A man shows up with a post-office box written on a matchbook. He’s looking for someone. “Someone I care about,” he says.
An agent confronts him at a gas station. “You. Who are you?”
“Isaacs,” the man says. “Ring a bell?”
This is how, in episode 8 of Manhattan’s second season, we meet the inveterate gambler and ex-con who is Charlie Isaacs’ father. Brad Garrett plays him with a kind of blustery charm. He’s hard not to like. At least at first.
Off in the desert, Charlie (Ashley Zukerman) is overseeing a test of the globular blasting mechanism that will trigger the gadget. One problem: It doesn’t blow up in front of him.
Instead, it fizzes and flames out. It’s a desperate, sad sight — and the clock is ticking. Their schedule is off. This needs to work.
One scientist who doesn’t turn out to see the test is Fritz (Michael Chernus), who is grief-stricken from the death of his wife, Jeannie — last seen being clobbered across the back of her skull by Nora (Mamie Gummer), the Russian operative who killed her after she discovered Meeks (Christopher Denham) is a spy.
Fritz — and everybody on the Hill — thinks she died in an accident while crossing through a construction site at night. Only we — and the two people responsible — know the truth. Fritz is guilt-stricken and wants to volunteer to be tested on with radioactive material.
Meeks isn’t self-destructive, but guilt is gnawing at him, too.
“They were going to have kids,” he tells Nora later. After staying the night in her quarters, he finds a notebook, describing the spy she’s assigned to monitor in unflattering terms. “Perseus is immature, distrustful of authority, politically unformed. He believes he is more intelligent than he is, which makes him susceptible to flattery.”
She tells him, “Those notes are not about you.” There’s another Soviet spy on the Hill.
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Suspect No. 1: The new boyfriend of Helen Prins (Katja Herbers), a patent attorney who seems to know an awful lot about her work and is planting ideas in her head that this research could be a moneymaker for her in the future — and he would be willing to hide some of it from Uncle Sam, if she’s game.
Col. Darrow (William Petersen) goes to Frank Winter (John Benjamin Hickey) and orders him to help problem-solve what went wrong with the test that day. Winter calls his bluff — go ahead, send him off to the front lines for insubordination. If Darrow wants a working gadget, he needs to meet Frank’s demands — which include discharging him from the military service he forced on Winter and giving a scientist a seat on the target committee that will determine how — or if — the bomb is used.
NEXT: “Hitler just blew his goddamn brains out!”
As Winter sits down to start helping Charlie solve the mystery of the bomb that wouldn’t blow, they hear gunfire popping outside. It’s a celebration. “Hitler just blew his goddamn brains out!” a soldier cries. “It’s all over!”
Suddenly, the quest to beat the Nazi bomb is not much of a motivator.
The end of the war in Europe means that Britons Paul Crosley (Harry Lloyd) and William Hogarth (Bill Camp) are packing up and heading home. Their war is over — and as a parting gift, they intend to abscond with as many nuclear secrets as possible to give their own country a leg up in the coming arms race.
As they make their escape, the feds swarm their car. Both Crosley and Hogarth are taken into custody. Darrow confronts Hogarth, who blames the younger scientist — the one he lured into being his accomplice by telling him about the son Crosley fathered with Hogarth’s daughter.
But Darrow isn’t buying it. Remember when he was so unperturbed after Abby reported that Crosley was likely passing secrets via phone? He has known about this for a long time, and Crosley was not Hogarth’s accomplice — he was Darrow’s.
Hogarth tries to shame him: How dare he do this to his own child’s grandfather, but Crosley is amused by the old man’s rage. He has looked closely at the photo of the boy and even took it out of its frame at one point. On the back was a date that meant it couldn’t possibly be his child.
Hogarth’s manipulations haven’t been nearly as effective as he thought, and now he’s finally out of moves. For his trouble, Crosley gets U.S. citizenship.
While piecing through the remains of his failed test, Charlie gets a call. It’s his father. He wants to see his grandson. Maybe just hear his name. “Go to hell,” Charlie says.
His wife, Abby (Rachel Brosnahan) doesn’t have the same hard feelings. She seeks a pass from Darrow to meet with her estranged father-in-law and bring him his grandson. Darrow agrees after she plays on his sense of family responsibility and religion. “The Jewish people don’t just need Palestine,” she says. “We need each other.”
Darrow grants her leave, and Abby spends an afternoon with the old timer. He charms her, and everything seems to be going great until he reveals his true motivation. He knows somehow that Charlie is working on a weapon, and he wants to sell whatever tech he’s developing to the new Jewish state that will form in the aftermath of the war.
Before saying goodbye, Abby gives Mr. Isaacs a check. He considers it a good start on their budding arms business, but she says it’s not for that — it’s to get him to stay away from them. Here’s where the good-time charmer departs and the snarling crook emerges.
“I bet your family’s been paying people off for generations,” he says. “You think you know the man you’re married to? Think about that the next time you’re sitting across from your husband at the dinner table. If I was you, I wouldn’t believe anything he says!”
He bellows these final words as her car swerves around him on its way back to the Hill.
NEXT: How did Charlie miss it?
Out in the desert, Frank questions whether Charlie checked all the detonators, made sure to use 32 of them, and had the positive and negative connectors aligned properly. “Yellow to red, I’m not colorblind,” Charlie says.
They go through a number of increasingly unlikely scenarios, from moisture in the cork lining to a rogue, undetected lightning strike.
During an intimate conversation about how the project has “turned around” Charlie’s sense of right and wrong, Frank has his eureka moment. “It was turned around!”
What if someone made a mistake on the detonators and mislabeled the positive and negative connectors? Before offering this solution, Frank gets Charlie’s commitment that he will serve on the target committee. He wants Charlie to convince them to demonstrate the bomb on an uninhabited island — a warning shot that will force Japan to surrender without killings tens of thousands of civilians.
Frank tells him about the mislabeled detonators. It’s a solution so simple, Charlie can barely believe he missed it.
“You did the right thing,” Charlie says.
“I know you will, too,” Frank answers.
After a shared glance with Liza, Frank (now in his civilian clothes) stops by to visit Lazar (Peter Stormare), the ordnance supervisor. “How long did it take him to figure it out?” Lazar asks.
“He didn’t,” Frank says, paying off a bet with an old friend by handing him a bag of tobacco. “I had to feed him the answer.”
On a shelf nearby are the same kind of detonators Lazar deliberately mislabeled.