At this point it’s clear that Manhattan is not a show with very high stakes. I’ve written in previous weeks about rising death tolls and some vague sense of competing scientists working for the Nazis on the other side of Atlantic. But Manhattan is by no means a ‘race’ in a classic dramatic sense. Nor does it have much to do with war. Although WWII is an important thematic backdrop, there are no political chess games or fraternal bonds developed on the front-lines. So what, then, might this show actually be about?
Over the last several weeks we’ve been given clues, but after four episodes it has finally become clear what Manhattan is essentially about: isolation and confinement. Or perhaps more appropriately: characters and how they react to the extreme conditions of isolation and confinement. The “artificial hive” metaphor posed in last week’s episode is precisely what allows us to dig deep into the complex psychologies of these otherwise mundane personages. And despite a slew of secondary characters vying for their moment in the spotlight, it is clear that the star of this show is John Benjamin Hickey’s Frank Winter.
It can be said that Frank Winter is a bit of a crotchety asshole. He works his team to death without the slightest glimmer of humanity, he verbally abuses and steamrolls people into doing his bidding and seems to make no apologies whatsoever for his antisocial attitude. In truth, he’s been hard to sympathize with. While his frustrated wife Liza, played by Olivia Williams, virtually begs for compassion with her storyline of deferred dreams sacrificed for the professional advancement of her husband — and the good of the world — Frank hasn’t done much to earn our pity.
Yet there is something intriguing about a man so recklessly single-minded, and we aren’t the only ones to be inadvertently drawn in. Like Colonel Cox in previous episodes, and the snide Brit Harry Lloyd in “The Last Reasoning of Kings”, we somehow can’t resist following along with his quixotic pursuit of scientific discovery. And this week the writers have been so kind as to give us a window into the madness that drives the man.
Through a series of flashbacks that, for better or for worse, betray the series’ budgetary limitations, we see a baby-faced Frank Winter in the trenches of WWI digging through the pockets of dead bodies before returning to base to find his whole company killed by mustard gas. Frank Winter, it turns out, is the mid-century equivalent of a post-traumatic Vietnam vet, and indeed, he nearly falls into cliché when he draws a gun on Harry Lloyd and lectures him about how there’s “no comfort in battle”.
The exchange itself is a bit uncomfortable, but in the end Harry Lloyd inexplicably turns around and lends him a helping hand by stealing a fresh set of detonators for another field test. The writers seem to assume that we, like Harry Lloyd, will continue giving the benefit of the doubt to this dark, unsympathetic and deeply complex creation of theirs. On the cusp of Manhattan’s fifth episode, I’m not entirely convinced of that myself.