Chances are you missed WGN America’s critically acclaimed (and Emmy-nominated) new series Manh(a)ttan when it debuted last summer. Lots of people missed it, and that’s a shame, because it is a beautifully written and acted drama set in the earliest days of the Manhattan Project, bringing that era to vivid life.
Fortunately, the series beat the odds when the network renewed it for a second season, which begins Tuesday, October 13, at 9 p.m. (assuming your region gets the WGN channel; it’s also available for streaming on Hulu). In anticipation of another riveting season, here’s a rundown of everything that’s happened on the drama so far, accompanied by a series of video interviews with the cast and crew. (You can also read the weekly recaps that appeared on Cocktail Party Physics.)
WARNING: SPOILERS BELOW
Season 1’s broad narrative arc pitted two research groups at the fledgling Los Alamos site against each other, headed by two different but equally brilliant (and entirely fictional) physicists: Reed Ackley (David Harbour) and Frank Winter (John Benjamin Hickey). Anxious to beat Germany to the punch and end World War II, both groups were frantically working on two different competing designs for a nuclear bomb: the gun model (codenamed Thin Man) and the implosion model (codenamed Fat Man). Even worse, there was a suspected mole feeding classified information to the Germans, casting a cloud of suspicion over the entire camp. Against this microcosm of an arms race, all manner of personal and professional conflicts played out, with tragic consequences.
Granted, the show amped up the scientific conflict for dramatic purposes. In reality, both designs were used for the infamous Fat Man and Little Boy bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. On the show, however, the gun model was the heavy favorite, until it became clear it simply wouldn’t work, and Frank Winter’s implosion model emerged triumphant. But that triumph came at a heavy cost: first with the death of one of Winter’s team members, Sid Liao, falsely accused of treason, and then with the suicide of a despairing Reed Ackley.
In the Season 1 finale, Frank Winter sacrificed himself to save the young wunderkind, Charlie Isaacs (Ashley Zukerman), taking the fall for conspiring to undercut the gun model group and violating army protocol by sharing information across team lines. All of this was enough to convince the mysterious “Mr. Fisher” (known by his code-name “Occam” and played by Richard Schiff) that Frank was the mole he’d been seeking all season. We last saw Frank being driven off the base, a burlap sack over his head. Chances are, he’s in for a rough time in Season 2.
Except Occam was wrong: Frank isn’t the mole. The final scene revealed the true culprit: a mild-mannered young physicist in Frank’s group named Jim Meeks (Christopher Denham), a person so blandly nondescript, he was never even suspected. Why has Meeks chosen to betray his country? Will his guilt finally catch up to him? That should be a big part of the major narrative arc for the upcoming season, as the physicists get ever closer to building a working atomic bomb.
Here’s where we left the other major characters:
Frank’s wife, Liza Winter (Olivia Williams), a respected botanist unable to conduct her own research while at the base, remained behind. Her concerns about possible radiation poisoning had been dismissed as histrionics—she has a history of mental illness—but she managed to get herself elected to the community board, running on a platform of more transparency about what civil rights, exactly, the civilian community could expect on this top-secret military base. Expect to see her continue being a thorn in the military’s side in Season 2. And expect their rebellious teenaged daughter, Callie, to be a thorn in her mother’s side; her budding romance with a young soldier on base was left very much up in the air.
Charlie Isaacs found himself heading the new implosion design team in the wake of Thin Man’s failure and Frank Winter’s confession—a professional high point for him. But his marriage to Abby (Rachel Brosnahan) was on the rocks, after her Sapphic dalliance with the wife of one of Charlie’s colleagues, and his affair with Helen Prins (Katja Herbers), the sole female physicist on the site. Abby is now pregnant with their second child, however, so chances are this pair will at least try to reconcile for the sake of their family.
Helen, meanwhile, turned down the marriage proposal of her other paramour, Paul Crosley (Harry Lloyd), a British physicist in Frank Winter’s implosion group with a reputation as a philanderer. So naturally he fell in love with the free-spirited woman who wasn’t interested in marriage. He didn’t take the rejection well, betraying Frank to Reed Ackley in hopes of switching teams. That ploy backfired with Ackley’s suicide: he’s now tarred as disloyal and stuck with having to face Helen every day at work, now that the research focus has shifted to the implosion model.
Series creator and executive producer Sam Shaw has said he has several seasons of Manh(a)ttan mapped out, should WGN America opt to renew it again, spanning well beyond the successful Trinity Test and subsequent bombing of Japan, into the McCarthy era. Hopefully we’ll get a chance to see his vision play out in full. For now, we’ll just settle in and savor the storytelling delights about to come.
Season 2 Trailer: