For close to two seasons, the world of Manhattan has existed on an increasingly volatile web of lies and cover-ups. With “Human Error,” the cracks are beginning to show and the levees look dangerously close to breaking. And while this no doubt causes no shortage of stress for our main characters, it makes for endlessly rich television.
Once again, the episode’s major storyline falls to Frank who, after a few weeks of stony estrangement, reconnects with Charlie so that the two might figure out what exactly went wrong with a failed test bomb. This time around, Frank employs a “catch more bees with honey” approach, as success with this task means that he’ll be able to crawl out from under Colonel Darrow’s thumb and get his old job back. Certainly, Charlie could use Frank’s ego massage given that news of Hitler’s suicide has rightly shifted focus away from the bomb, thus further undermining his already shaky authority. As the two burn the midnight oil, it becomes abundantly clear that Charlie is experiencing a major moral conflict about his job—to the point where he continues to deny that the government will be dropping the bomb on civilians. His insecurities come to the forefront in a beautifully constructed shot where he stands before the weapon rig, which looms over his relatively small figure like a monster ready to devour him. Later, during a late-night heart-to-heart with Frank, he voices his internal struggles in a speech that could very much serve as a thesis for the show:
“You come here believing you’re here to save lives, and you tell yourself you’ll sacrifice the few to save the many. Pretty soon, everything’s negotiable and you can’t remember what you came here for in the first place. It’s all turned around.”
For Frank, the phrase “turned around” sparks an idea. After briefly withholding the answer as blackmail, Frank reveals that it was a simple mix-up: the detonators were painted the wrong color. Having been taken down a peg, Charlie now seems more open to Frank’s proposal: explode the bomb on an uninhabited island rather than dropping it on an actual city. By episode’s end, however, we learn that Frank was directly responsible for sabotaging the bomb in the first place. As such, he used his own expertise as leverage to secure all his demands—primarily, being reinstated to his former position. In addition, Frank deftly orchestrated his emotional bond with Charlie in order to push forward his own agenda about how the bomb should be used.
It’s one of Manhattan’s ultimate, ironies that despite taking his government to task for their lies and deceptions, Frank has spent the past two seasons demonstrating the kind of Machiavellian tendencies that would have made him a natural fit for Darrow’s job in another life. Whether it be Sid, Charlie, or Liza, he is all too willing to exploit those around him in the name of whatever he feels to be the greater good. After all, he ended up using Charlie’s own legitimate moral epiphany as a launching pad for his own manipulations. Even before that, he successfully recognizes the boy’s apparent daddy issues and skillfully slides himself into a quasi-father figure role.
Meanwhile, we get a very clear picture of exactly why Charlie has such intense daddy issues. Perhaps the most unexpected joy of the episode comes with the introduction of Charlie’s jailbird father, Eli (played by Brad Garrett). Between this and Fargo, Garrett is really working to shed any last remnants of his Robert Barone screen persona. That’s not to say there aren’t elements of Garrett’s more light-hearted tendencies still intact. Indeed, the show’s creative team cleverly uses Garrett’s inherent affability to their advantage, setting him up as a reformed criminal looking to start anew before abruptly pulling the carpet out from under their audience.
Upon hearing that her father-in-law is hanging around the base, Abby begs permission from Darrow to travel out and meet him. She subsequently finds herself trading verses with the colonel. He asserts that she should respect her husband’s wishes to keep away; she appeals to his soft spot for family by pointing out how Eli has never even met his grandson. It’s the kind of small-scale negotiation scene that the show does so well. In any case, Abby wins the argument, but soon discovers why Charlie has chosen to shun his father. After some initial pleasantries, Eli blatantly plays up his own desire for a close-knit Jewish family in order to recruit his daughter-in-law for an illicit proposal—using Charlie’s top-secret government intel to establish a weapons business for Jews. Disgusted, Abby takes herself out of the conversation, but not before Eli reveals that he was imprisoned because Charlie tipped off the police. Knowing that her husband was capable of betraying his own father—no matter how crooked he was—no doubt plants further seeds of doubt about her marriage.
Elsewhere, character dynamics are shifting left and right. As the episode opens, Fritz remains in mourning over Jeannie, whose death was apparently set-up by Nora to look like a freak construction accident. Needless to say, the knowledge of what he’s indirectly done to his friend is tearing Jim apart. Nora, ever the smooth sailor, assures him that he’s the “linchpin” of their operation and must stay the course. This gets complicated after Jim accidentally stumbles upon several of Nora’s reports relating to “Perseus,” another Soviet spy on the hill. Suddenly, he’s not feeling quite so special.
Speaking of other spies—in the wake of Hitler’s fall, Hogarth begins making plans with Paul to escape the base with sensitive atomic secrets. The two are quickly discovered and, after Hogarth attempts to throw Paul under the bus, his partner-in-crime reveals that he has been double-crossing him for the past five months. It’s a nice development, given that Paul always seemed far too intelligent and cynical to ever fully believe Hogarth’s lies about seeing his family again.
“Human Error” goes a long way toward crystallizing how every interaction in the show—no matter how intimate or seemingly sincere they may seem—works as a proverbial game of chess, with each participant looking to find their opponent’s Achilles’ Heel. Such a dynamic is present in almost every plotline of the episode, from the small (Abby’s interactions with Darrow and Eli), to the more overtly significant (Nora and Jim’s spy/Frank’s manipulation of Charlie). Surely, in the world of Manhattan, trust serves as the most valuable kind of currency. From the looks of it, however, things are about to come crashing down sooner rather than later.