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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Manhattan tickles the dragon’s tail

Illustration for article titled iManhattan /itickles the dragon’s tail
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Tickling the dragon’s tail sounds like a fun game. The dragon in this case is a ball of radioactive plutonium that’s naturally decaying. The game is about encasing it in a neutron-reflective wall, brick by brick, so that the escaping neutrons reflect back on the plutonium and create a self-sustaining nuclear reaction. Well, you don’t actually want to get to that point. I think the goal is to see what happens as long as you can keep the experiment under your control. It’s Price Is Right rules. You want to get to the brink without going over.

It helps that we get to see Frank play the game, so we recognize what’s happening in the end when Frank leads every last scientist—at least, that’s the plan; Jim maintains plausible deniability by sort of standing with them but sort of just watching from afar—in a wave that’s closing in on Colonel Darrow and presumably Roosevelt’s science advisor Vannevar Bush person by person. Frank’s tickling the dragon’s tail again, only this time the dragon is Darrow. And this time, Frank isn’t in control of the anticlimax. He’s deflated by history. Just as the scientists close in, Darrow gets a report from an aide and for the first time looks a little powerless. Well, slightly less all-powerful than usual. He immediately walks over to the pole and personally lowers the flag to half-staff, and then we hear the radio reports that the president has just died.


Ironically, Nora’s opposed to this particular display of worker solidarity. Her goal, Jim’s goal, is to get in good with Charlie so they can share nuclear secrets with the Soviets. She’s not in it for the philosophy so much as the politics. I still don’t really get this Shakespeare-quoting high school dropout and steely-eyed lowly WAC, but Jim is conflicted enough that I almost expect him to repent somehow. Maybe he can think his way out of this. More likely he’ll follow Sid Liao. We’re still three months away from Jim locking himself in with the gadget, but then again the last episode was in January and now it’s April. Buchenwald concentration camp has been liberated, so Abby’s rounding up supplies like Charlie’s lucky tie to donate to the survivors, although if it was really so lucky you’d think Charlie would make more of an effort to save it rather than throwing it back on the pile. Anyway, at this rate Abby’ll be ready to start at Sterling Cooper by the season finale.

“33” is an episode about moral responsibility, from little things like Abby doing her part to help the concentration camp survivors to much bigger things like Charlie working to end the war altogether, Frank and Helen trying to have some say in how their inventions will be used, and Darrow’s belief in the spiritually cleansing power of pain. It’s no wonder this is the episode haunted by Fischer’s ghost. It’s not right that he just disappeared without a trace, and someone—Darrow, the feds, someone—owes it to him to set things right.


That someone is probably not the fishermen who discover his car in a lake, but at least they set the table for the episode with a good laugh: “Pearl Harbor was an inside job!” Earlier I stumbled onto a season two review that said Manhattan was hermetically sealed off from laughter. The show that once had Fritz swallow a bunch of plutonium. Just because Manhattan has a tremendous sense of gravity doesn’t mean it’s self-serious. In fact “33” is one of the funnier episodes, with the mix-up at the bar causing Helen to pour a drink in Charlie’s lap (and eventually causing him to pour one in hers right back). When Liza appeals to Darrow to study the effects of radiation, a testament not only to her restlessness but also to her responsibility to her fellows, she asks a rhetorical question: “Do you know what happens in Building E?” The colonel answers with a threat: “Something above your clearance.” Even when the episode sounds heavy, it can be funny, as when Fritz contends that Darrow must be reasonable and Liza responds with a twinkle in her eye. “Fritz, this is a man who sent a boy to his death to stop me from speaking to my husband.” When Darrow calls her a known agitator, she says, “I prefer rogue botanist.” In other words, Olivia Williams is very funny, and giving her more to do has been the single biggest improvement of the season.

As for Darrow, he tells Abby, “This hill suffers from a lack of faith.” She semi-jokingly blames all the scientists, but Darrow takes her seriously, and she has a point. Charlie calls the Bible a fairy tale. Later he uses Biblical language to describe Vannevar Bush, seated at the right hand of the father, apparently the Jesus Christ of nukes. Isn’t Charlie Jewish? And Abby might want to hold off on the religious zeal. She’s not going to like all 613 of those commandments, let alone the big 10. At any rate, according to these scientists there is no God, but godlike power is absolutely what they’re dealing with. Which brings us to Darrow’s fervent belief that pain is God communicating with us. “Pain is His voice reminding you that you’re alive and at his mercy,” he says to a woman just months off a miscarriage. He invites her to pray with him, and Rachel Brosnahan nails the uncertainty of the situation, looking around in bewilderment, checking on Darrow to see how long she’s supposed to be kneeling there with her eyes shut. It’s hilarious. But take what Darrow says about pain and apply it to the non-believers. Frank takes a massive dose of radiation so he can get back to the hill. He isn’t at the mercy of a vengeful God or even a dragon. He’s at the mercy of the atom.


Frank’s concerned because after Helen told him she couldn’t throw her weight around on her first day in G Group (Charlie brought her back to implosion after admitting he was wrong not to do so in the first place), he wrote a petition that begins, “We the undersigned authors of the atomic bomb…” The ghost of Fischer slash Frank’s paranoia convinces him that the petition would be used as a blacklist. He’s right, too. Darrow’s rare act of mercy for Frank is to let the petition go, but as soon as Frank and Charlie leave his office, he places a call to Hoover. So instead, Frank needs all the scientists to demand a say in how their gadget is used. The theory is the US can’t build a bomb without them, and they can’t just punish some of them if all are united.

The big surprise here, before the update from Washington, is how far Frank has come from authoring a history of peace. Now he’s writing an apocalypse for select cities, and the weight is all over John Benjamin Hickey’s performance. “We’re all here for a reason. We all know what that reason is. To drop an atomic weapon on a Japanese city, killing 30 to 50 thousand people, mostly civilians, women, children.” Those are Liza’s words. Maybe Frank knew it all along. But now he’s trying to do something about it, leveraging the creation of the bomb for a say in how it’s used. He’s basically unionizing, engineering a work stoppage with a single demand. “Any ignorance from here on out is willful,” he says before turning to Charlie, “and won’t be forgiven, not by any god worth inventing, not by any democracy worth fighting for.” It’s a rousing speech, and it’s inspiring to see Fritz and Helen at his side. If only they had considered the ethics sooner.


Stray observations

  • “33” is written by Scott Brown and Megan Ferrell Burke and directed by Kimberly Peirce (Boys Don’t Cry).
  • Did I miss the explanation for why the episode is called “33?” Because it ends with our 33rd president? Because there were 33 names on Frank’s petition? Because every 33 minutes the cylons show up again?
  • Congratulations to Jim Meeks, a budding thespian who gets to play Ko-Ko in The Mikado. Nora’s adamant that they shouldn’t be seen talking, even at rehearsals. So why is she even there? I’m starting to think she has a daily quota of things she says purely to fuck with Jim.
  • Abby is such a busybody. When she isn’t already all up in your business on the phone, she’s orchestrating ways to figure out your business in person. She reports on Paul and Constance to Darrow, and suddenly I’m worried for Crosley.
  • “33” finds a few new cast combos, which is always exciting. Liza gets a scene with Fritz, for instance, and Paul and Abby, um, bond over being jilted by Charlie and Helen.

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