Manhattan season premiere 2 recap: Damnatio Memoriae
July 16, 1945
21 Days Till Hiroshima
We’re leaping forward in time from where season 1 of creator Sam Shaw’s atomic bomb drama left off to a rainy night in the desert where The Gadget is apparently fully formed and ready to test.
This would be Trinity, the real-life site of the first man-made atomic blast. But things aren’t going well. The storm means fallout could spread, a reporter (played by Griffin Dunne) is torturing him for metaphors about Promethean fire, and they’re not even sure what will happen when the trigger is pulled — or if what happens will stop.
Charlie Isaacs (played by Ashley Zukerman) is forging ahead as leader of the projects, obstacles be damned, and stands in the rain watching the ultimate weapon being hoisted aloft like Frankenstein’s monster, about to be brought to life.
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Cut to 15 months earlier: Charlie is reading Mein Kampf, probably for inspiration in finishing this weapon rather than for pleasure. Pleasure is waiting just to his right, as his fellow scientist Helen (Katja Herbers) reaches out to stroke his shoulder, her body wrapped only in a sheet.
Then we see his wife, Abby (Rachel Brosnahan), in a medical office, her feet in stirrups (being examined by a doctor with a cigarette dangling from his mouth.) Then the montage ends with Liza Winter (Olivia Williams) looking through notes left by her husband Frank (John Benjamin Hickey), who was last seen with a canvas bag over his head being driven away by security.
If you remember from last season, Frank was manipulating resources with Charlie to support the bomb project that will actually work. But what he’s been arrested for is deliberately revealing the nature of the project to his wife, taking the fall for the scheme so Charlie doesn’t have to.
On the soundtrack: Frank Sinatra crooning “This Is the Beginning of the End” with the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra. Wonder why they chose that.
J. Robert Oppenheimer (Daniel London) reveals that the government is auditing the project. The United States has spent millions of dollars and now wants results. Charlie is in charge of the new implosion initiative but isn’t sure he’s up for the job.
He confesses to Oppenheimer that he thinks he’s unqualified. “Where is Frank Winter?” he asks. “Implosion is Frank’s baby.”
“You’re going to have to deliver it,” Oppenheimer says.
NEXT PAGE: “Get down on your knees.”
Back at the Winter residence, Liza face two soldiers but tells them she hasn’t seen her husband in two days. They tell her he has been “transferred” — and she’s going to be, too. They’re coming back with boxes and plan to evict her.
In the offices, Paul Crosley (played by Harry Lloyd) examines one of Winter’s equations and notices that he worked the letters of his daughter’s name, Callie, into his math as the variables. Remember this for later …
Charlie doesn’t find many friends here when they find out he’ll be leading the implosion group. He starts searching for the one man who may know where Frank has been taken — the anonymous spy hunter played by Richard Schiff, who interrogated him last season.
Meanwhile, Charlie’s wife visits his mistress to ask for advice finding someone who can end a pregnancy. She tells Helen she had an affair. “Who’s the guy?” Helen asks. (Spoiler alert: It was a woman.)
“It’s Charlie’s,” Abby says, but Helen, who has previously had an abortion, doesn’t understand why she’d want to. But she let’s her know where to find a doctor anyway.
“I don’t regret it,” Helen says. “But you will.”
Back on The Hill after attending his “mother’s funeral” is Jim Meeks (played by Christopher Denham) who is alarmed to see military police going through his quarters. This troubles him because he’s a mole, working on behalf of the Soviets.
But…deep breath. Turns out they’re just moving his belongings. The whole hill is being reshuffled as priorities shift on the project.
Someone else is arriving at Los Alamos as well: a new character, Col. Emmett Darrow (played by William Petersen), the new military head of the project. The guy is stoic in the extreme, and when Crosley goes to him to get a signature for a transfer, he gets a lesson in discipline.
Darrow is disgusted that Crosley would want to leave the project over romantic entanglements: He and Isaacs both had a thing for Helen.
“Will you close the door please?” Darrow asks softly. Then: “Get down on your knees.”
He instructs Crosley to ask Jesus for forgiveness. His sin: “Weakness,” Darrow says. “God buried an atom under a million tons of rock so America could split it in two and redraw the maps of the world. And you want to run off…because some girl didn’t ask you to the prom?”
He drops the transfer in the trash.
NEXT PAGE: The hunt for Frank Winter…
Charlie’s not the only one searching for Frank Winter, Liza confronts Private Dunlavey (Jefferson White), her daughter’s illicit boyfriend, and forces him to take her to where she has run off. He sets up a trap, though, that snares both mother and daughter by the authorities that police The Hill. Her remote investigation is at an end.
“Sorry, ma’am,” the private says. “If you took her away, I’d never see her again.”
Back at Charlie’s office, one of the men he’s looking for finds him: Schiff’s X-4 spy hunter. “I am the reason you are sitting behind that desk instead of …”
“Where?” Charlie says. “Where is Frank Winter? You pack him off to wherever it was you were going to send me, to torture him?”
“He’s gone,” Schiff’s character says. “And he’s never coming back.”
Charlie takes this to mean Frank is dead. At this point, we have no idea. (Except, come on, we haven’t seen the last of John Benjamin Hickey on this show.)
“My name is Avram Fischer,” the mystery man says, leaving Charlie his telephone number. “Where are my manners — congratulations!”
“For surviving or adapting?” Charlie asks.
“For the baby,” Fischer says. “Mazel tov, to you. And your wife.”
Back home, Abby believes Helen told him. But he says, “I had to hear it from the angel of death.”
Charlie convinces her the pregnancy is a chance to fix things. He asks her not to leave him. “There’s a lunatic in Europe making orphans out of a thousand Jewish kids a day. You want two more to grow up without a father?”
Abby lights a cigarette.
“We can do better,” Charlie says. The child inside her doesn’t know what his parents have done wrong. “I can do better.”
It’s the first of two inspiring speeches Charlie will give in this episode.
“It feels like a girl,” Abby says.
NEXT PAGE: Liza confronts Col. Darrow …
Back at Los Alamos, Liza is trying to convince Col. Darrow to let her leave. “I can’t spill secrets I wasn’t entrusted with in the first place,” she says. “If you just let me go back to Princeton, you’ll never hear from me again.”
The colonel responds by quietly walking over to a table and pressing play on a reel-to-reel. It’s a recording of Frank telling her about the bomb that can wipe whole cities off the map.
“Your husband is at another site proving his loyalty to his country,” Darrow says. “You can help him by proving you can be a discreet, productive member of this community.”
Liza agrees, with a catch. “I may know what it is you’re building here. But my daughter does not.”
Sorry. No time for love, Private Dunlavey.
When Charlie’s turn comes to stand before his team of scientists, he begins by airing his conscience. Frank Winter is the brain behind this new, final push toward completing The Gadget. Oppenheimer watches from the balcony with concern.
“The implosion model exists because of Frank Winter. He was the crank in the wilderness rubbing two sticks together when no one else believed. He fed the spark, he fended off the wolves. He corrected his error. You should be listening to Frank right now…”
But before revealing that the military is willing to disappear anyone who pushes back against them, Charlie perpetuates the lie that Winter has been transferred.
Helen turns away, disgusted, but the other scientists are rapt.
“We’re going to build a working Gadget and drop it on Berlin,” he says. “On July 4, 1945, we’re going to put on the biggest fireworks show since the Book of Genesis.”
A working test in a year? Some scientists think it’s a bluff. Most are inspired.
As he talks, we see Meeks writing code for his Russian handlers, we see Abby looking through her new home — it’s the one the Winters occupied previously.
Meeks talks his way off The Hill to deliver details of the new project to his handlers. Fischer the spy hunter watches him go — and follows.
In the woods, Meeks buries his information in a dead-drop tin and heads back to the car, where Fischer confronts him. The game is up; the spy has been snared.
“Germans or Soviets?” Fischer says. “You are in a world of trouble from sea to shining sea. I am your only friend. So I advise you to think very carefully about your next answer: Frank Winter recruited you — who recruited Frank Winter?”
Meeks barely gets time to say, “What?” before his Russian handler loops a garrote through the window and chokes Fischer to death.
Fischer flails, pulling his revolver and firing blindly into the car, missing Meeks completely, but scarring him in ways that can’t be seen.
The episode ends with another flash forward: Meeks in the rain, the night of the test. He volunteers to climb the tower a double-check the detonators on The Gadget.
“It should be someone you trust,” Meeks tells Charlie.
Meanwhile, Col. Darrow visits the site. “If anyone sees Dr. Frank Winter on the premises, arrest him. If he resists, you have the authority to use all necessary force.”
The final shot: the Russian spy climbing the tower to gain private access to the world’s greatest weapon.