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“Manhattan” Season 2, Episode 7: The Executioner’s Song

“Manhattan” Season 2, Episode 7: The Executioner’s Song

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"Manhattan" Season 2, Episode 7

The atomic spies at Los Alamos are in trouble. Pablo, the 10-year-old son of a maid on the base, witnesses someone burying a box in the desert. When the military swoops in, they find the Hershey’s wrapper inside and a coded message. Pablo says he can identify the man he saw, but to narrow the pool of candidates, Colonel Darrow recruits Theodore Sinclair.

It is nice to see the show’s sole black character get some more screen time. Many African-Americans worked on the Manhattan Project.  Some were scientists and technicians, although most were employed as laborers, janitors, and domestic workers. While the Manhattan Project was not immune from the prejudices of the time, for many black workers, the project represented an opportunity to earn wages that were often significantly higher than they could earn elsewhere. Historian Dr. Alex Wellerstein has a good article on the experiences of women and minorities on the Manhattan Project.

“I didn't run into much racism at Hanford,” remembered Luzell Johnson, who worked as a cement finisher and played center field on the integrated baseball team. Although blacks lived in segregated barracks, he recalled, “Everybody was working together, and everybody was eating together at the mess halls. White and colored could go in together and eat.” He earned $1.75 an hour at Hanford, compared to 35 cents an hour at home in Alabama.

At age 17, James Forde was hired as a lab assistant at the Nash Garage Building in New York, where Manhattan Project scientists worked on developing the gaseous diffusion process for separating uranium isotopes. He didn’t know the true nature of his job cleaning pipes. “You did cleanup work, and you cleaned the beakers and other materials that the scientists used. The main job that I had was cleaning these tubes in a sulfuric acid bath. I did not know what these tubes were, what they were for, or anything… [When] I saw the headline where we had dropped the bomb, I said, “‘Oh, my God. That is what I was working on!’”

Meanwhile, Fritz sees the doctor and learns he still has several micrograms of plutonium in his body from the accident last season. He is afraid to tell Jeannie, who wants to have children. “How do you tell your wife that you could have a kid with three heads?” he asks Jim.

While Fritz worries, Liza and Frank both find themselves at the Trinity site, which is buzzing with activity. Liza is assigned two unenthusiastic GIs to help her with her research, which Charlie informs her is lowest priority. Despite Colonel Darrow’s ban, Frank still insists he can help Liza. “I’m finally doing something that matters,” she fires back, “and you are handing Colonel Darrow an excuse to shut me down.” But Frank persists: he leaves her the sagebrush she needs for her testing, neatly gift-wrapped.

Back at Los Alamos, Abby confesses to both Darrow and Charlie that she believes her child’s death is punishment for her role in Jean Tatlock’s suicide. Darrow continues to encourage her to find religion; Charlie once again is dismissive. “She was a sick woman. She drowned herself: end of story. Stay away from Colonel Darrow. He’s not your friend.”

Theodore finds trace amounts of polonium on the box, meaning that the spy must be one of the 23 men at Los Alamos who are responsible for working on the plutonium bomb’s initiator. As the show mentions, the polonium for the initiator was separated and purified at the Manhattan Project’s site at Dayton, Ohio.

Richard Yalman was a member of the Special Engineering Detachment at Dayton. He remembered the challenges of separating polonium: “We had a peculiar problem with polonium…if you put polonium in a beaker…around the beaker there would be radiation effects. So, it was very difficult to keep things clean—constantly cleaning up and trying to decontaminate the areas around the polonium.”

The initiator was also part of real-life Soviet espionage on the Manhattan Project. George Koval worked at Dayton and passed crucial information about it to his handlers. James A. Schoke trained Koval on how to maintain equipment there. “He was an excellent technician,” Schoke remembered. “He knew his job very well. And he was very friendly. Of course, I had no idea he was a spy.”

Jim and Nora panic, especially after the Army calls Jim in for a “blood test.” Handing him a cyanide pill as a last resort, Nora plans to give Pablo a poisoned orange soda. Jim is aghast. “You can’t make an omelet without poisoning an Indian kid?”

But Jim’s solution – to try to convince Pablo’s mother, Marisol, to keep her son quiet – fails disastrously. Marisol doesn’t buy his story that Pablo will be sent off to school in Pennsylvania if he identifies the spy, and demands to see Jim’s credentials. Brandishing a knife, she pushes him to the ground.

“If you say another word to anyone, you’re dead. Your kid too!” Jim threatens before he escapes. He is in such a hurry that he leaves behind the pitch pipe he is using to practice for his role in The Mikado. His role: the Lord High Executioner.

Despite his threat, Jim is unwilling to countenance murder – yet. When he sees Pablo about to drink the soda in the clinic where the “blood test” is occurring, he bursts in and breaks the bottle. Miraculously, after sizing him up, Pablo tells Darrow Jim is not the spy.

Jim has little time to ponder his escape: he has to prepare for the evening’s performance, with his best friend, Fritz, in attendance. Meanwhile, Jeannie, a member of the Women’s Army Corps, returns Pablo to his mother – and sees Jim’s pitch pipe. At intermission, she confronts Jim in his dressing room and accuses him of being a spy.

Jim lies and tells Jeannie that Fritz recruited him as a spy, claiming this is why Fritz is reluctant to have children. But once again, Jim’s acting fails him. Unconvinced, Jeannie runs off. “I’ll handle this,” Nora says.

After her scheme to poison a child, Jim knows what she is capable of — and he doesn’t stop her. Nora hits Jeannie over the head, presumably killing her. As the episode closes, Jim looks tormented as he prepares to take the stage, but he continues the performance.

How long will it be before he and Nora are discovered? Will we find out more about Helen's new friend, the patent lawyer Stan? Will Frank and Charlie butt heads again at Trinity? We will post our next Manhattan recap next week.

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.”