Manhattan, Season 2, Episode 3, “The Threshold”
Written by Lila Byock and Vinnie Wilhelm
Directed by Andrew Bernstein
Airs Tuesdays at 9pm (ET) on WGN
“Men always want a woman who understands them, but when they get one, they learn what a burden it is to be known.”—Kitty Oppenheimer
Being known can be a burden if it leads someone to outsmart you, become bored by you, or decide you’re not worth it. However, being known can also lead someone to recognize when you’re not yourself and need another chance. It can lead them to fight for you. To forgive you.
Manhattan‘s third episode of the season, “The Threshold,” begins with a flashback to January 1939, when Liza was locked in the Seneca Falls Sanatorium after the “incident” (suicide attempt) she alluded to in the series premiere. There is a naked woman on the floor and other women are screaming in the background. But Liza meticulously weaves a scarf and talks with Frank. With a subdued version of their witty banter, they talk about Hitler starting a war and a coming visit from her “fascist” sister. Liza doesn’t belong here and Frank knows it. But she, apparently, does not. Frank ties a piece of yarn around her finger (the staff took her wedding ring) and promises to get her out.
That brief and touching scene explains so much about the Winter marriage and gives context to Liza’s scenes with Darrow back in the present storyline. She has her old college pal and reporter Woodrow Lorentzen (Griffin Dunne, channeling Columbo) sniffing around Frank’s disappearance. Darrow, of course, is coolly furious. But Liza won’t be deterred, sparring deliciously with Darrow in his office. He tosses out that Liza once slept with Lorentzen and that Frank cheated on her with someone half Liza’s age and intelligence, but she makes him stumble by wondering why his wife hasn’t joined him on the Hill. He finally ends their standoff by bringing Callie into it, but he knows he’s dealing with his equal. Olivia Williams is a force and Manhattan is thankfully putting her to better use this season. Watching her go toe-to-toe with William Petersen is the second best thing in the episode.
That’s because the best thing in the episode is Neve Campbell as Robert Oppenheimer’s wife, Kitty, who lets things get weird during a dinner party with Charlie and Abby. First, she casually admits that the Oppenheimers met when she was with her third husband and she reeled Robert in by getting pregnant. Then, as the men talk science outside and the two pregnant women chat over wine and cigarettes (as you do), Abby—not knowing her opponent, not knowing her place—tries to befriend Kitty by letting her in on switchboard gossip that Robert is going to meet his mistress in San Francisco. “I hear things, too,” Kitty replies. “I hear you like the taste of girls. I do not take marital advice from a deviant.” Oh, my god. Campbell made the most of her tiny guest turn as Don’s flirtatious flight companion on Mad Men last year, and she absolutely tilts the screen here. Welcome to the Hill.
And Campbell isn’t the only great casting addition of the episode. Mamie Gummer also makes her first appearance as Nora, Jim’s new on-base Soviet contact. The green spies get it on right away, as Nora gives Jim a blowjob at Fritz’s engagement party, but things fall apart when she flashes Jim the other half of his coded Hershey candy bar wrapper and he feels like he’s been had. And he has been. Jim tells Nora he’s getting cold feet because of what happened to Occam, but she asks what he thinks they’ll do to her if she doesn’t deliver the intelligence he promised. She knows how to play him. And Jim knows how to play Fritz. As Fritz celebrates his impromtu wedding to Jeannie, Jim leverages their friendship to gain access to G group, who will be testing the gadget. The old film footage of Fritz genuinely happy and Charlie skulking guiltily in the background is eerie and moving, betrayal to be viewed only through hindsight.
And finally, there is Daniel Stern’s return as the Winters’ loyal friend Glen Babbit. Back in 1939, Babbit is the only one who believes Frank’s theories on atomic energy and takes him to see Albert Einstein. At the end of episode, Liza visits Babbit to get his help in freeing Frank, whom she finally learns from Cole Dunlavey is in a Department of Justice internment camp in Texas. Babbit claims he has no more strings to pull, but Liza says that Frank was the only one who never forgot who she was when she was ill and implores, “What would Frank do?” And this is when it’s helpful to be known. Frank has betrayed both Babbit and Liza, and yet, they know he is more than that. It all comes full circle as Babbit takes Liza to see Einstein. Coming directly off the previous scene of Frank making good on his promise to get Liza out of the sanatorium (with a job offer from Princeton, no less), the sequence recalls The West Wing at its Capraesque best, stopping just shy of sentimentality while leaving a lump in one’s throat. Manhattan is a profoundly adult and complex show, but it isn’t afraid of occasionally including a little old-fashioned belief in the human spirit, which is welcome in a TV landscape that so often wallows in nihilism.
- This episode has some great bits of humor. When Fritz proposes to Jeannie, he admits he’s “no war hero or even brave, and I have sciatica.” And when Frank visits Liza in the sanatorium, she tells him they’re not allowed newspapers because they might be upsetting. A woman starts screaming and Frank nervously quips, “Someone must have shown her a newspaper.”
- Frank learns about the Germans splitting the atom from a radio broadcast at the sanatorium, underscoring the hazy line between genius and madness.
- Just like in real life, Manhattan‘s Dr. Oppenheimer has a rocking sex life.
- Oppenheimer promotes Helen after she interrupts the Isaacs/Oppenheimer dinner to accuse Charlie of leaving her off the G group because of their affair. “Remind me of her name?” Oppenheimer asks Charlie as she storms off.
- At the beginning of the episode, Babbit leads Frank to the threshold of Einstein’s front door. At the end, Babbit leads Liza to the threshold of Einstein’s study.
- Babbit’s splendid goatee from season one is, sadly, no more.
- The sanatorium staff thinks wedding rings could be choked on, but they give yarn to allegedly suicidal patients?