Rejoice, my fellow fans of Manh(a)ttan (a.k.a. "Fanhattans"), for this critically acclaimed fledgling series on WGN America has been renewed for a second season, just in time for the season finale ("Perestroika"). We've watched our characters -- Frank Winter chief among them -- weave an elaborate web of secrets and lies over the course of 13 episodes, and now that web is unraveling, consequences must be paid. The question is, who will do the paying?
But first we have a stop-over on Ellis Island, where an Eastern European refugee woman with a young girl is pleading with an immigrations official to let them into the US: they paid the requisite fee, it should have only taken a day, and yet here they are, three days later, still in holding. Alas, the woman has caught the attention of the nefarious Occam -- seriously, that guy pops up everywhere in his single-minded quest to steamroller innocent people into confessing they're spies -- who wants to hear more about the woman's American benefactor, a certain physicist named Charlie Isaacs. This does not bode well for Charlie, who is already having a tough time of it, between his marriage and his falling out with Frank Winter.
And don't forget the suicide of Charlie's boss, Reed Ackley, which ended last week's episode. "As hard as it it is having secrets kept from you, keeping them can be even harder," Frank's wife, Liza, muses the next morning as the couple dresses. She doesn't know Frank was there when it happened, of course -- she's already left the bedroom when he finds the bits of gore on his shoe and rummages around in the closet for a different pair. Apparently he sees something interesting in the back of said closet, but before he can investigate further, none other than Robert Oppenheimer (Daniel London) comes to the door.
Oppie is not a happy camper. Ackley is dead, Thin Man is a bust, and he had to fire Babbit (in the form of forced "retirement") for abusing his position of privilege in Oppie's office to fast-track the plutonium delivery. "The friends of Frank Winter don't have a long shelf life on the Hill, do they?" Oppie observes. But Babbit's sacrifice served its purpose: the project's focus is now shifting to implosion, and Oppie is appointing Frank to head the effort as Ackley's replacement.
"It's not how I wanted it," Frank admits. And Oppie is clearly not about happy about it either. But nobody knows implosion as well as Frank, so he'll need to make the case to US Secretary of Defense Henry Stimson (Gerald McRaney), arriving soon for a briefing on the fiasco that this project has seemingly become. "Buy a comb," is the impeccably coifed Oppie's terse advice to the perpetually scruffy physicist before swanning away in his town car.
Charlie Isaacs is also reeling from the news of Ackley's suicide when he returns home to a royally pissed off Abby, who has guessed he's been spending his nights with Helen. She is horrified to hear the news about Ackley, though, and Charlie blames himself for not being more supportive when Ackley was teetering on the edge. But his wallowing is cut short by the arrival of MPs, who drag him off for questioning and ransack the house.
Meanwhile, Liza stops by to see Ackley's widow, Rose (Christina Kirk), just as Rose is departing the base for good, returning to Chicago with her husband's remains. (Side note: Liza learns she won election to the civilian town council by a landslide.) Rose is in denial, insisting Reed would never kill himself and his is death must have been an accident, refusing Liza's farewell hug when the MP comes around with the car. "Take care of Frank," she advises Liza. "He's on the throne now. That's what really killed Reed. The Gadget."
You don't win at chess unless you're willing to sacrifice a few pieces -- sometimes very important pieces. Frank's ascension to the throne has cost him dearly, in the form of fractured relationships and lost loyalty and trust. There's Paul Crosley, for one, who told Ackley about Frank and Charlie's collusion (with a reluctant Helen Prins) to break compartmentalization and crack the implosion puzzle. Frank finds a still-bitter Crosley packing up in anticipation of his transfer -- one assumes to Site X, as he requested of Babbit -- and the British physicist flatly refuses to return to the implosion team, although he does promise not to say anything further about the Unholy Alliance that led, ultimately, to Ackley's suicide. "You get my silence, but not me."
Then there is Glen Babbit, also packing up his office and departing for parts unknown. The academic environment for physics has shifted markedly with the launch of the Manhattan Project, and Babbit is tainted, both by his past Communist associations and by his abrupt termination by Oppenheimer. "I hear a lot of old bachelors are heading west," he muses, and we hope he finds peace and maybe even a stable long-term partner in a more forward-looking place like Berkeley, because, as Frank says, "You deserve to be happy." But the bond between these two is irrevocably broken. Babbit chides Frank for making friendly chitchat about seeing each other after the war, telling him not to call or write. "Stop trying to have both ways," he says, adding that maybe a genuinely good man couldn't have gotten implosion to work. "Let God do the accounting when it's over." (Jen-Luc Piquant breathed a huge sigh of relief when Babbit passed through the security gate for the last time, into freedom. Run, Babbit, run!)
At least Frank still has Fritz, Jim Meeks and Helen Prins, each of whom is being promoted in kind to head up divisions on implosion relevant to their expertise. Fritz's main concerns are being able to afford a ring so he can propose to Jeannie, and not having an adequate suit. But Helen is fretting about Charlie, suggesting that since Crosley is AWOL, perhaps Frank could bring him into the fold. Frank gives her a warning look -- the other two don't know about their secret arrangement -- telling her that Charlie is currently being investigated for violations of compartmentalization: "The Army is wiping its leadership slate clean." Yes, Frank is sacrificing yet another piece for the sake of his beloved implosion bomb. What good would it do for all three of them to go down for violating compartmentalization? But it doesn't sit well with Helen.
Initially Charlie thinks this is all about breaking compartmentalization, too -- his name was on all the requisition forms, after all. And Occam begins the interrogation session on that note, probing how much Charlie knew about the technical problems with Thin Man. For starters, the calculations Charlie had been assigning Ackley's team seemed to have little to do with the gun model, and Tom Lancefield -- the physicist Abby helped frame -- is singing like a canary about how they actually pertain to the implosion design. Charlie allows that he may have been exploring other theories out of an excess of caution, but to Occam it just "looks like sabotage."
What Occam really cares about, however, is how the Allied spy in the Nazi bomb project, "Magpie," came to lose his head. We were told in the pilot there was a leak on the Hill -- historically there were, indeed, spies on the Manhattan Project -- and identifying the traitor has been Occam's primary objective from the start. He set his sights on Sid Liao, on Glen Babbit, on Frank Winter, on Tom Lancefield, and now on Charlie -- based entirely on the fact that his wife's relatives in Minsk escaped to the US (at least Malta Perlman and her little girl did; Malta's husband wasn't as fortunate). Charlie recalls that he had asked Reed Ackley to intervene on their behalf; apparently Ackley did so, but now Ackley is dead and can't confirm that. That's not even counting Charlie's estranged Socialist father languishing in prison, or the fact that he lied to save Babbit, thanks to Frank's threat to expose him for perceived plagiarism.
But Charlie proves a tough nut to crack, probably because he knows he's innocent of international espionage and treason. So Occam starts applying the screws by dragging in a terrified Abby for questioning. He gives the couple a few minutes alone beforehand, during which Charlie begs her to go home to Massachusetts; he'll give her a divorce, anything to keep her safe, and apologizes for ever bringing her to the Hill in the first place.
We never do hear what Abby told Occam, if anything, but the Grand Inquisitor already knows a great deal about her, including her love affair with Elodie. "Your wife is a complicated woman," he tells a shocked and disbelieving Charlie.
Charlie still won't crack. And now we see the truly dark side of Occam. "A secret trapped inside a man is like the energy trapped inside an atom," he says. "It wants to be released." It's his version of "We have ways to make you talk," implying that torture is imminent, Geneva Convention be damned, because as he so dearly loves to remind his prisoners, they have no rights inside that cell.
Helen Prins goes to Charlie's house to look for him and comes face to face with Abby, who lets her rival know she knows what's up -- and the brief appearance of their son, Joey, with the nanny drives home what's at stake. She also tells Helen that Charlie is in far worse trouble than anyone expected: "You are not the only person on this Hill who's trying to take my husband away from his family." Helen passes this information onto Frank, prompting one last crisis of conscience , in the form of the late Sid Liao -- the first casualty of Frank's machinations. "You don't owe Isaacs anything," Ghost-Sid tells Frank, rattling off the numbers of all those who have died so far in the course of the war, amounting to something on the order of 1157 deaths per hour. "What's one more?"
As Stimson arrives on the Hill with his entourage, Frank finds Liza in their bedroom, tells her he loves her, and then confesses that his top-secret classified research involves building an atomic bomb capable of wiping out an entire city, assuring his horrified wife that "The Army will detonate it where it can't hurt anyone." Once the Germans, Russians and Japanese see what the US is capable of, the war will end -- and, in Frank's mind, there will never be another. Liza, shocked and not nearly as optimistic, leaves the room in silence.
Cut to Oppenheimer in the dining hall, overseeing preparations for the banquet in Stimson's honor when Occam arrives to tell him there's a "personnel issue" that requires his immediate attention. We see Frank combing his hair as the MPs arrive to escort him to his meeting on the Hill. We see Charlie being led out of his cell, catching a glimpse of a grim-faced Oppie going into an interrogation room with Occam. And we see Occam play an incriminating recording for Oppie: Frank Winter telling Liza all about the atomic bomb project, leaking classified information, because of course the Winters' home has been bugged. When Oppenheimer finally briefs Stimson about the implosion backup plan, he introduces the man who "single-handedly" cracked the implosion problem and will be heading up this redirected program: not Frank, but Charlie Isaacs.
At long last, Frank has done the right thing. He knew his home was bugged; that's what he saw in the back of his bedroom closet earlier in the episode. And he kept right on talking after Liza left their room, "confessing" that it was he and the late Reed Ackley who cooked up the scheme to funnel resources from Thin Man to implosion, thereby violating compartmentalization, setting up Charlie Isaacs to take the fall should they be found out. "We sacrifice the few to save the many," Frank tells the empty bedroom, before adding that while the Army now thinks Charlie is a spy, he's actually 100% innocent. And also, Frank and Ackley "stole" the idea that solved the shock wave problem from Charlie's now-infamous paper. (It was what inspired Frank to try the wave-shaping scheme.) We last see a handcuffed Frank in the back of an MP car with a burlap sack over his head, being escorted off the base. He sacrificed himself to save the many, and just maybe to atone a tiny bit for all the pain he's caused.
Frank doesn't confess to espionage, so while the consequences will be severe, he won't be facing a firing squad for treason. Occam still hasn't found his rat. But focusing his suspicions on Winter's group might not have been misguided after all (or he made a lucky guess). Just as the implosion team is moving into their new offices, Jim Meeks gets word that his ailing mother has died. One of Frank's last acts during his all-too-brief tenure as top dog is to get Meeks a pass to attend her funeral.
But the first thing Meeks does when he gets into town is to call his very much alive mother from a payphone before sitting down in a nearby diner (he does seem to have a tail watching him). Another man takes the booth immediately behind him -- yes, the mild-mannered Meeks is our spy. He tells his contact that implosion is taking center stage. And.... curtain.
It's a fantastic note on which to end the first season. I've been impressed since the pilot with the tight, artful structuring of this series, both within individual episodes and with the overall seasonal arc. There are so many threads running through the narrative, and so many characters to juggle, but the finale did a great job tying up most of the loose ends and setting up what promises to be an equally twisty second season. (Still unresolved: what becomes of Liza and her daughter Callie -- and Callie's romance with Private Dunlavy -- now that Frank has been arrested? And was Liza really just being paranoid or is radiation a distinct health risk on the Hill?)
Charlie now occupies the uneasy throne on the project, and it remains to be seen how well he will handle that position. He'll also need to make some decisions about his marriage and Helen Prins, not to mention grapple with Occam's revelation of his wife's same-sex explorations. Also, Abby appears to be pregnant again, which should up the ante. I assume Occam will still be ferreting around for his spy, and we'll get some hints as to why Meeks is betraying his country. And don't forget the science! If they're moving into the build phase for the bomb, we could see the Trinity Test -- or beyond.
Our recaps will return to the cocktail party when Season 2 airs next year. In the meantime, the folks at the Los Alamos Historical Society have also been providing recaps, along with in-depth discussions of the real-life history behind Manh(a)ttan.