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“Manhattan” Season 2, Episode 3: The Queen of Los Alamos

“Manhattan” Season 2, Episode 3: The Queen of Los Alamos

"Manhattan" Season 2, Episode 3

“The queen is the most powerful piece on the chessboard,” says Jim Meeks, sounding like a Cold War strategist. “If we are the only ones who have it, we'll probably blow up the world. But if Stalin has a bomb in his pocket, too, the game ends in a draw. It's a stalemate. Nobody dies.”

As a new group, G Group, is formed to prepare to test the “queen” in the Trinity test, we continue to learn more about the characters’ backgrounds and motivations. The episode opens with a flashback to Liza Winter’s previous struggle with mental illness. It’s 1939 and Frank is visiting her in a bleak sanatorium, where patients aren’t even allowed to read newspapers or wear their wedding rings.

“You lost count. You took too many pills. It does not make you suicidal,” he reassures her. “I am going to bring you home.” After creating a wedding ring out of the red yarn she is using to knit a scarf for Callie – a surprisingly tender gesture – Frank hears the news of the discovery of nuclear fission over the radio.

In the next scene, Frank tries to persuade Glen Babbit and a skeptical army officer that a nuclear weapon can be built, and that the Germans are likely already starting on their atomic bomb project. “Some genies belong in their lamps,” Glen warns, but Frank insists that they need to speak with someone who has President Roosevelt’s ear. The two arrive at a house with A. EINSTEIN written on the mailbox.

While Albert Einstein played no role in the Manhattan Project (he was denied a security clearance because he was a pacifist), he was crucial in initiating research into nuclear weapons. In collaboration with Leo Szilard, he wrote a famous letter to President Roosevelt that warned about the possibility of Germany developing an atomic bomb and urged FDR to consider a similar program in the United States.

Clearly, Manhattan is using Frank as a stand-in for Szilard. The two have some similarities: as historian (and Manhattan consultant) Alex Wellerstein writes, Szilard was a notorious gadfly – so much so that General Leslie Groves drafted an order to detain him for the remainder of the war. Groves never sent the order. Wellerstein adds, “Frank Winter’s moral arc — moving from deep conviction about the need to rapidly build a bomb, to plaguing doubts — is heavily inspired by Szilard.” Szilard was one of the true characters of the Manhattan Project. Szilard biographer William Lanouette quotes his sister-in-law: “‘Leo wasn’t a person. He was a phenomenon.’”

At Los Alamos, Liza continues to clash with Colonel Darrow. Darrow is irate after reporter Woodrow Lorentzen, an old lover of Liza’s, reports on Frank’s disappearance and then arrives on the Hill. But the Colonel manages to buy Lorentzen’s silence on Frank in exchange for access to Los Alamos.

While Manhattan relies on a healthy dose of artistic license, particularly regarding security (for more, see our article Manhattan: Fact vs. Fiction), we are pleased by the show’s attention to detail. Lorentzen resembles New York Times reporter William Laurence, who received special access to the Manhattan Project – and shares his eccentric taste in ties (see below)!

Stymied by Darrow and betrayed by Lorentzen, Liza nevertheless finds a way out of Los Alamos thanks to Private Dunlavey. Still enamored with Callie, Dunlavey smuggles Liza to Lamy train station in the back of his jeep. Lamy, near Santa Fe, was the small station where everyone coming to work at Los Alamos arrived. Lamy “was simply a junction on the railroad line. It was a one-horse town,” remembers Manhattan Project veteran Benjamin Bederson.

Meanwhile, Abby finds herself embroiled in her own chess game after listening in on a racy conversation between J. Robert Oppenheimer and his mistress in San Francisco. Telephone conversations at Los Alamos were usually far more prosaic. “We would sit there and listen to the conversations, and we didn’t know what we were supposed to listen for. If something sounded kind of peculiar, then we would call someone, and they would follow the conversation,” remembered Eleanor Roensch, who was a telephone operator at Los Alamos. “Most of them were kind of boring, boring conversations,” she recalled, but “we got lots of interesting, strange things.”

Despite Charlie’s warning against interfering with other people’s marriages, the Isaacs invite Oppie and his wife, Katherine (“Kitty”), over for dinner. When Charlie and Oppie step out for a smoke, Abby informs Kitty that her husband is having an affair. “I do not need marital advice from a deviant,” Kitty fires back. Abby’s secret is out. The Oppenheimers’ marriage is often covered in a sensationalistic way, so we are interested to see how Manhattan handles this plot thread going forward.

The real Kitty Oppenheimer bears some resemblance to Liza Winter: she too was a botanist who felt frustrated about her career at Los Alamos, and worked in the doctor’s office there. While Kitty is often depicted negatively in histories of the Manhattan Project, her granddaughter Dorothy Vanderford points out, “We read things differently over time…she [was] a colorful, outspoken person. It was a generation when women weren't necessarily outspoken and colorful. It was probably offensive to somebody who wasn't an innate feminist then.”

Outside, Charlie and Oppie discuss potential sites for the upcoming test of the “Gadget” – including the Jornada del Muerto desert, where the Trinity test ultimately took place. Meanwhile, Fritz and Jim both experience big romantic developments. Scared by an accident involving another scientist, Fritz proposes to Jeannie, who accepts. In another example of the show’s attention to detail, we see part of their wedding scene through a video camera that mimics the home movies shot at Los Alamos by physicist Hugh Bradner.

While Fritz ties the knot, Jim, his best man, has a new love interest: Nora, a member of the Women’s Army Corps. When she pulls out the other half of the Hershey’s wrapper, we realize she, too, is part of the spy ring. The real-life spies at Los Alamos were all male. Nora’s closest real-life counterpart would probably be David Greenglass, the machinist who passed information to Julius Rosenberg.

Jim, however, is spooked after the death of Avram Fischer, and refuses to continue his espionage activities. Nora warns him there will be consequences if they stop supplying information to the Soviets. “They killed a government agent. What do you think they're gonna do to a dropout from Pittsburgh or to a scientist who's got cold feet?” To maintain his access to secret information, Jim manipulates the unsuspecting Fritz into getting him into G Group.

The scene between Jim and Nora explains Jim’s motivations. He says he is not a Communist, but became a spy after Sid Liao’s death at the hands of the military. His justification that the world needs nuclear “stalemate” mirrors that of Ted Hall, who claimed it was dangerous for only the United States to possess an atomic bomb.

At the end of the episode, we return to Glen’s office, where Liza asks him for help in finding Frank. Glen is reluctant once again, but Liza remembers how Frank got her out of the sanatorium. He told her – in an echo of Charlie justifying his and Abby’s infidelities – “It's not you that's sick. It's this place.” And so we return once more to Albert Einstein’s door.

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.”