We’ve seen World War II from the battleground, from the political arena, from the concentration camps as well as the towns and cities across the world that saw their lives turned upside down by widespread destruction and death. It’s like an American myth-of-origins hashed and rehashed over the years in a sort of ritualistic invocation: the story of how an adolescent nation came into glory by saving an old world that had all but destroyed itself, defending humanist ideals of freedom and individual liberty in the face of totalitarian encroachment.
It is also a nation that brought the world Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo Bay, CIA wiretaps and drone strikes; a nation that makes it harder and harder to believe in its grandiose myths of moral superiority and rugged self-reliance as it wears away at its own purported ideals. And so as a people we are left with a nagging cynicism, a void in which any claims to moral high ground are met with a deep-rooted skepticism and mistrust.
In a way, it seems only fitting to return to this very myth of origins, stripped of its glory and triumphalist discourse, to begin to question and reevaluate what exactly it means to be American in the 21st century.
Indeed, it seems Manhattan is aiming for its place in the pantheon of modern television, and few can deny that it has all of the trappings of a cultural phenomenon. Yet, despite its lofty ambitions, high-concepts and atmospheric cinematic aesthetic, the series still faces a fundamental test before entering the rarefied sphere of Mad Men or Breaking Bad: how will they make the lives of a couple of laboratory scientists interesting enough to keep us coming back season after season?
So far, all the pieces seem to be in place: there are secrets, competing egos, family dramas, secretive government agents, rising death tolls and more moody, brooding characters than you can shake a stick at (and did I mention secrets?). But, let’s be honest, while not being apportioned a few micrograms of plutonium may be an earth-shattering event for Frank Winter, it’s no invasion of Normandy. For this television experiment to work out in their favor, the writers will have to bet their beakers and hotplates on the depth and complexity of their characters as they wrestle with the moral implications of opening pandora’s box.
In episode two, we are offered a glimpse into the mind and heart of Frank Winter. At first sight, he is surly, disagreeable and, dare I say, a bit of an asshole; but we sense a deeper conviction guiding the man and stand in awe of his strength of character. He is haunted by his own ethical choices, something the writers bring into sharp focus as he struggles desperately to rectify his “horse-trade” of fellow scientist Sid Liao in return for the continued support of the US Army, but one senses a deeper secret driving the man’s single-minded pursuit.
For episode three, we can only hope the writers allow novice scientist Glen Babbit to step into the light and have his moment on the stage. Remember, this is a marathon, not a sprint.