Manhattan: A Viewers’ Guide

When Manhattan begins, in 1943, World War II is at its gruesome height. The conflict has embroiled 61 countries on four continents, and there have been more than 40 million casualties. The United States and its allies are making slow progress in their fights against the Germans and Japanese armies, and the U.S. and the Germans are racing to create the world’s first atomic bomb. When completed, it will be the most destructive weapon in history. The U.S. effort, code named “The Manhattan Project”, employs some 130,000 people at sites nationwide, most of whom have no idea what they’re really working on.  Moreover, the Army is obsessed with keeping the Project secret; workers are forbidden to discuss their work amongst each other or with their spouses. The Vice President doesn’t even know the project exists. (God knows what they’d have done in a Twitter-ized world.)

Manhattan’s characters work at Project Site Y in New Mexico on “The Hill” – the dusty desert plateau we now know as Los Alamos. They’ve come from all over the world, many with families in tow, to work long hours under intense pressure and live behind barbed wire in sometimes shoddy, Army camp-like conditions. It’s a family-workplace-academic-historical drama, all in one. Betrayals, politics, passions, and characters struggles with love and despair drive the action amidst their desperate quest to create the first atomic bomb.

Do the ends justify the means? That’s the question really driving Manhattan, in big and small ways. To win the war, must they build and drop this bomb on civilians? Manhattan’s stories mainly center on an incredible cast of characters’ personal dramas. Of course, history and science buffs will love the show’s attention to detail, and the writers deserve boatloads of credit, because any science necessary to the story is tended to simply and, even, elegantly. And even if you’re not a science nerd, there’s a lot to love here. Manhattan’s entire cast is brilliant and eminently watchable.

Who’s Who on the Hill

Frank Winter, our grizzled protagonist (John Benjamin Hickey) is a genius of a physicist with horrible social skills, haunted by his stint in World War I, and a master compartmentalizer. Frank deeply cares for his wife and daughter, but his marriage has seen better days. He leads the Project’s implosion team, the Army’s backup plan to their favored design, “Thin Man”.

Liza Winter (Olivia Williams) is a brilliant scientist who had to give up her tenure-track job at Princeton to come to the Hill with her husband Frank. She doesn’t know why they’re actually there, she’s bored to tears, and she’s butting heads with the Army constantly owing to the strict rules everyone, including civilians, must follow. Liza’s also dealing with mental illness, and these circumstances aren’t exactly helpful.

Charlie Isaacs (Ash Zukerman) is the wunderkind brought on board to solve the problems no one else on his team can. Naturally, he and Frank are at odds from moment one. Charlie is literally sick about the moral implications of what they’re building, not unlike some scientists from the real Manhattan Project. In Season One, he’s the deputy director of the “Thin Man” project team.

Abby Isaacs (Rachel Brosnahan, also an Emmy nominee from House of Cards) is a picture-perfect young housewife from an old-money Jewish family in Massachusetts. While Charlie’s off working 80 hours a week, she falls for her neighbor, Elodie. Their affair propels Abby to question her marriage (and herself), whose strings have been pulled at by the Hill’s secrecy – and Frank Winter.

Glen Babbitt (Daniel Stern) is Frank’s mentor and a go-between to Robert Oppenheimer’s office. Babbitt’s been around the block and, other than Liza, is the only person who can tell Frank to shove it when necessary.

Paul Crosley (Harry Lloyd), Helen Prins (Katja Herbers), Jim Meeks (Christopher Denham), and “Fritz” Fedowitz (Michael Chernus) are Team Implosion, Frank’s handpicked group of underdog scientists who love, fear, and follow him. The Army’s scary G2 security men lurk around all of their lives and work; of that creepy cohort, the one we’ll come to know and fear most is Occam (The West Wing’s Richard Schiff).

These characters’ world has lost its innocence in a crisis so horrific, and a war so brutal, that ending it by any means necessary feels justifiable to many. To that end, they all have to live and work behind barbed wire amidst nebulous security requirements. We know how part of this story ends: the U.S. builds and sets off the first three atomic bombs – at the Trinity test site, Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But the more complicated world that you and I live in was born with those bombs, so we’re still grappling with them today. Welcome to the military industrial complex, Gitmo, the NSA collecting data everywhere we go, and Edward Snowden. Manhattan is the story of how that world began.


Here’s the episode-by-episode rundown and high points of Season One. I’m not going to completely spoil things for you, just suggest what makes each episode so marvelous and wonderful and worth your binge-y time. Because they all are. So get thee to Hulu.

Episode 1, “Pilot”

The setup, obviously. Frank tries to keep his engaging bunch of underdogs from getting shut down, and he’s not above using one of them to do it. Charlie and Abby arrive on the Hill and discover that this isn’t “Harvard with sand” and adjust to life without reliable electricity. Oppenheimer commits to backing “Thin Man”, as he “believes the world is on fire, and Thin Man is our chance to put it out.”

Episode 2: “The Prisoner’s Dilemma”

In which Sid Lao, a beloved member of Frank’s implosion team, is shot while trying to escape after the G2 security office investigates him for suspected treason. Abby adjusts to life on the Hill and briefly makes a new friend in Liza, but their bristling husbands spoil a dinner party. Charlie continues to be deeply conflicted about the implications of the bomb they’re building for the civilians who’ll be killed by it.

Episode 3, “The Hive”

Here’s where the show finds its legs. New security rules make the scientists’ work more difficult, sending Frank on a mission requiring his nonexistent diplomatic skills. Liza studies local honeybees, the implosion team grapples with the murder of one of their own, and Paul Crosley surprises us in a quietly powerful ending.

Episode 4, “Last Reasoning of Kings”

Niels Bohr, also known as “God” to the adoring physicists on the Hill, visits the scientists to give a morale boost, and the one he does the most for is Dr. Liza Winter, who’s been idle, listless and depressed. Charlie gets a look at the implosion team’s work and is intrigued. Frank and Paul are marooned in the desert with a broken down car and heavy camera; during their walk home in the dark, we flash back with Frank to his trench service in World War I.

Episode 5, “A New Approach to Nuclear Cosmology”

No good deed of Glen’s goes unpunished, as a petulant Charlie accidentally outs him as a Communist – earning him a trip to the hot seat with G2. Of course, Glen isn’t one; he is, however, gay, a revelation to Frank, and we see the first fissures in his relationship with his longtime mentor.

Episode 6: “Acceptable Limits”

Charlie and Helen take a field trip to another Manhattan Project site in Tennessee, where they discover a mutual attraction. Sparks are flying, too, for Abby – with her neighbor Elodie. After Fritz accidentally ingests some plutonium (don’t ask), Frank discovers the Hill’s radiation monitoring program is, well, not real. Liza keeps finding more clues that hint at a big scientific mystery.

Episode 7: “The New World”

In Tennessee, Helen and Charlie help avert a dangerous crisis at the Oak Ridge site, with the help of another brilliant and underutilized scientist there. Abby’s still fretting over their work trip, of course, but it just leads her closer to Elodie. Frank and Liza help Paloma’s family have a traditional funeral ceremony for her brother, who’s been killed in the Pacific. And things get a whole lotta awkward in Paloma’s cabin, which Liza comments is “just Frank’s kind of place”. Oh, Liza.

Episode 8, “The Second Coming”

Abby sneaks off base for a secret visit with her parents, traveling through Santa Fe on a train, and all goes well until she’s busted by security…and tries to get out of trouble with the Army by claiming distress over her missing Jewish relatives in Europe. But an Army officer trying to be helpful brings her intelligence photographs that force her to confront the reality of the Holocaust. She implores Charlie to do something, anything to help. Turns out, that ultimately leads him to go, hat in hand, to see Frank. Glen helps Liza get a security clearance, discovering a secret of hers along the way, by blackmailing someone else with one.

Episode 9, “Spooky Action at a Distance”

Frank’s affair with Paloma is going to come out…unless he can provide a truck. Lucky for him, his new pal, the Army’s prickly, amazing Russian weapons expert (played by Peter Stormare!) can help. Liza finally gets a job, but she doesn’t like what she sees when she takes a Geiger counter for a spin around the Hill’s hospital nursery. Charlie poaches Helen for Thin Man’s team, really to help him get a ton of math done for Frank without anyone noticing.

Episode 10, “ The Understudy”

Sid Liao’s widow, Annie, comes to town demanding answers about her husband’s death from Occam, the Army’s scary interrogator (Richard Schiff). Frank and Charlie join forces with Lazar, and amazing repartee (and science!) ensues. Liza tries to show Frank the terrifying levels of radiation she’s found on every surface of their home, but as he, and we, can see, the Geiger counter isn’t, um, counting. Fortunately, she’s got some psych meds handy. Unfortunately, this probably means no one’s going to take her warning seriously.

Episode 11, “Tangier”

Charlie needs to make it look like his rival Tom Lancefield is stealing secrets from the Hill, rather than exposing himself and Frank as collaborators. He thinks that Abby is just great friends with Tom’s wife, Elodie (oh, Charlie) so asks her to plant some papers beneath the Lancefields’ floorboards. Of course, Abby’s been daydreaming about stealing away for good with Elodie – so this couldn’t have come at a worse time, really.

Episode 12, “The Gun Model”

Season One’s penultimate episode is a whopper, with another death we don’t see coming. It also features a rare moment of triumph for Liza and some downright wily maneuvering by Glen on behalf of implosion. Frank and Charlie’s worlds are giving way beneath their feet.

Episode 13, “Perestroika”

The finale. Charlie’s brought in for questioning by G2 and thinks his very life may end, only to be thrust into a position he never saw coming. Frank does either the most selfish or selfless thing he’s done all season, depending on your perspective, in a stunning scene with Liza. He thinks he’s protecting his family and the project – but will Liza and the U.S. Army agree?

That extra-long and explosive finale left us hanging on a few fronts, with lots of questions we’re looking for answers to in Season Two. Here be huge spoilers, folks.

  1. Is Frank alive? In jail, and under whose authority? Is he going to lie some more to get himself out of mortal danger? Knowing Frank, anything is possible. What seemed a great idea – setting Charlie up to take over and sacrificing himself – may not seem so clever the next morning.
  2. Will Liza stay with him? Is she alright? What will she do with herself, now that she’s been elected to the local government? Methinks the Army’s got itself a new problem there.
  3. Is G2 going to catch Meeks, the brilliantly-named spy? And who’s he working with, anyway? The Soviets?
  4. How are Charlie and Abby going to navigate coming to the brink of divorce only to, (presumably) stay together as one of the most powerful couples on The Hill?