It happened at 5:30 a.m., July 16, 1945 – 70 years ago tomorrow.
That’s when scientists for the Manhattan Project first tested the weapon they knew would end World War II, hoped would end war in general, and feared would end all life as we know it: the anniversary of Trinity, the first man-made atomic blast.
It was triggered in an isolated section of the Alamagordo desert, and right now – it’s happening again. The second season of Manhattan, WGN’s fictionalized version of the race to build the nuclear bomb, is currently shooting in New Mexico, and creator Sam Shaw tells EW the show is building to that exact moment.
“It is an eerie anniversary,” Shaw says. “It was this kind of uncanny thing, and it really was accidental. You know, when we sat down at the beginning of the season to build our production schedule, we realized that we would be shooting some scenes that take place against the backdrop of Trinity, literally on the 70th anniversary of Trinity. Which is kind of jaw-dropping to think about. And, you know, we shoot our show much closer to Los Alamos than to the Trinity site, but still — we’re 200 miles away from the actual site. So that’s kind of a spooky thing.”
EW can exclusively announce for Fanhattans out there that the show will return to the air on Oct. 13.
For those who still need to catch up, that leaves plenty of time. Hulu is streaming the entire first season of the show, which is a lot like Mad Men, set in the ’40s, only the characters are building a weapon of mass destruction instead of writing advertising. (Here’s Entertainment Weekly’s Manhattan binge-guide for a sample of what to expect.)
The show stars John Benjamin Hickey, pictured above in a kind of metaphorical representation of the Trinity blast site, as physicist Frank Winter – a former World War I trench soldier haunted by his experiences in the face-to-face horror of combat. Like most researchers at the top-secret Los Alamos site, he wants to bring an end to the conflict in Europe and the South Pacific – racing the Nazis in the development of the most devastating bomb ever imagined.
The second season begins with Winter facing suspicions of treason, while his younger protege, Charlie Isaacs (Ashley Zukerman), takes the lead of the team assembling the so-called “gadget.” Joining the cast is CSI: Crime Scene Investigation alum William Petersen as the project’s new military liason, who is one of the few who sees the full implications of how the Manhattan Project will not only change war, but change the world.
“I don’t want to spoil too much about the exact circumstances that we find him in, but the whole power structure in the world of our show has been completely upended,” Shaw says. “It’s about what happens to Charlie in this new set of circumstances, where he finds himself anointed and at the center of this project, and what that experience does to him. Is that desk going to change Charlie or is Charlie going to change that desk, and change the project? And then for Frank, he goes through a complicated evolution. By the time he arrives back in our story, a lot of things have changed for him.”
Manhattan also focuses on the families of the scientists, and the toll of secrecy and fear that the project takes on them – particularly Winter’s brilliant, botanist wife, Liza (Olivia Williams), frustrated at being excluded from what’s happening in her husband’s world, and Isaacs’ wife Abby (Rachel Brosnahan), who has found herself betraying some people she loves for the sake of his work.
“It was so interesting to us to write about that aspect of life in Los Alamos, which usually got neglected in storytelling about the bomb,” Shaw says. “This season actually changes the power dynamics for the women, too. One thing that’s really fascinating about Trinity as you learn more about – and this is something people are still grappling with and trying to figure out now, 70 years later – is that we knew almost nothing about what the health and environmental effects of this weapon were going to be.”
In real life, the Trinity test was followed less than a month later by the first use of this weapon against other human beings: the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. If Season 2 of Manhattan builds to the test, it leaves only a narrow window of time for Season 3 to explore those implications before the work of these scientists is demonstrated in all its awe and horror.
Shaw assures there is much more story beyond that for his characters: “It was a long, long, long month.”