Season finale review: ‘Manhattan’ – ‘Perestroika’

Earlier this week, WGN America ordered a second season of “Manhattan,” which pleased me and a number of you. A few thoughts on tonight's season finale, and season 1 as a whole, coming up just as soon as I run for town council…

For a while there, it seemed like “Perestroika” was going to present a great victory for Frank at an even greater cost – not unlike what will happen when the fruits of the Manhattan Project will be dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The gun model has been dismissed, and the government is putting all of its mighty resources behind Frank and his team of misfits – but only after the deaths of Sid Liao and Reed Akley, the arrest of Charlie, Fritz ingesting the plutonium, Lancefield being framed for espionage, Glen kicked off the project, etc. The collateral damage is remarkable, yet the victory – both the support of a model that will work, and a recognition of Frank's superior intellect – should be absolute…

… until, that is, Frank decides to take the fall (with a little help from the late Mr. Akley) for everything he and Charlie did, leaving Charlie in charge of implosion while he's whisked away from Nowhere with a bag on his head.

Why does Frank do this? Is it continued guilt over his role in Sid's death? A recognition of what life in this place is doing to his wife, and how much better off she might be back in the real world? An acknowledgment that ultimately, the project needs Charlie's once-in-a-generation mind more than it needs his? All of these things? None of these things?

One of the most appealing things about “Manhattan” is the way it depicts complicated people behaving in complicated, inscrutable ways. Frank and Charlie are both potentially Great Men, in the way that so many golden age cable drama protagonists have been, but as Akley reminded us last week, “Great men are not always good men.” Whatever Frank's primary motive for the confession may be, part of it is definitely the recognition of what being in this project has done to him, and what his continued presence in it could do to those around him.

Now that we know there will be a second season, I expect there will be some contrivance to get Frank out of prison and back into the project, and probably Glen, as well. If nothing else, we need someone who knows Meeks well to figure out that he's the mole in the project, and while Fritz or Helen (the most interesting member of Frank's team) could do it, it feels more appropriate that one of the mentor characters gets onto that.

Like the first season of Sam Shaw's previous show, “Masters of Sex,” “Manhattan” did a good job of exploring the many difficulties of being an outsider in the not-too-distant past – to be a woman, or Jewish(*), or black, or gay – without beating us over the head with the notion of how times have changed. In its second season, “Masters” fell into the trap of focusing too much on social change and fictionalized interpersonal drama, and not enough on the very real conflict created by the scientific work. Here's hoping that when “Manhattan” returns in 2015, it'll be able to keep this strong balance of fact and fiction, and of science and sociology.

(*) Though it was an interesting choice – if one I'm not surprised a Tommy Schlamme-directed show would make – to cast Richard Schiff as the show's grand inquisitor, given that he's among the more overtly Semitic actors in the business. He's referred to a few times in the finale as Mr. Fisher (I don't believe I caught his name in previous episodes), which could also be a Jewish name, but his interactions with Charlie take on a different light if he's a fellow outsider rather than an insider.

What did everybody else think? And was I the only one made giddy at realizing that was Gerald McRaney playing Henry Stimson?