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John Benjamin Hickey on Atomic Science… and Onions?

It’s the dawning of a new age. Sure, you could say that about now—hello, Mr. Robot—but what we’re seeing today started back in the 1940s with The Manhattan Project and the birth of nuclear war. And during the second season of WGN America’s Manhattan, the project’s biggest champion, Frank Winter (John Benjamin Hickey) has had a bit of a revelation on the dangers and downfalls of creating a nuclear bomb (crazy, right?). So we spent a few minutes chatting with Hickey over the phone about the show’s historical science fiction, comparisons to E.L. Doctorow, and why Frank is totally an onion.

Nerdist: What’s happening this season with Frank is fascinating—he’s having this enlightenment about the project he used to believe in so fervently.

John Benjamin Hickey: Totally. To see what [creator/showrunner] Sam Shaw did with all of the characters this season—he ratcheted up the already incredible suspense of the race to build this bomb and what he was able to do with them. In Frank’s case, because they’re fictional characters, Sam’s able to draw these wonderful parallels to the way that we are now. Frank, who was the biggest cheerleader for the creation of this implosion project in the first season, because of what happens to him at the end of the first season and the beginning of the second season, he has this enlightenment and awakening to the kind of moral quagmire the future of this genie-out-of-the-bottle situation will be. He tries to put the breaks on it but realizes all too quickly that the—and I’m going to mix my metaphors here—train has left the station. It has so left the station and there’s no stopping it. It’s terrifying for him to be put in a position where the blinders are coming off, seeing the future, and it not being pretty.

He’s becoming a sort of Cassandra [from Greek mythology], trying to sound an alarm but the people who are listening have no interest in what he has to say. But I think that’s what’s so wonderful about the fact that Manhattan is not a historical docu-drama, it’s historical science fiction—at least we like to refer to it as such. Because of that Sam’s able to create this sort of character that both embodies what we were there for—and all the right reasons we were there—and all of what we know now. All of what we are now was born in this time and place and it changed the world, in many ways, for the worse. And Frank is the personification of seeing the future—its basically a 180 from last season.

Nerdist: It’s both heartbreaking and humanizing to see Frank come to the realization we as the audience already have, thanks to hindsight.

JBH: There’s a magnificent documentary that so many of us on the show use as our touchstone for the world that we’ve created on the show. It’s called The Day After Trinity. Orson Welles narrates it, and it’s absolutely brilliant and devastating—you can find it on YouTube! It’s so mesmerizing because it interviews most of the icons. Oppenheimer was already dead, but his brother was alive and well. What you see—and feel so palpably—is the sense of moral conundrum that existed in this time and place, their awakening as to what they were letting out of the bottle, and their heartbreak over that to which they gave birth. Here are these men and women who were born to write physics on a grand scale. They were born to do this. But this thing they were doing, it started out with the purest of motives—what purer motive is there than to bring Hitler to his knees? To destroy the Axis?—but all too quickly they became aware of what it could be used as in different ways. That conundrum, that heartbreak over realizing the thing that could save the planet could also destroy it.

john benjamin hickey

Nerdist: But there’s also a lot of social dynamics and resonance to the situation that we see so differently now.

JBH: Somebody smarter than I said that it’s a show about creating an atomic chain reaction. Inside this universe, where they’re literally creating it, the atomic reaction is also happening to them. There’s this ripple effect of what they’re doing that weighs on them and everything that’s happened since we gave birth to atomic weaponry because it happened in this time and place. You see parallels to Guantanamo Bay; to the kind of government surveillance that we’re all too keenly aware of now—all of this stuff. I’ve compared it to, and this always makes Sam Shaw blush, but it reminds me of [E.L.] Doctorow. Even though Frank’s a fictional character, he’s able to create and draw allegory out of these stories that happened in a real moment in our nation’s history.

Nerdist: I think those parallels are most affecting in the Liza and Frank relationship. It takes the vulnerability of a project like this and makes it relatable.

JBH: I’ve always contended—since our season finale last year, when Frank throws himself under the bus—I always saw it as this great act of love on his part because he tells his wife the secret, which I think in Frank’s mind means they’ll now have to use her. She’ll no longer be on the outside, because the outside for her means insanity. And I think unfortunately, you start seeing this season that Frank is this remarkable combination of brilliance and naiveté. I think he was naive as to what the army would do with her. But I think he tells her [about the project] in the final episode as a way to bring her inside and bring her close. But of course it doesn’t work out this way.

There are so many ways that onion can be peeled and looked at, though. It’s like a Chinese puzzle. In one way it’s Frank saving himself because he’s got that self-serving side, saving the project because he believes so much in it, and the only way it’s going to move forward is with Charlie Isaacs at the helm because he screwed the pooch on it so badly, and he also needs to take the fall for what’s gone down. Because when the science and the physics, and all the compartmentalization becomes too complicated? It’s sort of like when you injure your right leg: you favor your left leg.

Nerdist: So how does this evolve for Frank? Especially as we’re starting to see the fallible human aspects behind these big icons.

JBH: One of the most interesting things you’ll see in the next few weeks is how Frank—who’s basically been thrown off campus in a manner of speaking, has been exiled and imprisoned literally—finds his way back into the center. It’s fascinating and labyrinthian; it’s a Kafka-esque journey back in for him. Because he has to, in his mind, get back into the center of the project in order for it to succeed. And how he manages to do that is really interesting to watch unfold, being one of the only voices of enlightenment. I wanted to say reason but Frank is a remarkably unreasonable man. One of the movies I watched this season was Norma Rae because it becomes a rallying cry for the scientists to get together and basically unionize: in order for us to continue doing this we need some say in how it was used. Because not only does Frank see that it’s not probably going to be used how he thought it would be used, he also sees that they have absolutely no interest in what these men and women have to say about how it’s being used. They just want it done and that infuriates him. He tries to start to get everyone on the same page which is next to impossible as well.

N: Sounds precarious!

JBH: So precarious! Just when you think Frank has been in enough trouble, just wait for this week—it gets deeper and deeper. But it was an atomic chain reaction in and of itself; it was a never-ending series of reactions to things that were happening there. And what an amazing ethical moment in our nation’s—in our world’s—history! It really was the birthplace of the modern world.

Manhattan airs Tuesdays at 9 p.m. on WGN America. Are you watching the show? Let us know in the comments.

Image Credit: WGN America

Alicia Lutes is the Managing Editor of The Nerdist. Find her obsessing about the state of worldwide warfare—it’s BLEAK, y’all!—on Twitter (@alicialutes).

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