Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Manhattan gets back to its fighting weight

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They did it. The Manhattan writers figured out how to get Frank out without cheating: a phone call from Eleanor Roosevelt. We were never likely to see what exactly went on behind the scenes with Albert Einstein and Eleanor Roosevelt, but I’m dying of curiosity. What do you think Glen and Liza told Al? That Frank is in an internment camp for violating compartmentalization and sabotaging the efforts of the US military to get the bomb first to win this war as soon as possible? Probably not. To what extent do you think they apprised Eleanor Roosevelt of Frank’s situation? We’ll probably never know. It’s fitting that as the episode ends, we don’t even know the conditions of Frank’s return. It looks like he’s sneaking into Charlie’s house. Did he have to sneak back onto the Hill?

“Overlord” is set during Operation Overlord, so this is in early June, 1944. Since the timing has been a little jumbled, let’s iron out the season so far. The first episode takes place mainly in April of 1944, so it’s been about two months of Frank in prison and Charlie overseeing the bomb and Helen and company kind of just wondering where Frank is and not doing a whole lot of physics. So that’s about an episode every two weeks. You think the Army sent anyone after Liza in that time or is it totally fine that she flew the coop? At the end of “The Threshold,” when Liza visits Glen, a chiron claims it’s May of 1945, but per creator Sam Shaw that’s a production mistake that was fixed for later broadcasts. That’s actually set in May 1944, right where it should be, in the middle of the April-June run of the season so far. We’ve also had flashbacks to Liza’s stay in the Seneca Falls sanatorium from January at the latest to April 1939, and a flash-forward to July of 1945, three weeks before Hiroshima. But for the most part, season two is going in order. It’s not trying to pull a fast one. Yet.

Appropriately, “Overlord” is concerned with the sneaky machinations that lead to Frank and Oppenheimer storming the sandy beaches, well, deserts of Los Alamos, presumably for the long haul. Meanwhile the actual Operation Overlord has everyone excited. Scientists in the gun group are convinced they’re just playing out the clock now. A driver is hot to trot on the baby name Dee, as in D-Day. Nora’s response lives up to the steely impression she gave in “The Threshold.” “Naming your daughter after a land war. It’s adorable.” A less common reaction is survivor’s guilt, but someone in the gun group expresses his concern. “I’ve got a half-brother out there slaughtering Heinees. I’m sitting here like a woman.” A smooth pan over to Helen, pro-/demoted to leader of the gun group, catches her effortless retort just in time. “Don’t flatter yourself.”

Getting Frank back to the Hill is pretty simple compared to what happens with the Oppenheimers. Mainly that’s because we don’t know anything. How’d they get Eleanor Roosevelt involved? How’d he get back on site? Is Liza with him? At one point it looks like Frank’s going to have to win a chili-eating contest against a pig to drive the prize Model A from Wherever, Texas back to New Mexico, but Liza gives in. She keeps giving in. Not that it’s a surrender. Not that they’re in battle. Nevertheless she’s the one always compromising. At the end, outside the base, Frank makes a very sweet, very guilt-inducing gesture. Regarding the first time Frank decided to up and move them to New Mexico, he says, “I had no right to make a choice that big for the both of us. So now it’s your choice.” Princeton or the Hill? I take him at face value here—he really wants this to be a balanced marriage—but he’s a calculating, manipulative guy, and this isn’t much of a choice. Should we help our country win the war with the nuclear bomb model I dreamed up or retire to our ivory towers? What is Liza going to say? And now he’s making her complicit in this choice she hates.

Meanwhile Oppenheimer’s ready to quit. To be specific, he’s ready to leave it all behind for Jean, the woman in San Francisco who has such power over him. Charlie tries to empathize, revealing his own indiscretions with Helen. “You ended it?” Oppenheimer asks. “Yes, I ended it.” “If that was in your power, then you have no earthly idea how I feel.” So part of the episode is game theory as everyone tries to figure out whether Oppenheimer leaving would be better or worse for them. Abby wants Charlie to move up, Fritz worries about productivity, Jim secretly celebrates the potential decline in productivity. Charlie, though, is more like Frank than anyone realized. He isn’t smooth with the red tape. He tells a judge to wipe his ass with some document. (To his credit, the judge does.) Tell me that isn’t exactly what Frank would have done. Later, what Liza says of Frank, Jim says of his boss: “Charlie thinks he can win the war by himself.” But in actuality, like Frank, Charlie’s not in this for personal ambition anymore. His number one concern is winning the war, which means Oppenheimer has to stay.

But Oppenheimer can’t make this decision for himself. The women are the ones getting things done lately. As Abby says when Charlie condescends to her, “It’s not gossip. It’s intelligence.” Naturally Charlie’s above-board tactics—personally appealing to Oppenheimer, Darrow, and Kitty to get him to stay—don’t come to fruition nearly as swiftly and effectively as Abby’s sneaking. By which I mean she places a call to Jean in San Francisco, pretends to be running a poll for a women’s magazine, and badgers the woman about her sex life until Jean realizes this isn’t a poll. When she finds out Oppenheimer has one kid already with another on the way, Jean kills herself. Problem solved.


Season two hasn’t had a very strong throughline. Its momentum comes in jolts, not one fluid drive. The main idea so far has been to get Frank out of internment and back to the Hill. But why? We love him and the show needs him, but what’s the story reason? Implosion doesn’t need his brain; at least this season hasn’t offered any evidence to the effect that it does. It just needs to be tested. The urgency has more to do with Frank surviving than the Manhattan project succeeding. In season one, those are more closely connected. That season is an underdog story about the crackpot reject physicists getting closer and closer to working out the nuclear bomb that nobody thought would work, and they succeeded. Now the bomb feels like a foregone conclusion. The gadget is being prepared for testing. We never see the scientists working on any problems. We barely see them working at all, so untroubled is this phase of development. And on top of that the Germans aren’t even close. So we’re watching the end of a game where the winners are so far up they can’t possibly lose. There are some other little hints of arcs, like Darrow’s little dictatorship cracking down on all of our heroes, Jim and Nora’s liaison somehow leading to that bomb flash-forward, and Charlie struggling with power. But none are strong enough yet to drive the whole train. Only Frank can do that. From the beginning you could feel Frank’s absence in the mood. I’m realizing he might be right about himself, but in regard to the story. Frank Winter might really be the only person on the planet who can straighten out Manhattan.

Stray observations

  • The cold open is already unsettling as is, Oppenheimer’s mistress commanding him to hold her under the water, her face curling into a smile under the rippling surface. But then she kills herself in that bathtub, making it even creepier.
  • Helen: “As head of the gun group, I can assure you we will not be wanking anything.”
  • Yes, Helen was promoted but not within implosion. Oppenheimer made her head of gun group, which is now going to try to work out Akley’s model by swapping plutonium for uranium. Unfortunately she reports to the head of the projectile division, Dr. William Hogarth, and he doesn’t feel a fire under his ass. Another familiar face from season one also shows up in Helen’s group, Theodore Sinclair from Site X. Whoever said at the beginning of the season that it feels lighter on cast than before is way wrong. The season has just been rebuilding its ensemble.
  • Abby’s doctor finds signs of “overly vigorous intercourse” and advises Charlie to take it easy. I hope that’s all it is, but I’m guessing there’s more to this story.
  • “I’m not leaving until he takes this thing out of my womb.” Kitty Oppenheimer is a breath of fresh air. Or as she puts is, “I’m royalty.” Yes, she is.
  • Mr. Oppenheimer has a way with words himself. “You should invite him to my stable,” he tells Charlie of the judge he insulted. “He loves gelding horses.” And before you can say ew, Oppenheimer clarifies. “I don’t mean horses that have been gelded. He loves the specific act of gelding a horse.”