A life is spared, another is taken as a spy is nearly exposed.
This is the story of how a bottle of orange soda redeems a traitor. A little bit.
Episode 7 of Manhattan’s second season focuses a lot on Jim Meeks (Christopher Denham), the physicist who has been leaking information to the Russians because he thinks a nuclear stalemate will prevent a future war that’s more cataclysmic than the one they’re trying to end.
“Behold the Lord High Executioner” takes its name from Gilbert and Sullivan’s musical The Mikado and the character Meeks plays in the Los Alamos local theater production. By the end of the episode, that title will have disturbing significance.
We begin with a Native American maid at one of the Los Alamos homes who overhears some of the scientists’ wives discussing a spy on the hill and the need to report unusual behavior. Her young son, Pablo, saw something: a man in the woods burying a tin box.
It was very near the location where Avram Fischer (Richard Schiff’s counter-intelligence agent) was executed after catching Meeks in the middle of a dead drop of information. The tin box he buried was recovered, and Col. Darrow (William Petersen) now has a witness to help him identify just who from Los Alamos went for a walk in the woods that night.
He also has the tin box, which has code written on the inside of a Hershey’s bar wrapper.
He seeks Dr. Theodore Sinclair (Corey Allen), the only black scientist at Los Alamos. At first, it seems like a case of racial profiling — and it is, sort of. Darrow wants Sinclair to help him crack the code. He says it’s because Sinclair is known to have an excellent mind for problem solving, but there’s something he’s leaving out. Since Sinclair is the only black man on the project, Darrow can be sure he’s not the spy. The little boy can identify the culprit, and so the colonel knows the man he’s looking for has light skin.
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Newlyweds Fritz (Michael Chernus) and Jeannie (Lauren Myers) are already thinking of having children. She wants to do it, but he doesn’t. He’s afraid to tell her that he was contaminated with radiation on a long-ago experiment. Since the effects aren’t known, he thinks it could lead to birth defects. Or in the less delicate way Fritz puts it: “How can you tell your wife you could have a kid with three heads?”
Pablo is with security, checking faces at the gate of the facility. Meeks’ Russian handler, Nora (Mamie Gummer), rescues him from the line and slips him an envelope full of cash, telling him to make a run for it. It’s only a matter of time before he is exposed.
Meeks doesn’t want to leave. “If I disappear, I’m going to look guilty.”
“You are guilty,” she tells him.
But Meeks can’t walk away from his life. Then security puts the Hill on lockdown, and he can’t get out. That leads Nora to devise a more gruesome solution.
Sinclair has found a clue. The man they’re looking for works with the element polonium, and Sinclair has a list of the 23 men who handle the substance on the project.
Pablo remains with security and ends up in the care of Jeannie, who tries to reassure the frightened little boy by passing him a lucky charm: her pin. “This is Athena. She’s a famous warrior, and she watches over the Women’s Army Corps. As long as I wear this, no one can hurt me.” That makes him feel a little better.
NEXT: Is Meeks willing to kill a 10-year-old boy?
Nora delivers a suicide pill to Meeks, in case he is apprehended before she can work out an alternate solution. That solution would be putting another such pill into a bottle of orange soda and giving it to the child, eliminating the witness, eliminating the problem for Meeks.
“Absolutely not,” Meeks says. “I’ll turn myself in before I let you take care of a 10-year-old boy.”
“How many 10-year-olds do you think are in Tokyo?” she says. Meeks asks for 12 hours and uses it to pose as an FBI agent (those theater mustaches make good disguises!) who pays a visit to the boy’s mother, trying to indirectly scare her. She sees through the ruse pretty fast, and he has to get rough and make the threat clear.
It works. The next day, the boy doesn’t remember anything. And when he happens to lay eyes on Meeks, he either honestly doesn’t recognize him — or has been told not to. Later, he nods when Darrow shows him a suspect drawing (which we don’t get to see). Eventually, we learn that he ID’d the man who executed Fischer — Nora’s own handler (played by Victor Talmadge).
But the reason he even gets to see Meeks is the bottle of orange soda he has been given by a friendly lady from the Women’s Army Corps. Meeks rushes into the room to spill the bottle before the boy can drink the poison, saving his life but keeping his own at risk. This grants him a little forgiveness, a shred of sympathy, even as the final moments of this episode play out.
Elsewhere on the project, over at the Trinity test site, Liza Winter (Olivia Williams) is trying to gather plants and animal specimens so she can test the effects of the eventual fallout. The soldiers helping her don’t care much about her research, but husband, Frank (John Benjamin Hickey), who is restricted from associating with her as punishment from Col. Darrow, proves to be resourceful in gathering materials for her — a way of showing his affection at a distance.
Abby Isaacs (Rachel Brosnahan) also makes a confession to Darrow, admitting that she called Robert Oppenheimer’s mistress, Jean Tatlock, and feels she is responsible for the guilt that made her take her life. She believes that’s what caused her to lose her child. Darrow’s response to this is curious. He seems almost amused.
She wants to make restitution to Tatlock’s family, but Darrow tells her: “God doesn’t accept the U.S. dollar. There are other paths to redemption.” I have to wonder if, in the fiction of this show, Tatlock’s death is going to prove to be not by her own hand.
Jeannie ends up walking Pablo home and offering reassurance to his mother, who doesn’t seem to want anything else to do with the mysteries of Los Alamos. While at the home, Jeannie finds something in the yard. The pitch pipe that Meeks was using to rehearse for the play.
It also happens to be opening night, with Fritz front and center for the show. Jeannie can’t sit still for The Mikado. The possibility of what she has discovered is eating at her. During intermission, she confronts Meeks.
Meeks admits he’s a spy, but he lies and says Fritz is the one who got him into it. That messes with Jeannie’s head, tangles up her resolve to expose him. She thinks he’s lying but doesn’t know. As she runs off into the night, Nora emerges from the shadows. She tells Meeks to get back inside. Act 2 is starting. She promises to take care of Jeannie.
Meeks asks, “What are you going to do?” but doesn’t wait for an answer.
As Meeks takes the stage, Nora is seen striking Jeannie over the back of her head.
Maybe she should have held on to that Athena pin.