Manhattan, Season 2, Episode 7, “Behold the Lord High Executioner”
Written by Lila Byock and Vinnie Wilhelm
Directed by Jennifer Getzinger
Airs Tuesdays at 9pm (ET) on WGN
“His acting has definitely improved.” – Fritz
After last week’s “33” efficiently set the table for the last few episodes of the season, “Behold the Lord High Executioner” goes back and grabs the loose threads of Jim’s storyline and starts to wrap them around his throat. For most of the episode, it plays as a spy thriller worthy of The Americans. Unfortunately, Manhattan‘s writers decide to end the episode by making Jeannie do the dumbest thing in the world just so she can get grotesquely bludgeoned on the head and Jim can become officially unlikable.
One of the best things about Manhattan is its consistently complex portrayals of its ostensible heroes and villains. For instance, Frank is a dick, except for when he repeatedly sacrifices himself for the greater good or, like in this episode, tries to win back Liza by plucking her a table full of sagebrush for her radiation experiments. And Darrow is both a freakishly religious SOB and an undeniably competent military leader who possesses an unexpectedly sharp wit. So, the fact that Jim has remained sympathetic despite his treasonous actions is par for the show’s course. It’s also a testament to the skills of Christopher Denham, who has consistently made Jim’s actions feel naïvely misguided but believable.
But Jim has been looking more brittle by the week, and it all comes crushing down on him in this episode. Or it would have if Nora didn’t reveal herself to be much more than she previously claimed to be. Weeks ago she said she was a green, idealistic American recruit like Jim. But it turns out she’s a skilled Soviet spy with her family’s name on the Kremlin books. She’s also a pretty ruthless killer, trying to poison the Native American boy who may have seen Jim burying his message box in the woods and also whacking poor Jeannie on the head after she confronts Jim about being a spy. This makes Nora the closest thing Manhattan has to an outright villain, but true to form, the writers give her character extra shading. From her chat with the Soviet handler, it seems she may actually have some real feelings for Jim. It’s typical spy romantic confusion stuff, but it works because it’s Mamie Gummer. Or maybe she’s just saving Jim because she really does need him to attain her espionage goals, which also works because it’s Mamie Gummer.
As for Jim, he’s never truly considered the consequences of being caught. As his handler says, Jim “thinks he’s in a spy picture.” When Nora tells him he has to hightail it to Texas to avoid detection, he asks when he’ll get to come back. Finally realizing the shit he’s in, he tries to scare off the witness kid’s mom by acting like he’s a U.S. agent, but Jim being Jim, his plan goes awkwardly off the rails. The boy’s mother–who is so viciously mocked by bigoted housewives on the Hill in the opening scene–smartly demands to see his badge and shoves Jim to the ground, causing him to unknowingly drop his pitch pipe. She’s no idiot.
Which is what makes Jeannie’s possible murder all the more frustrating. While she doesn’t have a duplicitous bone in her body, she’s a very smart woman. She finds Jim’s pitch pipe and quickly deduces that he’s the spy. But does she tell Fritz? No. Does she tell Darrow? Nope. Instead, she confronts Jim on her own and then wanders off alone in the dark to become a sacrifice of convenience. Yes, the events of episode lay bare Jim’s shortcomings as a spy and Jeannie didn’t know Nora was lurking, but few things are more annoying than TV characters who do dumb things just to move the plot forward, and confronting a spy all alone and choosing not to go back into the safety of the theater-goers is pretty dumb. Manhattan writers are smarter than that.
Despite that massive cheat, there is no denying the gut-wrenching impact it has on both Jim and viewers. Seeing sweet, loyal Fritz happily watch his friend perform while Jeannie’s fate unfolds is nauseating. And Jim’s crumbling face as he gazes back at Fritz ominously underscores the time jump scene in “Damnatio Memoriae” when Jim, pistol in hand, locks himself up with the Gadget just before the Trinity test. Given that he continues to perform while knowing that Nora is likely killing his best friend’s wife, it’s hard to guess if the Jim locked up with the bomb in the series finale will be a broken, suicidal man or a hardened, committed spy.
- After Nora attacks Jeannie, Jim sings the line, “Here’s a state of things/To her life she clings” from The Mikado‘s “Here’s A How-De-Do.” Is Jeannie still alive?
- Darrow tells Sinclair that he trusted him to examine the box found in the woods because he knew “well-meaning bigots” would report him if he so much as jaywalked.
- Continuing their unlikely bond from last week, Abby confesses to Darrow that she lost her baby because she drove Jean Tatlock to suicide and she wants Tatlock’s family to have her money. Darrow tells her that “God doesn’t accept the U.S. dollar, but there are other paths to redemption.” Does he have anything in particular in mind?
- Frank trying to bond with Liza over science is perfect. Lorentzen sends her flowers, but Frank brings her specimens for her experiment. Advantage: Frank.
- Katja Herbers is fantastic. If there was an episode of nothing but Helen doing research in the bar as she misquotes bar lingo, no one would complain.