“Manhattan,” a period drama set in Los Alamos, N.M., where a team of some of America’s brightest minds scramble furtively to build the world’s first atomic bomb, may be one of the most underrated shows on television. While America has always been captivated by its government’s transparency and technological advancement, this show arrives in a day and age in which this subject matter has become ubiquitous in the news and in the daily lives of American citizens. Going back in time to encapsulate the lives of the elite few who held the secret to what would be the conclusion of World War II and change military warfare forever, the show provides insight into the turmoil that plagued the process and lives of those involved. The key source to this turmoil — secrecy.
To say “Manhattan” ’s season two premiere is mired with drama would be an understatement. Though season one was criticized with being slow to start, it ultimately found its footing in exploiting the drama surrounding the personal lives of the people tasked with covertly building the world’s first atomic bomb. And what could be more dramatic than building a military weapon that could wipe out entire cities of people without knowing it or without being able to tell your family? The personal lives of the people creating it, of course. In the season one finale, not one, but two affairs were revealed — within the same marriage, no less. Though it seemed unlikely that the show could outdo the excitement churned out in the last finale, this episode stepped up to the task and took a bold leap forward … by 15 months. The episode begins with the date — July 6, 1945 — just 21 days before Hiroshima. Perhaps the most suspenseful aspect of the show is that everyone but the characters know how it’s going to end; and with time ticking away, the characters get closer and closer to finding out what we already know.
With Frank Winter (John Benjamin Hickey, “Flags of Our Fathers”) gone after inexplicably incriminating himself in the breach of compartmentalization — rather than letting Charlie Isaacs (Ashley Zukerman, “Blame”) take the fall which had been neatly set up for him to take — Charlie is left to lead the implosion program. The narrative jumps back and forth between where the previous season left off and just weeks before the completion of the project. Though the time jumps can be slightly confusing, this is an important narrative device that redirects the show’s focus on Charlie, who takes on the role of the new head of the project. Like a substitute teacher taking on an unruly high school class, he is completely unprepared. His superiors also lack confidence in him, and it is with total cynicism that Dr. Oppenheimer (Daniel London, “Minority Report”) instructs Charlie that, “Implosion is Frank’s baby. You’re going to have to deliver it.”
While Charlie is unable to comprehend his sudden promotion, Frank’s wife Liza (Olivia Williams, “The Sixth Sense”) doesn’t know where Frank is or why their belongings are being seized by military guards. This abrupt invasion into her home leaves her even more frustrated and at a greater loss for answers. It seems strange that the only two people concerned with Frank’s disappearance are his wife and colleague, yet it is illustrative of how accustomed the military team and their families at Los Alamos have become to the secrecy that has permeated their everyday lives and trapped their family members within the gates of the camp.
What’s more, the show has a knack for creating depth in its characters. The good guys aren’t necessarily who you think they’d be, and though this drama takes place in the 1940s, women are given a range of plot lines that are unexpected given the show’s era. When it starts to dawn on Liza that her husband may not be coming back, she takes matters into her own hands and tries to inconspicuously leave Los Alamos with her daughter (a difficult task when you’re living in a top secret government site where all comings and goings are closely monitored). Her plan is thwarted, however, by her daughter’s boyfriend, a surprising betrayal by a supporting character of little importance.
Despite the show’s best efforts, the season premiere appears to be nothing more than the aftermath of the figurative bombs dropped (pun intended) in the season one finale. Little new information is provided, which works both for and against the episode. We are left feeling confused, but this puts us in the shoes of the characters and heightens the feeling of foreboding for what’s to come next. Hopefully, the show will keep up the progress it has made over the course of this new season.