Maybe it’s Thomas Schlamme and Richard Schiff, but I can’t get The West Wing out my head. It starts with the fact that our good guys are heroes, not antiheroes. Dr. Frank Winter is closer to Dr. John Thackery than Thack is to Walter White, but Frank falls on the hero side of the line. As with those men, Frank is all about his own goals, but not just to stroke his ego. The World War I flashbacks, the monthly death toll on his mind, the monologues about ending war altogether—Frank’s in it for the cause. Dr. Akley’s the one who’s all about personal glory. The writers even compromise Charlie ever so delicately, first with the plagiarized paragraph and later by chaining our assessment of his brilliance around Akley’s leg. Manhattan is a Sorkinian vision of the world: a genuine great man leading a team of bantering experts in an extraordinarily ambitious project with the weight of the world on their shoulders.
Only Manhattan is more aware of its heroes’ failings, or at least more aware of what those failings really mean. Frank’s so monomaniacal (and John Benjamin Hickey’s so fantastically grim) that he can eventually shrug off Charlie’s date with a firing squad, and I don’t for a second believe it’s out of character. I also don’t believe Charlie’s going to endure capital punishment, but that’s another story.
For most of “Perestroika,” it looks like Manhattan is going to be the kind of show where the Big Stuff happens in the penultimate episode—R.I.P. Dr. Akley (and David Harbour’s killer performance, although if being a ghost never stopped Eddie Shin from popping up, I don’t see why Harbour can’t keep inviting himself over to nag Charlie into fixing Thin Man)—and the finale is a coda that collects the pieces. Other than Charlie getting picked up, and I realize that’s a big “other than,” the episode devotes most of its time to slowly, methodically rearranging the cast for season two.
Since Thin Man is dead, Implosion gets to move into the corner office. Helen, Fritz, that other one (Jim Meeks, who is about to do his first important thing all season), and potentially Paul are now division heads working for Frank. Glen’s outta here on Oppenheimer’s orders. Rose Akley’s leaving, too, off to spearhead some dating site. Liza won her town council seat in a landslide, so that ought to bring her closer to the action next year, pending whatever happens to Frank, that is. Much as I appreciate the parallels between Liza and Olivia Williams, both dragged to New Mexico without much to do, this story of a sharp scientist forced to sit on her thumbs never quite got enough heft to resonate the way other subplots, like Abby and Elodie, did. Liza Winter embodies the two major themes of “Perestroika,” potential energy and sacrifice, but that’s all under the surface. It’s Glen whose sacrifice leads to Frank’s, not the woman who’s right next to him every night. Anyhow, “Perestroika” sets the stage for season two, give or take a Charlie, and we can be pretty sure Frank will eventually concoct a solution to save Charlie anyway.
Which is what happens, but so not in the way I expected that my eyes are watering all over again. Here’s the truth about Charlie: Occam, which is ironically the name of Richard Schiff’s convoluted witch hunter, has it half right. He knows—or is pretty sure, anyway—that Charlie violated compartmentalization. He thinks Charlie may have been tying up Army resources intended for their big shining star in the second-string project, which is an unworkable pipe dream anyway. In other words, it looks like Charlie was sabotaging Thin Man. From there Occam jumps to Charlie selling secrets to the Germans to free his wife’s European relatives. Allow Abby to summarize: “They think that a Jew from East St. Louis is passing military secrets to the people who want to exterminate us.”
Manhattan is a hero drama with a sense of irony. That irony isn’t as fine as on Mad Men, but at its core Manhattan is a show about building a big enough weapon to end industrial violence. Frank has waxed poetic about it before, but my ears are still ringing from his speech to Liza. It’s not an accident that he tells her about the atom bomb in answer to the question, “What’s wrong?” Manhattan runs on these provocative contradictions.
“We’re building an atomic bomb. It’ll set off a chain reaction that will explode with the power of 20,000 tons of TNT…Powerful enough to wipe cities off the map.”
“Cities full of people, children,” she points out.
“The Army will detonate it some place where it can’t hurt anyone. And when the Axis sees what we’re capable of, they will have no choice. They’ll have to surrender. And then there will never be another war. That’s what we’re doing behind those fences. We’re writing the prologue to a new era. A history of peace.”
It’s a beautiful, unworkable pipe dream. I don’t know enough of the history to know if it’s reasonable for him to expect the Army to detonate nukes as a demonstration, but Frank’s smart enough to know the alternatives. He’s smart enough to imagine his weapon isn’t going to not kill people. He even served in the war to end all wars, and look what happened a couple decades later. There’s good reason to be skeptical of Frank’s speech here. It’s a little too simplistic for Frank Winters, isn’t it?
At first, the speech is a natural capper for this coda episode, crystallizing the worldview behind everything. Despite Glen’s example, despite Helen’s urging, despite Sid’s reverse psychology, Frank is going to cut Charlie loose because this is too important. And then we hear parts of the speech again: Occam’s bugged Frank’s bedroom. The whole first season of Manhattan, Frank and the people he chooses to bring into the fold have been running circles around the military for their own good, so it’s satisfying to see the military finally put its giant industrial foot down: interrogating Charlie, his wife Abby, and her mistress Elodie Lancefield, booting Glen, and ultimately taking Frank for a ride in a burlap sack into the storm of black dust where we found him. What a perfect closing image for the season.
Manhattan’s paranoia isn’t just a handy thriller device. Everywhere paranoia rears its head—Charlie’s interrogation, the final montage, the revelation about Jim—it has a way of distilling the show into who knows what and how to frame that information for a lay audience, which is all part of the business of the Manhattan project. Could Abby have confessed? What all does Jim know about implosion? And before you can say, “Of course the bedroom is bugged—that’s why Frank and Charlie always conspired outside,” we realize Frank knows that already. He’s putting on a show for his audience. Liza walks off after hearing about the power of the bomb, but Frank continues, staring directly at the hole in the wall. The first time we hear his speech, it’s a sincere statement of principles. The second time, it’s a trap. The third time, it’s a fabricated confession. He and Dr. Akley combined forces and shared classified information, including the existence of the mole in Heisenberg’s camp. Charlie was their patsy. He even fluffs Charlie’s bona fides. He’s giving the Army one last run-around, manipulating what everyone knows to save Charlie and clear his team. It’s taken a season, but finally that brusque bastard exhibits some selflessness.
Papercuts’ “Future Primitive” takes us into the black. Charlie, who’s been increasingly disheveled in case we forget that he’s locked in that room, is suddenly dolled up and paraded around the Secretary Of War as head of implosion. Jim Meeks goes to his “mother’s funeral,” which is a sit-down with his German handler. And Frank gets frog-marched, well, frog-driven out into the desert. Finally the power in the first chunk of the episode is unlocked. All it takes is three reversals and a 21st century song. Anachronism can be a powerful force on a historical drama. It takes us out of what’s written on stone tablets. It collapses time and expands imagination. It tells us something’s up. The title, “Perestroika,” is a bit of an anachronism, too. Its resonance is all Gorbachev and the end of the U.S.S.R., even if it is a common noun in Russian for “restructuring.” What really unsettles history, though, is Frank’s speech. It’s easy to look back at 1943 and see Hiroshima and Nagasaki on the horizon. Frank wants to see an era of peace. You could almost believe it.
Episode grade: B+
Season grade: A-
- WGN America renewed Manhattan for a second season already! We will not be denied the continuing adventures of Fritz and his call girl.
- How in the world does Frank get out of this one? I’m picturing Frank in the last cell on the left in some damp dungeon and Charlie picking his brain until they catch Buffalo Bill, er, invent a workable atom bomb.
- Jim Meeks is selling secrets to the Germans, so now we have all hiatus to comb through our recordings wondering who exactly Jim Meeks is. I think he got high on peyote with Fritz and Paul once, but who can say?
- Paul’ll come around, won’t he? But what about Glen? Maybe Frank’s peril will bring Glen back into the fold.
- I wrote about the use of science and scientists on Manhattan, Masters Of Sex, and The Knick (and Breaking Bad) a couple days ago. Despite The Knick’s process focus, Manhattan is by far the show most entrenched in the world of science, the work, the practicalities, and the ambitions.
- Season thoughts: I’m very impressed with Manhattan, easily one of the standouts of 2014 drama. The mounting tension, the expansive ensemble, the local flavor, the small-town interludes, the big picture, the Jónsi & Alex score swirling around beaker rims and dropping bombs all over town, the thriller camerawork and apocalyptic hallucinations, that swinging lamp, the New Mexico vistas, the capers, the sex, the tragedy. Its failures are mostly in underlining, which is to be expected from a freshman. Now that it’s established, a second season could really fine-tune all the elements.
- Seriously, hell of a score. The Hans Zimmer BRAHM fugue during the ransacking of the Isaacs’ house, the drum beat of battle at the end, the thereminesque woos. Manhattan, The Knick, Hannibal. What are the other great TV scores of the year?
- What a billboard. “Whose son will die in the last minute of the war? Minutes count!”
- Frank: “What do you want me to do?” Sid: “Exactly. What’s one more?”