“I’ll die if you leave.”
So says Jean Tatlock (Fiona Dourif), mistress and muse of J. Robert Oppenheimer, who is busy planning his return to Los Alamos as the Allied invasion of Europe is in the final stages.
It’s early June, and this episode of Manhattan, titled “Overlord,” deals with one of the true-life scandals surrounding the development of the atomic bomb, although it compresses its dates a little.
Tatlock was a communist involved in a romantic relationship with the scientific head of the Los Alamos project, and there’s foreshadowing in that line of hers. He’s preoccupied, spending time with her in San Francisco rather than at the research center in New Mexico, where his wife Kitty (Neve Campbell) is about to give birth to his child.
She tells him her psychiatrist believes the two of them have led many past lives together, including as father and daughter, brothers, mother and child. “You murdered me dozens of times. You enjoyed it.”
Her appeal is more than physical. She intrigues his imagination with this Freudian gobbledygook and indulges his intellectual side with poetry. She’s reading a collection by John Donne, who inspired Oppenheimer (played by Daniel London) to name the first test site Trinity.
She tells Oppenheimer to hold her down under the water.
More foreshadowing, people.
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Back in Los Alamos, Charlie Isaacs (Ashley Zukerman) is overwhelmed by the politics and bureaucracy that Oppenheimer usually handles. Fritz (Michael Chernus) informs him that there’s a complication about the test-site property. “We need to buy this lady’s farm so we can blow it up.”
A judge has her support and won’t sign off on the eminent domain takeover. Isaacs tells Fritz to tell the judge “to wipe his ass” with the declaration of ownership. Fritz apparently takes this order literally, and then so does the judge — sending a feces-stained document to the hill.
Col. Darrow tells Isaacs he needs to get better at handling these matters and should start filling the role of politician and peacemaker to help get this project the resources it needs. But all Charlie wants to do is focus on the science.
By phone, Oppenheimer tells him: “If it helps to pretend you’re me, pretend. It’s what I do.
NEXT: Frank walks free
In the trenches of the research being done at Los Alamos, Helen Prins (Katja Herbers) has a plan to make the discarded Thin Man project work by swapping plutonium for uranium.
William Hogarth, the miserable head of their Island of Lost Toys research group, gives her the anti-St. Crispin’s Day speech: “We few, we unhappy few, have gathered here to wank out numbers until the implosion group gets it’s tickertape parade.”
Paul Crosley (Harry Lloyd), still burned by Helen’s rejection, is trying to get fired off the project and later succeeds by banging Hogarth’s secretary on his desk and leaving her panties behind.
That earns him a job in Chattanooga, enriching the Uranium that Helen said would rejuvenate the Thin Man project. She wanted that job, too. So Crosley scores misery points on both Hogarth and her by getting reassigned.
Charlie’s wife, Abby (Rachel Brosnahan), is getting checked by the OB-GYN when she has another encounter with Oppenheimer’s wife, who’s soon to give birth. They have a moment after Abby kills a terrifyingly large spider on her bed. Kitty is all alone and going through false contractions. She confesses that Oppenheimer is leaving her.
Abby takes this message and immediately launches into Lady Macbeth mode. “This is your chance. It’s not just his family he’s abandoning. He’s leaving the project. He’s dropping the reins in your lap. The fate of the war. You’re already doing Oppenheimer’s job, it’s time you had the title.”
In Texas, a prison door opens. Frank Winter (John Benjamin Hickey) finally gets to walk free.
“You got some pretty fancy friends,” says the warden. “Clean yourself up for Chrissakes.”
Liza (Olivia Williams) is waiting for him. “Is the war over?” he asks. It’s the only reason he can imagine for his release.
“Yours is,” she says.
At a Texas chili house, Frank is stuffing his face while Liza explains that Albert Einstein conspired with Eleanor Roosevelt to engineer his release. (Those are some fancy friends.)
After she brought him good news — the chance to start their lives over — he gives her bad: He intends to go back to Los Alamos. On the radio, D-Day is unfolding. It’s June 6, 1944
“Hitler will dig in, probably for months. Every day he does, the Army pumps Oppenheimer, Isaacs, the whole senior staff full of their lies,” Winter says. “Imminent threats. V-2s over New York. Cities in ruins. They’ll say anything to build that thing faster.”
“Ever wondered why you’re the only man for the job?” Liza asks. “In 1939, you thought you were the only man who could start this ball rolling; now in 1944, you’re the only man who can stand in its way.”
But after a feat of stubbornness, Liza caves. Okay — she’ll take him back, and drop him off.
NEXT: Oppenheimer wants out
Back at Los Alamos, Jim Meeks (Christopher Denham) is being pushed by his Soviet handler (Mamie Gummer) to support Charlie Isaacs’ bid to replace Oppenheimer. “It sets the schedule back. The longer it takes anyone to deliver a weapon, the less chance anyone has of dropping it over a city full of kids before the war is over,” she says.
Meeks gives it his best try, pulling out arcane baseball analogies to inspire Charlie to the big man’s job, but it just sends Isaacs storming out of the room. He wants to get Oppenheimer on the phone and discovers he’s back, touring potential test sites.
Isaacs finds him out in the desert and scolds him for being an absentee landlord. “I can’t do my job when I’m doing yours.”
“Don’t you want my job?” Oppenheimer says.
“That’s what everyone think, including my wife, but they’re wrong. I want you to want your job.”
Oppenheimer stares out into the mountain horizon. “This is where it will happen. Your test. Where the caldera opens up and swallows the world.”
“It’s your test, Robert.”
“I’ll be alerting General Groves that you’ll be my successor.” He doesn’t care if it sets the project back. He no longer believes in the bomb, a tool America wants not just to win the war, but to “lord it over our allies in peace.”
Charlie suggests his mistress, the communist, is planting Stalinist flowers in his head.
He tells both his wife and Col. Darrow about Oppenheimer’s plan. Abby is the only one willing to take action. She calls the mistress, pretending to be a survey-taker from Redbook magazine and steers her toward a discussion of her man, her motives, and her reputation.
Tatlock is no fool. And she figures out fast this is no survey.
“I know what you are,” Abby says. “Seducing him with pornographic sonnets and Freudian nonsense. He’s about to have another child and you want to break him away from his family.”
“What do you mean another child?”
“You don’t know? He lies to his wife. Why shouldn’t he lie to you?”
“Is this Kitty?”
“He doesn’t love you. You’re just a rag. You’re nothing. And you will never see my husband again,” Abby says and disconnects the line.
NEXT: Jean’s fate
But then…maybe Col. Darrow did take action. It’s hard to know for sure.
Charlie told him if Oppenheimer leaves, it will slow the schedule three months. Assuming their intelligence about the German program is accurate (it’s not, at least according to Frank Winter, who thinks it’s being doctored to scare the scientists to work harder) that means catastrophe.
“By next summer, Washington, D.C.’s a crater and Heisenberg’s on the cover of Time magazine,” Isaacs says. “I’m not telling you how to do your job; I’m just telling you there’s a job to be done.”
Darrow brushes him off, but Charlie pushes the panic button: “Frank Winter was a problem; you made him disappear.”
Does Darrow make a call? Do some black ops G-men pay a visit to Tatlock. There have been rumors and speculations for decades about her fate and whether anyone else played a hand in it. All we know for sure (in this fictionalized retelling) is Oppenheimer places a call to her apartment and a man answers.
“Put Jean on the phone,” Oppenheimer snaps.
“Inspector?” says the man. We see he is a police officer, and Tatlock’s naked body is kneeling beside a full tub with her face submerged and a copy of The Poems of John Donne nearby.
Outside The Hill, Liza drops Frank off. He walks toward the gate, then turns around and comes back. “Now it’s your choice. If you think we should go to Princeton, we’ll go. We’ll go right now.”
We’re not sure what she’s going to choose.
At night, Oppenheimer is distraught and silently closes his door on Charlie when he approaches. Meanwhile, he has a newborn across The Hill in the hospital. Kitty has given birth.
Back at Isaacs’ home, a door opens as he pours a drink.
“Abby?” he says.
Frank Winter walks in.
“They told me… I thought you were dead,” Charlie says.