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The very model of a modern Manhattan

Illustration for article titled The very model of a modern iManhattan/i
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This season is enormous. In seven episodes it’s covered a year. Despite the deaths and departures, the cast keeps expanding. “Behold The Lord High Executioner” starts with an Indian housekeeper and almost doesn’t even get to Frank and Charlie, each of whom only have two quick scenes if I count correctly. We even meet a new recurring character, Stan, although we’ve seen him before. The season is so short and fast that it can’t cover everything, but too often that means something gets short shrift. Theodore’s on the hill now, and he still had more to do in a handful of episodes last season. Characters like Kitty Oppenheimer and Woody Lorentzen feel underexplored, and plot points like Liza’s affair and pretty much every promotion and demotion in the lab feel like fly-bys. All of which is prelude to the fact that “Behold The Lord High Executioner” is a graceful trap in itself. The only thing holding it back is the season it’s in.

If only there had been more “down time.” Off-duty hangouts did the essential work of fleshing out the supporting characters in season one. Imagine what a single light subplot could have done for Jim and Jeannie’s relationship before she found out the best man at her wedding was a spy. Not that their sad, shaky showdown here needs anything extra to land. It’s just that we ought to have a better sense of this relationship going into the dramatic climax. Similarly, we might have some sense of Liza and Woody’s relationship beyond a suggestive scene in “The World Of Tomorrow” and Frank’s question here. And what does it mean that Helen got demoted again? She just got to G group in the first place. Who cares? The way scientists bounce around positions at this site makes it all feel arbitrary. Last year, compartmentalization gave weight to the divisions. Now they’re all working toward the same goal in one way or another.


Abby’s in the Goldilocks zone, narratively speaking, but I’d expect nothing less from our resident busybody. She knows just how to involve herself in the proceedings. That said, the time jump takes us past her miscarriage, and it distracts from any connection between that moment and the moment she called to threaten Oppenheimer’s mistress, Jean Tatlock. As it turns out, that connection stands out to Abby. Not that there is any real connection. Those two events stand out to her individually, and the connection was retroactively forged to fit her guilt over Jean’s death. So that explains throwing herself into the charity event for Buchenwald. Now she wants to give all her money to the Tatlocks, if she can reach them. “Buying penance,” Darrow says. “The Catholics tried that for a while. Didn’t work out.” He’s disarming her just like Charlie does, but he’s a lot smoother about it. When Abby tells Charlie, “I killed a woman,” his response is blunt. “No, Abby. No, you didn’t,” he sighs. That’s Charlie Isaacs. Manhattan doesn’t have the Mad Men reputation for badly behaved men, but the Isaacs home scenes have always been portraits of a condescending patriarch. Not that Abby did kill Jean, mind. But Charlie isn’t interested in actually getting past this with her. He wants to decide that it’s over, that they’re done dealing with this. No wonder Abby leans toward Darrow.

Liza’s quest to study the effects of radiation on local species of flora and fauna is underway, and she has two useless GIs for assistants as long as they’re not needed for literally any other function. She’s not happy to see Frank stop by for a visit, for reasons somewhat related to Abby’s frustration with her own husband. “You really don’t get it, do you? This is my work that you’re putting at risk. I’m finally doing something that matters, and you are handing Colonel Darrow an excuse to shut me down.” Is that why, from a production standpoint, Frank’s nowhere near the science of the Manhattan project anymore? This year Liza gets to shine? She could have been in New England. Instead her husband broke back into Los Alamos so he could do manual labor. (One of many sharp visuals in the episode catches Frank sweating at a construction site as Charlie rides by in the back of a town car.) Frank also asks if she’s still seeing Lorentzen, which she doesn’t answer, which means yes. But there’s a quiet payoff to this triangle. Lorentzen sends Liza flowers and a note to celebrate her new project. Frank brings her all the native species her assistants couldn’t find for her experiment, and he gift-wrapped them to boot. Gotta love a show where gathering materials for a science project is swoonworthy. Talk about respecting her work. I almost don’t recognize this Frank Winter who’s suddenly happy in the backseat. The idea of a German bomb must have been a much stronger motivator than I realized for its absence to be this powerful a demotivator.


The main story goes to the underlings. At last, a Jim-Fritz-Nora-Jeannie episode! Unfortunately it’s the one where Jim gets caught. And we know from the flash-forward that he’s not the one taking the fall quite yet. What happens is a local Indian boy named Pablo saw someone burying the box with the Hershey’s wrapper code in the desert. Everything that follows is just as random, a misunderstanding here, an accident there, and it all results in the tragedy of Jeannie’s probable death while Jim is sworn as godfather, I mean while Jim sings The Mikado. First there’s Jim blithely walking into the trap of Pablo nodding yes or no to everyone who enters the hill that day, but then Nora saves the day. Nora always saves the day. Does she have duties or does she just spend the day tailing Jim? She’s ready to send Jim away, but then, thanks to some investigative research by Theodore, Warden Darrow cancels all passes for tech area personnel. So instead Nora and Jim’s old handler decide to give him the suicide option, but only as a last resort. First resort? Poisoning this kid’s orange soda. Jim can’t stomach it, so he pretends to be an angry patriot, barging into the room where Pablo’s ID-ing the scientists and finding an excuse to knock over the soda. As Fritz says, “His acting has definitely improved.” Jim’s right in front of Pablo in the same position as if he were burying a box in the sand, and somehow the kid doesn’t ID him.

But there’s something there. Jim was sure this kid would recognize him. His entire plot to that point had emphasized the certainty that the jig would be up as soon as Pablo laid eyes on him. The Soviet handler is ready to cut bait with Jim; it takes Nora to intervene on his behalf. Yet for all that, Jim still rushes into the room to save his enemy at the almost 100 percent risk of his enemy catching him in return. That’s called a death wish, but the moral cover there does ennoble it. Jim’s trying to atone.


The reason the kid doesn’t ID Jim is because, as we find out from an artist’s rendering, the kid didn’t see Jim bury the box. He saw Jim’s Soviet handler do it. Jim was never in danger in the first place. There is no German bomb. But the train has already left the station. Jim puts on a second performance for Pablo’s mother, this one with a false mustache, intimidating her as a government operative interested in Pablo. She sees through him, but she gets the picture. Unfortunately Jim loses his pitch pipe in her yard, which we don’t discover until Jeannie drops Pablo off after a hard day’s work and finds it there. She confronts Jim about it between acts of The Mikado, he pretends that Fritz is the spy who recruited him, and she doesn’t believe Jim either. His acting has improved, but he’s still out of his depth here. She runs off, Nora runs after her, and the rest is history. Well, we see Nora club Jeannie. She isn’t necessarily dead.

Still. Jim trying to convince Jeannie that her husband is a spy is pretty despicable, even if it is a step up from murdering Jeannie to protect his secret. This episode is about marginally ratcheting down Jim’s sin. Will he let a child die for him? No. Will he kill? No. Will he gaslight a woman about her own husband? Yeah. But not so fast with the celebrations of Jim’s moral victory here. Because Nora tells Jim to get back to the stage while she handles the situation, and he lets her. He asks what she’s gonna do, and she gives him this “Grow up” look. He accepts it. Without her putting it into words, not even the episode’s euphemism, “taking care of it,” there’s just enough distance between Jim and Jeannie’s impending murder that he’s okay not intervening. Just letting it happen. This whole episode has been about Jim drawing the line, trying to keep his conscience intact, and now good, gentle Jim acquiesces to a murder. As WAC Linda reminds us, “Hitler’s a vegetarian.”


Before he goes back onstage, Jim looks at himself in the mirror in one of those classic “who am I?” shots, only this one is actually powerful because Jim actually looks like a grotesque version of himself. He’s in costume: yellowface (which is actually white), facial features exaggerated in makeup, a robe. He looks like a sad, shriveled gargoyle with Jim’s bone structure. From the wings he watches Fritz chuckle through the play as his wife probably dies. Then Jim makes his entrance, and it’s on with the show.

Stray observations

  • “Behold The Lord High Executioner” is written by Lila Byock and Vinnie Wilhelm and directed by the great Jennifer Getzinger.
  • In lieu of a season that’s at least twice as long, the people deserve a holiday special that’s just a full performance of The Mikado starring Jim Meeks.
  • Fritz is worried about having kids, and he can’t bring himself to tell Jeannie why. Instead he tells Jim: The doctor says he still has 3 or 4 micrograms of plutonium in his body. “How do you tell your wife that you could have a kid with three heads?” Later, when Jim’s trying to convince Jeannie that Fritz is a spy, she asks if being on the hook to the Soviets is why he doesn’t want kids. Jim looks at her as sincerely as possible. “Can you blame him?”
  • Darrow drafts Theodore to research the buried spy box. He finds traces of polonium, which narrows the list to 23 suspects, but he wants to know why Darrow’s sure he’s not the spy. Darrow says racism makes him bad spy material. “You so much as jay-walk, I’d have a dozen well-meaning bigots in here calling for your head.” “In my experience bigots don’t often mean well.”
  • Pablo’s nervous about identifying the bad guy, so Jeannie gives him her Athena pin. “As long as I wear this, no one can hurt me. You wanna try it? Now you don’t have to worry. If you see the man, you’re protected.” Unfortunately it worked.
  • Helen says to the bartender, “Cut me again.” He corrects her. “It’s ‘hit me again.’” “Give me a drink.”
  • Stan the patent lawyer is the guy whose drink Helen poured in Charlie’s lap. He buys her another now. “Thank you, but no thank you,” Helen says. “But thanks,” she says as she drinks it.

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