Manhattan Review: "Overlord"

(Episode 2.04)

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<i>Manhattan</i> Review: "Overlord"

After last week’s phenomenal entry, “Overlord” pushes Manhattan’s characters further down the proverbial rabbit hole. Whereas “The Threshold” found the show’s characters struggling to do the right thing (even if it resulted in them being punished in return), “Overlord” makes it clear that, in this game of bombs and lies, it’s no more Mister Nice Guy.

As the episode opens, Oppenheimer is in San Francisco knocking boots with his Communist-minded mistress, Jean Tatlock (Fiona Dourif), leaving Charlie Isaacs overwhelmed in his boss’ place. Abby has heard it through his wife’s own admission that Oppenheimer plans not only to leave his marriage, but his position on the Manhattan Project as well. Abby argues that this is Charlie’s chance to take over the project, a job he has no desire to take, as he has zero patience for the type of red-tape wrangling that Oppenheimer excels at. This is made heavily apparent in one of the opening scenes. When he’s unable to get a local judge to agree to a land acquisition for the bomb testing, Charlie angrily tells the man to wipe his ass with the papers (which, it should be noted, the judge actually does and sends back to him). Charlie knows Oppenheimer, despite his determination to wash his hands of the bloodshed both present and future that comes with building a bomb, is the country’s best chance for winning a war.

For his part, Charlie tries to appeal to his higher-ups to get Oppenheimer to stay. He even tries to talk directly to the man himself. However, it becomes clear that Jean and her tales of nuclear aggression have taken hold of him. Ultimately, the show once again demonstrates that sometimes the dirtiest tactics are the most efficient. Posing as a survey taker from a women’s magazine, Abby calls Jean at her San Francisco home. When Jean eventually realizes that her questions are far too personal to be coming from something so innocuous, Abby switches tactics and, taking on the role of Kitty, tells Jean that Oppenheimer has one child and another on the way. If Jean continues, she will be breaking up a family. Devastated, Jean hangs up and the police later discover her dead, having apparently drowned herself in a bathtub. This image of Jean with her head in the bathtub is all the eerier, considering that the opening teaser scene found her forcing Oppenheimer to playfully push her under the water of the exact same tub.

Besides destroying the source of Oppenheimer’s doubts, this plot turn also brings about yet another major example of the show’s fictional world dovetailing with actual history. Last week posited that the Manhattan Project came about because Frank Winter had a pow-wow with Albert Einstein. This week, meanwhile, positions Jean Tatlock’s suicide (yes, she was a real person) as being directly motivated by Abby’s phone call. In reality, Tatlock’s suicide was most likely a result of her intense depressions, though none of us can ever know such a thing for certain. In the end, based on Oppenheimer’s own biographies, it’s not out of the realm of possibility that her suicide would be related to their relationship. And what is history, in the end, if not smarter men than I attempting to structure together events, dates and people into its own kind of larger narrative.

Outside of Los Alamos, the episode features the reunion of Frank and Liza. Unfortunately, their exuberant reconciliation is severely undermined when Frank announces that he wishes to return to Los Alamos in order to unveil the lies that the government is manufacturing to keep them working (indeed, despite the success of D-Day, the higher-ups continue to insist that Hitler plans on accelerating his bomb plans). Having had to literally involve Eleanor Roosevelt to get him freed, Liza is none too eager to go immediately back into that forbidden place. Frank extends a potential compromise—she doesn’t have to follow him and is free to return to Princeton if she pleases. While this at first seems to signify him making up for dragging Liza to Los Alamos against her will in the first place, this choice is not without its manipulative edge. Of course, Liza is not one to back down and abandon her husband in his mission. Indeed, though Frank is no doubt thankful for his wife’s various string-pulling, it doesn’t mean that he’s able to let go of his obsessive nature. After spending most of last week demonstrating how much these two would do for one another, this turn presents an unavoidable shock of reality into their relationship.

“Overlord” continues Manhattan‘s dramatic slow-burn, leading up to the historical detonation of the first atomic bomb. Appropriately enough, until that time, the show’s creative team has filled their universe with characters who, with each passing episode, seem closer and closer to some sort of personal explosion. Judging from what the show has set up thusfar, it will be a glorious explosion indeed.

Mark Rozeman is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow him on Twitter.