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“Jupiter” is one of those classic, moody before-the-storm finales. Think of Mad Men’s Cuban Missile Crisis episode or Star Trek: Deep Space Nine’s “Call To Arms,” a similarly packed episode dispersing dozens of characters to fight a sudden war. For such a shaggy quilt, there aren’t many dangling threads at the end of Manhattan season two. It’s just that everything that happens in “Jupiter” happens in the little time before the next thing requires attention. Charlie takes care of Darrow, Oppenheimer takes care of Helen, Liza takes care of Frank. These are huge moments in these relationships, but there’s no time to dwell. One of the sharpest visuals in a very sharp episode is when Helen says her goodbyes to Charlie—in a quick chat intended sort of to resolve two years of tension—and is almost immediately frog-marched away by guards, Helen fading into the white scrim of the tent with Charlie helpless to stop her. There’s no time.

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Accordingly the episode takes some narrative shortcuts, like the jump from late afternoon at Los Alamos to an evening rainstorm at Alamogordo. Last we saw Fritz he was on his way to the bar; we don’t see what spurs him to go to the test site after all, and that’s a crucial turning point in retrospect. Also I’m not entirely convinced Frank would encourage Jim to turn himself in and cooperate with the authorities, not after Tosa, but then Frank’s a pretty ruthless liar. Maybe he doesn’t care what happens to Jim. The real weird one is Crosley’s departure from the narrative. He’s had his curtain call for the season, sure, but why would he just leave What To Do About Jim to Frank, who’s in danger of being arrested and therefore unable to help Jim at all?

Paul’s the one who sets the stage for “Jupiter.” He doesn’t want to turn Jim in. He wants to flip him. His friend is a liar and a traitor, and Paul still wants to resolve this safely. That’s how things go in this episode about the birth of a mass killing machine. Everyone (meaning our heroes) wants to save lives. Hence Jim shaking Perseus to sabotage the bomb without wiping out the scientists. Hence Liza reaching out to Frank to rescue him from Darrow’s gunmen. Hence Frank covering for Jim and Fritz deciding not to report Frank. The scientists are trying to make the world a better place, but they’ve hitched their wagons to a war machine that’s going to detonate a nuclear bomb in the morning rain or shine, no matter how far the wind blows the destruction. Everyone else is preparing for the end of the world, and our heroes are trying to pull off one last caper to make sure they all get through this alive and ready for redemption.

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The shot of Charlie watching the explosion vividly captures the scientific achievement here. He’s in some kind of bunker, properly wearing his OSHA goggles, when all of a sudden it goes white, even in there. They were advised to face and look away from the blast, but Charlie’s drawn to the porthole like a moth. He’s entranced with wonder. He looks like a ‘40s kid playing sci-fi superhero in his clubhouse. But then we see him from the outside, through the porthole. He’s lost the goggles, and his hair looks wild from the front. “It worked,” he says. There’s no joy in Ashley Zukerman’s voice, no admiration or victory. His face is brutal. He looks mad. It’s aliiiiive!

Of course the test was going to work, but that’s not really the focus of“Jupiter.” After all, Oppenheimer tells Helen that her bomb doesn’t need testing. It’s already on its way to the Pacific theater. Whatever happens in Alamagordo doesn’t really matter in the grand scheme. So even though we know the test will work and the characters don’t, whether it works isn’t the main question here. The drama is in the things that producers might change: Whether Jim dies with the bomb, how Frank will right the course of history, what they’ll tell Fritz when he gets involved.

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The answer to that last one is Frank takes the fall. “Jupiter” is a very different episode from the first season finale, “Perestroika,” but it rhymes with it in a few powerful ways, most noticeably the fuzzy 21st century music scoring the past, in this case Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ “Skeleton.” More centrally, once again the resolution begins with Frank spinning an elaborate lie to clear the name of another scientist. And just like the recording in “Perestroika,” there’s power in repetition, only this time it’s in hearing Jim’s words come out of Frank’s mouth. “Someone has to stand up. Save the world from the guys who are saving the world.”

So that’s how they get out of it. Frank pretends to have tried to sabotage the bomb, he makes Jim out to be the hero trying to stop him, and he drafts Fritz to help them fix it before it’s too late. Soon enough Fritz calls Liza to tell her in not so many words that her husband is safe. They’re all out of the blast radius. The sun is rising in the distance. It’s gorgeous.

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Unfortunately, in the bunker, Fritz is too forgiving of “Frank,” and, after a moving close-up of Christopher Denham’s tortured face bathing in shadow, Jim confesses to being the actual spy. Which leads to him coming clean about Jeannie. The way Michael Chernus’ voice drops and strains all of a sudden is overwhelming. It’s an episode full of moving reconciliations, but the heaviest weight is on Fritz and Jim, and Chernus and Denham nail it as usual. It’s heart-breaking from the confession alone.

But then it gets worse. The final images of “Jupiter” don’t just resolve this season’s story but its themes and visuals too. Outside the bunker, Fritz has a gun pointed at Jim. Jim doesn’t even try to stop him. After all, that fits his goals for most of the episode. Instead he says something poetic that’s part apology, part acceptance, part testament to their friendship. “See you on Jupiter?” Fritz’s gun is rattling at that when the bomb goes off in the distance behind him. That’s the final way the episode turns inevitability to its advantage. We bounce around the scientists, Charlie furiously mesmerized, Liza holding tight, the blast blowing through Fritz’s hair. It looks like daylight now, and then the gun re-enters the frame. Jim looks hesitant, Frank looks like he’s trying to intervene, and Fritz looks unspeakably sorry. He puts the gun to his temple and pulls the trigger, the mushroom cloud expanding behind him. If it feels a little predictable, don’t forget that Fritz has spent the last third of the season in depression.

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The bright white fades to a blazing orange mushroom cloud and finally gives way to a deep brown haze, another season of Manhattan ending in a murky moral cloud. The first season is about how to build a theoretical invention, and the second is about how to use it, ending with a show of how the gadget works. In the final shot of the season, Fritz, the conscience of the Manhattan project, can’t live with what he knows—about his friends, about his work, about the future. That’s what should have felt inevitable, not just the history but the fact that the conscience has to go before the bomb. Charlie made sure of that on the target committee. Frank says the bomb looked better on paper, and Jim reminds him of how much harder it is to grasp the abstract. It takes facing the bomb for Charlie and Fritz to see what they’ve made. In the last beautiful moment of a beautiful season, Fritz drops out of frame, out of history, leaving a mushroom cloud in his wake.

Stray observations

  • “Jupiter” is written by Sam Shaw and directed by Thomas Schlamme.
  • Jim: “They’re my friends, the scientists.” Stan: “Well, they’re also mass murderers. You can do better.”
  • So what do you think happened to Stan? Tied up in Jim’s trunk?
  • Charlie scenes are always a demonstration of lesser evil. Darrow asks, “You think Stinson cares about a dead Communist?” Charlie smiles and says, “No. That’s why I sent him your falsified German intelligence, the lies about Magpie that you sold to the president. With Frank Winter’s name attached in case he’s curious about how you forged it. Enjoy the fireworks.” Team Charlie!
  • I’d maybe not kill but at least turn spy for more of the Liza-Frank love story. In “Jupiter” she finds out all the nice things he’s done for her, like spend most of his war money on her fallout studies. They look at each other across a great field but they never get to embrace. The most romantic moment in their story, though, comes in a scene between Liza and Fritz. She tells him, “They won’t even let me in the command tent,” and then she does the Frank Winter blink! She has been living with that man too long, but not nearly long enough.
  • No word on season three yet. Can we draft those Guilty Remnant fans to go picket WGN America? Or at least inundate their offices with…hand-delivered crates of plutonium?

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