Manhattan recap: The Threshold
Seneca Falls Sanatorium
2,381 days to Hiroshima
Episode 3 of Manhattan’s second season opens on a woman standing in the rain, then a naked person underneath a table, and a roomful of slumped, dejected figures as Frank and Liza Winter sit at a table.
We’ve seen evidence of Liza’s emotional volatility in season 1, but here we get a flash back to her time in a mental facility after attempting suicide years before. John Benjamin Hickey’s Frank has convinced himself (and is trying to persuade her) that she simply made a mistake and took too many pills. Neither really buys that.
Last episode belonged to Hickey, but this one is owned by Olivia Williams as Liza, a woman who embodies both delicate vulnerability and a strength and resolve that was ahead of her time. Seeing her in a weakened state at the opening gives us a refreshing perspective on the powerhouse Liza inhabiting Los Alamos in the show’s present.
She can’t have newspapers in the hospital. The one Frank brought was confiscated. She also can’t wear her wedding ring, since they could be choking hazards. Frank hears a distant woman screaming uncontrollably. “Someone must have shown her a newspaper,” he says.
Liza seems content to drift, but Frank vows to bring her home. Before he leaves, he takes a strip of yarn from the scarf his wife is knitting and ties it in a makeshift wedding ring around her finger.
It’s a great moment — not just an example of the tenderness between them, but a metaphor. The string you tie around your finger is supposed to remind you of something, right? This is Frank doing something that, despite all his faults, she will never forget.
As he leaves, a voice on the radio announces that German scientists have split the building blocks of all matter. Atomic energy could become a promising source of fuel in the decades to come.
Frank is blessed and cursed with the ability to see the potential in things. His wife, for one. Atomic energy, another. The latter makes him more afraid than hopeful.
We see Frank and Glen Babbit (Daniel Stern) meeting with a representative from the military to impress upon him the need to start work on a bomb that harnesses this new “fuel.”
“Hitler is already stockpiling uranium,” Frank explains. He knows the scientists who are over there trying to weaponize it. But remember, it’s still only 1939.
“You’re telling me I need a bomb that doesn’t exist to win a war that we won’t be involved in when it starts… if it starts,” the military rep says.
Even Glen isn’t so sure. “Some genies belong in their lamps,” he says.
As the military man leaves, we get the episode’s Sly Gay Joke #1: The military man says he saw Glen’s ex-wife recently and wants to know how “to unload a wife so smoothly.” “It’s all in the wrist,” Glen says, making a sweeping motion to the door.
It turns out Glen, one of the Winters’ best friends, thinks Liza is on a “research sabbatical.” Frank asks him to help talk the government into developing work on the atom bomb. “You must know someone with a line to the president.”
Cut to Glen and Frank walking up to the door of a house. The name on the mailbox: “A. Einstein.”
NEXT: Engagements, Marriages, and Affairs
Cut to the show’s present, we’re in the office of the Manhattan project’s military leader, Col. Emmett Darrow (William Petersen). He’s reading a newspaper article about Frank Winter: “Noted scientist disappears while working for war department” is the headline.
Darrow confronts Liza at a city council meeting. “If Dr. Winter were in less than comfortable circumstances, I would worry they may not improve after this day’s events,” he says.
“Perhaps you would like to repeat that, Colonel, to my colleagues on the town council,” Liza says.
Darrow asks for the council’s attention and shows her how rough he can play. “Due to new J-1 secrecy restrictions, as of today, the town council is disbanded.”
In the prison where Frank is being detained, a guard throws a plate onto the floor with a few scraps of bread. “That’s it for today. Bad behavior,” the guard says.
“What’d I do?” Frank asks.
“Not your bad behavior,” the guard answers.
Back at Los Alamos, Abby Isaacs (Rachel Brosnahan) is on the job as an operator when she eavesdrops on a call between the project leader, J. Robert Oppenheimer, and a mysterious woman in California.
Operators are banned from listening to his calls, due to national secrecy, of course. So Oppenheimer and his mistress feel safe indulging in some bondage and submission phone-sex fantasies.
Once home, Abby informs her husband, Charlie (Ashley Zukerman), that Oppenheimer is having an affair. He doesn’t want to know and tells her: “Stay out of other people’s marriages.”
Back in the labs, an accident that severely injures one of the workers leads Fritz (Michael Chernus) to a rash decision: He proposes to his girlfriend, Jeannie. Life is to fragile. He wants to live in the moment and gives her a decoder ring as an engagement offering. “I know I’m not a war hero or even brave, and I have sciatica,” he says, on bended knee. She says yes anyway, which means she must really love this poor geek with a bad back.
Jim Meeks (Christopher Denham) our double-agent, currently riddled with guilt over his work leaking secrets to what he believes are the Soviets, has been offered the job of best man, but he has been rejected from another job: G-group, the team that will be finalizing the implosion trigger for The Gadget.
Also irate: Helen Prins (Katja Herbers), who is disgusted that Charlie excluded her — mostly because she helped pioneer this technology, but also because she’s been sleeping with Charlie. It’s a betrayal on two fronts.
None of them made the cut, except for Fritz. After all he has been through, Meeks seems relieved to not be involved.
Outside the gates of Los Alamos, the reporter who penned that article about Frank has shown up. Griffin Dunne does a great job capturing the shabby persistence that defines every newspaper scribe throughout history.
W.D. Lorentzen explains to an icy Col. Darrow that if he disappears too, there’ll be a story in the next day’s paper blowing the lid off the government’s secret desert product that has gathered up half of the nation’s physicists. “Like the rapture,” as he puts it.
“I imagine you have read the Code of Wartime Practices for the American press?” Darrow asks.
“I’m really more of a First Amendment guy,” Lorentzen says. We know from the very first episode of this season, which begins with the countdown to Trinity, the first test of the project’s weapon, that Lortentzen has been welcomed into the fold. Now we see how it happens.
Darrow decides it’s a battle that can’t be won by fighting, but rather through friendship.
It turns out Liza and the reporter are old friends — or, actually, a bit more. “You see the irony here. You’re asking me to risk my hide so you can be reunited with your husband?” he says when she finds him ensconced in his new quarters on the base.
Bad news: He’s no longer interested in Frank’s disappearing act.
“They sold you the scoop on The Gadget,” Liza says. “Is that what Frank’s life is worth.”
Darrow summons Liza and is amused by her anger, but not by her defiance. He needs to put a lid on her speaking out to those beyond the walls of the Manhattan Project. “I wonder what your husband would feel about your recent visit with an old flame?” he says.
“Let’s call him and ask!” Liza says brightly. (I love Liza.)
Darrow tries to turn her allegiance. “He lied to you, medicated you with barbiturates, after philandering with a woman half his age and half your intelligence. Yet you persist in agitating for his return?”
He has an open line to her sister’s home, where her daughter is in hiding. The daughter is the one who leaked to the reporter. Darrow instructs Liza to “Tell her to be a good girl.”
And the leak has been sealed.
Over at the Isaacs household, Abby is busy prepping dinner. While Charlie told her to stay out of other people’s marriages, she decided to invite the Oppenheimers to their house for a party.
“Careers aren’t made between 9 and 5 they’re made between soup and dessert,” Abby says.
It could not play out worse for Charlie. Not only is the dinner cold (the conversation, not the meal) but Oppenheimer’s pregnant wife (Neve Campbell) has no interest in Abby’s revelation that her husband is having an affair.
“You work the switchboard,” she says. “I bet you overhear all kinds of secrets. I hear things too. I hear you like the taste of girls. I do not need marital advice from a deviant.”
Outside, Oppenheimer is expressing boredom with Charlie’s ruminations on where to test the bomb. He seems like a man who no longer wants the job of running this project. Just then, Helen storms into the yard to express her displeasure at being passed over for G-group.
She goes right for the good stuff: “You left me on the bench because you can’t control your hard on.”
Oppenheimer looks ready to thank Isaacs for a lovely evening and excuse himself.
“And you …,” Helen says, wheeling on him. “Everyone knows you were the third choice to lead this project. None of us would even be here if Frank hadn’t convinced Albert Einstein we needed a bomb. This entire project exists because of Frank. Where is he now?”
After Charlie finally forces her away, Oppenheimer coolly says: “Remind me of her name.”
NEXT: “They teach you that in spy school?”
Elsewhere that night, Fritz’s bachelor party is in full swing. One of the new women on The Hill, Nora (played by Mamie Gummer) shoves aside Paul Crosley for the fellow on the team that few people pay much attention: Meeks.
She strikes up a conversation with the timid turncoat and invites him outside for a walk. Next we see – she’s on her knees giving him a blowjob. Very friendly, this Nora.
After, he tries to clarify if he’s on a date – or if he owes her a fee. “I’ve never been asked if I was a hooker on a first date before,” she answers.
She quotes some of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar at the theater aficionado, and he is instantly smitten. “Next you’re going to tell me you have a copy of Planet Comics #1 in your purse?” he jokes
Nora reaches into her purse, and … pulls out a torn Hershey’s wrapper.
It’s the one his former Soviet handler told him to watch for when he got a new contact. Meeks panics. Then he gets angry. “They teach you that in Spy school? Fellatio as a tool of persuasion?”
She shrugs. “That I learned in high school.”
After she lowers his temperature, Meeks explains his motivation for helping the Soviets, and it’s not because he’s a secret Communist.
“If Stalin has a bomb in his pocket too, it’s a draw. It’s a stalemate and nobody dies.” That’s actually one of the more noble reasons for betraying your country.
But he doesn’t know how much use he can be moving forward, since he’s not on G-Group. Nora thinks the genius can put his mind to work and figure out a solution.
The morning of Fritz’s wedding, we see Helen Prins getting dressed when a letter is slid under her door. It’s from Oppenheimer. She’s expecting a pink slip — but inside is an offer of promotion.
While Meeks is helping boost Fritz’s confidence for the wedding, he also tells him he should take the assignment with G-Group. Not only that, he wants Fritz to talk Isaacs into bringing him on board the team.
“Bombs away,” Fritz says.
Although Liza has lost the leverage of her reporter friend, Private Dunlavey (Jefferson White) proves to be an unexpected ally while standing guard over her quarters. Dunlavey, who still loves her daughter, tells her Frank is being detained at a DOJ internment camp in Crystal City, Texas, and offers to help smuggle her off The Hill.
As his jeep rolls into the desert with a Liza-shaped tarp in the back seat, we flash back to the sanatorium in 1939. The doctor is talking about the years Liza will need to spend at the facility to right her mind, but Frank is disgusted by the prison-like atmosphere of this hospital.
“In the last month I have fielded recruiting calls from three universities. My vote is Princeton, but it’s your decision,” he says.
“It’s your career,” she mutters.
“Liza, they’re recruiting you,” he says. This — this is why she loves Frank, for all his flaws. This is why she is trying so hard to save him. He once saved her when no one else would.
“It’s not you that’s sick, it’s this place,” he says, echoing a similar line Charlie Isaacs told Abby in a previous episode.
In the show’s present, we discover that Liza didn’t go to Crystal City, Texas, to organize a jailbreak. She went back East, to find Glen.
He has lost the nanny-goat look, and his new girlfriend is in his office browsing through photos. “You with a beard. Now that’s something I’ll never cotton to!” she declares. (Sly Gay Joke #2!)
Liza begs Glen’s help, much the way her husband did long ago in finding someone who could pull a long enough string to activate the top echelons of the government. Back then, Frank wanted to start a bomb-making project. Now, Liza just wants to save him from the fate he created for himself.
“A long time ago I was stuck in a place I didn’t belong. I almost forgot who I was, but Frank remembered,” she says. “That place, that bomb turned him into someone else.”
Glen has one more trick up his sleeve. The final scene features he and Liza walking up to a home we saw at the beginning of the episode.
You don’t have to be Einstein to figure out what happens next.