Spoilers ahead, from Season Two of Manhattan.
Between Fargo, The Leftovers and Homeland, the final weeks of 2015 provided no shortage of exceptional season finales. Perhaps the most chilling and awe-inducing of them all, however, lies with WGN’s criminally under-watched historical drama, Manhattan. After two seasons spent building up to the invention and execution of the world’s first atomic bomb, “Jupiter” finds the infamous Trinity Test being put into action just as the conflicts of the show’s fictional characters come to an equally explosive head.
Indeed, while history as we know it will continue onward, the finale finds the lives of the Los Alamos crew irreversibly shattered. Hands down the biggest tragedy remains the fate of affable scientist Louis “Fritz” Fedowitz. In the show’s final moments, physicist-turned-Soviet-spy Jim Meeks, ignoring advice from Frank, confesses to both high treason as well as being complicit in the murder of Fritz’s wife. Devastated by his best friend’s betrayal, Fritz responds by shooting himself in the head just as the blinding white blast of a nuclear explosion blankets the New Mexico landscape.
Needless to say, it’s a lot to chew on. In order to parse through the wreckage, Paste spoke with Manhattan creator/showrunner Sam Shaw about constructing these final moments, how fellow critically-acclaimed-yet-ratings-challenged-cable show The Leftovers informed the second season and the current outlook for Season Three.
Paste Magazine: So I guess, barring the Trinity Test causing a Walking Dead situation, RIP Friz?
Sam Shaw: Yes, RIP Fritz. Look, I will rule out almost nothing going forward, but I think we can rule out a zombie apocalypse. It was a really anguishing ending to write, but it felt narratively inevitable. But I have to say—I put off writing that scene until literally the last minute I possible could have. That was a scene that was very emotional for me to write, in part because, not only do I love Fritz, but I absolutely love [actor] Michael Chernus. It’s sad to contemplate a future without him.
Paste: You mentioned that it was narratively inevitable. From the very onset of Season Two, was there the idea that Fritz would be the one to go?
Shaw: Well, there’s process in discovery. We knew a great deal right out of the gates about where we were heading, but the specifics of how Fritz’s story would end took a bit of time. And it was something that was debated endlessly. But I will say that, from the very beginning, we were thinking about this spy story that would be central to Season Two. It was clear that [Fritz’s] story was the one that was heading to tragedy, and that the cost of Meeks’ career as an amateur spy would be his relationship with Fritz. It didn’t take us too long to get to this conclusion that Fritz wouldn’t make it out of this season alive—even though that is a really intolerable solution narratively because we love the character so much.
Paste: It also really is tough because Fritz would not have been at the test if events had been slightly different.
Shaw: When we constructed last season, I think there was a kind of structural storytelling that was appealing to me and my partner-in-crime [writer] Dusty Thomason— and the other writers as well—which is to construct an ending that is almost, in its way, a narrative implosion bomb; a series of smaller detonations in the lives of our big ensemble cast that converges and forms a shockwave that produces a concussive event at the end of the story. That was the idea we had for Season One. I think there were viewers who weren’t entirely sure why we were investing in this relationship between Abby and Elodie, and this dawning story about Abby’s sexual discovery. I love that story in and of itself and I loved Elodie’s character, so I was happy to spend that time with them. But, by the end of the season, that story sort of drives a series of larger complications, and it all leads to the moment where Frank sacrifices himself for Charlie. In the same way, this season was a puzzle that was very satisfying for us to construct. It was a series of stories where everyone—in their own way—had a part to play in this highly complicated and contingent set of mishaps and complications and misunderstandings that all lead to the final moment of the season.
Paste: It’s a similar idea in the penultimate episode when Charlie gives the speech about why they need to detonate the bomb in a highly populated area. You get the feeling that if he hadn’t had the crappy day he just had, things might have been different.
Shaw: That’s a very interesting question to me. I think the show tries to offer some sort of alternate theories about history. In [episode] 204, when Charlie is trying to convince Oppenheimer not to leave the project, Oppenheimer [argues] that [D-Day] would have happened whether or not there had been an Eisenhower, and certain historical events have their own gravitational force. The starting line-up can change, but the thrust of history is written in stone. I think this season posits that there will always be kind of an Ahab-like guy who is pushing this horrible device towards its inevitable invention. In Season One, that’s Frank. Frank then exits stage left, and Charlie is thrust into the center of the project and kind of out-Franks Frank in a way. He’s much better at being this single-minded author of the bomb than Frank was, and crosses a bunch of ethical lines that even Frank was unwilling to cross or has ever been willing to cross.
On the other hand, of course, history is so contingent. Our history consultant Alex Wellerstein loves talking about the fact that it’s a miracle that the bomb was built at allW and it was used in the way it was used. Historically, people often ask, ‘why didn’t Germany or Japan get to the bomb?’ He would rephrase the question as, ‘How is it possible that we ever built it?’ Largely, that was all the product of a bunch of misunderstandings and fuck-ups. Eventually, we just sort of blundered into this expensive project and we had no alternative but to push forward. If a whole series of stars didn’t align exactly, we wouldn’t have had the bomb in that particular window to drop it in World War II as we did. Edward Teller, who is known as the father of the hydrogen bomb, made an argument about the dropping of the bombs on Japan that is almost identical to the one Charlie makes at the committee meeting. As harrowing as that argument is, it was a real argument that these rational men involved with the project made.
Edward Teller and Oppenheimer also had this complicated personal dynamic, and I was always fascinated by the question of to what extent do the petty rivalries between human beings redraw maps? Teller had a prosthetic leg, which caused him a lot of pain and discomfort. I’ve read people speculating that maybe Teller became the guy he was—someone capable of imagining that cities should be eradicated—because he was living in constant pain. That’s an insane historical theory, but it’s something that’s really appealing to me because it reminds me of how much accident there is in the making of history, and how what shoes you’re wearing on a particular morning might affect the day you have, which could then bend the whole arc of your life and other peoples’ lives.
Paste: Obviously, as someone writing a narrative drama, you don’t want to be weighed down too much by history, but were there any guiding points in terms of the decisions these fictional characters make having some basis in history? Such as with Charlie’s speech and the Edward Teller connection?
Shaw: I wish I could say that we had a playbook or series of hard-and-fast rules for how we interact with history on our show. We don’t, and I tell the writing staff, ‘I think about it like the old line about pornography—I know it when I see it.’ It’s about letting the characters open up windows to history in any way we could. For example, we played around with the timeline of this story involving the real-life death of Robert Oppenheimer’s mistress. It’s really fascinating to me that he had this incredibly reckless relationship with this woman who was unbalanced, and a Communist and she was found drowned in her own bathtub. In truth, the circumstances of her death are highly dubious. There are real credible historians who don’t go out on a limb and argue that, yes, she was definitely murdered by the government because we don’t have the evidence, but they at least say there’s reason to question the official record of what this death means. This is a crazy, soap-operatic piece of history we never would have had the balls to invent on our own. We really wanted to explore it and thought it could open a window into Charlie and Abby’s marriage and Charlie’s willingness to compromise himself for what he’s come to consider ‘the greater good.’ So we played around with the dates of her suicide on our show. That felt acceptable to us.
On the other hand, we wouldn’t have changed the date of D-Day. On some level, the animating rule for us was, ‘We would like to think that our character stories, for the most part, could be stories that existed on the margins of known historical records and some of them may have been just left out of the history books, given that history is highly selective and has its own political aims when it’s recorded to paper.’ For the most part, the hardest thing in dealing with the history is that all of it is so fascinating and you have to be selective when you’re telling a story as complicated as this one is, with as deep a bench of characters and actors as we have and try to service them every week.
Paste: I love shows like The Leftovers or The Wire that can focus on different characters every week and sometimes a person who’s a major character in one episode will be in the next episode for 15 minutes. That’s something I feel Manhattan did to some extent. Is it hard to then make sure you service every character properly?
Shaw: So impossibly hard. It was the hardest part of our job this year. When we were thinking about the season and breaking the stories, we were thinking about a 13-episode season. Then, for a variety of reasons, it became a 10-episode season, which meant we would have to be even more creative in how we thought of the passage of time. We leap back and forward in time quite a bit, and that was a narrative necessity because of the episodic order of the season. We knew we left off [Season One] in April of 1944 and it would be important to show the aftermath of Frank’s departure, but we knew we were driving towards July 15, 1945. That was an immutable date in the historical calendar.
But along with that, there’s this other issue of this big ensemble of characters. We love all of them and we talked a lot about the first season of The Leftovers. Of any show last year, that was the one I found most exciting because I couldn’t predict what it was going to do next. The episodes I love best were the single, point-of-view episode like the Christopher Eccleston episode [“Two Boats and a Helicopter”] and the Carrie Coon episode, “Guest, “which was one of my favorite things I saw on TV that year. So we were really interested in the idea of some single, point-of-view episodes. That was the genesis, in some ways, of episode 202 where we catch up with Frank and what his circumstances are. For a while, we considered making that exclusively a Frank episode. And [episode] 203 is very much a Liza-heavy episode. So, in breaking the first half of the season, we had a big appetite for single character storytelling. It just happened that, given how few episodes we had, we weren’t able to commit as fully to that vision as we thought we might be able to.
Paste: Going back to the finale for a bit, you ended the episode with a lengthy montage set to “Skeletons” by Yeah Yeah Yeahs, which is obviously an anachronistic song, but fits that scene perfectly. What was the thought process going into that?
Shaw: Thank you, I’m so glad you dug it. I loved it. But it was a hard one. We ended Season One with a contemporary needle drop [“Future Primitives” by Papercuts]. That was, by the way, cut into the episode by an editor named Matt Colonna. He’s a brilliant editor, and it was totally surprising to us when we saw it. But it made perfect sense. In part, it was exciting in that season finale because we’d spent 13 episodes with all these characters living in a world that sounded, for the most part, like the 1940s. The music you hear is period music. Even if it’s not from the 1940s, the songs have a certain mid-century timeliness to them. The Staples Singers song [“Let’s Go Home”] in episode 101 feels like it could belong in the past in a way. When we abandoned those sounds, and broke that sound barrier and included a very different kind of song in [“Perestroika”], I think it was powerful for us narratively. It signaled a different aesthetic or sense that the show could operate according to different rules.
In many ways, it felt natural to repeat that magic trick in this season finale. In other ways, I was reluctant to play the same card twice and break the fourth wall in the same way again. The Yeah Yeah Yeahs song is a song I love, and one I think is profound. It does something that I think is important for that scene in that it’s full of a sense of movement and energy and a kind of driving anticipation, but it’s also mournful and melancholy in a way. Tonally, it felt right. It was one of the first songs we slotted in, and I loved it. Then, we tested about 50 or 60 other songs and then came back to it. I’m really glad we did, although it was literally down to the last minute. It was the day of our sound mix that we committed to using that song.
Paste: One other thing about that ending—obviously, it’s a very powerful moment seeing this atomic blast after all this build-up. Now, the image of the mushroom cloud has become—in the past 70 years—almost a thing of parody and it’s not as scary anymore. How did you decide to approach that ending with that in mind?
Shaw: It was the object of so many conversations. And you’re exactly right. This [mushroom cloud] image that once inspired existential panic, and fear and smallness in people doesn’t anymore. In part, I think we have replayed and rehearsed the end of the world by atomic bombs hundreds and thousands of times, and robbed it of its power. It’s like exposure therapy—we’ve become inured to the power of that image. We spent a lot of time figuring out how to dramatize that moment. I knew both [episode director] Tommy Schlamme and I wanted it to look and feel different from the atomic explosions in big summer tentpole movies. We wanted to try and give the audience, in some small way, a kind of taste of the experience that the scientists might have had. They saw something new, and awesome, and awful and something that seemed to renegotiate the contract between mankind and the world.
It also was important that the sequence was as subjective as it could be. Often, for me, the problem with atomic explosions in movies is that you see them in these big sweeping aerial shots, with this God-like objective point-of-view. For me, if I want to see Godzilla in a movie and have it strike fear deep into my heart, just show me one foot. Don’t show me the entire lizard. I wanted to know what it was like to see the Twin Towers fall when you were on the streets of lower Manhattan— not as if you were on a news helicopter. That was the context for all the discussions we had with our special effects team, as well as with Tommy and our [director of photography] Richard Rutkowski before they shot that final sequence. The important thing was for us to try and take something that has become familiarm and do our best to make it strange again.
One other thing to point out— in the beginning of the season, Richard Rutkowski was committed to shooting the end of this finale on film, not digitally. Our show is shot digitally, but the last act of Episode 10, which lasts about eight minutes, was all shot on film. It was an exciting thing for us to do. I think it’s subtle enough that a viewer isn’t conscious of it, but I think there’s an emotional difference in terms of the immediacy of the feeling of film versus digital. And the light effects were enhanced with VFX, but a lot of the lighting and the wind blowing in our characters’ faces were done practically on the day.
Also—and this was pure coincidence—but we shot the detonation of the bomb 70 years to the day, and almost to the minute of the actual test. We were shooting in New Mexico, a couple hundred miles away from the actual Trinity site. It was an eerie and profound thing for all of us. In a way, it was a somber day, because the scene between Meeks and Fritz is a wrecking ball of a scene for the whole crew and cast. There were not a lot of dry eyes at the monitor as we were watching Chris [Denham] and Michael perform that scene. The fact that we were doing it on that anniversary meant a lot to us.
Paste: Has there been any talk about a third season renewal?
Shaw: I will say this—I think the future and fate of the show is very much up-in-the-air. I would love nothing more than to be able to keep making this show with this cast and this crew and these writers. It’s been extraordinary. And, by the way, it’s not a surprise I’m springing on the network or anything, but the most exciting material is on the horizon. The end of World War II and what lies beyond is the most emotionally rich and complicated material. I’d like the get to that, but the truth is I don’t know. I will say that creatively, WGN has been an incredible partner to us, and always encouraged us to make the show we wanted to make. We’re hugely appreciative. We hope to be able to continue there and, if not, we hope to be able to find an afterlife somewhere else.
Paste: Obviously, you have to plan and write the season first. But would a third season have the characters still in Los Alamosm or in different areas? After all, Abby is going to California at the end of the episode.
Shaw: Yeah, I don’t want to say too much about when and where we pick the characters up. Obviously, Season Two played with time in a lot of ways that Season One didn’t. Season Three has its own unique approach to time, and I don’t want to spoil anything but—while there are some threads that take place elsewhere—Los Alamos remained a nucleus of weapons research and development for a long time after the end of World War II. It was the cradle in which these much more diabolical weapons system of the Cold War came to fruition. Let’s just say, we haven’t seen the last of Los Alamos as the hub for this story.
Paste: Ultimately, the network will decide what it decides, but is there anything that the fans of the show can do to help influence things?
Shaw: God, I wish I knew. I would love to say that I had some great idea for a fan campaign. It always helps to call your Congressman and tweet to the network (laughs). But the fans of our show have always been very supportive of it, so there’s not much more I can ask of them. We feel gratified to have the viewers we had. We just wish there were a lot more of them. I think that says more about this rich period of TV than it does about anything else.
Mark Rozeman is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow him on Twitter.