Manhattan, Season 2, Episode 4, “Overlord”
Written by Alexander Woo
Directed by Christopher Misiano
Airs Tuesdays at 9pm (ET) on WGN
“If it helps to pretend you’re me, pretend. It’s what I do.” Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer
The first three episodes of Manhattan‘s second season have largely focused on the disappearance of Frank Winter. While they have all been outstanding, the narrative has felt a little fragmented without all the characters on the Hill together. In “Overlord,” the story is still split between the goings on at Los Alamos and the fate of Frank, but it ultimately brings the implosion team—and the narrative—back together in a satisfying fashion.
“Overlord” refers to the code name for the Allies’ D-Day invasion at Normandy, which serves as the backdrop for this episode. But it’s also a reference to science chief J. Robert Oppenheimer, who experiences a dangerous case of cold feet, and possibly the gadget itself, which rules over everyone with its deathly promise. The theme could also extend to Charlie Isaacs, who has not only been tasked with taking over Frank Winter’s role, but increasingly asked to fill in for Dr. Oppenheimer as well. During a phone call from San Francisco, Oppenheimer tries to get Charlie to embrace his authority, wearily telling him, “If it helps to pretend you’re me, pretend. It’s what I do.” Not only does that signal trouble with Oppenheimer, it backfires on Charlie. The moment he tries to assert himself with Darrow, the colonel smells a power play and smacks him down.
As for Abby, she still covets Kitty’s position as the First Lady of Los Alamos and, after saving Kitty from a truly heinous spider in the hospital, she is rewarded with the news that Oppenheimer is leaving his wife and the Hill. This is all Abby could ask for, but Charlie is alarmed by the news. He knows Oppenheimer’s connections keep the money flowing.
But Oppenheimer is looking for a way out. He’s locked in a disturbing romance with Jean Tatlock, who is both a Communist and crazy, according to Kitty. Her claim is backed up by the episode’s chilling opening scene, which shows Jean creepily goading Oppenheimer into holding her head under her bath water.
Daniel London’s Oppenheimer has felt like a ghost for much of the series. Tall and gangly with a pale complexion and eyes that read as near-black onscreen, he has haunted the edges of the drama, a detached, spectral figure. But in “Overlord,” he’s finally pulled into the emotional fray, and London is up to the task, notching up the genius creep factor while also bringing humanity to the enigmatic leader. It turns out Oppenheimer is just as conflicted as everyone else is about that damn bomb, and when he talks with Charlie at the test site, there is seething tension just beneath London’s slow, velvety delivery. Charlie tries to reason with him, saying he also had an affair but chose his family. Oppenheimer retorts, “If that was in your power, then you have no earthly idea how I feel.” The moment is equal parts scary and heartbreaking. But is the problem that Oppenheimer feels powerless, or is the problem that he feels too powerful?
It’s interesting that Charlie heartlessly tells Abby that her knowing about the gadget doesn’t make them a team because they work together to solve Oppenheimer’s problem with stunning efficiency. Charlie goes to Darrow, suggesting the Army pull a Frank on Jean, and Abby goes straight to the source, calling the problematic mistress up in San Francisco and pretending to be a pollster. She asks too many personal questions, and Jean asks, “Is this Kitty?” Rachel Brosnahan is great here as Abby’s eyes ignite at the chance to both pretend to be Kitty and deliver the woman-scorned speech she never delivered to Helen. “You’re nothing,” she spits. The confrontation drives Jean to dunk her head in her bathtub again. Or did it? The real life Jean Tatlock also committed suicide, but there were rumors that government agents eliminated a national security problem. To its credit, the episode doesn’t spell out what happened, allowing both Abby and Charlie gut-wrenching scenes in which they ponder the possible magnitude of their actions.
And then there is Frank, the overlord of the implosion team. According to Liza, he was plucked from Guantanamo, er, Texas, by the patron saint of “lost causes,” Eleanor Roosevelt. Frank is grateful but explains he has to warn the scientists on the Hill that the German intelligence is a propaganda scam. Liza is stunned, but she eventually agrees to drive him back. At the gate of Los Alamos, Frank— John Benjamin Hickey at his scraggly, hangdog best—tells Liza that she need only say the word and they can return to Princeton. Oppenheimer’s failed attempt to escape the Hill adds poignancy to her dilemma, but viewers, and a beleaguered Liza, know there’s only one way for this to end.
- There is something very appealing in the way William Petersen plays Darrow. For all the colonel’s religious fervor and pomposity, he’s whipsmart and has a deadpan wit that keeps him from being a run-of-the-mill hardass.
- Did Liza stay with Frank at Los Alamos or head back to Princeton?
- After a co-worker mentions that Clark Gable joined the military after his wife died in a plane crash, Abby chooses to use the name “Doris Lombard” when she calls Jean. Gable’s wife, screen legend Carole Lombard, died in a plane crash while returning to California from an Indiana war bond drive in January 1942.
- Charlie doesn’t have Oppenheimer’s way with people. When Charlie challenges a local judge to wipe his ass with some court papers, he obliges him and sends them back. Of course, Oppy’s way with people is a unsettling. He says the feces-smearing judge can be placated by inviting him over to geld horses.
- Nora and Jim continue to have interesting discussions about why they’re spying for the Soviets.
- That smushed spider on Kitty’s hospital bed? Ewww.