Manhattan: A New Approach to Nuclear Cosmology Review

Manhattan explores the blurry line between lying and deceit in episode 5.

Manhattan continues being a show about secrets and lies.

It is the very premise of the famed Manhattan project upon which the show is based, as well as the town of Los Alamos, which in the series remains unnamed and shrouded in mystery. In fact, “A New Approach To Nuclear Cosmology” (an intentional, but nevertheless annoying mouthful of a title) hardly mentions the atomic bomb that has served as a pretext for Manhattan’s pointed exploration of blurred moral lines and deadly paranoia in times of war. It does, however, feature more deception than a drag-ball at the CIA headquarters. 

Indeed, “A New Approach…” is consciously provocative in asking when such deception might be necessary or morally appropriate: a conundrum that is dramatized in the revelation that Isaacs’ plagiarized a portion of the graduate thesis that won him such acclaim and recognition in his field. In addition to elucidating precisely why Winter has been so hostile to the young scientist, it poses a very clear but infinitely complex ethical quandary to the viewer: “Imagine you wrote a paper that opened every door in academia,” Isaacs asks, as if directly addressing the camera, “And it wasn’t a fluke, you had the goods to back it up–but you accidentally borrowed a piece of it… and nobody noticed. Would you come clean?” At which point Winter blinks neurotically and takes a deep drag on his cigarette before responding, “It doesn’t matter what I would do.” 

Very few among us could give a categorical answer to this question without at least taking a moment to contemplate. That’s because we are human, and ethics is not intrinsically bound to morality. While we might find it morally just to take a certain course of action, the ethical compass that guides social institutions such as work and family do not generally allow for gray area; and it is precisely this gray area that fascinates the team behind Manhattan.

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To further complicate things, Winter gives Isaacs the opportunity to make good on his ethical lapse by lying to the shadowy government security forces that lurk about the base like a menacing specter. In Winter’s characteristic style, the proposition is not so much an exhortation as a threat, but in this case it is clear (or as clear as anything can be in this universe) that what Winter is asking of Isaacs is absolutely the morally correct course of action: save the innocent scientist Glen Babbit from an anti-communist purge by lying about his affiliation with a defected American scientist. As he should, Isaacs ultimately acquiesces, but even this clearly justified deception begs the question: how far will the lying go?

Western ethical practice is structured around the concept of the slippery slope: each ethical lapse, however justified it may be, blurs the line between right and wrong and opens the door for a further degradation of ethical boundaries. This is why in an ethical universe things are often either black or white. And indeed, at the episode’s close we see Frank Winter making tender love to his cartoonish hispanic maid, and we see that in a universe where lying is simply another tool used to fulfill ones desires–whether justified or not–deception knows no bounds.

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4 out of 5