Manhattan Returns For Season 2, And Something's...Off
But it's intentional. WGN's great Manhattan returns for Season 2. How well you understand it may depend on how much you remember from last year.
I hate to tell you this, but from the opening moments of Manhattan's Season 2 premiere, "Damnatio Memoriae," to the very last, something's off. The good news: it's intentional. We're seeing most of the same characters we left last fall, but every moment is tilted juuuust slightly on its axis by the weight of one simple, oft-repeated question: "Where's Frank Winter?" This creates a tension that exceeds reason: you're watching the show, you're maybe watching it on a network screener site that features the face of Frank Winter on its splash page, yet you begin to think: "Wait, did they get rid of John Benjamin Hickey? Was there some contract hardball that changed everything?" And around two-thirds of the way through, you even begin to resign yourself to watching a show built around Charlie Isaacs -- and it's good, but it's missing something. Then, in the last two minutes of the show, in a flash-forward, we are given a something of a reprieve. Is it cheating? Slightly. Is it satisfying? It is!
Here's the other thing: Manhattan is a show that (a) you really should have watched last season; and (b) doesn't care what you remember. The title of the S2 opener is "Damnatio Memoriae," which (I had to look this up) translates to "condemnation of memory," meaning: to erase someone from history. It's never encouraging when you have to look up a Latin episode title (hi, The Leftovers!), since more than anything it makes you feel like you're at the mercy of someone else's expensive education.
But here, as in the season opener of The Leftovers, it's a legitimate Latin phrase that absolutely connects to the contents of its episode. In the case of Manhattan, though, goddamn if I didn't look at my notes at several points and say, "Wait, why again is that person pissed?" It may not hurt, in other words, to jog on over to Hulu and brush up on what happened in the S1 finale. With that in mind, let's go ahead and rank this week's premiere from things that are least confusing to those that are most confusing!
Things I Remembered
Frank went away: This we know because literally every three minutes one character looks at another and says, "Where's Frank?" OR someone storms into a room and yells, "WHERE'S FRANK WINTER?" This is the opposite of a complaint, by the way, because on a lot of other shows you're likely to have a lot of characters ignoring basic information as a matter of narrative convenience. What's great about "Damnatio Memoriae" is how several people give definitive answers to each other -- he's dead, he ran off, he's been transferred to another, even more top-secret department -- and the viewer starts to think some of those answers could be right. Frank could be dead. Or he could have been whisked away by agent X-4 under the guise of espionage and dumped into another department. By episode's end, we still don't know the first thing of what happened to Frank Winter, except that he's apparently not dead.
Robert Oppenheimer is a dick: We already know, since "Robert Oppenheimer" is the only name most of us associate with the atomic bomb, that Oppenheimer is a manipulative credit-grabber. That's how history works. Here we see him elevating Charlie Isaacs to head of the group -- not because he's smarter and not because he's got leadership skills, but, as Helen points out, because he can be pushed around. Meaning: Helen, who's much smarter than most of the others and knows it, wouldn't be. What I didn't remember about Oppenheimer is that he, like everyone else in the show, is at the mercy of the spy program. As much as Manhattan is about the last age before Total Annihilation was a worldwide reality, it's also about the moment when we as a nation handed ourselves over to government surveillance.
Abby Isaacs Is Pregnant: She barfed in the scene right before Helen came a-calling. Helen was looking for Charlie, but got a faceful of reality from Abby and Charlie Jr., whatever the hell his name is. In "Damnatio Memoriae," Abbey's condition is the catalyst for Charlie recommitting to his family and moving them on up to...Frank and Liza's now-abandoned home.
Things That Were Less Clear
Frank and Liza have a daughter: Callie is her name? She's a teenager? Ring a bell? She was around at the beginning of S1, and then she kinda went offscreen for most of the season. Then she started a romance with creepy crack-shot Cole and started making Secret Plans in the world's most secretive place. When Liza gets wind of this in the premiere, she kidnaps Cole to lead her to Callie -- but he pulls a switcheroo and gets Liza in deep with the feds. Phew! In the end, Liza trades her cooperation for putting Callie on a bus. Bye, Callie's head, not really visible behind a pair of huge sunglasses! This seems like a classic move -- "Where's [character X]? Oh, he moved back to Terre Haute? Got it" -- but maybe Callie will return with a crucial piece of atomic information for Frank or something.
Charlie and Helen Are A Thing: The episode is bookended by a flash-forward to fifteen months after the events of the premiere, but when we get back to the Now of 1944, we open on Charlie and Helen waking up in bed together. This arrangement doesn't last the episode, due to Charlie's learning about Abby's pregnancy. But also, do Charlie and Abby really think they can just pretend all of Season 1 didn't happen? That we last see them through a spider-cracked window doesn't bode well.
Meeks was the mole: Or rather, "the guy on the team who never, ever mattered the whole season turned out to be the one they were looking for the whole time." In hindsight, it should have been pretty obvious, given that every character named Meeks is always the turncoat everyone's been looking for. (I'm not going to enumerate examples here, but you can look it up.) Anyway, Meeks -- whom everyone thinks is mourning his dead mother -- goes off-base to bury a CODE-FILLED HERSHEY BAR in the woods, but is caught by Occam/Agent X-4, who is then garrotted by Meeks's spy-boss, and ends up shooting himself through the eye during the struggle. At first, it looks like a missed shot, but knowing X-4 as we do, it's more likely he didn't want to die at the hands of a German.
Did Not Remember Any Of This
X-4 had Charlie and Abby in custody: I don't blame the show for this. But on rewatch I discovered that a good part of "Perestroika," the S1 finale, was mostly about Charlie and Abby. X-4 had tracked them down via Abby's refugee relatives, and used this to apply pressure. This put a fine point on the importance of X-4 as an omniscient, omnipresent villain throughout S1, and it's fascinating to see the show tossing him out of the toolbox halfway through the S2 premiere. Between that and the Frank Winters Question, the episode goes a long way to prove it's not afraid of risk.
Oppenheimer installed Charlie as head of Implosion: The show did a switcheroo, with Oppenheimer bringing Charlie into a room (when we were expecting Frank) as the genius who's solved all the physics problems with the country's greatest hope for victory. Charlie spends most of "Damnatio Memoriae" wrestling with reality -- he's not as smart as Frank or Helen, and his dissertation's plagiarism issue is going to haunt him for the rest of his life -- before standing up and flat-out lying, to the entire combined atomic team, that Frank has given Charlie his blessing to take over. With this, Charlie goes the no-half-measures route, doubling down on his questionable nature while also burying Frank Winters, whether he's actually alive or dead. Damnatio memoriae indeed.
William Petersen was there all the time: Just kidding. But wouldn't it be amazing if we went back and found Petersen was quietly in the background of every Central Command shot in Season 1? Holding a coffee cup, handing papers to co-workers? Anyway, he's the New Boss, the replacement for Reed Akley (remember him?), and a quietly terrifying religious nutterbutter who's one bottle of cooking oil short of a John Ashcroft type. Reed Akley was a jerk who was also a scientist; even if he couldn't eventually let go of his pride, he was at least someone of Frank and Charlie's ilk. Colonel Emmett Darrow, who does everything but rant about the sanctity of our Precious Bodily Fluids, is going to be a whole other obstacle for Charlie and company.