WGN America's Manhattan made the leap in its second season, going from the promising but occasionally frustrating show it had been in year one to a TV show that thrilled, delighted, and made you contemplate the legacy of America's use of atomic weapons against Japan.
Set in Los Alamos, New Mexico, among those who designed and built the world's first atomic weapons, Manhattan follows the brilliant scientists who made the bomb a reality, as well as the families who love them and, increasingly, the many spies attempting to steal secrets of the bomb for US allies — to better position themselves for a postwar period rapidly hurtling toward the characters.
The second season begins and ends at the Trinity test site, where the world's first atomic bomb is about to be detonated, and in that ingeniously circular structure it sets up a bunch of tiny plot bombs in the premiere that it then detonates before the finale. Why isn't Frank, the series' protagonist, welcome at the test site? How can an embedded Soviet spy still be in the good graces of the team, who don't suspect him? And just who is this new character played by CSI's William Petersen?
Then the season culminates in finale "Jupiter," one of the best TV episodes of the year, a bold, bracing, hugely moving episode of television that turns that first explosion into a mournful look at what was and what came to be. I called up creator and showrunner Sam Shaw to talk with him about the season that was, why we need to think more about our atomic legacy, and whether a season three is coming.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
On our atomic legacy: "We have a really ambivalent relationship to this part of our history"
Growing up in the US, it sure seems to me like we almost never talked about how we're still the only country to have dropped an atomic bomb. Obviously, I know that intellectually, but it's not like it comes up all that often in, say, history classes. So this season of Manhattan is directly about that moral question: What happens if we become the kind of nation that would do this? What interests you about that topic?
It's an incredibly important question and an animating question for the show. I mean, I grew up in America, too, and I didn't spend a lot of time thinking about the bomb, either, before that was my job.
It's not just that we dropped this bomb. That was the bed in which America was conceived. The country that we are now was born on the other side of World War II, and the context of America becoming a superpower was this unimaginable, asymmetrical military force that we had demonstrated. The question is, what are the costs of being a giant? What are the costs of being a superpower? I think it's a little bit of a cop-out to overlook that moment in our history.
Just this year, legislation passed to create a Manhattan Project national park, and to preserve some of these historical spaces that are connected to the birth of the atomic bomb. It's incredible that that didn't happen a long time ago. A lot of the buildings that produced the bomb have been torn down. They've fallen into disrepair. The Trinity site in New Mexico is open one day a year. I don't think that's a coincidence. I think we have a really ambivalent relationship to this part of our history, because it's really hard to know how to feel about it. I think that's interesting. Often, the things that you're uncomfortable looking at are things we ought to be looking at and talking about.
A lot of people saw the first season of our show and didn't perceive it to be a show that was engaged fundamentally with the moral questions at the center of building the bomb. To me, that was entirely what the show was. It just happens that the characters in the show in season one don't have the moral benefits of hindsight that the viewers have now. It took some time for some characters who live in the world of the show to begin to see the endgame of this weapon that they were building.
In episode nine, Charlie [one of the lead scientists on the project in the show] makes the argument for dropping the bomb on Japan. I realize this is a cover version of history, but do you get queasy about having your fictional characters do things others actually did in real life?
We never saw this show as Law and Order: Atomic Bomb — like it was going to be ripped from the headlines of history. But at the same time, I think a lot of viewers might be surprised by how many of the details of the storytelling are inspired by the history.
For example, the argument Charlie makes in that scene is such a chilling argument. You feel it's an argument that maybe the emperor would make in Star Wars: The way to introduce the world to atomic war is to drop an atomic bomb and make sure that it is absolutely horrific. There's this sense that because of the realities of politics and failures of human imagination, if you don't make it really, really horrible, human wars are just going to continue the way they always have, and maybe it will be considered socially acceptable to use atomic bombs in warfare.
It's a pretty harrowing argument, and it may be one that has some emotional context for Charlie, given everything that he's fucked up and all the wreckage that's behind him by this point. He sort of decides that he needs to shoot the moon and make sure that this bomb cures the world of war, and that'll justify everything.
It's a horrifying argument, but it's also an argument that Edward Teller made. There's some letters that he wrote in which he says it in really clear terms. Some people think of [Teller] as sort of the Darth Vader of the Manhattan Project, but he's a really fascinating guy and not a monster. In that case, Charlie, at least for a few minutes, is covering Edward Teller.
On building season two: "We've created this bizarro historical recreation theme park"
Season two vastly expands the geography of the show. Where season one was pretty focused on Los Alamos, season two starts incorporating more of the nation at large. How far can you go before the story snaps apart?
It's a really hard show to make from a production standpoint. We've created this incredible world like a bizarro historical recreation theme park, where you can walk around 11 acres of 1940s Los Alamos. So it's not economically feasible for us to do a lot of sightseeing and traveling. It's a difficult thing for us to do on a basic cable budget. I also think it raises some questions about what the center of the show is. How far-flung can it become?
What I'll say is that moving forward, there are aspects of the story that do take place farther afield and that are really important and interesting parts of the history that we'd love to be able to explore. Even [after] World War II, Los Alamos continued to be the sort of world capital of weapons of mass destruction R&D. It just happened that it was under the gist of the Cold War.
A fair number of people left at the end of the war and certainly saw Los Alamos as a temporary home when they moved there and bridled against all these draconian security measures and having their phones tapped and their mail read. But a surprising number of people stayed. What does it mean to somebody who's dedicated to stopping one war that you become part of a machine turning out thousands and thousands of instruments of destruction?
You only had 10 episodes, but you told 18 months' worth of story. Why did you decide you needed to make it to the first atomic bomb test by the end of this season?
In thinking about the life cycle of the show, before we went out and sold it, I spent a lot of time thinking about what the show was about. When it starts, it seems to be a show about World War II, but it becomes something else. [Read more about Shaw's plans here.] There's also the history — the big, tentpole events that are so dramatic that you want to dramatize them.
I saw the end of World War II and the dropping of the bombs in Japan as a kind of International Date Line that bisects the series into two eras. There's a before and after. And although our patrons at WGN America have really been incredible creative supporters and partners and left us to make the show that we wanted to make, I think they were eager to see a bomb actually go off. It's also the case that in the trajectory of the story, it felt like now is the time to get to Trinity [the first atomic bomb test], so we can get to what's next. It seems counterintuitive to a lot of people, but to me, the most complicated and morally fascinating and dramatic aspects of the history don't come until after the end of World War II.
We initially made this decision to organize season two around Trinity before we knew exactly how many episodes we would be making. There's no question that the biggest storytelling challenge that we had to get our heads around was how to travel 18 months over the course of 10 episodes. But it seemed really clear to us that what this season was going to be all about on some level was taking the bomb from an abstraction to a practical reality — from a math problem to a weapon of mass destruction.
You obviously had to choose, then, which characters to focus on. How did you make those calls?
That was something we talked a lot about before we even got into the writers' room. To what extent could we take these episodes and treat them almost as point-of-view episodes?
Looking back at season one, at times we tried to service everybody in every episode, and it wasn't always successful. I don't think it always helped with the thrust of the individual character stories. I'm a guy who likes episodes. I like a story with a beginning, a middle, and an end. I'm not the kind of writer and producer who feels like you ought to be able to take a scene from episode six that won't fit because of time constraints and push it into episode eight.
I'm a huge fan of The Leftovers. There were a couple episodes in that first season that just had a huge impact on me. Critically, there's sort of a consensus around them that they were really profound episodes of TV. And they were single point-of-view episodes. So we had these great ambitions to do a handful of episodes that would really be single-character episodes. When we realized that we were going to have to cover 18 months in 10 episodes, it became harder for us to justify that approach. But particularly in the early going, that was our goal for ourselves. Episode two is really a Frank episode; three is really Liza's episode in some profound ways.
Which characters and stories do you wish you'd been able to spend more time on?
I think this troupe of actors that make this show are so incredible. One of the greatest aspects of my job is getting to write for them, because they're all so incredibly good, and they always deliver. It's painful to have to give anybody short shrift, but I will say there are a few pieces of Helen's story that I wish we had been able to tell. I think her journey got shorthanded, and I wish we hadn't been forced to shorthand it. Harry Lloyd is so good, and he really gets a rewarding part in episodes eight and nine, but I wish we'd had more for him earlier.
I always love seeing Olivia Williams, and she had a lot more to do this year than last year. The one thing that was really difficult for us as writers last year was that by virtue of her role within the ecosystem of Los Alamos, she's a character who is excluded from the secret of what it was the scientists were building in this place. That structurally kept her on the sidelines of the storytelling. It was really helpful for us to actually draw her into the secret. But even though we saw much more of her, I would always love to see more Liza.
On the finale: "The Trinity test is a moment when the human race invents an instrument of suicide"
Frank and Liza's marriage was such a bedrock principle of season one. Why did you put it to the test this season?
Frank and Liza's marriage doesn't really go through a wringer in season one, but on the other hand, Frank is a really terrible husband. I believe Frank and Liza share something that is really profound. My wife and I are both writers, so we talk about writing. She's a writer on the show now, and that's the lifeblood of our connection to each other. For Frank and Liza, that was science, and of course, that conversation gets silenced and shut down when they move to Los Alamos and she gets separated from her own work.
Frank has made a lot of really fucked-up mistakes. In a way, I think season two between Frank and Liza only begins to pay the overdue tab on season one between Frank and Liza. Part of it was interesting to think about what it would be for Liza to spend the first half of this season working to bring Frank home, when everybody else has abandoned that question — to succeed but not to entirely have forgiven him. The fact that she feels an obligation to save Frank doesn't mean she made peace with everything that has happened along the way.
You made some big moves in the finale, but perhaps none bigger than Fritz finding out Jim Meeks [a Soviet spy] had led to the death of Fritz's wife, and then killing himself with the weight of that knowledge. Why did Fritz's story end here?
There are a few love stories in the show, and to me, none of those love stories has ever been quite as poignant as the love story between Meeks and Fritz. There's something about the purity of that friendship that I find really poignant.
It became clear to us at a really early stage that Fritz was the casualty of this spy story. We wanted to tell a spy story that wasn't an Ian Fleming spy story, or a John le Carré spy story, but a story about a guy with moral misguided reasons, who stumbles into a really messy journey, at grievous cost. We knew what was coming.
We thought about delaying it. But part of it actually for me had to do with the question of how we represent the bomb at the end of two seasons of talking about the bomb. I wanted to make sure at some level that that final moment wasn't a dazzling fireworks display. It's a really complicated thing that you've told the story of these characters whose objective is to build this weapon. It's natural to pull for their success at times, which can be an uncomfortable experience for an audience when they remember exactly what it is that they're rooting for. Discomfort is at the center of the whole story.
So how do you show this weapon and ensure that the audience will feel something of the real visceral, moral shock that a lot of the scientists on the ground felt when they saw it for the first time? We've seen so many mushroom clouds, they've sort of lost any ability to shock us. Whether it was a force for good or ill, [the bomb] was a horrible instrument of death. That's what it was.
Tommy Schlamme [the series' directing producer] was very fond of saying from early on that the Trinity test is a moment when the human race invents an instrument of suicide. It's a story about suicide. As painful as it was, that this character, who if anything, is the least morally compromised person in the universe of the show, should be a casualty of that night as well — that sort of had a feeling of rightness to it.
It also made me feel absolutely horrible. For a very long time, I would shoot withering looks at anybody in the writers' room who wanted to talk about that scene, and there was a card on the board that described that scene that I kept taking off the board and hiding and putting away. I love Michael Chernus, and he's such a deep, great actor and a soulful actor. It was not a choice that we made lightly, and it was made by some people who were really heartsick to make it.
Even weirder still, we wound up shooting those scenes on the 70th anniversary of the Trinity test. If you can believe it, it was a total coincidence. It was hard for any of us to be there and to be shooting those scenes and not feel a kind of somber weight, and it felt important that the audience feel that too.
How do you think Frank knowing Meeks's secret will shift that relationship going forward?
A thing that was always interesting to me and the writers is that Frank and Meeks are kind of mirror images in this season. They both had a moral awakening. Whether you agree with the morality of their positions or not, they both had a moment of moral reckoning. They've become very disillusioned with this project that they're involved with. They're both, in a way, trying to atone. It just happens that they go about those missions in completely and diametrically opposed ways. It really felt right to us for that reason from the beginning that this be a season that ends with these two guys in a little room.
There's a historical fact that I loved from the beginning. This guy named Don Hornig actually did what Meeks does in this final episode. He climbed up this 100-foot lightning rod basically in the middle of this apocalyptic thunderstorm, and he babysat the bomb overnight to make sure that nobody could sabotage it. It was clear to me from a very early point that that had to be Meeks in our story.
In terms of where that puts them moving forward, now Frank and Meeks are the only two people on the planet who know exactly what happened to Fritz, and Frank is one of two people besides Meeks who knows what Meeks has been up to for the last year. I hope we get a chance to write it.
What was the impetus to score the world's first atomic explosion with the very modern "Skeleton" by the Yeah Yeah Yeahs? That must have been a long discussion.
What is the last dance before the apocalypse? We spent a huge amount of time talking about that cue. We auditioned a lot of different pieces of music, and sometimes on our show there will be music choices that are so important to a scene that they'll be scripted, and this wasn't one of those. There were some other pieces that were really, really interesting.
In our season finale last year, we had this song "Future Primitive" by the Papercuts. It was such a strange effect, particularly after having not heard any contemporary sounds over the course of that whole season.
I actually, sort of emphatically, didn't want to use a piece of contemporary music at the end of this finale, if only because I didn't want to repeat it. But it just happened when I saw the ending cut against this piece of music. It did something to me emotionally — especially since this is the moment that catapults the characters in the world into a new era. It felt appropriate to have this sort of elegiac, triumphal, but sad and complicated piece of contemporary music at the end.
Are you confident or pessimistic about a season three renewal?
There's no question that our audience is a lot smaller than we wish it were. There's probably no one that works in TV who would say anything different, but it's absolutely the case for us. We've always said from the beginning that to me the most interesting and the most exciting material is just on the other side of World War II. It's a part of this story that I always really wanted to tell, and I'll be really sad if I don't get the chance.
I also have no idea. We were picked up last year before our finale aired. I don't know if we're going to get a chance to continue at WGN or whether there's an afterlife for us someplace else. What I know is that there's great stories to be told. I hope we get a chance to do it.