Why ‘Manhattan’ should continue past tonight’s stunning finale

Senior Television Writer
12.15.15 53 Comments

“Manhattan,” WGN America's drama about the scientists, soldiers, and spouses involved in and around the Manhattan Project, is a great drama (one I happily placed on my 2015 TV honorable mentions list today) that not nearly enough people are watching. (Here's my review from the start of season 2 to give you some background on the show and broader thoughts on why it's so excellent, in case you don't want to be spoiled on what's coming.) 

Tonight's taut finale, about the famous Trinity test of the atomic bomb, ended in a way that had me wondering if perhaps the show's creator, Sam Shaw, had just chosen to wrap up the series. As it turns out, that wasn't his intention at all, though “Jupiter” – and particularly its haunting final sequence – would be one hell of a series finale. Shaw's plans for the series go well beyond that, and after hearing his pitch, I very much want to see what comes next. Spoilers and conversation coming up just as soon as I set the atmosphere on fire…

So, if you've been watching, you've seen the gamesmanship that's taken place as different characters with wildly different agendas have tried to either stop or aid the Trinity test, and the eventual detonation of Fat Man and Little Boy over Japan. What's been so remarkable about this finishing kick to season 2 has been the series of revelations about what everyone is really up to (say, that Crosley had turned against the Brits), and what they're truly capable of doing (that Charlie would have been in favor of having Oppenheimer's mistress murdered for the sake of the project). There's a way to do that where it just feels like you're pulling the rug out from the audience because you can, but what Shaw and company have been doing feels true to the nature of each character, and also to the level of paranoia that something like the Manhattan Project would breed.

But as I watched Fritz standing in the desert, the Trinity mushroom cloud billowing off in the distance behind him, and saw him blow his brains out rather than keep living in a world where his best friend got his wife killed (and where he may have otherwise been due a slow and agonizing death from the plutonium he ingested in season 1), I thought, “I really want to see more of this show, but that sure looks like an image it could proudly end on.” So I asked Shaw if that was his intention, and he wrote:

The short answer is no, we emphatically want the show to continue. But I get why you'd ask. The season 2 finale ends with a period, not a question mark, as opposed to last season”s, which posed a bunch of dramatic questions, setting the terms for the next chapter of the story. This year just felt different. The historical scaffolding was well defined. We knew we were driving toward Trinity, which meant that after two seasons of talking about a bomb, we were finally going to see one. (The show is fictional, but we were never going to High-Castle the outcome of the test.) And it was clear from an early stage that Meeks and Fritz's story was headed for tragedy, although I kept trying to talk myself out of it, mostly because I didn”t want to lose Fritz (or Michael Chernus). Tommy Schlamme and the writers and I test-drove a lot of alternatives, including some playbook season-ending cliffhangers, but they all felt false. I actually put off writing that final scene until the last minute, which felt like a sign in itself that we”d found the right ending.

People like to quote Oppenheimer quoting the Bhagavad Gita the night of the Trinity Test: “Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds” (which, by the way, is probably apocryphal). But in the writers” room, we kept circling back to another quote, by the physicist Kenneth Bainbridge: “Now we're all sons of bitches.” It just seemed to sum up the whole Manhattan Project. For those scientists, the bomb had been an abstraction, a math problem. Suddenly it's real, this monstrous instrument of death, and the world is stuck with it, for better or worse. We wanted the audience to feel the shock of that on an emotional level. Which was tricky, because we”ve all seen so many nuclear explosions onscreen, they”ve lost their shock value. The mushroom cloud has become a visual cliché.

That's a long-winded way of saying that the Nielsen tail didn”t in any way wag the dog of our storytelling. We wrote and shot the finale months before we premiered and saw any numbers. On that front, our ratings aren”t quite subatomic, but they”re obviously not everything we'd hope for. I could speculate about why, but the truth is, that's not my wheelhouse. We”ve worked hard to tell a great story, and the audience that managed to find us has really connected with the show. There”s a lot more story to tell, and we hope to tell it to a bigger audience next season. TV is a business of best laid plans — you have to be flexible, and live every week as if it's Shark Week — but I”ve always said that in some ways I”m most interested in what happens after the bombs are dropped, when our characters emerge from the (relative) moral clarity of a race against fascism into the fog of a Cold War arms race. Tommy likes to joke that I have an itchy trigger-finger, and would have dropped the bomb in episode 4 if left to my own devices. That's not quite true, but, for me, the end of Season 2 is still the beginning of the series. The weirdest, most exciting, most complicated material is still ahead.

Knowing that, I then asked him to give me a sense of where the story might go from here if WGN wisely decides to re-invest in quality, and he told me:

We hope we'll get to keep making the show and it'll speak for itself, so I don't want to say too much about where or when we'd pick up, or how the characters will interact with the looming events everybody who's ever taken a history class knows about. But the plan has always been for the bombings in Japan to bisect the series: before and after. Season 3 would begin to tell a story about what happens to the characters when Los Alamos is transformed, overnight, from the world's best kept secret to its most famous city. Plus, obviously, Helen falling in love with a young Quint on the deck of the USS Indianapolis. Our great consultant Alex Wellerstein always says his favorite chunk of the history is the period immediately after the war. Mine too!

Even if it was written in jest, the thought of Helen Prins (one of this show's most vivid characters) crossing paths with a young version of Quint from “Jaws” now puts a third season of “Manhattan” very high on my holiday wish list. Hopefully, WGN keeps it going (and eventually makes season 2 available on Hulu, like season 1 was; as of now, you can catch up On Demand or buy episodes from Amazon or iTunes), because this was some very compelling TV.

What does everybody else think? Would you rather the story stop with Fritz's death, or do you want to see the Project and many of its employees go from secret to incredibly famous?

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