"Manhattan" Episode 13: The Backup Plan

"Manhattan" Episode 13: The Backup Plan

The secrets and lies that have been building for months finally come to a head in the season finale of “Manhattan.” Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer, the Manhattan Project’s scientific director, makes a surprise visit to the Hill to reorganize the project after Reed Akley’s suicide and the collapse of Thin Man. Meanwhile, Occam, the head of security at Los Alamos, is determined to figure out who is leaking information off the Hill. Charlie Isaacs has come under intense scrutiny after the arrival of Abby’s Eastern European relatives in New York City and the mysterious collapse of Thin Man. But in an interesting twist fit only for a season finale, Frank Winter takes the fall for violating compartmentalization and Charlie becomes the new leader of the Implosion Group.

The final episode opens inside the home of Frank and Liza Winter, who are discussing Akley’s suicide. As Frank goes to put his shoes away, he notices something odd inside the closet. Before he can investigate further, he is interrupted by a sudden knock at the door. It’s Robert Oppenheimer, and he is not pleased.

“Reed Akley was the father of the most expensive failure in the history of war,” Oppenheimer tells Frank. Now he must explain that failure to the Secretary of War. “If I could choose anyone else, I would,” he tells Frank, “but you are the only man who knows implosion well enough to run the program.”

Manhattan castWith the collapse of Thin Man and Akley’s subsequent suicide, Charlie has become the center of Occam’s espionage investigation. After MPs tear his home apart, Charlie is hauled off to a windowless room and interrogated by a relentless Occam, who demands answers regarding Thin Man and the death of Magpie, the American spy in Germany. “If Charles Isaacs is not a spy, we would expect him to be forthcoming and cooperative,” Occam asserts, “And yet you have lied since the moment you set foot into this room.”

With Charlie nowhere to be found, Frank visits Glenn Babbit to try and convince him to stay on the Project. But Babbit has moved on. “This Project needs you a lot more than it needs me,” he tells Frank. “It doesn’t matter if you’re a good man. Maybe a good man couldn’t have made implosion work. All that matters is that you are the man to end this war. Let God do the accounting when it’s over.”

As Frank settles into his new office, Jim Meeks stops by; his mother has just passed away. Frank agrees to let Meeks return to New York City to attend his mother’s funeral. Meeks promises that he won’t be gone long…

Back at the lab, Helen Prins tracks down Frank to tell him about Charlie’s disappearance. Frank brushes her aside. Charlie knew there would be consequences for violating compartmentalization; now he must face them. But the Army doesn’t think Charlie just violated protocol, they think he tried to sabotage the entire program. “They think he’s a traitor,” Helen pleads.

With Charlie’s fate hanging in the balance, Frank returns to the lab late at night. He begins to photograph the equations written on the chalkboard (cameras were strictly prohibited at Manhattan Project sites). Suddenly, the ghost of Sidney Liao appears at his desk. He begins talking to Frank, reminding him of all the casualties and deaths the war has caused. “What do you want me to do?” Frank asks. “Exactly,” says Liao, “What’s one more?”

Frank returns home to find Liza sitting on the bed, taking her daily dose of methylphenobarbital to calm her nerves. The timing couldn’t be better, because Frank finally decides to tell her what he’s been working on for more than a year. “We’re building an atomic bomb,” he tells her, “It will set off a chain reaction that will explode with the power of 20,000 tons of TNT.” Startled, Liza leaves the room.

Manhattan castThe next day, an Army caravan arrives at the front gate. It’s Henry Stimson, the Secretary of War, and he’s come to figure out why the most expensive program in government history has failed to produce anything. (There is no evidence that Henry Stimson ever visited Los Alamos or any of the other secret sites during the Manhattan Project).

Before he can meet with Stimson, Oppenheimer is pulled aside by Occam to discuss a serious “personnel issue.” Occam plays a recording for him; it’s Frank Winter, and he’s discussing the details of the program with his wife.

When Oppenheimer finally sits down to meet with the Secretary of War, Stimson is upset. “You sold the President of the United States a Buck Rogers fantasy!” he tells Oppenheimer. “You shook his hand and told him the design was entrusted to one of the best minds in the country.” But Oppenheimer has a backup plan: implosion. “The director of the Implosion Group is one of the brightest lights on the Hill,” he tells Stimson. “He solved the physics almost singlehandedly.” And in walks Charlie Isaacs.

But where is Frank Winter? In the next scene, a government vehicle leaves Los Alamos with someone in the backseat, a bag covering his head. Could it be Frank? We don’t know. What we do know is that Frank purposely told Liza about the atomic bomb because he knew there was a microphone hidden inside his closet. After she leaves the room, Frank begins talking into the microphone. “Reed Akley and I engaged in a secret conspiracy to coopt the resources of his group for implosion,” he lies. “We sacrificed the few to save the many.”

While Army intelligence censored mail and monitored outgoing phone calls during the Manhattan Project, there is no evidence that suggests that agents conducted electronic surveillance of physicists or project employees (let alone hid tiny microphones inside their closets!).

In the show’s closing scene, we see Jim Meeks standing outside a hotel in New York. He is on the phone with his mother; she might be sick, but she hasn’t died. Sitting at a table inside the hotel lobby, Meeks is approached by another man who sits down directly behind him. “They said I wouldn’t have to meet in person,” he tells the stranger. “Only under extraordinary conditions,” he responds. “Things have changed,” says Meeks. “Implosion is taking center stage.”

Manhattan castAfter Occam spent months trying to figure out who could be leaking secrets off the Hill, it appears that Jim Meeks was a spy all along. Meeks’ character (and striking physical resemblance) is likely based on Klaus Fuchs, a member of the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos and a spy for the Soviet Union. As a member of the Theoretical Division under Hans Bethe, Fuchs was responsible for many significant theoretical calculations for the first atomic bomb. No one suspected that Fuchs had been transferring very detailed notes on the bomb project to a Soviet courier, codenamed “Raymond,” who was actually Harry Gold.

With the first season of “Manhattan” over (in what appears to be the middle of 1944), we can’t wait to see what kind of action will unfold when season two premieres on WGN America next year. This season focused mainly on the rivalry between the two design groups and the tensions that developed between characters as they tried to adjust to a new and unfamiliar environment.

Next season should be even more dramatic as scientists race to complete and test an atomic bomb before Germany and spies begin to pass information about the program to the outside world. Will Frank be back to help Charlie with implosion? Will Meeks be implicated for espionage? Will we be taken to other secret sites like Oak Ridge or Hanford? For now, we will have to wait and see!

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.”