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Manhattan blows up an atomic bomb in the best season finale of the year

Season two goes out with the biggest bang of them all.

The atomic bomb explodes.
The atomic bomb explodes.
WGN America
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

Every Sunday, we pick a new episode of the week. It could be good. It could be bad. It will always be interesting. You can read the archives here. The episode of the week for December 13 through 19, 2015, is "Jupiter," the season two finale of WGN America's Manhattan.

No TV show of the fall impressed me with its episode endings more than Manhattan.

The skill of ending an episode in a way that underscores its specific story and themes is slowly dying. As television continues its move toward heavy serialization, the ending of any given episode still matters, but mostly in the sense that it will make you want to watch the next one immediately. For example, the final battle in Game of Thrones' "Hardhome" is awesome, but it doesn't bring any sort of thematic unity to the episode; it's just ridiculously fun to watch.

However, in all 10 episodes of Manhattan's second season, the closing moments perfectly sum up everything that preceded them. I'm thinking, for instance, of episode seven, "Behold the Lord High Executioner," in which the man who's playing said executioner in a production of The Mikado has to process the fact that his dalliances in espionage have led to the death of his friend's wife — all while he's onstage. Or episode five, "The World of Tomorrow," which closes with a lovely montage that ties together all of the show's characters amid the words of a journalist who's writing about them.

I suppose, then, that Manhattan airing my favorite season finale of the year is something I should have seen coming.

There are few stakes higher than an atomic bomb going off

Manhattan finale atomic bomb.
It's the end of the world as we know it on Manhattan.
WGN America

The focus of that finale, titled "Jupiter," is the Trinity test, which detonated an atomic bomb for the first time in the history of the world. The majority of Manhattan's characters are present to witness the explosion, and those who aren't are affected by it in ways that hugely impact their lives.

This all makes sense. Manhattan is about the Manhattan Project, so it was expected that we'd see a nuclear bomb explode somewhere along the line. But what "Jupiter" does so well is reinfuse the resulting mushroom cloud with the kind of gravity that the iconic image has lost over the years.

To talk about this, I'm going to have to detour into a scene from Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. That much-maligned fourth film in the Indiana Jones franchise features a shot of Indy — recently ejected from a nuclear test site by just such an explosion, thanks to his quick decision to hide away in a lead-lined fridge — watching a mushroom cloud billow upward through the sky.

The moment is easy to laugh at, because on a purely rational level it doesn't make a lick of sense. There's no way Indy could have survived that explosion! Yet it works on an emotional, gut level. Here is a man who has faced down so many supernatural horrors throughout his previous adventures, who closed his eyes as the wrath of God escaped the Ark of the Covenant in Raiders of the Lost Ark, and now he's up against the purest expression of humanity's capacity to destroy itself. This is not a moment of lighthearted, escapist fun. This is a moment of horror-filled awe.

And it's important to remember that mushroom clouds are apocalyptic harbingers, if nothing else. What's impressive is how Manhattan finds a way to remind us of this fact by barely showing the mushroom cloud at all. Instead, it shows you the flash of light from the bomb, a man standing in front of it but not facing it.

He raises a gun to his head, and director Thomas Schlamme frames the shot so that you just barely see him do this in the lower right corner of the frame. He's not what's important here, right? The flash of light is. But we're following his motion as he blows his brains out, crumpling, the hints of a mushroom cloud beginning to coalesce behind him.

The show fades to a black that feels darker than usual. If the episode's soundtrack had included "So it goes," the famous refrain from Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five that darkly laughs about how tragedy and death are just another part of life, it would have been wholly appropriate.

The season two finale revolves around one very important, existential question

John Benjamin Hickey in Manhattan
Frank (John Benjamin Hickey) slowly comes to realize the bomb is going to be built, no matter what.
WGN America

If Manhattan's second season commits a chief sin, it's that its eyes are too big for its stomach. A lot of story transpires over the course of its 10 episodes, leading to occasional whiplash for certain characters, who might receive a seemingly important promotion in one episode, only to have it rescinded the next time we see them. The story of the season takes place over 18 months, and cramming all of that into just 10 hours of television left the show feeling breathless from time to time.

But this huge amount of story turns out to be a bit of a value add to "Jupiter," which has the sweeping feel of an epic, even though a large portion of it takes place in one small room atop the tower that holds the world's first nuclear bomb. Inside, there are two men working with wrenches; outside, a thunderstorm rages, and the two men wonder if there's any way to stop the atomic bomb from being born, short of murdering all of the scientists working on the project.

And if anything made Manhattan's second season that much stronger, it was the way everything in it circled back to that existential question: If you can invent a weapon that will destroy the world, should you? And is it inevitable that someone else will if you don't?

The series' protagonist, Frank Winter (John Benjamin Hickey), spends much of the season having awakened to the fact that the US government has no particular plans to stop development of the bomb, even if the Nazis aren't nearly as close to building their own bomb as he'd initially believed. Indeed, the Nazis surrender around the season's midpoint, and the show simply blows right past this development. The bomb is happening, like it or not.

So then the question becomes, "What is the most ethical way to deal with a weapon of mass destruction?" Do you work like hell to make sure only your country has it? Do you covertly leak secrets to other countries in the hopes that mutually assured destruction will create a kind of detente, a wary peace that lasts? Or do you plan to use the bomb in such a horrific manner that the world steps back from the prospect of ever using it again — branding yourself a monster in the process?

The thing I find most thrilling about Manhattan season two is the way it wrestles with these questions in a way that much of television just doesn't. The common approach to historical fiction on TV is to work from the outside in. The Americans' Philip and Elizabeth Jennings are informed by the history unfolding around them, but they make choices in spite of that history. The epic becomes intimate. On Manhattan, decisions are made from the inside out. The characters' inner turmoil becomes decisions made in a moment, with history-altering implications. A bad day for one scientist leads to him making a persuasive argument to bomb a Japanese population center. The intimate becomes epic.

And then there's that man, raising a gun as the apocalypse swells behind him. You might want to shove that bullet back into the gun, but you also know you can't. The world erupts, changes, and there's nowhere left to go but forward, past the burnt sands and into some new, awful tomorrow full of promise.

Manhattan is available for digital download. Season one is streaming on Hulu.

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