Manhattan Swings A Trope On A Rope
'Fatherland,' the season's second installment is a convoluted episode whose machinations feel all too familiar.
Manhattan started off last week not on the wrong foot, but on a weird foot. Frank Winter, disappeared by his own government, was a palpable absence, not unlike the cutout people in the new opening credits to The Leftovers: through the entire hour, you could see the outline of Frank lurking in every scene. This was intentional, of course, and in the first second of this week's episode, we learn where Frank's been. So does it help to finally have a fix on the guy? It would -- except this is also a crucible episode.
You know the kind: hero goes through some organic or engineered ordeal and comes out the other side with a new understanding of something, though the real effect is for the audience to have learned something new about the hero. The organic (though no less contrived) version is Walt and Jesse getting stuck out in the desert; the engineered version is Jack from Lost being stuck in the Others' lab while Kate and Sawyer grow closer in the polar bear cages. And I guess that's what bothers me about this episode: either version is a trope, and "Fatherland" chooses the engineered crucible as its structure. And what do we learn? Well, we'll get to that.
Here's what happens: X-4 has Frank dragged into a tiny cell ten feet below ground. He locks him in with only a sandwich to last him for "a few days." Frank hallucinates Liza talking to him, Six Feet Under-style. Liza's not dead, but she talks to Frank in that weirdly serene, mildly cryptic way characters speak when they're dead, or a vision, and they have some wisdom to impart. This is the first bad sign for the hour, and it's where I felt my first real panic that this was to be a Bottle Episode.
But it's not! Not entirely. On the outside, Team Implosion (sans Charlie) head out into the desert to set up some photographic plates. Why? Helen, the only person who knows what they're doing, has a theory that this is how the U.S. could be capable of capturing proof of Germans using atomic materials. Mainly, though, it's an excuse to get our group out of the camp, and to get Meeks to flashback us through the disposal of X-4's body.
(By the way, is Hershey giving promotional consideration to Manhattan for using Hershey bars as the candy of choice among Nazi spies in America? I know the brand is used by the turncoats because Hershey bars are all-American, and thus beyond suspicion, but in my mind they're now the exclusive sweets of Third Reich espionage.)
The other outside story is Charlie telling Abby virtually everything about Implosion, including naming names -- the kind of thing you'd think would raise the spectre of X-4, were X-4 himself not an actual dead person now. Charlie and Abby share more conversation in this episode than in maybe all of Season 1, and yet I'm not really pulling for them to work out. I'm not exactly pulling for Charlie and Helen, either, so maybe Season 2 will be about getting us to understand Charlie Isaacs more -- which will certainly be easier without Frank Winter to steal every scene.
Which brings us, already, back to Frank. No, he's not dead. And he doesn't die at the end of this episode, either. Instead, he goes through a Dark Night Of The Soul. See, Frank's cell opens up into a larger prison. He looks out the window and sees Japanese prisoners being herded into another door. Then special guest star Justin Kirk appears and tells Frank they're expected to kill each other for sport, basically. Frank, of course, thinks they can join forces and survive, and -- you guessed it -- Kirk's character, who's supposed to be an American Nazi, is really a plant to get Frank to confess to whatever it is X-4 thinks he's done.
What does Frank confess? That he did indeed visit Germany in 1936, but it wasn't to give secrets to the Nazis, and it wasn't to see a German girl. It was to see his mother, whom he hadn't seen since he was six years old. And she called the Gestapo on him! In the end, Justin Kirk reveals himself, and Frank is brought before William Petersen, who...leaves him in prison. And the big payoff? As uttered by Petersen himself: "Mr. Fischer thought you were a Nazi spy. But you're not. You're simply ashamed. Of who you are, of what you came from. That's good."
So there you go. Frank learns something about himself, we learn a little something about Frank, and...what? I'm a little confused: Frank thinks the government is making everything up in order to motivate its lefty scientists to create the ultimate killing machine, but then we've seen (last season) the Germans and Heisenberg working on something based on what was stolen from Implosion. Which means Frank is really no less confused than he was at the beginning of the episode. Also, the spy group has apparently put a lot of effort into finding out a bunch of things they already knew. ALSO, would it have been that hard to find out that Frank had a German mother? Or even that he was arrested by the Gestapo while trying to visit her? If they knew this and he knew this, then they wouldn't need to spend all this time and all the talents of special guest star Justin Kirk to find out. Did anyone watching this think for a second that Kirk wouldn't turn out to be a government plant?
Also also also, what does it help for the audience to learn that Frank had a German mother? Has he ever shown conflict about what he was building? Is the show trying to insert some now? If anything, I'd think the conflict would now come from the realization that he's enabling the creation of a superpower that's going to abuse the hell out of those powers. If so, well played, U.S. Army.
But that's the crux of a crucible episode, usually: that some entity has gone to ENORMOUSLY complicated lengths to show a person what everyone already knew all along, with the payoff being, I guess, that the person has to say it aloud? That's a long way to go for so little. It's like building a ridiculously elaborate haunted house just to get someone to admit that he or she is scared of having people yell "Boo!" at them. In the end, it feels like a trick, and a bit of a waste, especially because it's not that fun to watch. Need I mention there's a scene where Frank ravenously slurps some kind of gruel out of his hand? A key part of the fiction experience -- reading, listening, or watching -- is for the audience to do some work and not have everything spelled out for them. We like surprises, and we like to surprise ourselves, even if it's just in our ability to put two and two together. In the wake of "Fatherland," I'd have vastly preferred an entire episode spent in the desert with Team Implosion. Here's hoping for next week.