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'Manhattan' finale: Deconstructing the atomic bomb drama

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meeks

Implosion. Pre-detonation. Radioactivity. Meltdowns.

The terms that define WGN’s atomic bomb drama Manhattan also apply to its characters, a mix of men and women trying to stop a world war by creating a weapon that could destroy the planet completely. There isn’t a simple equation among them.

Throughout season one, which came to an end Sunday night with its thirteenth episode (“Perestroika”), the show mastered the art of contradiction, presenting heroes you root for even as they betray their own better natures. In the finale, the scientists of Los Alamos are still far from the breakthroughs they will need to successfully trigger a nuclear explosion, but the earth has been pretty well scorched emotionally speaking.

A second season of Manhattan is already in the works, and creator Sam Shaw chatted with EW to recap the events of his fictional take on the atomic project.

Warning: Spoilers await. For those who have yet to catch up with the show, the full season can be binge-watched on Hulu. For Fanhattanites out there eager for classified details, read on …

Entertainment Weekly: The show doesn’t have a mushroom cloud at this point, but it certainly has massive, swirling clouds of gray. You’ve created a show where good and evil blend together seamlessly, often within the same characters.

Sam Shaw: One of the things about this subject matter is how impossible it is for me as a person to come to any satisfying resolutions as I parse through all the contradictions. It’s the story of this incredible feat of human ingenuity, and it’s also the story of human destruction on a scale the planet hadn’t really known before.

So as these scientists are testing their theories, you’re basically testing the audience, too?

One of the storytelling challenges is: is it possible to construct a story where we become immersed enough in the problems and competitions of the characters, and the stakes of their stories, that we root for them and want them to succeed, in spite of the fact that we know their success is something that makes us feel incredibly ambivalent. Frank in particular is somebody for whom the audience has complicated feelings and finds difficult to like at some times.

Your main character, Frank Winter (played by John Benjamin Hickey) leaves a lot of destruction in his wake. This is a physicist who annihilates underlings, betrays his mentor, and lies to seemingly everyone. Yet – I love this guy. He’s like a general who doesn’t want to sacrifice his troops, but knows people are going to have to fall.

Over the course of the episode we see Frank reckoning with the moral hangover of all the human damage that he has wrought through the course of this season, all of the people he sacrificed at the altar of delivering this bomb. He’s taken to a place where he is being validated. He’s at the center of this project he’s been marginalized by over the course of the season.

And we finally see him sacrifice himself, saving the young scientist and co-conspirator he accidentally set up, Charlie Isaacs (Ashley Zuckerman), by pretending that he has leaked secrets himself, deliberately telling his wife while counter-intelligence monitors the conversation…

The story resolves in this moment when Frank makes that choice, and it’s an act, seemingly, of great self-sacrifice. To me there are very real questions about why Frank takes the action he takes. To what extent is he just tired? To what extent does it just feel better to be the person making the sacrifice than be the one who sacrifices others? In a way it’s a heroic act, and in another sense it’s a natural human response to a lot of different moments of human reckoning he has had to face.

He triggers his own downfall by appearing to tell the secret of the project to his wife, Liza (Olivia Williams), and later we see he was doing this for the benefit of the wire-tap in his home. The wives, like Isaac’s wife, Abby (Rachel Brosnahan) are often kept out of the loop (and are good at keeping secrets themselves.) Does Liza know what he’s actually doing? She walks out of the room as he’s talking – then he keeps talking. I took that as weariness at what he’s revealing. But then I wondered if she’s aware he’s throwing himself on the pyre.

I‘m always hesitant to answer! The intention in the scene is we’ve taken Frank and Liza from a place where he has held back so much for so long, and finally there is a catharsis in seeing Frank finally tell her the truth – even if it’s not the complete truth, and even if it’s a truth that’s told with an ulterior motive.

So he probably wouldn’t have told her if it didn’t serve the duel purpose of springing Charlie from suspicion?

There’s a real question at the heart of Frank’s relationship with Liza: Why doesn’t he tell her sooner? We talked about that a lot. Part of the reason Frank does not tell Liza from the beginning is he knows she would never be able to accept what he’s doing. When she leaves, it’s an emotional and visceral response to the news she has received, rather than Liza being complicit in this drastic leap Frank takes at the end.

She’s his conscience and your conscience can’t judge you if it doesn’t know what you’re doing. So he created a little compartmentalization there, didn’t he?

That’s exactly right. So much of the drama in the show revolves around the literal compartmentalizations undertaken by the military to preserve secrecy in this crazy, prison-camp of a town, and at the same time, in different ways, the emotional compartmentalization in the personal lives of these characters is very much the subject matter of the show. The only way he can continue with the work is to compartmentalize Liza, who is his better angel, in certain respects.

He reaches out to her, she turns away. The same thing happens with Glen Babbit (Daniel Stern), the mentor who now views his pupil with serious mistrust – having fallen victim to his schemes, even though he believes in Frank’s cause. Have we seen the last of Glen?

I’m reluctant to answer that question, not only because I don’t want to spoil things to come, but a lot of those questions don’t have answers yet. We’re still talking about and thinking about them. I will say, and I can take no credit for this, but Daniel Stern’s beard is certainly my favorite character to appear on television in the last five years. With a beard like that you want to keep it around.

[Laughs] Is that really his, or a hair and make-up effect?

Oh, no, no, no. It’s absolutely real! When he came in and read for the role of Babbit it took me a second to recognize him. He has this Talmudic or Mennonite look, this scholar/hermit facial hair that he’d grown. It’s the perfect mix of Ph.D genius and mountain goat. I knew immediately he was the guy, and he said ‘This beard, should I cut this off?’ And we were like, ‘Jesus Christ, no! Don’t touch the beard!’

Until now, Richard Schiff’s spy hunter on the show hasn’t been given a name. IMDB lists him as “Occam” [a reference to the scientific problem-solving principle “Occam’s razor”, which states that the simplest answer is usually the correct one.] But did I hear him get a name in the finale?

He has never been given a name. But he gets a name briefly in the final episode when he grabs [project leader J. Robert] Oppenheimer, who refers to him as ‘Mr. Fisher,’ but we don’t know anything more about him.

Ah, I thought that could still have been a feint, just a reference to him as a guy who fishes around.

In the scripts, because it gets confusing if you have a nameless character, he was called Occam, but it’s never invoked onscreen. Occam’s razor is often popularly and culturally misunderstood and invoked in arguments incorrectly, but it also reflects an impulse toward simple, and reductive black-and-white thinking that is in keeping with the spirit of who his character is.

In real life, Schiff is not exactly a physically intimidating guy, but he performs his character in way that’s ferocious and frightening, and so different from Toby Ziegler on The West Wing.

One reason we’re interested in this moment is the birth of the bomb was the original ‘black op.’ It’s the pre-history of the CIA and the rise of a new era in military secrecy. He became a kind of figurehead for a much larger discussion we’re having in the show. But you’re right, he’s certainly not Central Casting for that role. There could have been an impulse to cast a certain kind of polished, WASP-y, Skull & Bones type to play that role. I was thrilled we didn’t. We have someone who is an odd face for that function in the show, and I thought it made him more of a riddle. Richard and [director and executive producer] Tommy Schlamme [also a veteran of The West Wing] spent a lot of time talking about who he is and how he came to this place. They have a very specific sense of what his backstory is and what his personal life looks like. You feel there are depths below that surface.

We saw none of that onscreen. You have kept him very much in the shadows, which I suppose is that kind of guy’s natural habitat.

He was a character who’s inherent mystery is part of his power. So in this first season there was never going to be a hazard of seeing him shopping for groceries or going home and fixing himself a sandwich. It’s never a good sign when he shows up. There is a bit of Angel-of-Death about him.

We’re talking about all the moral questions of these characters, and here is a guy who has none. He is very clear on what he believes, and that he’s doing exactly the right thing – which is the kind of thinking that gets us into wars.

He is a character of certainties in a world that makes any kind of certainty impossible — or the byproduct of madness. On the other hand, it was important to us to not present the military in our show as a straw man. Often the military, if they’re not antagonists, they at least present obstacles. They set up all these rules of secrecy and control the resources, but there are very good questions about whether those security measures were actually a sane response to a scary moment in time.

That’s a great question raised by the show: is it acceptable to destroy the wrong people when trying to defend yourself from true enemies?

Ultimately, there were a fair number of people destroyed by the paranoia that there were spies at Los Alamos, and we persecuted the wrong guys. But at the same time the historical record shows quite a few spies within the Manhattan Project were able to operate with impunity.

That leads us to another revelation in the finale: we discover that Jim Meeks, a nice-guy young scientist working in Frank Winter’s group of misfit physicists, is a spy. It realigned my thinking of who this character was. I had taken him as this good-natured dweeb who had been standing up for Sid Liao [wrongfully targeted as a spy and ultimately killed during an escape]. In earlier episodes, Meeks punched out the guard who shot Sid, and later went out of his way to reach out to and comfort Sid’s widow. Now I look at it and see he was lashing out because he knows that could easily have been his own fate.

Christopher Denham is so great in this part, and he knew when he first signed on to play it what we had in mind for him – and he told no one! I love that. We didn’t explicitly ask him not to tell anyone. I’m not sure if this was a part of his acting process, trying to enter the mind of the spy, or if it was just a lucky piece of casting on our part and we found the guy who would have been most likely to be a successful spy at Los Alamos. He lived with that the whole season, and there are a lot of little Easter eggs along the way that point towards his [true nature.]

The show has been picked up for a second season. But did you know that when you put together the season finale?

We had no guarantees whatsoever. I lived in a bubble of denial. I just assumed we would get to keep teling these stories. So there was no hedging of bets or efforts to construct a finale that would serve as a final punctuation mark on the story … It would be a sad and peculiar thing to tell a story about the birth of the atom age and never see an atom bomb detonate.

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