The countdown is on.
In this final episode of Manhattan season 2, two of our main characters are on the run.
Turncoat scientist Jim Meeks (Christopher Denham) is on his way to the Trinity test site alongside fellow Soviet spy Perseus (the patent lawyer Stan, played by Jason Ralph). The Soviets want Jim to rig the bomb to go off when the trigger is tested, obliterating most of the researchers who worked to develop it. He can’t do it and tries to persuade his comrade to abandon the plan.
“What’s your part? To make sure I do mine?” Jim asks.
Elsewhere, Frank Winter (John Benjamin Hickey) learns that Meeks may be a spy from scientist-turned-counter-espionage-agent Paul Crosley (Harry Lloyd). Winter also soon learns he is now wanted by the project’s leadership because Helen Prins (Katja Herbers) has revealed he has been deliberately siphoning money away from his team to slow the development of the bomb.
He heads to the test site to intercept Jim while military police hunt for him. Jim sidelines “Perseus” when he’s hunting for his test-site pass in the trunk by knocking him out — or killing him? That part is unclear. It was a pretty brutal takedown.
It’s a game of cat and mouse with lots of cats and lots of mice.
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As a storm sweeps over the test site, Fritz (Michael Chernus) turns up at Trinity to witness the first man-made atomic blast. He meets with Liza Winter (Olivia Williams) who is hoping to study the effects of fallout. She turns him into her own spy — infiltrating the command tent and urging Charlie Isaacs (Ashley Zukerman) to wait out the rain or risk contaminating a wider swath of New Mexico.
As we saw in a flash-forward on the first episode of this season, Jim ends up stationed inside the tower to safeguard the bomb, because Isaacs has received word that Winter sabotaged one of the pre-tests as a way of earning his trust and getting him to advocate against using the weapon in a populated area. (That effort failed last episode when Isaacs not only urged them to hit a populated place, he suggested a city full of civilians instead of a military target.)
Helen turns up at Trinity. (She stole Stan’s pass, which is why he couldn’t find it — and is not probably dead. Oops.) She makes peace with Charlie after their affair went badly. “In case you set the atmosphere on fire tonight and this is goodbye… I don’t blame you for choosing your family.” The MPs show up to escort her away, and she ends up in a car with Oppenheimer, who has a major new assignment for her: She is the new head of the tech group, and she’ll be responsible for delivering the bomb to the South Pacific. “Buy a slicker,” he says. “It’s monsoon season.”
Charlie ends up calling his in-laws house to talk to his son and discovers the boy is not there. Then the in-laws hang up on him. Back at his home, Abby (Rachel Brosnahan) won’t take his call either. She is planning her own escape.
NEXT: “I don’t want to hurt anybody!”
Up in the tower, Frank slips through security and surprises the man who is tinkering with an atom bomb. Jim holds him at gunpoint: “I don’t want to hurt anybody.”
“Then you picked the wrong line of work,” Frank says.
He says he’s not here to stop Jim but to help him. “I’ve been trying to put this thing back in the box for over a year,” he says. But is Frank there to save Jim or save the test? Maybe both.
But while working on disarming Jim and re-arming the bomb, he learns that Isaacs recommended dropping the bomb on a city. Suddenly, the morality of Frank’s physics studies got a lot more abstract. I don’t think he knows what he’s fighting for anymore.
Jim reveals he’s not leaving once their work is finished. “It’ll be over in a thousandth of a second,” he says. “I’m not scared.”
“Whoever it was who sent you on a suicide mission…”
“It was a homicide mission,” Jim says. “Kill the whole brain trust.”
Frank manages to stall the countdown by wiring the tower to become an antenna that broadcasts music through all the communications equipment on the ground. This will at least slow the test and maybe allow the weather to clear before the radioactive explosion is unleashed. Liza figures out that it must be Frank up in the tower.
Col. Darrow (William Petersen) gives Isaacs a scolding over the delays, but Isaacs isn’t afraid of him anymore. He sent a letter to the Secretary of War that details not just Darrow’s murder of Jean Tatlock, Oppenheimer’s mistress, but also his falsification of intelligence designed to motivate the scientists — and the leadership in Washington, D.C. — to accelerate work on the American bomb. This seems to have hit a target with Darrow, who is speechless.
Frank convinces Jim to save his own life, saying that if the U.S. ties him to the Soviets and comes to believe they sabotaged the test, it will lead to a continuation of World War II between the two allies. One bullet in Sarajevo, he points out, led to the clash of treaties that unleashed World War I. “We cannot let anyone believe a Soviet spy was responsible,” Frank says.
“They won’t think it’s an accident,” Jim says. But Frank has another idea.
“They have to think it was me,” he says.
Jim confesses that he was responsible for the murder of Jeannie, Fritz’s wife, who figured out he was a spy. Frank seems to be continually surprised by the depths of darkness in his friends.
The phone rings in the tower. It’s Liza. She says everyone knows he sabotaged the tests. “You’re going to get yourself shot,” she says.
He tells her to get into the next car she sees and get out of the blast radius. “Don’t send up the cavalry,” he says. “I’ve made a lot of mistakes. I’m trying to unmake one tonight. I don’t know if you’re still my wife, but I’m still your husband. And I love you.”
NEXT: The countdown is back on…
Frank cuts the radio broadcast. The countdown is back on: 32 minutes.
Jim holds the gun on him. “What are you really doing up here, Frank?”
Liza sends Fritz into the tower, and Frank tells him he was the one who re-wired the detonators, absolving Jim in the eyes of his friend. “Somebody had to save the world from the guys who were trying to save the world,” he says.
“If the gadget doesn’t kill you, the army will,” Fritz says.
Frank laughs. “That’s what Jim said,” he tells Fritz. “You were right, Jim. I have too much to live for.”
The three of them get to work fixing the gadget and then drive away from the blast radius as dawn crests. Inside a bunker, Jim confesses his crimes to Fritz, including the death of his best friend’s wife.
Overcome with grief, Fritz takes the gun and points it at Jim. Frank stands behind him, eyes fixed on the horizon. Then the bomb goes off.
The three men stand in awe, staring at this new sun.
Fritz raises the gun, but puts it to his own head — and pulls the trigger. Behind him, the glorious glow of the blast becomes a screaming hellfire.
That’s the end of Manhattan Season 2, and since WGN America hasn’t yet picked up the show again for Season 3, it may be the end of the show altogether. But if creator Sam Shaw is able to continue for another round, there are some compelling questions left to answer.
How will Frank and Jim explain Fritz’s death? Will he be scapegoated as the spy?
What becomes of Darrow after Isaacs’ letter arrives? How will Helen fare overseeing the deployment of the bomb?
What becomes of Abby and her child as she flees her husband? And what consequences will Charlie absorb as he sees his recommendation to drop the bomb on a city come true?