‘Manhattan’ explores the personal fallout of the atomic bomb
“Manhattan” is the story of how the atomic bomb was built. By itself, this is a fascinating subject and one that the series skillfully explores. But where the show really excels is in its portrayal of the Manhattan project’s psychological impact on both those who built a weapon of mass destruction in secret and the families who lived alongside them as they did it.
The action focuses on Frank Winter (John Benjamin Hickey), a brilliant scientist who prefers physics to people and Charlie Isaacs (Ashley Zukerman), a scientific protégé and the latest addition to the team. The winner of a prestigious prize, Charlie published a groundbreaking paper that was only rejected by one journal in the field, edited by Frank Winter. This dynamic establishes a tension between them but the real differences are how they approach the ethical dimensions of making a bomb more powerful than anything known at the time. Winter is obsessed with the number of lives his bomb design will save. Isaacs finds it hard to see beyond the numbers it will kill.
On the surface, the characters’ rationales are black and white: the bomb saves, the bomb kills. Winter sees the bomb as the catalyst to end war. Isaacs wonders: What about the next one? A lesser show would leave them that way. But “Manhattan” complicates Winter and Isaacs’ perspectives with a realistic mix of emotions. Fear, doubt, ambition, pride, righteousness, patriotism—all play a part in the bomb’s creation. Winter is single-minded but he’s not immune to the moral and ethical implications of his work. Unable to tell his wife what he’s doing, he quietly confesses his secrets to their Spanish speaking housekeeper while they sit in a car outside his home. Isaacs’ stress makes him physically ill. He fights his doubt by simplifying his participation with reasoning that is sure to unravel. He is there because he committed to being there.
Winter’s scene of bearing his soul to a woman who literally can’t understand him underlies one of the show’s main concerns: the power of secrets to destroy intimacy and create isolation among families. Winter and Isaacs’ wives, Liza (Olivia Williams) and Abby (Rachel Brosnahan) exist in an illusion, pretending that it’s normal to live in a home with no telephone, in a town with no address. They are married to men who will be forever changed and all they can do is watch it happen, never knowing why until it’s too late.
They are also part of the bomb’s creation without consent, an interesting idea (tied to secrets) that I hope the show explores in more detail. It would be a shame to relegate these women to scene after scene of imploring their husbands to share only to be continually rebuffed, particularly Liza (a PhD in her own right) who spends most of the first episode doing just that.
One of the striking lines of the series is: “In this war, the scientists are the soldiers”. It’s a thought-provoking idea that “Manhattan” promises to answer with strong performances and well-paced stories that don’t ignore the domestic fallout.
“Manhattan” is on Sundays at 10 p.m. EDT on WGN America.