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Manhattan, Ep. 2.01, “Damnatio Memoriae”

Manhattan, Season 2, Episode 1, “Damnatio Memoriae”
Written by Sam Shaw
Directed by Thomas Schlamme
Airs Tuesdays at 9pm (ET) on WGN

“Science isn’t a quest for truth but a process of correcting your errors.” Charlie Isaacs, Manhattan

There weren’t many errors during Manhattan‘s first season. Perhaps a few too many episodes (this season has been cut from 13 to 10 installments),  maybe an extraneous character or two. But overall, the only real mistake made by this atomic-age period piece was being produced in the era of “peak TV,” a time when being very good is often not enough to survive. However despite low ratings, WGN decided to renew Manhattan, which was created by Sam Shaw (Masters of Sex) and Thomas Schlamme (The West Wing, The Americans), for a second season. And based on its season premiere, it appears the sophomore series is doing all it can to deserve its second shot.

“Damnatio Memoriae” jolts to a start with a time jump to July 16, 1945, the day the United States became the first country to successfully detonate an atomic weapon with the Trinity test. Director Schlamme is known for his ability to bring big, historical events to life through intimate character moments. In the opening sequence, a lightning storm and a flurry of frantic activity add scope and weight to the viewers’ first glimpse of “the gadget,” as the bomb was known, but as the menacing device is hoisted above Charlie Isaacs’ (Ashley Zukerman) head—and he stares up at the creation he bears partial credit (or blame) for—it becomes an intimate standoff between two of the show’s main characters.

And characters are the greatest strength of Manhattan. The series is part historical drama and part spy thriller, but mostly, it’s a rich character drama. Dumped in the dusty center of Los Alamos, New Mexico, scientists, military members and their families must deal with the emotional isolation and paranoia borne from their remote location and the weight of secrets, both government and personal.

One of the best character additions to Manhattan‘s second season is fiercely religious Colonel Emmett Darrow, who is brought to imposing life by William Petersen. In one of his first scenes, he orders lovesick scientist Paul to get on his knees and ask forgiveness for requesting a transfer. It comes off as batshit crazy, but it also comes off as effective, because Petersen wears Darrow’s fundamentalism with the ironclad authority of a true believer. The scientists ran a bit wild on the base last season, but Darrow is having none of that.

Season one ended with moody, divisive physicist Frank Winter (John Benjamin Hickey) being blackbagged and thrown into the back of a military car after telling his wife Liza about the bomb. Following the glimpse of the Trinity test, “Damnatio Memoriae” jumps back 15 months in time. Frank is still missing and everyone is scrambling to fill the void. Charlie has been placed in charge of the implosion team, partly because he’s brilliant and partly because Dr. Oppenheimer thinks he can be controlled, as Charlie’s mistress and fellow scientist Helen (Katja Herbers) is quick to point out. Fresh-faced Ashley Zukerman strikes the right balance between ambition and self-doubt as Charlie tries to win over higher-ups and colleagues and (momentarily) wrestles with his new-found loyalty to Frank.

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Meanwhile, Frank’s wife Liza—played with world-weary sophistication by Olivia Williams—is unceremoniously told by a couple of MPs that Frank has been relocated and she and her daughter need to decamp from their military housing. Last season, the wives were largely kept in the dark. This was especially frustrating for highly educated Liza, an esteemed botanist. But it turns out that the truth does not set you free at Los Alamos. When Liza tries to convince Darrow to let her move back East because she knows nothing about the gadget, he plays back the bugged recording of Frank’s confession. It seems that in 1943, the U.S. government can not only build nuclear bombs, it can spy on its citizens. It’s a chilling realization, and Williams’ portrayal of Liza’s horror is pitch-perfect. Schlamme uses a couple of effective door shots to convey Liza’s caged situation. When the MPs leave her house in the earlier scene, she slams her front door, its glass cracking between the camera lens and her face, and when Liza talks with Darrow, the camera spies on her through the gaps of window blinds.

Abby (Rachel Brosnahan) is also trapped on the base, but for wholly different reasons. After having an affair with Elodie last season, Abby was ready to leave Charlie, but now finds she is pregnant. This gives rise to an alternately tense and tender scene between Abby and Helen, whom she hopes can refer her to an abortion doctor. These two may be romantic rivals, but they’re also two women living on a military base pre-Roe v. Wade. A serious talk about felonies and codenamed procedures (“obstructed menses”) has a way of bringing out the sisterhood in women no matter their backstory, and Brosnahan and Herbers infuse their interaction with wary empathy.

And then there is the Occam, who is finally given a name: Avram Fisher. The shadowy government spook who blackbagged Frank meets a gruesome end, but not before Richard Schiff has a chance to shine. Schiff can do so much with stillness. On The West Wing, he used that stillness to embody Toby Zeigler with a sort of sad devotion. On Manhattan, he uses the same stillness to create unrelenting menace. When Charlie comes to Fisher to ask where Frank is, Fisher relates a story about his Jewish family’s history in Europe. Schiff tells this tale, which acts both as historical exposition and a character study, with his trademark just-above-a-whisper delivery. The creepy takeaway is that Fisher is on a personal mission and cannot be stopped, which, of course, makes his demise thanks to hapless Soviet spy Jim all the more shocking.

“Damnatio Memoriae,” written by Sam Shaw, is an impressive premiere that stuffs a ton of character development between two tantalizing teases of the Trinity test. The strongest elements of season one—an insightful script, top-notch direction, lovely period touches, and a stellar cast—are all here, and its few missteps are nowhere to be found. And this is all without first-season standout John Benjamin Hickey making an appearance. From all indications, Manhattan has upped its game from very good to excellent. Whether or not this will translate into more viewers remains to be seen.

Stray Atoms

  • The Frank Sinatra/Tommy Dorsey tune “The Fable of the Rose” sets the season’s tone nicely with its line, “This is the beginning of the end….”
  • The shot of Abby’s gynecologist sitting between her legs with a cigarette dangling from his lips is the most startling smoking doctor sighting since Peggy’s smoking gyno on Mad Men.
  • Is Jim supposed to be guarding the bomb with that pistol?
  • Viewers learn a bit more about Liza’s compelling battle with mental illness when she alludes to a suicide attempt—which she discretely calls “an incident”—while talking to Cole in the diner.

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