This mysteriously titled episode leads to a major death -- changing the fate of the bomb
Credit: Greg Peters/WGN
S2 E6
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“Pearl Harbor was an inside job.”

So begins episode 6 of Manhattan‘s second season, and the line is spoken by one of the conspiracy-minded old timers fishing in a lagoon. Out of nowhere, one of them catches a license plate. In what looked a lot like an homage to the final scene of Psycho, we then see the vehicle belonging to counter intelligence officer Avram Fischer (Richard Schiff) being hoisted from the murky depths.

The show begins with Helen Prins (Katja Herbers) calling for worker and scientist safety, since now they are engaged with highly risky research such as criticality, pushing the core of the gadget to the brink of an uncontrolled chain reaction.

She also urges her collected colleagues to push for scientist representation on the Targeting Committee, which will determine how or when the bomb they make is deployed.

Fritz (Michael Chernus) asks Charlie Isaacs (Ashley Zukerman) to consider doing some research on the effect of all this radioactive research on human beings. Charlie agrees, if he can find an expert already on the hill who isn’t otherwise engaged. He goes to Liza Winter (Olivia Williams) who is still furious at Col. Darrow for sending Private Dunlavey to his doom in the South Pacific to punish her husband, Frank, for contacting her.

Darrow (William Petersen) later agrees to give Liza the job, after she scares the hell out of him by pointing out that if a fast neutron chain reaction — known colloquially as “tickling the dragon’s tail” — got out of control in an adjacent building, it would have no problem passing through those walls and giving him a fatal dose of radiation at his desk chair.

Elsewhere, Jim Meeks (Christopher Denham) is in the new lead of a community theater production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado. Charlie has a tense conversation with his wife, Abby (Rachel Brosnahan), which sends him to the campus watering hole for a drink with Helen. “I would like to address an injustice,” he says — and dumps a drink in her lap.

But really, he wants to invite her to be part of the G group on the primary bomb. “The test is three months off, and we’re shorthanded and under-brained.” FDR’s science adviser, Vannevar Bush, is on his way to Los Alamos to review test preparations, and Charlie needs the program to be firing on all cylinders. Helen accepts.

In the operator room, Abby discovers that Paul Crosley (Harry Lloyd) is using a British phone attendant to send off-the-books updates on Plutonium enrichment to their government — a.k.a. spying, albeit for an ally.

Frank (John Benjamin Hickey) urges Helen to take the opportunity of FDR’s science adviser visit to slip him a letter from the scientists on the hill demanding a place at the table on the Targeting Committee.

Meeks lets his Soviet handler Nora (Mamie Gummer) know about the petition, but she tells him not to stand for anything. She wants him to earn Charlie’s trust, period. So Meeks tips him off about the petition too, and Darrow confronts Winter. Ultimately, he decides to let Winter circulate his letter.

The reason, which isn’t immediately clear to Frank, is that Darrow wants to see who is disloyal enough to sign it. Frank keeps pressuring Helen to give the letter to FDR’s man.

NEXT: A ticking time bomb

Meanwhile, Frank gets sent off to the desert to take part in criticality experiments. Tickling the dragon’s tail. (Darrow was smart enough to move this volatile part of the process far from the main base.)

While on the road there, Frank sees the ghost of the spook: Schiff’s deceased Fischer, who taunts and torments him as he engages in the risky criticality experiment. It’s a way to get inside Winter’s head as he puzzles through a problem: Why would Darrow allow the letter to make the rounds?

By the time he figures it out, he realizes there may be only one way to get back to the base in time to stop Helen from delivering the letter and exposing all who signed it as potential traitors. He needs to tickle the dragon’s tail, come close to criticality, and either max out his exposure, irradiating himself, and leading to certain death — or perform it flawlessly and survive (while still earning an ambulance ride back to base.)

Abby finally figures out Crosley’s ruse and confronts him about it. “I’m on a mission of vengeance,” he confesses. But he’s trying to hurt Helen — and Helen is Abby’s husband’s mistress. So now Abby is conflicted. She ends up telling Darrow anyway, but he doesn’t seem very alarmed.

He’s more concerned with her spiritual life and persuades her to pray with him. He tells her that the loss of her baby was not an accident, but part of God’s plan. He proves to be much more adept at alarming her.

In the tech area, Winter is rallying the scientists. He tells them there is no German bomb, that they are being lied to in order to motivate their work.

He apologizes for being a “son of a bitch” and disrespecting many of them. Then he takes out a lighter and incinerates the letter some of them signed. “This petition is a black list,” he says. “Anybody know the half-life of an FBI file?”

Frank inspires them to walk with him and confront FDR’s science adviser as he arrives on the hill. “Follow me no matter what you believe, so long as you believe the scientists who developed this gadget should have some say in how it is used.”

It’s a powerful moment — and would make an excellent example of the emotional and sophisticated work Hickey has done on this show when it comes time to vote on Emmy nominations. Frank inspires a long trail of fellow scientists to walk into the yard with him.

They approach Darrow and Vannevar Bush, but in this particular moment of criticality … the experiment fails.

Darrow is given a whispered piece of news and walks to a nearby American flag to lower it to half staff.

It is April 12, 1945. President Roosevelt has died from a stroke.

Whatever they say to his science adviser now will be pointless. It’s now up to the nation’s 33rd president, Harry S. Truman, to decide what to do with “the gadget.”

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