Hiding in plain sight: The big and small secrets on Manhattan

“This entire hill was built on secrets, Frank. They’re traded around like ration stamps” – Glen Babbit

This past week it was announced (or rather mentioned, “announced” being a word reserved for things that people actually care about) that the WGN show, Manhattan, had been cancelled. Its ratings were abysmal, it hardly even mustered enough to get it into the top 1,000 watched shows of 2015. This is doubly unfortunate because the show is competent and captivating and because I just started in on its windswept, sandy, sweaty first season. Manhattan is set in 1943 Los Alamos, New Mexico and surrounds an army compound where scientists are sciencing-up nuclear weapons. Yes, it is about the Manhattan Project but, generally speaking, the main characters in the show aren’t the actual historical major players, instead are the (fictional) underlings and unsung heroes, the grunts if you will, of the real-life events. As of this writing I’ve made my way through the majority of season one. The acting, writing and production put the show in the same company as any other prestige drama on TV but, for whatever reason – maybe the fact that it was on WGN and no one could find it? Maybe because it never engages in much in the way of anti-heroics, it’s characters rather just messy people, making a mess of their own lives and others – it never seemed to enter into the same conversations as the Mad Mens and Breaking Bads of the world.

At its centre, and the closest we get to an anti-hero (if we really want one), Manhattan stars John Benjamin Hickey as the forever frowning, grumpy-Gus, Frank Winter, the head of a rag-tag team of scientists working on implosion design and the nuclear bomb (Do I understand this? No. Does it matter? Heck no.) A lot of Manhattan surrounds the day-to-day work of the scientists on Frank’s team and the work that another, somewhat rival set of scientists are doing on the “Thin Man” nuclear bomb project. But the other half, maybe roughly more than half (and, I’d argue more fun, better half) surrounds the private lives of these scientists and their families. There is a real, unapologetic soapy through-line on the show and that soapiness is what makes it worth watching. The whole work/home divide is present in the show’s smart title sequence:

 

Damn. That’s tidy.

Frank’s wife, Liza (played by the always good and great Olivia Williams), is also a highly educated scientist but is unable to do any kind of rewarding work, having relocated to Los Alamos with her husband and teenage daughter, essentially forced to play housewife. Liza tries tirelessly in the first season to figure out a place for herself in this new environment, first harvesting bees (that all die, or are murdered) and then finding a job in the government hospital on the compound. Frank and Liza’s relationship is fraught, Frank having some kind of never-outright-stated affair with their maid (why the Winter’s even have a maid is perplexing, their house and all the houses in the compound so tiny). Whatever romance and spark existed between Frank and Eliza has long been extinguished in spite of their real respect for each other. Frank and Eliza’s relationship plays out in contrast to the relationship of Dr. Charlie Isaacs, a scientist wunderkind assigned to work on Thin Man, and his wife, Abby. Charlie and Abby are young, beautiful and, early on in the series, pretty much all they do is fuck. Really, I can’t think of another recent example of such a healthy and prolific sexual relationship on TV. They are seriously almost always doing it – everywhere, all the time. They have a young, neglected (because of all the doing it) boy but it’s astounding that they don’t have more children. I can’t stress enough how important sex is for these two in the early going. But that doesn’t make the rest of their relationship healthy, and its disintegration begins almost as soon as they arrive at the compound. They are both quickly attracted to other people and these attractions play out in interesting, if telegraphed, ways in season one.

Frank’s team is rounded out by an old friend and colleague, Glen Babbit (played by Daniel Stern) and a group of four young, funny, passionate scientists that are engaging, if peripheral (there is also slew of other underwritten military folks working at vague jobs on the compound). The most interesting of the group is a young woman named Helen Prins. There is a superb bit with Helen, where she explains that the war has allowed her to do the work that she loves and be her own person and not just be someone’s wife and soon, very soon this will all be over. Good, perhaps, for humanity, not so good for Helen.

There is a sense of summer camp about the proceedings – the feeling of fleetingness in almost every moment. Very soon all of this will be over, nothing is permanent, so have fun while you can – but don’t have too much fun because there is a war going on after all. The scientists are either working to end a war or end the world, one way or another nothing will be like this forever. But to counterbalance this, because there is a sense of unease and something being “off” always, there is also a sense of stasis, of “stuckness”. After all, there are two types of kids at summer camp, the type that want the summer to last forever and the type that can’t wait for the summer to end. There is an emphasis on the fact that some of these people didn’t imagine or choose this life for themselves (especially in the case Liza, Abby and the Winter’s daughter, Callie), they can’t leave and aren’t even allowed to talk about what is going on inside the compound or inside themselves and even if they could, what would they say?

There is a pronounced and heavily stated theme in season one, that theme being secrets. Keeping them and telling them. Of course, there is the “big secret” of the Manhattan Project itself, no one is supposed to know what is being built in the great, open expanse of the desert. Husbands are not supposed to tell wives, Abby is not supposed to listen in on the phone conversations coming and going at her job on the switchboard, one team of scientists is not supposed to divulge its working secrets to the other. Of course, people (and these people specifically) are terrible at keeping secrets and so people find out all sorts of things that they shouldn’t and are forced by a faceless government not to tell anyone for fear of death. The professional, dangerous secret of the nuclear bomb looms at all time. And this secret seems to infect everything it touches, even if the characters don’t know what they are being touched by. And then there are smaller, more personal secrets, too, hiding everywhere. We are privy to all of them and we see the price of keeping them or telling them. Sometimes telling them is beautiful and freeing and sometimes it is a prison. The truth does not always set you free.

There is a moment late in the first season where Liza witnesses water that was being used to bathe victims of a radiation leak running through a drain and pouring out onto the sand of the desert. The secrets leech and get soaked up and eventually they consume and threaten. But for awhile these secrets are exciting. The theme isn’t subtle – the characters talk about secrets, professional and otherwise, all the time (see quote above and below) but it’s refreshing to have characters aware of something that is so prevalent. So, maybe Glen is gay and Frank is having an affair with his maid and Liza has a mental health issue. These issues, once no longer secrets, once said aloud, are just banalities. No one dies. Humans are human after all. Maybe secrets only hold power in the moment right before you reveal them. After that they’re just life, reality, the words you say. But then there is the bomb, a secret capable of unspeakable horrors and death not only when it explodes but also perhaps slow and painful deaths for the incredibly intelligent saps working on the damn thing and their clueless family members who are getting radiated daily. Because, in the end, we know the bomb gets dropped. In the end these people are knowingly making a death machine. In the end the small, human, personal secrets we keep that make us miserable, that keep us from being who we are or deny ourselves some small happiness do not seem worth it at all.

“Keeping secrets, it’s a lonely business, isn’t it?” – Occam 

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