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Manhattan, Ep. 2.02, “Fatherland”

Manhattan, Season 2, Episode 2, “Fatherland”
Written by Scott Brown
Directed by Dan Attias
Airs Tuesdays at 9pm (ET) on WGN

A major theme of Manhattan‘s season premiere “Damnatio  Memoriae” was “Where is Frank Winter?”. This week’s “Fatherland” answers that question but now asks, “Who is Frank Winter?”. Or more specifically, what role does the erstwhile leader of the implosion team play in the grand scheme of things?

When Frank told his wife Liza about the gadget during Manhattan‘s first season finale, “Perestroika,” he said the weapon is so powerful it will stop all future wars. “We’re writing the prologue to a new era: The history of peace,” he said. It wasn’t clear if he was simply telling her what he thought she wanted to hear, or if perpetual peace was a fairytale he told himself at night to lull his demons to sleep. But if Frank’s confession provided insight into the lies people tell themselves in order to perform murky tasks for the greater good, “Fatherland” shines a spotlight on the lies governments tell to make citizens perform morally ambiguous acts for any reason it deems fit.

The episode opens with Frank being tossed in a prison cell by Richard Schiff’s creepily quiet Avram Fisher, who reveals an interesting tidbit about Frank: The government knows he visited Leipzig for two months in 1936 and lied about it on his Army background affidavit. Fisher tosses Frank the secret file of dead German spy Magpie, a single sandwich, and a promise to be back in a few days. But viewers know Fisher will never return because he was offed by Jim’s Soviet handler last week, so Frank is left to become delirious from lack of food and dehydration. Luckily, his delirium conjures hallucinations of Liza, which allows John Benjamin Hickey and Olivia Williams their first scenes of the season. Frank and Liza have a troubled marriage, but they also enjoy an intellectual chemistry that adds a fascinating, sophisticated undercurrent to all their interactions. Dream Liza cuts at Frank’s inability to remember their daughter’s birthday but also cajoles him into remembering that he hid Callie’s name in the calculations for the implosion gadget, and look, there it is in the German math. The Nazis actually do have a spy at Los Alamos.

That realization reanimates Frank and sends him off to explore the seemingly abandoned Japanese internment camp he’s holed up in. He meets up with Bukker, played by the always enjoyable (and casually untrustworthy) Justin Kirk, who identifies himself as a “good Aryan” and says that they’ve been thrown into the empty cell block to fight to the death for the amusement of the guards. Always calculating, Frank tells Bukker they should trust each other while falsely identifying himself as Charlie Isaacs. Bukker counters that if the inmates refuse to fight, the guards “heat the cage.”

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And that is the point of the whole episode. How do governments get men and women to fight people against their own natures and interests? Poke the bear. Stir the pot. Lie. Eventually, a gun with a single bullet is thrown into the mix, a mysterious German cantata keeps seeping through the walls, and the pair are locked in a steamy boiler room. Here, Frank finally admits what his Leipzig trip was about: He has a neglectful Nazi mom. At that, Bukker cries “Uncle,” and Frank is dragged before Colonel Darrow. Frank is disgusted to find it’s all been a game to suss out his German connections, but it’s much more devastating than that. Darrow and Bukker (if that’s even his name) have no reaction when Frank tells them the Nazis are using his math to build their own atomic bomb. In a moment that echoes Liza’s realization that the government bugged her house in last week’s episode, Frank’s world is left spinning when he figures out the U.S. government put his math in the German file and his work is being used as propaganda against his own team. Against him.

So who is Frank Winter? A brilliant, morally gray scientist. A half German. And a pawn.

Even though Manhattan is set in the 1940s, many of its themes are aimed squarely at America’s post-911 actions. The rudimentary spy-hunting techniques relentlessly employed by Fisher are all the more terrifying because viewers know the jaw-dropping technologies that will be made available to future spying agencies. Technologies that were made possible by scientists like Frank Winter. And when Charlie’s team is asked to come up with ways for soldiers to identify WAMD (weapons adaptable to mass destruction) in the field during the episode’s B-story, one can’t help but have squeamish flashbacks to the Bush administration’s costly, concocted claims of WMDs in Iraq. World War II is advertised as America’s last noble war, but Scott Brown’s “Fatherland” script—and Manhattan as a whole—does an excellent job of contemplating the frightening outcomes of modern warfare concepts and practices purportedly hatched from righteous necessity.

Stray Atoms

  • John Benjamin Hickey is one of the best actors on television. His intense but subtle performance in this episode makes up for his total absence last week.
  • The image of the campfire reflecting in one lens of Jim’s glasses as the group talks about the disappearance of Fisher—who was shot in one eye—is unsettling. So is his sudden wave of guilt at the sight of a dead wolf.
  • Abby’s demand that Charlie tell her about the gadget is both empowering and dangerous, especially since they’re now living in the old Winter home. Is that bug still in there?
  • Abby has another good (though chilling) moment when she tells Charlie that the best way to find WAMDs is to target the wives and children of German scientists.
  • The Army said it now believes Frank is not a spy, but when will he be released and what will his role be from here on out? And, ironically, Frank finally believed there was spy at Los Alamos, but the government’s regurgitation of his math has made him a doubter again.

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