When the bag comes off of Frank Winter’s head at the start of episode two of season two of Manhattan, he finds himself in a dark cell, with little more than a bucket to catch water from the ceiling. “I think you're ten feet underground…and I am the only living soul who knows where you are,” Avram Fischer intones (this scene takes place several days before Fischer’s murder at the end of episode one).
Fischer confronts Frank with evidence that he falsified part of his background affidavit when he joined the Manhattan Project: specifically, a trip Frank took to Leipzig, Germany in 1936. Fischer believes this further proves that Frank is a Nazi spy. The interrogator promises to return in two or three days – but of course, he doesn’t. From the confines of Frank’s cell to the Hill, the entire episode centers on the race against the Germans to develop the atomic bomb.
During the Manhattan Project, director General Leslie Groves and exiled European scientists were concerned that Germany would develop the bomb before the US. Germany was where uranium was first split, it had vast industrial capacity, and was home to some of the world’s leading physicists, including Werner Heisenberg.
As physicist Leona Woods Marshall recalled in an interview, “I think everyone was terrified that we were wrong [in our way of developing the bomb] and the Germans were ahead of us. That was a persistent and ever-present fear, fed, of course, by the fact that our leaders knew those people in Germany. They went to school with them. Our leaders were terrified, and that terror fed to us. If the Germans had got it before we did, I don't know what would have happened to the world. Something different. Germany led in the field of physics, in every respect, at the time war set in, when Hitler lowered the boom. It was a very frightening time.”
In 1943, the Army established the Alsos Mission within the Manhattan Engineer District to investigate the German atomic bomb program. Featuring some of the Manhattan Project’s more colorful characters, including the daring Col. Boris Pash and former baseball player Moe Berg, Alsos conducted espionage missions across Europe to interrogate Italian and German scientists and to locate German supplies of uranium. “You might say the whole project, the Manhattan Project, was built on fear: fear that the enemy had the bomb, or would have it before we could develop it,” recalled Robert Furman, who coordinated the Alsos Mission.
After some time passes (nicely shown by the now nearly-full water bucket), starving, forgotten Frank imagines Liza in his cell. She prods him to look at the documents Fischer left behind, including equations with the familiar variables C-A-L-L-I-E. Jolted by his daughter’s name, Frank realizes the Germans are copying his work and there must be a spy at Los Alamos.
When Frank awakes, he notices his cell door is open. He walks out into a seemingly empty prison. Through a window, he spies a line of Japanese-American prisoners. Frank soon comes face-to-face with the warden. “Anybody winds up here off the books, that's someone Uncle Sam wants to disappear,” the warden says. “Who am I to argue?”
Meanwhile, on the Hill, Charlie has made himself unpopular in managing the implosion project. “He makes Richard III look like Richard II,” Jim Meeks cracks. But at least Charlie is spending more time with Abby, whom he finally tells the truth of what the project is about – the same disclosure that helped put Frank in prison. Tough-minded Abby suggests a tactic to stop the German bomb program: target their scientists. “You must have photographs of the German scientists, their home addresses, the names of their wives and children. Give those to the Army,” she tells Charlie. “If the Nazi ‘Gadget’ goes off, will they spare our friends?”
While Manhattan Project scientists were not supposed to tell their spouses about the nature of the project, some wives, like Abby, did know what was being built. “I knew perfectly well what Hans was working on and agreed with him that we not talk about it,” Rose Bethe remembered. “I know that it was very difficult for many women because [in the past] the husbands had talked about their work and it had been a close relationship.” Manhattan depicted this tension well last season, and we are curious if it will continue to emphasize this theme now that the show’s two leading female characters know the truth.
The scientists are also tasked with coming up with information that will help the Army locate German atomic facilities after the impending invasion of Europe. As usual, Helen has an idea: she sets up an experiment using film to detect radiation, re-creating the conditions surveillance planes might encounter above Germany. “All you need to find a German reactor is an airplane and roll of Kodak,” Fritz observes.
Jim, who helps set up the experiment, has flashbacks to Fischer’s murder and reacts strongly when he sees a dead coyote in the desert. Unlike Fischer, who he and his spy contact left in the trunk of his car, he insists on burying the animal: “So we just leave him out here to rot? That's what the Nazis would do. We're decent human beings.”
After hiding Fischer’s body, Jim’s contact flees, but not before he tells Meeks that another man will be getting in touch with him. He shows Jim half of a Hershey’s Chocolate wrapper; the new contact will have the other half. This detail is a neat allusion to the Jell-O box used as identification by the real-life atomic spy ring that included David Greenglass, Harry Gold, and Julius and Ethel Rosenberg.
Back in prison, Frank soon has a companion: a man named Joseph Bucher (Frank gives his name as “Charlie Isaacs”). Bucher informs him that the guards have thrown them together for a game of “Tosa.” The two are supposed to fight to the death, and the winner will go free. Instead, Frank convinces Bucher to join him in trying to escape, but when Bucher reveals himself as a Nazi sympathizer, Frank storms away. “I know the Nazis a lot better than you do!” he shouts. “They’re a gang of killers who brainwashed their own people.”
Why does Frank feel so strongly? He finally reveals the reason for his trip to Leipzig: he tried to find his mother, who was German and left their family when he was a young boy to return to her music career. “I went into her dressing room to introduce myself,” he remembers. “She called the Gestapo on me.”
Frank then tries to win the game. He grabs the gun the guards have provided them and turns it on Bucher, but realizes it is a fake. The whole “game” was a ploy to test Frank’s loyalty.
Frank is then taken to meet Colonel Darrow. But instead of being shocked by news that a spy has infiltrated Los Alamos, Darrow barely bats an eye. Frank realizes the evidence of Nazi progress on the bomb last season was a ploy as well. The army has no idea how far along the Germans are on their bomb project, but is using the scientists’ own math to force them to work harder and faster on developing the atomic bomb. “How do you get them to build a wonder weapon?” Frank asks aloud, before he is led back to his cell. “You just tell them Germany’s gonna end the world tomorrow.”
While the Army did not go to the manipulative lengths depicted on Manhattan to push the atomic bomb forward (although as historian Alex Wellerstein notes, an exasperated General Groves did draft an order for the detention of Leo Szilard), the show does capture the fear and uncertainty on the Manhattan Project about German progress on the bomb. How will these revelations affect work on the bomb? Does the Army have further tests for Frank? Stay tuned.
For more information about the history of the Manhattan Project, check out our online store, which includes “A Guide to the Manhattan Project in New Mexico” and our bestselling anthology, “The Manhattan Project: The Birth of the Atomic Bomb in the Words of Its Creators, Eyewitnesses, and Historians.”