Pluto was first spotted in the sky in early 1930, three years before Adolf Hitler became chancellor of Germany. And this planet’s archetypal energies – death, destruction, power, transformation, secrecy, spying, obsession and control – shatter every frame of “Manhattan,” WGN America’s smart, riveting drama series which broadcast its first-season finale last week. Created by Sam Shaw, it’s one of the best new series of 2014 – renewed for a second – that most viewers have yet to watch.
The story is a fictionalized take on the Manhattan Project, whose work was conducted by a group of scientists who uprooted themselves from their careers and homes to gather at Los Alamos, New Mexico, in a secret government effort to quickly bring Hitler-precipitated WWII to a close. The invention that will accomplish that goal – euphemistically referred to by those in charge as the “gadget” – is the atom bomb.
The focal character, Frank Winter (a period-authentic John Benjamin Hickey), is a fedora-wearing physicist and WWI veteran with a gaunt, sun-wizened face and whose cigarette intake is so high you can almost see the nicotine stains on his fingers. To call the guy driven, demanding and even self-destructive is an understatement. At a machine-gun’s pace, Frank incessantly spits out numbers tied to ongoing American war deaths. For him, creating a viable weapon is both a personal and collective mission. It will mean not only the end to this war but, given the specter of total annihilation, to all wars. It’s the Pluto principle: destroy what’s bad so that a new structure can take root and flourish.
The story’s tension comes not only from Winter’s self-inflicted and externally imposed pressure from the Army and government officials. It’s also rooted in the fact that he’s not on the project’s preeminent team. Those other folks, led by Reed Akley (David Harbour), have access to plutonium, the support of influential honchos, and the extremely bright young scientist Charlie Isaacs (Ashley Zukerman).
Frank, the underdog here, supervises his own team: Brit Paul Crosley (Harry Lloyd), Fritz Fedowitz (Michael Chernus), Jim Meeks (Christopher Denham), Sid Liao (Eddie Shin) and Helen (Katja Herbers). (The exceptional supporting cast also includes Olivia Williams as Frank’s wife Liza, Daniel Stern as Frank’s mentor Glen Babbit, Rachel Brosnahan as Charlie’s wife Abby, and Richard Schiff as the dogged Mr. Fisher.)
When it becomes clear the Germans are ahead of the game, and that rival Reed’s team’s is, unfortunately, on track to produce a bomb that will detonate prematurely, Frank becomes even more driven to pursue implosion – when compressed energy bursts from the inside out – as the key to a workable device. Implosion has also got an emotional counterpart, keeping feelings and everything else under wraps until there’s no outlet for release. Which is pretty much how most of the people in the desert community, increasingly debilitated by the government’s on-site spying and intrusion into their lives, operate.
In short, the Los Alamos settlement becomes its own Hades-fueled universe that parallels the one that occupies the war zone abroad. Archetypal secret rivalries become more pronounced as both Frank and Reed race to be first to come up with a design for a functional bomb. One character winds up accidentally inhaling plutonium-239. Other characters die. People slyly switch alliances or are suspected of having unsavory ones. Kitchen fires portend conflagrations. Locations and people are contaminated with radiation poisoning. A desiccated ear of corn that pops up in the first episode looks as though it, too, has just returned from the battlefield. There’s extramarital sex and passion – also Pluto’s domain – as well as copious underworld-like manipulation to get what one needs. And, in the first episode, an Army higher up (Mark Moses) sets up what’s to come when he warns Frank there’s a mole in Frank’s department.
The only person personifying the life force here is Liza Winter, Frank’s mentally unstable wife. She happens to be a Ph.D. degree’d botanist who’s professionally marginalized (as is the Ph.D.-credentialed Helen) while she tries to coax life out of the arid environment she now calls home. Liza’s is a different, bomb-induced death-in-life, akin to shell shock.
The series’ finale, ‘Perestroika,’ puts to good use the Papercuts’ song “Future Primitive,” as exact a summary of the show as one can get. It also serves as a paean to Frank’s personal mission and sacrificial one-to-save-the-many action (“We are here and we’re gone/It’s our work that marches on”).
It’s no accident that the episode’s final image – what seems like eruptive dust and pixels of light as a car bearing Frank to an unknown destination zooms into the darkness – strongly evokes the residual floating particles of disintegration following a massive bomb explosion. However, in the series’ second episode, when Frank shows up late for a meeting, he’s presciently mocked as a “phoenix rising from the ashes,” a nod to Pluto’s self-generating genius. Turns out Frank Winter is the very bomb he’s trying to create.
Binge-watching Season 1 is highly recommended.
Archetype: Annihilator, Death Bringer, Transformer, Rival and Competitor, Implosion
Astrology Archetype: ♇ (Pluto)