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Manh(a)ttan Recap: Faustian Bargains and Pandora’s Box (SPOILERS)

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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(Note: If you missed the pilot episode of Manh(a)ttan, you can read my recap here. And be forewarned: spoilers lie ahead!)

Loyalties are tested, and bad bargains are struck in this week’s episode of Manh(a)ttan (“The Prisoner’s Dilemma”). The pilot, though promising, was slower-paced, focusing on setting up the premise, and as such, had to do a lot of heavy lifting: establishing setting, main characters, methodically sketching out key plot points and so forth. Carefully laying that groundwork paid off handsomely in the second episode, which quite literally ended with a bang in one hell of a plot twist.

We open with a nervous young man washing the sweat and grime from his face in a dingy diner bathroom, a seemingly innocuous orange crate by his side. There is an insistent knocking on the bathroom door. Your average person might show irritation at being rushed, but this guy looks panicked, and produces a handgun, concealing it behind his back as he cracks open the door to reveal — the janitor. He hastily stuffs the gun into his pocket and heads back to his table, tense and secretive. It turns out he’s on a mysterious government mission, delivering…. something… to a remote site via taxi, because he can’t drive. (“What kind of grown man can’t drive a car? You Amish or somethin’?” the driver asks. “I’m from Brooklyn,” is the terse reply.) We never see what’s in the crate, but it certainly isn’t Valencia oranges. When the driver presses his passenger, he’s told it’s Pandora’s Box.

That remote site turns out to be the military camp that will one day become Los Alamos National Laboratory. We find the collected inhabitants watching an excruciating amateur performance of The Wizard of Oz. Frank Winters, the beleaguered head scientist who faced the closure of his lab in the pilot, is in the audience, and notices some surreptitious whispering among his superiors in the shadows. As he and Liza, his highly educated wife, head back home, he is met outside by Helen Prins (Katya Herbers) the lone female scientist on his team. She’s just had word from the tech department: “We’re not getting any.”

“Any” refers to plutonium-239 (Pu-239), a newly synthesized isotope that is crucial to achieving an atomic bomb. It turns out that Frank has managed to salvage (most of) his team and his lab by turning over one of his physicists, Sid Liao, to the Army. Liao is being charged with treason for pocketing some papers on his own optics-based research, hoping to sell the patents to Eastman-Kodak after the war the is over to pay for his daughter’s medical treatment (she has melanoma).

In exchange for Liao, the military overturns the decision to close Frank’s lab, but his team can’t very well make much progress on their work without the coveted Pu-239 — “the most valuable substance on Earth,” according to one senior scientist. Thanks to the nervous young man from Brooklyn, they now have 150 micrograms — 1/100th the mass of an eyelash — and all Frank wants is 10 micrograms. But Ackley’s team (working on a plutonium gun-type nuclear bomb dubbed “Thin Man,” as opposed to the implosion-based design touted by Winter’s group) gets it all — a transparent attempt to shut Frank out, since they can’t outright fire him.

It’s worth a brief segue to explain the physicists’ reverence for their smidgen of Pu-239. (Ackley calls it “the isotope that launched 1000 ships.”) As I wrote in a 2006 blog post, our entire observable world is made up of the first 90 or so elements in the periodic table, and most of those were formed in stars. It takes explosive energies on a par with large supernovae to produce the heaviest elements.  But scientists managed to produce new heavy elements in the laboratory, beginning in the 1940s with neptunium and plutonium (Elements 93 and 94, respectively), thanks to the efforts of physicists Glenn T. Seaborg and Edwin McMillan. The physicists on the Manhattan Project were primarily interested in an isotope of plutonium, Pu-239, which boasted a longer half-life and just the right spontaneous fission rate to set off the chain reaction needed in the “Thin Man” bomb design — or so everyone thought at the time.

The catch: it was an expensive, laborious procedure to separate this isotope from uranium fueling slow nuclear reactors — initially housed at a site in Oak Ridge, TN, with production later extended to Hanford, WA and Los Alamos itself. Pu-239 was more precious than gold to the physicists on the Manhattan Project. So Frank really, really wants some of that precious isotope, and starts scheming for a way to get his hands on some.

Frank’s secret weapon: Helen Prins, who sneaks into the Ackley lab one night when Ackley’s wunderkind Charlie Isaacs is working late on his own.  Charlie has been having moral qualms over building a bomb, only to be told by his boss, “I want you to be happy, but I need you to be helpful. Doubt is a luxury we cannot afford.” Translation: suck it up, kid, or you’re outta here. Plus his wife hates living on a military base rife with secrets and constant violations of their privacy. So Charlie’s not having a good day.

Enter Helen with a made-up sob story about how she was sent to retrieve some Pu-239 for an all-night test and she’ll probably be fired because she’s late, on account of a phone call with her long-distance boyfriend. “Well — ex-boyfriend,” she chokes, adding, “A girl with a PhD is like a monkey with a harmonica.” (If the science thing doesn’t work out, Helen has a bright future as an actress.) Charlie comforts her with a tale of a woman in grad school who could solve LaGrangian equations in her head. And being a nice guy, he unlocks the storage cabinet for her.

By now it’s pretty clear Charlie landed in the wrong research group, apart from his antagonism towards Winter for rejecting his paper that one time. There’s a cute bonding moment back in the Winters lab, when Charlie and a couple of the other scientists make a back-of-the-envelope calculation of the likely strength of gravity on Superman’s home planet of Krypton. (Nerds — amirite?) It doesn’t last long: Ackley flunkies burst in, demanding their isotope back — and they’re really pissed at poor unsuspecting Charlie.

Ackley and Winter hash it out in front of their superior, another fictional physicist I’ve dubbed Pseudo-Fermi. (The actual Enrico Fermi was crucial to the atomic bomb effort, but in 1944 he was based in Chicago, heading the plutonium effort. The character just reminded me of him.) Pseudo-Fermi makes a deal with Winter: if he can demonstrate the feasibility of his implosion design by the next day, he can have some Pu-239. And the race is on!

Meanwhile, things haven’t been going so well for poor Sid Liao, confined in a bare room with no windows under armed guard, at the mercy of a mysterious interrogator (played by the wonderful Richard Schiff). The Inquistor doesn’t seem to be buying his (truthful) account of why he took those top-secret papers home with him. When Liao demands an attorney, per his constitutional rights, he’s informed that this base is not considered part of the United States, and thus the U.S. Constitution doesn’t apply.

Eventually The Inquisitor reveals that he’s actually targeting Frank Winter, and he’s offering Liao a deal: tattle on Frank, and he might just be pardoned. He leaves him to think it over with a parting “Try to get some sleep.” This turns out to be more of a taunt: the lights turn to full strength and music blares as a despairing Liao tries to cope with the psychological mind games.

And now it’s time for the dinner party from hell! While Frank Winter and Charlie Isaacs grow ever-more-hostile towards one another, their respective wives have been bonding. Liza finds a tearful Abby trying to salvage what’s left of her grandmother’s lace curtains after her crappy government-issue stove catches a fire. If Abby uses official requisition channels to request a replacement hot plate so she can cook for her family, or even just make tea, it will take the duration of the war. So Liza hatches a plan. She purloins a stack of sanitary napkins (also in short supply during WWII) and gives them to one of the local workers in exchange for a handful of peyote buds. She instructs Abby to trade the peyote to the requisitions officer (a peyote fan) to fast-track a new hot plate — and invites the Isaacs over for dinner that night, offering her teenaged daughter Callie’s (Alexia Fast) services as a babysitter.

It must be said that Callie is a very bad babysitter, drinking their booze, going through Abby’s drawers and trying on her jewelry — and of course, she finds the peyote, with predictable, if harmless, results. At least Callie had a pleasant trippy evening.

Chez Winter, the gathering is pleasant enough until a distracted and cranky Frank comes home and proceeds to demonstrate appalling social skills, casting a pall over the dinner conversation. When the two women repair to the kitchen, Charlie confronts Frank, declaring, “You’re afraid I’m the meteor that will make you go extinct.” To which Frank snipes, “What is it with little boys and dinosaurs?” The conversation goes downhill from there, until Frank tosses Charlie’s jacket out the door and says, “Get home safe.” He tells the horrified Liza that he doesn’t want the Isaacs in their home. Liza begs him to confide in her — she guesses there is a crisis at work — but he shuts her out again. The odds aren’t looking favorable for the Winter marriage.

Social faux pas and a pissed-off wife are the least of Frank’s worries, as things are rapidly coming to a head on two fronts: the clock is ticking both for his implosion proof-of-principle test in the desert, and for Sid Liao. Stricken with guilt, Frank pulls a few strings to free Liao by drafting him into the army. The idea is that after an accelerated training period, Liao will go to the front, and his scientific training will land him a far less dangerous job as a radio operator. It won’t be pleasant, but it will be better than imprisonment or execution for treason.

Alas, if Frank wants to save Liao he has to leave the test site right when his team needs him most. He gets back just as the test concludes — but there is no implosion effect, meaning the test has fizzled. Most of Ackley’s team show up for the spectacle and indulge in a bit of gloating over the failure. But Charlie finds a scrap of paper with some of the calculations used among the debris, and is intrigued. He starts working on the problem himself.

Worse is yet to come. When Frank explained his scheme to Liao, the scientist was initially grateful, and then realized it was Frank who sold him out. The shock of the betrayal leads to tragedy. Instead of escaping and catching the assigned train, Liao tells his guard to call back The Inquisitor, insisting he’s now ready to talk. Except he steals a gun from the guard and escapes in a car, only to be stopped at the gate because he doesn’t have a pass to leave the base. He begs to be let through anyway, but is ultimately shot and killed when a soldier spots the gun next to him on the seat. And all hell breaks loose on the base.

The episode is titled “The Prisoner’s Dilemma,” an allusion to the classic game theory thought experiment intended (per Wikipedia) to demonstrate “why two purely ‘rational’ individuals might not cooperate, even if it appears that it is in their best interests to do so.” It’s applied rather loosely in the episode, but works metaphorically on a couple of levels. Most obviously, the rival teams of Winter and Ackley share the same goal, yet can’t (or won’t) work together, trying to sabotage each other’s efforts instead. The unfortunate Liao faces a literal prisoner’s dilemma, forced to choose between his own freedom and betraying his boss — who, he discovers, has already betrayed him.

I said last week that it had to be challenging to create suspense when your series is based on very well known and exhaustively documented history — I mean, we know the scientists will succeed in building their bomb, and that bomb will be the “Fat Man” design championed by Frank Winters; Ackley is, ultimately, destined to fail, despite his brash confidence. But “The Prisoner’s Dilemma” ably demonstrates that the writers are more than up to the challenge, dramatically upping the stakes and turning up the tension to 11. Apart from Oppenheimer, most of these characters are fictional, so their individual fates are very much uncertain; that’s where you get your suspense, your conflict, your emotional resonance, ensuring your audience is invested in those characters’ fates.

Next week: I expect the focus will be on exploring exactly how Liao’s violent demise ricochets through this already-frayed community. But will Charlie crack the puzzle of the Winter group’s failed implosion test? Will he tell Winter or keep to himself out of spite? Will Winter listen even if he does? We’ll just have to wait to find out.

Jennifer Ouellette About the Author: Jennifer Ouellette is a science writer who loves to indulge her inner geek by finding quirky connections between physics, popular culture, and the world at large. Follow on Twitter @JenLucPiquant.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. AlanHK 11:01 pm 08/27/2014

    re: “You’re afraid I’m the meteor that will make you go extinct.”

    Was the meteor theory of dinosaur extinction even a theory in 1943? I remember in the 60s and 70s it was a mystery, most believing it was just our smart mammalian ancestors beat them out, ate their eggs, or it was an ice age, super flu virus, etc.
    Wikipedia mentions a paper by Kelly and Dachille in a 1953 that suggested massive asteropid impact, but the meteor theory only became prominent after Alvarez found the iridium layer in 1980, and then about 1990 when Chicxulub became the prime suspect.

    Link to this

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