There are just three episodes left for Season 1 of WGN America's most excellent new series, Manh(a)ttan -- or as Jen-Luc Piquant has taken to calling it, The Best New Show You're Not Watching. Seriously people, why aren't more of you watching? We're hardcore fans here at the cocktail party, and hence jumped at the chance to chat with the show's creator, writer, and executive producer Sam Shaw, as well as writer and executive producer Dusty Thomason about what's happened on the show so far and what we have to look forward to in the finale. (Fair warning: If you're not caught up on what's happened on the show thus far, the following contains some minor spoilers.)
Jen-Luc Piquant: The Manhattan Project must be the most exhaustively documented period in 2oth century science history, so it's a bit of a risk to try to bring such a familiar era to life in fictional format. You need to be accurate, to make the setting believable, but you also need a certain degree of freedom to create good storytelling. How do you balance those two requirements?
Sam Shaw: To science historians and physicists, it’s perhaps been over-told, but to a new generation, unfortunately it’s history that’s not very well known. We rely a huge amount on the time, generosity, and patience of our consultants. It has been a guiding principle in the show that we take pains to be as faithful as we can to the science and the history, creating an accurate and detailed setting for the story and then populating that world with fictional characters whose interior lives drive the storytelling.
There will always be people who come to our show expecting a docudrama or who wish we were writing about historical figures. Every once and awhile I’ll read comments talking about [the parallels between real-life physicist] Seth Neddermeyer and Frank [Winter], but Frank is not a fictionalization of Neddermeyer; his character arc is not the same as Neddermeyer's. To be able to tell the kinds of stories that we wanted to tell, we had to populate this world with our own invented characters to serve as a window into that moment in history.
It’s not a technical history of the birth of the atomic bomb. I encourage anybody who is looking for that to pick up the Richard Rhodes book (The Making of the Atomic Bomb), which is an astonishing piece of scholarship and an incredible riveting read. This is a story about something else: the birth of a different kind of America and all of the ironies of life in this place that was both the best kept secret in the world, and also a place where everybody’s privacy was invaded. That’s as interesting to us in the writer’s room as the challenge of bending shock waves, if not more so.
Jen-Luc Piquant: How do you go about breaking stories for each episode, and planning the seasonal arc?
Dusty Thomason: There’s no one formula. The science and history are a real gift in terms of generating raw material for stories, and helped us understand the stakes for the first season, giving an overall direction to where we wanted to go. There’s this competition between Thin Man and the implosion model, and while for dramatic purposes some aspects of that competition have been emotionalized, that was the place we started from. From there came the creation of the Ackley character, with Charlie’s loyalties hanging in the balance of the two groups. And then other stuff trickled down from there.
Sam Shaw: The challenge is to take the history and the science and find a way to make it a vehicle for character storytelling. When breaking the season, there were some milestones we knew we wanted to hit. It felt like a season of storytelling that would be organized around the relationship between Frank and Charlie, the story of their rivalry, and we would bring them to a place where they start to work together. You’ll have to stick around for the last three episodes to see what comes next.
Within that seasonal arc, there were episodes that we broke in a variety of different ways. [In episodes 106 and 107 ("Acceptable Limits" and "The New World"] we knew we wanted to get to Oak Ridge and that the difference between reactor-bred plutonium and cyclotron plutonium would be important to our storytelling. And in episode 105 ["A New Approach to Nuclear Cosmology"], where Babbit gets swept up in the communist witch hunt, we knew we wanted to drive a real wedge between Frank and Charlie and give us a window into their back stories. Breaking that episode involved figuring out the mechanics of the story, something that could scorch the earth between Frank and Charlie.
Dusty Thomason: Some of the science in that episode was designed with exactly that context in mind. Forgetting to account for fuel in the design of the weight-bearing load of the plane with regard to the design of the bomb -- that was a fact we loved and so we baked that into [the plot for episode 5] as the thing Charlie ostensibly gets wrong, which sends him on his downward spiral that causes him to have loose lips. And that sets off the communist witch hunt. So we loved certain pieces of science and then would try to integrate them into the story so that they would have emotional consequences.
Sam Shaw: I worked last year on Showtime's Masters of Sex, which also trades in a lot of science and straddles a complicated line between fact and fiction, history and entertainment. My boss on that show, Michelle Ashford, used to say that "sex can't exist just for the sake of sex" on Masters of Sex. It needs to have implications emotionally in the storytelling for the characters. I think the same thing is true of the science in our show. Science can’t exist in our show just in and of itself, however fascinating it is.
The challenge is for us to find ways to incorporate the science into the world of our show, have it emotionalized or carry some consequences for the characters in the story line that we’re setting up. That’s a challenging thing to do, and there’s no template or model for us. Breaking Bad is a show that incorporates science into its storytelling. But the way chemistry lives in Breaking Bad is a little different than how physics is incorporated into our show. We had to figure out modes of telling these science stories as we went along.
Jen-Luc Piquant: Sex is definitely present on Manh(a)attan, and not just between properly married couples who strictly stick with the missionary position. There is infidelity, premarital sex, same-sex encounters, and the women on the show are often as free-thinking as the men. Some people might find this surprising, assuming such things didn’t happen in the 1940s and 1950s, but of course they did – even on the Manhattan Project. Do you get any push-back on those story elements?
Sam Shaw: I think we tend to sanitize the past when we tell stories about the past. The truth is my grandparents had oral sex. They had premarital sex. Not to be crass, but oral sex was not invented in 1982. I think we do a real disservice to the complexity of life in that moment if we try to elevate everybody who occupied that world and pretend that they weren’t complicated and flawed and hopeful and human in all the same ways that we are.
Dusty Thomason: We’re very interested in depicting the emotional truth of what was going on with the sexuality between couples on the show. We're telling stories about the effect of the secrets and the dishonesty and lack of transparency on marriages, on the sexual relationships inside of marriages, and the way in which secrets can cause two people to connect in a deep way over a shared secret. That’s connected to the building of the bomb and the different attitudes about it.
Sam Shaw: I’ve seen the occasional comment questioning some of those relationship or infidelity stories. There are people who say it’s supposed to be a show about science or engineering, and it's very amusing to be told what my own show is about. I think you’ll see in the next few episodes that the personal and the professional become intertwined in very complicated ways for the characters on our show, so there are structural reasons why we’re telling those stories.
But this also feels like a very contemporary story. The people in this place were living on the frontier of a brand new era. They were the first to reckon with the idea that humankind might be on the verge of acquiring the ability to destroy all human life on the planet. Suddenly the world was a much more dangerous place. For me, one of the defining aspects for life in America and for the world over the last 15 years was [the terrorist attacks of] September 11 . We live in a world that feels less predictable and less safe than it used to. I think the seeds of that are contained in this story. There’s a great quote by an historian named Elaine Tyler May: “It was not just nuclear energy that had to be contained, but the social and sexual fallout from the atomic age itself.” That’s part of the show too. What is the human experience that is connected to the awesome new power that was unleashed in this place?
Jen-Luc Piquant: The physicists who worked on the Manhattan Project were excited about the potential of nuclear physics and the chance to be involved in groundbreaking research that would change the world, but many also wrestled with the inevitable human cost of building an atomic bomb. That's a recurring theme on Manh(a)ttan as well.
Sam Shaw: There’s a scene in the pilot (101, "You Always Hurt the One You Love") where Charlie tells Frank the story of the Golem and the Jews of Prague. It’s a cautionary tale about unleashing a power you can’t control. Frank’s line back is, “Have you been to Prague lately? There aren’t any Jews left.” A lot of the moral questioning of the show is contained in that back and forth. We try not to adjudicate. The show doesn’t have a thesis statement about the atomic bomb. We try to fill the world of the show with characters that have different and complicated points of view about what they’re doing there, including some for whom it’s just a job, who aren’t troubled by moral questions at all.
Dusty Thomason: In the writer’s room, we feel that to try and editorialize or come up with a thesis statement about the bomb is to reduce it to a simple point of view that we collectively feel is pretty much impossible. I think there was a real development arc for a lot of the scientists [on the Manhattan Project], a changing of feeling and an emotional roller coaster that they went on between 1943 and 1955. That story has been told a little bit in historical documents, but a TV show gives us the opportunity to really explore that and have our fictional characters go on that same roller coaster. Charlie and Frank’s points of view especially change over the course of the season.
Jen-Luc Piquant: Are there plans for a second season? There is so much more story to tell.
Sam Shaw: I hope so. There should be some news very soon. When I talked to the network for the first time about plans for the show beyond the pilot episode, we talked through seven seasons of storytelling. So there has always been this vision for how the show evolves over time. It’s not a story about the end of World War II. It's as much about what happened after the bombs were dropped. So there’s always been a sense of how time would progress on the show, and where this series would end. I can tell you that it extends well past the end of World War II to [an era] where we lose the moral clarity of this very righteous race with the Nazis, who we thought were well ahead of us in developing an atomic weapon, and move into the much murkier terrain of the Cold War. Given that this is fundamentally a story about secrets and secrecy, we’re very much interested in what happens after this town goes from the best kept secret on the planet to the most famous little city in the world.
Jen-Luc Piquant: Finally, what were your favorite scenes or episodes in Season 1?
Dusty Thomason: Without giving away where we’re going, for me, the relationship between Frank and Babbitt is really central. I love the scene in last week's episode (110, "The Understudy") where Babbitt confronts Frank about the fact that he has been working secretly with Charlie and hasn't told Babbit anything about it. There’s such a strong dynamic between John Benjamin Hickey [who plays Frank Winter] and Danny Stern [Babbit] and I think that mentor/mentee relationship is getting more and more fraught. So I love that scene.
Sam Shaw: For me, it’s a bit like you love all your children equally. With that said, in the first season of a TV series there’s a lot of work that you have to do to establish the world and establish the characters, particularly on a show as big and complicated as this one. A lot of that work was done over the first half of the season. So I love the last three episodes. There are a handful of scenes in the season finale that I just could watch over and over again. None of our actors have been better than they are in that season finale, they’re really extraordinary. I truly love the last 10 minutes of this season of storytelling.
Many thanks to Sam Shaw and Dusty Thomason for taking time to chat with Jen-Luc Piquant about their show. If you don't get WGN America through your cable provider, you can watch episodes on Hulu and IMDB to catch up on what's happened thus far on Manh(a)ttan, so you can fully appreciate the last three episodes of Season 1. You can also read my prior recaps by searching on the "Manh(a)ttan" or "TVRecap" tags. Our fingers are crossed for many seasons yet to come.