Manhattan: “Fatherland”

(Episode 2.02)

TV Reviews
Manhattan: “Fatherland”

For all those missing John Benjamin Hickey’s Frank from last week’s premiere, do not fear; “Fatherland” more than makes up for his absence. In fact, with the exception of a few select scenes here and there, it’s an episode almost entirely centered on his captivity and growing emotional despair. It’s a brilliant showcase for Hickey, and one that he predictably approaches with the utmost deftness and skill.

The episode opens with Frank awakening in a darkened cell and being questioned by Avrim Fischer. This scene does double duty in that it both establishes a chronology for Frank’s time in captivity whilst also allowing Richard Schiff to return for a brief cameo following his character’s brutal death last week. After interrogating our hero about a suspicious trip he took to Leipzig, Germany several years back, Fischer demands to know what he has heard of Magpie, the German scientist/informant who had his head lobbed off last season after being discovered by his superiors. Frank initially has no intel to give, but after examining some of the equations in Magpie’s documents (and consulting with a hallucination of Liza) he realizes that the Germans have stolen his equations for Implosion. When he tries to explain his revelation to the prison authorities, however, he is merely thrown back into captivity.

For a while, it seems as though this would be the basic gist of the episode—the escapades of Frank in an interment camp, perhaps with his conflicting thoughts taking the tangible forms of loved ones, as demonstrated in the Liza vision. Moreover, because Hickey is such a compelling actor, I’m positive he could have wandered silently around the jail for 45 minutes and I would find it just as fascinating. Instead, Frank soon finds himself locked in with another prisoner named Joseph (played by Weeds’ Justin Kirk). Though the two initially play coy with the backgrounds (Frank identifies himself as “Charlie Isaacs”), Joseph eventually lets it become known that he was arrested for being a Nazi sympathizer. In a bit that only an actor as charming as Kirk could pull off, Joseph specifies that he has no beef with the Jews but that he only ask for an “open debate” regarding their “conspiracy against good Aryans.”

Back in Los Alamos, Charlie Isaacs continues his attempts at becoming a better leader and husband. In an attempt to honor his newfound commitment and be more open with Abby, he even reveals the truth about the bomb they’re building. Meanwhile, the other members of Implosion find themselves heading out to the desert for an experiment. It’s here that the team encounters the carcass of an animal. Meeks, still shaken from seeing Fischer brutally murdered, displaces his guilt onto the animal’s body and demands that they give it a proper burial.

Through it all, however, the episode’s primary focus is with Frank and Joseph. Rightfully so, given that the setting offers the opportunity for a dynamite two-hander. Even if you guess right off the bat that Joseph is merely an army plant designed to uncover Frank’s true loyalties, it remains a dramatically sound vehicle for slowly un-peeling the layers of a character like Frank, who has spent the majority of the series in a near constant state of repression. That’s not to say the show doesn’t do its damndest to try to escalate the tension, with Joseph insisting that the army is attempting to implement a Tosa scenario. Named after a Japanese providence where they would pit dogs against each other in a duel to the death, the idea is to place two prisoners in a confined location and wait for one to kill the other. The fact that their captors immediately deliver a gun and a single bullet into the prison seems to confirm this notion. Though only introduced in the context of this episode, Tosa could very well have served as a central motif in Season One, where the fierce competition between Implosion and Thin Man indirectly resulted in Reed Akley’s suicide.

Beyond the walls of the internment camp, Tosa also weaves its way into the Los Alamos storylines. During a late night conversation with her husband, Abby wonders aloud, in a bit of ice-cold pragmatism, if the best course of action might be to simply eliminate the German engineers following the invasion of Europe. After all, the government has all the info on where to find both them and their families. When Charlie tries to counter that Oppenheimer came up together with many of these men and considers them colleagues, Abby simply asks, “If the Nazi gadget goes off, will they spare our friends?” Just as in Tosa, all compassion goes out the window in war, and one is only left with a kill-or-be-killed mentality.

Speaking of kill-or-be-killed, Frank’s ultimate breakdown comes after he and Joseph are accidentally locked in a boiler room while trying to access a phone line. As the two sweat into dehydration, Frank confirms the reason for his mysterious pilgrimage to Leipzig —he was seeking to reconnect with his German mother who abandoned him and his father in favor of a musical career back home. Despite leaving her family when Frank was little, the woman clearly left an unmistakable impression on her son, as evidenced by the phantom (or so it seems) music Frank hears throughout the hour—a German piece his mother would often play. Unfortunately, the woman chose country over blood and reported him to the Gestapo. The confession triggers something, and Frank attempts to shoot Joseph in order to escape alive. It’s here that Joseph reveals himself to be working undercover for the prison, and that the Tosa concept was a hoax.

Or was it? Frank awakens to find himself face-to-face with Col. Darrow who, in a bit of intimation that’s almost artful in its precision, identifies himself as “the United States of America.” It’s here that the Tosa concept is given its final iteration as Frank suddenly realizes that the government is not concerned about the Germans stealing his math equations, because they never had them in the first place. Indeed, the notion of any kind of “arms race” between the Americans and Germans for perfecting the atom bomb was all constructed by the government in an attempt to light a fire under the Manhattan Project team. It’s the ultimate form of Tosa—turn up the heat so the dogs will be more inclined to fight to the death. In spite of all his brilliance, Frank is merely a cog in a much larger machine.

After all the place-setting that went into the premiere, “Fatherland” has the subsequent real estate to tell a more focused, character-based story. And while a part of me wishes the creative team had gone the whole nine yards and just set the entire episode in the interment camp, the Los Alamos segments do nicely dovetail with the themes that resonant throughout the Frank/Joseph sequences. From the more sprawling, busy storylines of the premiere to the more insular, intimate moments here, Manhattan has readily demonstrated its ability to play with different structures, finding success and power in each.

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