployed to the front lines, including Dunlavey. The men cheer. Dunlavey couldn’t be happier. My reaction was about the opposite: “Oh, no.” And I didn’t even know the history well enough to know the Battle Of Saipan would be over before our December 1944 deadline. At that point, we don’t even know Dunlavey is being sent to Saipan as a way to punish Frank for visiting Liza against Darrow’s orders. The story is that Dunlavey wanted to see some action and he’s getting his wish. No need to dig deeper.

The final montage resonates exactly like that but in five different ways. “Colorblind” sets the mood. Lorentzen’s story plays against the shots of what actually happened. Even though he thinks he’s dug deeper than Darrow would have liked, he’s only halfway there. He seems to think he’s restoring dignity to these guys. Cut to a shot of Jim moping at the bar on New Year’s Eve. Later there’s a happy countdown to 1945. The countdown alone is a heavy symbol on a show about the nuclear bombs that dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. And at last Frank gets a package from Dunlavey, only it’s not from our boy, Iowa. It’s from a loved one returning Frank’s lighter. Apparently Dunlavey was killed in action and died a heroic death, another official history no doubt. Then we see Liza’s reaction to being caught with Lorentzen by her husband. Frank’s in no mood for accusations, but the body language is clear enough. So the episode ends with this encapsulation of cognitive dissonance, the Winters hugging and crying against the patriotic lights and festive revelry all around them. From a distance it looks like they’re dancing.


Stray observations

  • “The World Of Tomorrow” is written by Mark Lafferty and directed by Daniel Stern.
  • Charlie: “The gadget’s an inevitability.” That’s what I’ve been saying.
  • There’s a great Western scene on location against these huge fluffy clouds featuring the return of Peter Stormare’s Lazar. All of a sudden some ranchers with guns show up to threaten the scientists to get off their land. Apparently these guys ignored five different summonses to appear before a judge, so eminent domain kicked in. Charlie doesn’t flinch at the gun in his face, but Frank’s the one who saves the day, telling them to bet that the government has more money than time to waste arguing about the value of the land. “If you’re wrong about this…” one of them begins but Frank cuts him off. “I’m not wrong.”

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