Manhattan: “33”

(Episode 2.06)

TV Reviews
Manhattan: “33”

Much like Mad Men, Manhattan revolves around fictional characters being bombarded by the inevitable, unstoppable force that is history. Unlike Matt Weiner’s prestige drama, however, the show’s characters do not have the benefit of existing in the more conceptually amorphous decade that is the 1960s. No, Frank, Liza, Abby, Charlie et al. are battling against a tide that is perfectly calibrated to bring only destruction and misery to their lives. They’re not only living in a time of war, but also trying to grasp for control in an environment where there is none. As the conclusion to “33” aptly displays—even an inspiring, television-friendly victory is no match against the onslaught of documented history.

But let’s come back to that. “33” mostly exists as an entry to move each storyline forward in incremental installments. Or, in the case of the show’s final scene, a monumental step forward that ultimately results in people slipping and falling on their butts. As expected, Abby’s miscarriage has driven the Isaacs—who were already walking on eggshells—further and further apart. While Charlie finds himself reconnecting with former mistress Helen, Abby becomes suspicious/intrigued with Paul who—based on his enigmatic, undocumented phone calls—she believes has a secret, unscrupulous agenda. That being said, it’s hard to deny that the two have somewhat of a burgeoning In the Mood for Love thing going on, wherein they both are able to bond over the fact that their respective partners (Charlie and Helen) left them to be with each other at one point.

These bits of domestic drama combined with espionage dovetail nicely with Frank’s storyline, wherein he tries to convince all of the Hill’s scientists to unionize in time for when Roosevelt’s scientific advisor Vannevar Bush visits the base. When using Helen as the cause’s mouthpiece proves to be less than effective (in a sign of the times, she recommends getting an inside man who’s “actually on the inside…or a man”), Frank begins circulating a petition. In a passive-aggressive move to get him away from Bush, Charlie orders that Frank be taken to a testing facility on the outskirts of the desert until Bush has completed his inspection. It’s here that, on his way out of the base, our hero sees Fischer’s submerged car being brought in and abruptly finds himself visited by the ghost of his former tormenter.

Between this and The Leftovers, television appears to be having a new renaissance of potentially imaginary friends that literalize the internal discord of its main characters. Given that Frank has had visions before in times of great emotional stress, Fischer’s appearance is not out of the realm of possibility, though I do hope that this indicates a sign of mental deterioration to come as opposed to a one-off excuse to bring Richard Schiff back into the fold (which, to be clear, I would have no actual problem with). Desperate to get his one shot at engaging Bush, Frank eventually decides to expose himself to a massive amount of radiation so that his colleagues have no choice but to take him back to the base for medical evaluation.

Speaking of Fischer, one can imagine it’s only a matter of time before the revelation of his car begins to gnaw away at Jim’s psyche. For now, he seems to be in blissful ignorance and enjoying his new stint as a lead actor in the Hills’ production of The Mikado. I’m no expert at theater, but the little I know of The Mikado involves its gleefully dark meditation on death, so don’t know if that’s the best sign for Jim’s continued existence.

Meanwhile, Abby, steadfast in her impression of Paul, attempts to go to Colonel Darrow with her suspicions. In a bit of unexpected business, Darrow seems less concerned with Abby’s report than bonding with her over the importance of religion in these trying times. Here, Darrow is the most vulnerable we’ve ever seen him. He even goes as far as to admit that his wife was in a horrible accident that left her immobilized and in pain. Still, he maintains that pain is God’s way of reminding us that we’re alive. As a soldier who’s no doubt seen his fair share of horrors, it’s not out of the question that this is a mantra Darrow would cling to. Besides humanizing the character, however, this admission also serves to highlight the gulf between his sensibility and that of our other main characters who desire a less destructive end to this conflict.

In the end, the episode concludes with Frank, having returned to the base, giving what in any normal film or TV show would be the rousing speech that inspires the troops to righteous victory. In a lengthy monologue that John Benjamin Hickey absolutely kills, Frank outlines that, whether his colleagues believe in the bomb or not, they should have the right to help dictate its usage. It’s here that the term “tickling the dragon’s tail”—a whimsical phrase used to describe fiddling with the fissile materials before you get a potentially deadly self-sustaining nuclear reaction—reaches its thematic zenith. “33” is filled with characters tickling the dragon’s tail in both small and big ways—whether it’s Charlie risking his marriage by flirting with Helen, Abby conducting a personal investigation into Paul’s extracurricular activities, or Frank literally exposing himself to just enough radiation to be freed from his imprisonment.

Here, in the final moments, Frank manages to wrangle together a good portion of the scientists to confront Darrow with their demands. It’s, in a way, the ultimate tickling the dragon’s tail, in that they’re playing with a literal representation of the government’s repressive policies. In a show filled with numerous failed attempts at bucking authority, one gets the sense that this is the closest our men and women have come to enacting actual change.

Unfortunately, this is when real-life history (somewhat conveniently) rears its ugly head. No sooner have Frank and his compatriots locked eyes with Darrow than the colonel receives word that President Roosevelt has died. Though it remains to be seen how exactly this will affect Frank’s mission, it’s probably safe to say he’s lost some serious momentum. And so, yet again, our characters finds themselves trumped by history.

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