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MANHATTAN Post-Mortem: You Really Should’ve Watched Season One, and Here’s Why

It’s a new approach — not just to nuclear cosmology, but to television storytelling in general. We are of course referencing the WGN America show, Manhattan, which wrapped up its first season on Sunday night with a truly bangarang lil episode. And now that the series has been renewed for a second season, we’re here to rundown what happened in the finale, why the show’s so good, and tell you that you should — nay, need! — to binge this series ASAP. Toute de suite! With haste! Right now.

For those unaware, a quickie intro: created by Sam Shaw, Manhattan tells the story of the two opposing teams of nuclear physicists and the families that make up Los Alamos, New Mexico — the home of the infamous Manhattan Project of the 1940s. Tasked with creating the bomb to “end all wars” as the characters so often put it, Frank Winter (John Benjamin Hickey) and his motley crew of second-string geniuses must fight and scrape to get even an iota of respect the Main Event/A-Team gets, run by Reed Akley (David Harbour). But once new kind in town and the brain-to-trump-all-brains, Charlie Isaacs (Ash Zukerman) comes to town, everything, well, kinda-sorta implodes. In a good way!

You see the drama exists on several planes — not just on a purely scientific level. Because just like the atomic bomb, The Hill (a/k/a the home of this experiment) is an unstable gaggle of diametrically opposed elements. Those elements are, of course, the people involved. Simply by dropping this one, new, skeptical, brilliant being into the center of it all sends everything else flying into chaos. The science is both the story and a mirror for the people involved in and around it.

(This next bit contains season one spoilers, including the finale — if you’re hoping to avoid them skip ahead to the next photo.)

The season finale proved no different. After working together to try and save the entire program, Charlie and Frank are torn asunder by an even bigger bang: the suicide of Reed Akley. After his revelation that he brought Charlie into the program to fix Thin-Man, knowing full-well that the gadget was inoperable but still going along with the program as if it could, Reed took his own life. This, coupled with the perma-paranoia of shadow-y interrogation man (played by Richard Schiff), throws Charlie into a veritable shitstorm. He’s a spy, Schiff’s Occam insists — trading secrets with the Germans! And his narrative works, given the deception and blatant disregard for compartmentalization that Charlie has exhibited by secretly teaming up with Frank to prove the Implosion Model is the only way forward.

And that’s just on the technical side of things. The incredibly rich homelife of these families — and the affects this sort of über-secret work coupled with highly restrictive home environs has on folks — is explored through the women and soldiers (all out of the loop on what’s happening — heck, no one even knows they’re building a bomb!) that must exist in this world unaware of the deeds being done in the Tech area. Relationships, secrecy, lies, race, sexuality, sacrifices, love: all of this is examined with equal interest to what the boys are doing at the metaphorical Big Kids Desk. There is no such thing as a throwaway scene or even line of dialogue on this show. It’s just that good.

At the end of the finale, no one’s fates are truly certain: not Frank’s — who manipulates the government’s spy tactics to, for once, do something that doesn’t look self-serving and ultimately saves Charlie’s life — or his wife Liza (played by the indomitable Olivia Williams), or Charlie’s, or his wife Abby (Rachel Brosnahan), or any of the other members of the Implosion team. That includes the plutonium-ingesting (woops!) Fritz (OITNB‘s Michael Chernus), the lovesick Paul Crosley (Game of Thrones‘ Harry Lloyd), or the impressively adaptable Helen (Katja Herbers).

And of course, we cannot forget the biggest, most shocking reveal of all: that of the mole. Did anyone see that coming? The reveal that — of all people — Jim Meeks (Christopher Denham) is the spy trading American secrets with the Germans? The whole season the show led us to believe that it was likely someone else, perhaps Glen Babbit (Daniel Stern) or Helen, was the one doing the dirty work. But Meeks?! Kindly, totally meek Meeks? It was a twist we didn’t anticipate — which we all know are the best sort of TV twists.

(OK, THE SPOILERS ARE OVER! You can return to reading again.)

But on top of that, it’s just a damn refined show. On the flip side of all that meaty and delicious scripted drama, the show runs on all cylinders — from set design to lighting to artistic direction. All of which is beautifully directed by Thomas Schlamme (the man who invented the Aaron Sorkin walk-and-talk, in addition to just generally being a boss auteur type). Indeed, the visuals of The Hill pop against their desert landscape, colors breaking through and highlighting the story’s delicate beauty, hopeful spirit, and devastating losses.

All of this is tied together by the brilliantly haunting score done by Jónsi & Alex (the former of which you may know as the front man of popular Icelandic band Sigur Ros). Combined and mixed into the perfect little television package, these elements weave an image electric: our past of hopeful optimism in the face of a second worldwide war, brimming with genius and potential, and truly pushing the limits of human capabilities.

All of this lends to a well-crafted, slow build of intensity and contemplation — with an interesting juxtaposition for all of us that live in the future and know that, spoiler alert, the atomic bomb did not end all wars. But it did change the world, for better or for worse. All of which makes Manhattan truly excellent television. A worthy binge-watch (which you can find on Hulu Plus or iTunes or Amazon) if ever there was one.

Have you been watching Manhattan? What’d you think of the finale? Let’s discuss in the comments!

Images: WGN America

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  1. Michael says:

    Great series. Too bad it’s hidden on WGN. I gotta believe that other, higher profile (AMC?) passed on it. BIG MISTAKE.   Ready for season 2!

  2. Ryley says:

    I loved Season 1. I was so pumped to see you guys taking up the banner to support it too. I will definitely be ready for Season 2 as soon as it is out. Everybody should be watching this show right now, for sure!