Gone fission: WGN’s Manhattan brings something new into the world

Manhattan S01 graphic

A Season One graphic for WGN’s Manhattan

In the pilot episode of Manhattan, we meet a man, Frank Winter, who doesn’t go home to his wife one night. He’s got a mistress all right. This is 1943, he’s in the middle of the New Mexico desert, and the siren whose call he heeds is the bomb project. His wife doesn’t suppose that he’s having an affair, yet she doesn’t know what he’s really doing, because he can’t tell her. Winter is a physicist with a restless mind and a rebellious streak. He’s violating one trust to serve another, heeding passion rather than principle, keeping a little secret in the pursuit of a big one.

That’s the gist of the whole thing right there. Manhattan, which runs on the WGN America cable network, abounds in situations like that. (My comments are drawn from a rather hurried viewing from discs of Season One and the first four episodes of Season Two, which concluded recently. No word yet on whether the series will be renewed.) In outline the show is simple; it’s a highly fictionalized version of the real Manhattan Project, set mainly in Los Alamos, with a fair amount of real science underlying the stories. But there’s a lot going on here. It’s a drama of multiple families (the project workers, their wives, their children), a workplace drama, a historical drama, a small-town drama, a war story where the home front is also a battlefront and brains are wielded as weapons. There’s a storyline about espionage, and secrecy and deception run rampant through the plotting. There’s a prison theme. There’s a military cover-up. There’s a wonderfully spooky character working for the military-intelligence division, whose name is never heard until a fleeting mention late in the first season; I think of him as X-4, from his ID badge. From time to time he simply appears, waiting outside your house or sitting in your office, and seems otherwise not to exist. There’s an unassuming young soldier who’s given the admiring—but, we know, ironic—nickname Spykiller (the sobriquet proves hard to shake, as it is for the Kingslayer on Game of Thrones). There are secret pleasures of the physical variety, and the scientists’ work is another kind of forbidden pleasure: they’re probing into the private parts of Mother Nature, seeking to expose what she has kept concealed.

Manhattan’s many secrets are dark and often deadly. The show is noir-ish; is it really noir? (For a tangy evocation of what this dark cinema was about, see Ann Douglas’s 2007 essay for Vanity Fair.) I’m inclined to call Manhattan demi-noir. Unlike the spirits that haunt traditional film noir, its characters aren’t worldly, wised-up, knowing, cynical, pessimistic, or despairing; they’re half doubting and half hopeful. They certainly have mixed motives, though—a hybrid of high-minded and base. They sacrifice others, then turn around and try to save them, or sacrifice themselves. They complain about official secrecy while keeping secrets of their own. Many of them are calculating; most of them combine the selfless and the self-serving. Half the time, the aim of their seductions and manipulations and deceptions is to advance the project and develop a working bomb; though that’s not necessarily a good thing (neither to all of us nor to all of them), at least it’s a big thing, meant to shorten the war, serve the country, maybe establish lasting peace, not some venal, purely personal motive. There’s a potential nobility to this, which isn’t a feature of any noir I know of. And yet some of the time their motives are personal, though hardly pure. But purity is somewhat suspect in this realm; X-4 serves nothing but the bomb project, and he’s the most menacing character around. Though they’re often anxious and furtive, because they’re often doing something they shouldn’t, Manhattan’s people aren’t really paranoid, but they should be; X-4 knows things about you and yours that you may not know yourself yet.

Katja Herbers M_EP113_00387_L (w)

Katja Herbers as physicist Helen Prins (courtesy WGN America)

These desert dwellers smoke and drink a lot, but they’re not the dissipated types, just holding on or on their way down, that often populate traditional noir. Nor is this the conspicuous consumption and extravaganza of unhealthy habits that Mad Men showed. It partly reflects a certain privilege on the part of some of the characters; more than one of them grew up in a well-heeled family and has private money with which to lay in pricey scotch. Mostly, though, it’s a sign of the uncertainty and anxiety that infests their lives. They have a certain innocent freedom of indulgence that may make us nostalgic—it’s no longer open to us to grab a bottle or light up a smoke as they can.

Traditional films noir were urban. The denizens of Manhattan are in the middle of nowhere, in a community that barely existed before the military established the scientific base here, which officially exists only as a Santa Fe post-office-box address. From another angle, however, this “nowhere” is, or used to be, Native American territory, and the show is seasoned with hints of expropriation, exploitation, and partial recompense. Though Los Alamos is dense with intrigue, it’s a small town, not mazed with the streets and shadows of a big city. Yet it’s a pressure cooker, which anticipates the middle-class rat race to come: the project workers have too much to do, while the outsiders, the spouses and children, have too little and are desperate for occupation.

Manhattan may be better seen as showing us some of the wellsprings of postwar film noir: this is where the suspicion and the threat of annihilation began. Despite all the qualifications, though, a large number of Manhattan’s characters fit the noir mold in one grim, broad sense. Their efforts to bring into the world a weapon of unparalleled destructiveness allows them to be seen as a species of killer. Make of that what you will.

Noir or not, Manhattan is a distant mirror, showing us its period as well as our own. Among its contemporary echoes and parallels are the prying intrusions and more extreme measures of the security apparatus. Some of the show’s modernisms may seem anachronistic but aren’t. The diversity of the scientists, for instance, has a historical foundation, as Alex Wellerstein, the show’s second-season historical adviser, explains in a blog post. When the term “collateral damage” pops up, it may not be true to the lingo of the time (Merriam-Webster lists its first known use as 1972), but the strategic bombing campaign of World War II devastated cities and civilian lives, so the concept is both at home here and insufficient to describe what was already happening. And Manhattan deals well with the scientific project, as Wellerstein recounts in other posts. The entire first season was built on an ultimately futile effort, which I imagine is largely unknown to the general public, to develop a gun-type weapon using plutonium. Manhattan also represents scientists well. Though The Big Bang Theory employs a science adviser and presumably gets those details right, its young scientists seem mainly to revel in gaming and glib geekery, whereas the men and women you meet here are seriously engaged in adult work while remaining open to occasional frolics (mushrooms, anyone?). Unsurprisingly, it’s being recapped by at least one science writer, Jennifer Ouellette, who wrote about its first season for Scientific American and its second for io9.

Your view of the whole thing may depend on your view of the bomb. If you think it had to be built because the Germans may have been building one; if you think its use against non-military targets was only an extension of existing practice; if you agree with Richard Rhodes that the bomb has since then been “responsible for the reduction in man-made death from periodic conflagrations—world pandemics, if you will—to smoldering, limited, local epidemics,” then you’ll admire those characters who repeatedly declare that their goal is to shorten the war and maybe even institute a period of peace. You’ll probably accept the necessity of at least some of the secrecy and surveillance and restrictions imposed by the security apparatus in the show. And you may in turn agree with the idea, variants of which are spoken more than once in the first season, that the few must be sacrificed for the sake of the many. But perhaps you think instead that the development of more powerful, more efficient weapons has always served only to increase the carnage of conflict (contrary to the inventor of the Gatling gun, for instance, who expected it to reduce deaths); that a new weapon confers no long-term advantage but only prompts it to be invented again elsewhere (as Simone Weil wrote, “the instruments of power…always exist independently of him who disposes of them, and can be taken up by others. Consequently all power is unstable”[1]); that the bomb, by giving nightmares to generations, has increased the suffering of mankind; and that sacrificing the few for the sake of the many can be used, and has been used, to justify anything from minor exclusions to large-scale exterminations. If so, then Manhattan will look a good deal darker to you. And if your view is somewhere in the middle, this show will give you, to put it simply, many opportunities to exercise your judgment.

What other TV drama has welcomed such a radical range of views? Mad Men, probably the best known and most accomplished workplace drama of the current period, did something of the kind, by asking us to recognize the creativity and dedication that goes into advertising while allowing us to retain whatever doubts we have about it as a technique. There, too, our view of the value of the work contributed to shaping our view of the characters. But if Mad Men was ambiguous, it’s because of other factors as well. Conceivably you can watch either show as mere entertainment, reveling in the personal dramas and giving no thought to the social, political, and historical issues, but that’s hard to do in the case of Manhattan. Nor do its creators want us to; its tagline—“Nuclear. Family.”—insists that we keep the bomb in the picture as we evaluate it.

Ashley Zukerman s02e01-0010-L (w)

Ashley Zukerman as physicist Charlie Isaacs (courtesy WGN America)

The growing number of scripted shows on TV may be giving us too many choices—a question that the estimable James Wolcott zestfully delved into for the December 2015 Vanity Fair—but it’s also giving work to a lot of good actors, and Manhattan has its share. I’ll mention just one. The eyes of Ashley Zukerman (who plays a scientist), the quality of his watchfulness, his ability to range from soothing to demanding to a tad scary, have begun to remind me of Jake Gyllenhaal. Meanwhile, in the exceedingly-small-selling-point category, this show has rivaled Homeland in placing before our eyes one of the best beards in television, worn by Daniel Stern (who plays another scientist).

Manhattan leaves a few of its many threads loose, but its fabric is pretty carefully woven. It’s chancy, kind of crazy (I still haven’t adjusted to something that befalls Frank Winter in Season Two), fascinating. It’s doing something new, thoughtful, and unexpected. I hope it comes back.

[1] Simone Weil, “Reflections Concerning the Causes of Liberty and Social Oppression,” in Oppression and Liberty, translated by Arthur Wills and John Petrie

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