Credit: WGN

What kind of man builds a bomb?

Typically, the answer to that is a criminal, a terrorist, a monster. But what if you’re building the bomb to destroy monsters? In that case, the only question is how you know you’re not one of them.

On Manhattan, WGN America’s fictionalized retelling of the race to build an atomic bomb and end World War II, the characters are locked in a struggle to figure out how to unleash this ferocious power while also doing emotional calculations to prove they’re still the good guys. Stopping a war, and not merely giving the world a tool to wage even more catastrophic ones.

At the center of the show, which begins its second season tonight, are two physicists, Frank Winter, played by John Benjamin Hickey, a seasoned scientist haunted by the horrors of up-close warfare from his time in the trenches of World War I; and Charlie Isaacs, played by Ashley Zukerman, a wunderkind at the start of his career who may not have Winter’s knowledge but possesses greater skill as a manipulator.

Charlie knows physics, but his true genius is as a politician, forging alliances, shifting resources, and managing up. But what he wants above all is to be practicing that art for the right cause.

Zukerman has experience with conspiracy tales, since he also stars in the Australian hacking drama The Code (now available on Netflix). With Manhattan returning to the air, EW talked with him about characters who go wrong while trying to do right.

Entertainment Weekly: How has Manhattan changed since its first season?

The burden of exposition was lifted and we could actually delve straight into the issues at hand. People’s lives in the middle of this situation, without having to discuss the situation at all.

I sensed a heightened thriller pace this time instead of being strictly a period drama. More Homeland than Mad Men.

We’re in the melting plot of paranoia. The tensions are greater. With Charlie, that’s something you definitely see written on his face. Paranoia and tension and a departure from who he was at the beginning. It’s more tense. More suffocating.

And who was Charlie at the start, compared to who he is now?

Charlie was the greatest mind of his generation. That was the description. Then slowly as the season progresses, the only evidence he has for that is he published a paradigm-shifting paper that he plagiarized. He doesn’t have any evidence for that genius, so he’s constantly in doubt of himself. And constantly having to prove himself.

Nothing like a volatile man making a volatile weapon.

That’s what makes him an interesting and problematic leader for the Los Alamos project. A guy who needs to prove himself is exactly who you don’t want in charge of creating the most destructive invention human kind has ever made.

In the premiere, Charlie comes clean and the project’s head Robert Oppenheimer (Daniel London) doesn’t seem troubled by the plagiarism, though.

Last season, Glen Babbit, Daniel Stern’s character says, “Maybe a good man wouldn’t have gotten this thing finished.” Oppenheimer puts Charlie in charge because they need someone – not the smartest, not the most kind, not the most able to marry ethics and action – but actually someone flawed, because they are creating a weapon. You need that person to lead this thing.

So maybe it is a good thing to have an unstable man pushing this forward? Innovators in history are not always the creative geniuses; they’re the people who are able to synthesize creativity with the public need and the will to simply get it done. Steve Jobs, Walt Disney …

That is exactly right. That’s the departure. In our universe, Frank Winter is the greatest mind, but Charlie has something else to offer which has to do with synthesis, selling and management. These are also the people we see in government. Not always the greatest philosophers, but maybe you need people with less awareness of the gray scale to move into those positions. People of action. There is a Steve Jobs element to this

But Charlie hasn’t lost his way. He’s trying. His marriage to Abby (Rachel Brosnahan) actually seems to be strengthening, when last season they were each engaged in clandestine activity against each other.

He’s driven to do the right thing. He wants to be a better person, but once he’s in the position of power, and finds out he has a baby on the way, he recognizes the sins of the past and tries to make this thing work. They do throw themselves back into each other’s arms. That’s as simple as it gets. She holds a special place in Charlie’s heart.

You give a major speech in this episode, rallying the scientists to pick up where Frank Winter left off and complete the bomb. Was that this show’s St. Crispin Day speech?

When I read it, I realized it was the only possible speech to galvanize the troops in that moment. I asked [creator Sam Shaw] and he said ultimately you’re talking about creating an atomic bomb. You should be as inspiring as possible, because there is a huge black ghost behind you the entire time.

While shooting the show, you’re all in a similar situation to the characters. You have more liberty to come and go, but you’ve been isolated in the desert in New Mexico to shoot.

Four and a half months. That realization was harder hitting the first season. Strangely that place becomes our home. So the second season, I couldn’t wait to get back and unpack my suitcase. It would be a very different show, with the exact same team, exact same set, and same costumes, if we shot this in L.A. The work is always close to us, and there’s not a lot of escape … in a nice way!

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