Manhattan, Season 2, Episode 6, “33”
Written by Scott Brown & Megan Ferrell Burke
Directed by Kimberly Peirce
Airs Tuesdays at 9pm (ET) on WGN
Following last week’s unofficial midseason finale, Manhattan‘s “33” deftly resets the table for the second half of the season. As the series edges closer to the fraught Trinity test that was teased in the season premiere, the main players on the Hill — both the godless and the god-fearing — are struggling with ethical dilemmas. Whether it’s squeamishness over their current actions (Jim), guilt for what they have already done (Abby), or a feverish need to wrangle in what they’ve unleashed (Frank), they’re all wrestling with demons.
First there’s Frank, who in “The World of Tomorrow,” seemed to be coping with life back at Los Alamos as well as a powerless man can, essentially playing possum until he can find an opportunity to undermine Darrow and the Gadget. And at the begninning of “33,” he’s all business, asking Helen to pass around a petition that demands the scientists be given a say in how the Gadget is used. But soon, Frank seems to be cracking as he sees visions of Fisher, whose body was found in all its funky glory in a lake-submerged car, while “tickling the dragon tail.” While that may sound like an off-color euphemism, it actually refers to a high-stakes game of chicken where an unlucky soul reflects neutrons back onto a ball of plutonium until it almost creates a self-sustaining reaction. Let things get too fizzy and a deadly blast of radiation could occur. Fun stuff.
But as “Fatherland” proved, Frank does some of his best thinking under dire and hallucinatory circumstances. Just as Dream Liza got him to re-examine his math while in prison, Ghost Fisher prods him into realizing that Darrow will use the petition as a blacklist. It’s a bit surprising a sharp and increasingly paranoid guy like Frank didn’t figure that out immediately, but then viewers would’ve been denied Frank’s game of nuclear Jenga and another fine appearance by Richard Schiff.
Meanwhile, Abby wonders if her miscarriage was a message from God. She doesn’t fully articulate what she thinks that message is, but the ghost of Jean Tatlock is probably skulking around in her head just as surely as Fisher is haunting Frank. Whatever moral retribution she fears has befallen her, however, it doesn’t stop her from nosing into more trouble. Maybe she’s just trying to do her patriotic duty by luring Paul to her home, but like her first run-in with Kitty Oppenheimer, it turns into a woefully miscalculated encounter and feels more repetitive than interesting. A better scene of total discomfort comes from her meeting with the fervently religious Darrow, who senses her aimlessness and asks her to pray with him. Unlike Abby, Darrow doesn’t suffer from moral doubt, and it makes sense that she might find that appealing. But it’s Darrow and religion, so things get weird. Abby clearly doesn’t know what to do when Darrow’s silent prayer goes on uncomfortably long, and an aide who comes in to deliver a message doesn’t even blink when he finds Abby and Darrow kneeling on the floor. It’s bizarrely funny and William Petersen and Rachel Brosnahan really make it work.
And then there is Jim and Helen, who are both caught in the middle with their wavering convictions. It’s a credit to Manhattan‘s writers that no one is an obvious goodie or baddie on the show even when they’re spying for the Soviets. In his way, Jim is trying to do what’s right, and it’s easy to root for him when he unexpectedly wins the role of Ko-Ko in The Mikado. But even when he has a small social victory, his guilt pulls him to the sidelines again and one has to wonder how long he can keep this up. And Helen is torn apart by her understanding that the Gadget needs to be mitigated and her desire to keep her hard-earned new position on the G Group. She’s in a genuinely tough spot and Katja Herbers makes her anguish achingly real.
When Frank has his powerful Mr. Smith Goes to Washington moment, passionately calling for the scientists to leverage their further cooperation for a say in the Gadget’s use, both Jim and Helen visibly struggle. But in a gutting twist, as Frank leads his rallied troops — Helen dutifully following, Jim edging safely on the outskirts — to face Darrow and FDR’s visiting science adviser with their demands, history steps forward to spoil the entire confrontation: FDR is dead. After all the planning, posturing, power plays, moral doubts, and dragon tail tickling, a cerebral hemorrhage hands the Gadget to Harry S. Truman, the 33rd president of the United States. It’s the kind of plot twist that Manhattan does so well, bringing in historical details at just the right moment for maximum effect. The episode ends with moving images of everyone back in their homes and barracks listening to the news on the radio, unified in their sorrow. However, grief-induced solidarity never lasts long and it will be interesting to see what Frank’s next move is now that the scientists’ last chance to dictate the future of the Gadget seemingly died with FDR.
- The Pearl Harbor conspiracy theories bandied about by the fishermen who find Fisher’s body are a hilarious nod to today’s tinfoil hat-wearing crowd.
- In a just world, it would be safe for John Benjamin Hickey to clear off a mantel for his upcoming Emmy. But the awards saga of Jon Hamm suggests he may have to wait.
- Olivia Williams and William Petersen continue to have wonderfully antagonistic chemistry with each other. Seeing Darrow’s facade crack just the tiniest bit when Liza shows him how close his office is to the near-criticality tests is delicious.
- Nora hasn’t been up to much. Hopefully, her role gets juicier as the end of the season draws closer.