In the very first episode of the atomic bomb drama Manhattan, physicist Frank Winter dreamed of a nightmare explosion consuming the sky while The Ink Spots softly crooned the song “I Don’t Want To Set The World On Fire.”
That musical prophecy came true on the Tuesday finale of season 2 as Winter, played by John Benjamin Hickey, stood in the desert bathed in the fiery fury of Trinity, the first man-made nuclear explosion. The episode also saw the end of one of the show’s few unabashedly pure-hearted characters in a moment of anguish that ended the season in darkness, even in the glow of a blinding flash.
Creator Sam Shaw walked EW through some of the heartbreaking choices, and discussed the fate of the WGN America drama going forward.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You get at least one big laugh. Scientist-turned-saboteur Jim Meeks (Christopher Denham) telling Frank Winter he doesn’t want to hurt anybody. And Frank responds: “You picked the wrong line of work.”
SAM SHAW: It’s important to be able to laugh in the face of nuclear annihilation. The funny thing, once in a while I would hear somebody say, like, they can’t imagine watching a show about this subject matter, it’s so incredibly bleak. And I often think of our show while we’re writing scenes almost as a comedy. You try to keep it as light as you can, but I have to say that the finale is probably not the most levity-filled hour.
Season 1 was about the quest to build the bomb. Season 2 seemed to be the quest to stop it.
What you see in that is a moving from the abstract to the real and moving from the technical problem to a weapon of mass destruction and what was in it for those characters when they determined that they’re sort of combatants now. They’re killers and sometimes killing is justified in that it’s gonna save more lives in the end by preventing a ground invasion or whatever the moral logic might be.
Did you ever consider changing history deliberately — like maybe Trinity fails instead of going off as it did in real life?
It felt important that Trinity did work at the end. It was really important for these characters to actually see what they wrought at the end of this season. We certainly talked about what the sort of laws of physics of the world of this show would be. It played around in this bizarre fashion about the death of Robert Oppenheimer’s mistress. That’s a true historical footnote and the show doesn’t fully resolve the question of how she died and what her death means but there are some strong implications that she may have been murdered.
Tell me about Manhattan exploring women and people of color, whose stories and contributions have often been overlooked by history. You have Katja Herbers as Helen Prins, who is is fantastic here as one of the few female scientists on the hill — a force of nature. And also Corey Allen as Theodore Sinclair, the only black man in the tech group that we see, whose crisp professionalism seems like a shield that he holds up.
I love Helen. I love seeing her on stage and almost all the credit for that I think belongs to Katja Herbers, who’s so brilliant. There’s something that’s really alive about her as an actor. I can’t say enough great things about her. Katya for president, she’s incredible. For Helen, there’s always been this sort of gravitational, prehensile anger because she is the person whose brilliance is overlooked by the world that she’s been air-dropped into. You feel like the world hasn’t quite caught up with Helen yet, at least I do …
There’s no wish-fulfillment in the story. You show her struggles in this social climate.
To get ahead, she sort of has to align herself with a male patron and that’s the relationship that she has with Frank, although it’s a very tender, loyal relationship throughout most of the story. Frank has this great dawning of conscience about this thing that he’s helping to midwife into the world. He becomes stricken by the idea of this thing he’s bringing into the world.
Helen doesn’t really share those pangs of conscience by the end of the story.
I’m not totally sure that she has the luxury that Frank has of indulging all of those moral doubts. By the finale, it felt really gratifying to us to give Helen what she wants, in a way. To put Helen ultimately in a position of power that she deserves, and it’s a kind of a weird moment for me. The brass ring that she gets is the brass ring of a lethal weapon that’ll kill a lot of civilians. Everything is uncomfortable about that moment.
How about Theodore Sinclair? He seems to have been embraced by the project leadership partly because he is so isolated. They know they can trust him, because nobody else does.
There actually was some more story for Theodore and Helen, actually, and it had to be cut before it was shot because our schedule’s so punishing. So that is actually a huge regret for me. We’re telling about a kind of sense of competition between these two characters, and sort of where that takes both of them. I hope we’ll get to keep doing that in future episodes. I love Theodore and Corey Allen is fantastic.
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We need to talk about Charlie Isaacs. Ashley Zukerman’s character was one of the heroes of this show, but now he has unleashed his own anger and recommended the U.S. bomb not just a military target, but a city full of civilians.
Just watching John Benjamin Hickey and Ash Zuckerman, they’re both incredible. John, there’s this sense of conflictedness about him that I find profound. Ash, on the other hand, Ash has a kind of, there’s a darkness to Ash I think. Watching Charlie, some of the moments where I found the most provocative and most fascinating were the moments when he seemed a little out of his own control and a little dangerous. We know that Charlie has this slightly more hardscrabble biography and had this difficult father and is a guy who probably is not unacquainted with violence in his own personal life before he made it to the ivory tower. So that’s what suggested where Charlie would go.
It’s a very dark turn …
In a way it felt inevitable to us that Charlie — who is the viewer’s proxy along with Abby (Rachel Brosnahan), our new eyes that lead us into this world from the first episode of our show — should gradually go on a winding and difficult journey and ultimately become Darth Vader. It’s his own way of reconciling to himself everything that he’s done and everything that he’s lost.
Let’s talk about the final moments of the episode. The bomb goes off, the secret of Jim’s treason is revealed to Fritz (Michael Chernus) and then Fritz choses to take his own life. Ouch. How did you get to that point?
We agonized over the ending. We debated it until we were sick of debating it and then debated it some more. I love Fritz, and I love Michael Chernus, who people talk about as a comic a lot but he’s just incredibly deep actor and also a really wonderful guy. So it was really painful to think about that moment. Obviously, it’s not the feel-good ending of the year.
Why did it have to happen, in your mind?
We knew that this season was going to end with a nuclear explosion. It’s both a towering achievement and also is the moment when a line was crossed that could never be uncrossed. It was a tragic moment for that reason. So the question was, how do we construct a story so that the visceral impact of this moment is in some way an analog to the moral shock felt by a lot of the men and women who were at Trinity on July 16, 1945?
But why choose Fritz as the sacrifice?
This is a moment when one world ceased to exist and another one was born, and Fritz is certainly the most hopeful character in our show and the guy who has been least compromised by his proximity to this thing that they’re making. He hasn’t been tainted by it at all. And I don’t think that Fritz, as we knew Fritz, could continue to live on the other side of that event one way or another. I will say to you that it wasn’t a choice that was made lightly. As painful as it might be to anybody else, I can promise you that I feel it as deeply as anybody else can possibly feel it.
What’s the state of season 3?
That’s still very much an open question. I wish it were not an open question. I’ll just say, now and on the record and very emphatically, we want to continue the show and the stories that we will be telling in our third season and beyond, I think they’re the most exciting stories.
Any hint of where it might go?
I thought of this show as a kind of three-act play and the end of this season should just bring us to the end of the first act of that story. What awaits is a story about the America that was born on the other side of World War II. The beginning of the atomic age and the way in which we remade ourselves. I hope we’ll get to follow characters in this moment when Los Alamos goes from being the best kept secret in the world to being the most famous city on the planet.