“I want to apologize while you still have sound mind and body.”
So says Avram Fischer, the X-4 government agent charged with hunting spies in the Los Alamos project. He’s a dead man walking, but he doesn’t know it yet.
This episode belongs to John Benjamin Hickey’s Frank Winter, the central character on Manhattan, who was altogether missing from its premiere last week. Now we find out where he is and what he’s doing to extricate himself from the pit he has (sort of) dug for himself.
It’s a strange hour of television, certainly the most unusual and offbeat episode of the show so far. Winter is being held captive by a ghost. We saw Fischer killed in the previous installment after discovering that Meeks (Christopher Denham) was an actual traitor. He’s wrong about Frank, but he has good reason to be suspicious.
This scene in the prison obviously took place before his murder, but then his disappearance leaves the scientist stranded. It’s a shock to see Avram again after watching him be so brutally murdered.
Avram’s question is rather specific: he wants to know why Winter took a leave of absence 1936 and stayed for two months in Leipzig, Germany: “Since then, you’ve taken great pains to conceal that trip.” Winter finds himself accused of killing the U.S. mole who was embedded in Hitler’s own atomic bomb program.
Fischer departs, saying he’ll be back. Maybe in three days. But of course, there will be no resurrection for him.
NEXT: The girl in the atomic equation…
Winter soon begins to hallucinate. He sees a phantom of Liza, his wife, appear in his subterranean cell, and she coaxes an awareness out of him. He coded his daughter Callie’s name into some of his equations, using her letters as variables, which is a fingerprint that distinguishes his math from anyone else’s. When he sees the German program has the same variables, that can have only one explanation: Someone in the program actually is feeding the Nazis information.
There’s a spy at Los Alamos. It’s not him. But one’s there, for sure. Avram was right.
He begs for someone to free him, promising to talk. But the warden who confronts him isn’t interested in what Winter thinks he has found, national security or not. “Yep, I hear that a lot,” the warden says. “Anybody who winds up here, off the books? That’s someone Uncle Sam wants to disappear. Who am I to argue?”
Outside the prison, he sees Japanese citizens and realizes he’s locked inside an internment camp. The warden is content to throw him back into the hole and let the other prisoners decide what to do with him.
Music is playing in the empty cell block. A lilting, haunting melody. Winter isn’t able to place it. He seems to be going out of his mind, which is all the scientist has left.
Back at Los Alamos, Ashley Zukerman’s Charlie Isaacs is showing a film reel of atrocities perpetrated by the Nazis in Germany. D-Day is coming, and he says the government is scanning enemy territory to locate their atomic program.
“It’s up to us to tell the Army what to look for,” Isaacs says.
Helen (Katja Herbers) is pestering Charlie for information about Winter. “Frank is implosion,” she says. The project needs him if it has any hope of going forward. Isaacs has about as much time for her as the warden did for Frank.
NEXT: Winter hears haunting music…
Back at the prison, another inmate has been hurled in with the detained scientists. Justin Kirk (best known for Weeds and Angels in America) is filthy, panicked, and ready to fight. He says the guards are manipulating prisoners to fight to the death.
“That’s insane,” Winter says.
“If the dogs won’t fight, heat up the cage,” Kirk’s character says. “You’ll see.” He calls Winter “Houdini” — the mystery man who has somehow broken into this prison but can’t get out. He claims he’s there because he went to the “wrong meeting.”
“We just have to trust each other,” Winter says. “Game theory: Trust is the strategy, and the plan is escape.”
He promises not to kill his mystery friend, who identifies himself as Joseph Beuker. “Charlie Isaacs,” Frank replies as they shake hands.
“Game theory” is a tip-off. Beuker recognizes Winter as a fellow college educator. “I assume you’re not a plumber.” Beuker says he’s a history professor and asks if he’s Jewish. “Christian, actually. I was born that way. I’ll die an atheist,” Winter says.
“We’ve got that in common, too,” Beuker says. The music starts again.
“You really don’t hear that?” Winter asks.
“Hear what?” Beuker says.
Winter pinpoints it: “Mourning Cantata for King Frederick.” Give a listen below.
Suddenly a door slams, and the men see that two covered dishes have been placed on the floor below. Winter races toward them, but Beuker warns that sometimes the food is drugged to give one fighter an advantage over the other.
When they lift the covers, they find a gun on one plate. A bullet on the other. Beuker takes the weapon. Frank takes the ammunition.
NEXT: Abby’s cold-blooded suggestion …
Back at the Hill, the real Charlie Isaacs is now doing exactly what Frank did to land himself in jail: He’s confessing to his wife, Abby (Rachel Brosnahan), exactly what they’re doing at Los Alamos — building a devastating weapon from the tiniest element of matter.
Later, he tells her that what’s troubling him now is trying to figure out the status and location of Hitler’s version of the weapon. Abby offers some surprisingly cold-hearted advice. “Say you wanted to end a baseball season. You could look for the stadiums, try and shut them all down. Or you could just get rid of the New York Yankees.”
Isaacs is aghast. These German scientists are friends of many of the researchers on the Hill. “If the Nazi gadget goes off…will they spare our friends?” she asks. “You must have photographs of the German scientists. Their home addresses. The names of their wives and children. Give those to the Army.”
Ice. Cold. But…practical. Mechanical.
Helen leads the former implosion team on a field trip, trying to map out what a nuclear test site may look like for the American troops planning to storm Germany’s borders. It’s late. She, Fritz, Meeks, and Crosley are sitting around a campfire. Fritz wants a ghost story, so Crosley offers up one: He heard a rumor that one of the intelligence spooks who had been creeping around the Hill went missing two weeks earlier.
Meeks, who watched Fischer get garroted in front of him, swallows hard: “Where’d you hear that?” He’s having flashbacks to the murder, but his exterior is still. Inside, he’s coming apart. He helped carry the body and stashed it away in the trunk of Fischer’s car. His Soviet contact rips a Hershey wrapper in half and gives him one piece. His next contact will have the other.
Off in the wilderness, they find a dead coyote. “We should bury him,” Meeks says.
His friends ask if he’s all right. “I don’t know what we’re doing here anymore,” he answers.
In the prison, Winter keeps vigil. If Fischer has been gone for two weeks, he’s been detained for at least that long.
Winter finds a locked phone box and tries to convince Beuker to give him the gun so they can shoot it open. Beuker doesn’t trust him with the pistol.
Then the music is back. Frank turns his ear toward the sound.
“You’re hearing it again?” Beuker asks. “Your head’s a mess, but when you mentioned the piece earlier, I was surprised. That’s Johann Adolf Scheibe. How do you even know Scheibe? Do you play?”
“No,” Winter says. “It was somebody I used to know. She played him a lot.”
Beuker offers him the gun but wants something in return: the truth. “Scheibe was Bach’s only real critic, you know. He found Bach abstract, degenerate, like the negros and their jazz. You must know where Scheibe is experiencing a resurgence right now. The same country — the only country — that guarnatees protection of the middle class, against unions, immigrants, parasitic financial schemes…”
“Germany?” Winter asks. “You’re a Nazi. You’re…an American Nazi?”
“Have I misjudged you?” Beuker asks.
NEXT: Yes, he has …
“What if I had been a Jew?” Winter asks. “Would you have bashed my skull in that first night?”
“I part with Hitler there. I have no complaints with the Jewish people, per se. I ask only for some open debate about their effect on their host cultures. You’ve seen it, in academia. The conspiracy against good Aryans like us.”
Winter is revolted. Beuker keeps pushing. “Who played Scheibe for you? Did you get your heart broken by a German girl? Is that where all this anger’s coming from?”
“Trust me, Joe, I know the Nazis a lot better than you do. They’re a gang of killers who brainwashed their own people. Why am I angry…?” He storms off in disgust.
Winter keeps trying to break into the phone box. Beuker persists in his pro-Hitler fantasies, saying the German military has a secret weapon that could bring the world to its knees. Winter goes still.
But then Beuker says it’s a “sun gun” that can boil oceans and scorch continents. Winter needed a good laugh. “Last year it was a freeze ray, the year before that it was a death ray. It’s a nation of liars.”
“Says the man who lies about his own name,” Beuker says. “What did she do to you? This girlfriend? Your Nazi love… Who played Scheibe concertos for you.”
“She wasn’t my goddamn girlfriend!” Winter screams as the phone box cracks open. It’s empty.
“No,” Beuker says. “She was your mother.”
Winter says he barely knew her. His parents met through a service connecting farmers from the Midwest with available brides. She came to the U.S. but abandoned the family to return to Germany before Winter was even 7 years old.
He tracked her down in 1936, during his long mystery trip. She was a concert pianist, fulfilling her dream. He went to her dressing room to introduce himself. “She called the Gestapo on me.”
Winter is ready to give up. He asks Beuker to pass along word that the German scientists are using American equations in their research. After closing his eyes, Beuker closes in on Winter, but Winter surprises him, knocking the American Nazi flat and grabbing the gun.
“Uncle!” Beuker cries, and the door immediately opens.
“I believe you, Frank,” he says. It was all a ruse, meant to determine Winter’s loyalty. The scientist is dragged out an placed in front of Col. Emmett Darrow (William Petersen), who demands to know where Fischer has gone.
“Who the hell are you?” Winter asks.
“The United States of America,” Darrow replies.
“Are you from Los Alamos?”
“We don’t use that name.”
Beuker was an agent the whole time. And they seem indifferent to Frank’s concern about the stolen math. “Mr. Fischer thought you were the Nazi spy,” Darrow says. “But you’re not. You’re simply ashamed of who you are? What you came from? That’s good. We all come from sin. It’s up to us to rise.”
Winter realizes the game is bigger than he thought. The Germans didn’t write any of these equations — the U.S. government did as a way of scaring the American scientists into working harder and faster to complete the weapon.
“You’ve got a lab full of longhairs, half-reds, lefty Jews… How do you get them to build a wonder weapon?” Winter says. “You tell them Germany’s going to end the world tomorrow.”
Darrow walks out. “Adolf Hitler is after a bomb, Frank.”
And Winter ends this long, strange journey back underground and behind bars.