Manhattan is an American television series that ran from July 27, 2014 to December 15, 2015 on WGN America. The series title is derived from 'The Manhattan Project,' the codename for the secret development of the atomic bomb by American and allied scientists during the Second World War.
Manhattan is a fictional reimagining of the personal and professional complexities for those involved in this project. Secrecy, infidelity and espionage, as well as the moral and ethical questions created by the invention of the world’s first nuclear weapons are central themes explored in the show.
- 1 Premise
- 2 Cast
- 2.1 Main cast
- 2.1.1 Dr Charlie Isaacs (Ashley Zuckerman)
- 2.1.2 Dr Frank Winter (John Benjamin Hickey)
- 2.1.3 Abigail (Abby) Isaacs (Rachel Brosnahan)
- 2.1.4 Dr Liza Winter (Olivia Williams)
- 2.1.5 Callie Winter (Alexia Fast)
- 2.1.6 Dr Sid Liao (Eddie Shin)
- 2.1.7 Dr Helen Prins (Katja Herbers)
- 2.1.8 Dr Paul Crosley (Harry Lloyd)
- 2.1.9 Louis 'Frits' Fedowitz (Michael Chernus)
- 2.1.10 Jim Meeks (Christopher Denham)
- 2.2 Supporting cast
- 2.1 Main cast
The first season is set in 1943 in the desert town of Los Alamos, New Mexico – the site where the atomic bombs were first developed. The characters in the show refer to the site as “The Hill.” The series ends in 1945 after the first bomb is tested successfully at the site.
In the first season of Manhattan, we are introduced to two competing groups of physicists. Dr. Charlie Isaacs is the main protagonist in one group. He arrives at Los Alamos to begin work on the ‘Thin Man’ design for the new bomb, while the other, more fringe group, works on developing a nuclear device based on implosion. The ‘Thin Man’ team has the financial backing and support of the U.S. military and is led by Dr. Ackley. The implosion group leader is Dr. Frank Winter, the other main protagonist of the series.
As their work is highly classified, none of the scientists is permitted to speak to anyone from outside their group about what they are building. We see how this secrecy causes antagonism in both the Isaacs and Winters households as the series unfolds. The ethics of developing a weapon that has the capacity to kill so many people also causes problems in familial relationships, as well as within the scientists themselves.
According to the Atomic Heritage Foundation (2014), while Manhattan is a mixture between history and fiction, "[t]he primary characters are entirely fictional including the main scientist [...]." The only characters who are historically based are the more secondary cast members Dr J. Robert Oppenheimer (director of the real Manhattan Project), his wife Kitty, Oppenheimer's mistress Jean Tatlock and a brief appearance by Albert Einstein (who historically refused to be involved in the development of the atomic bomb).
At the start of the series, Charlie is a 28-year-old physicist who has been recruited to work on the Manhattan Project. He is considered by many of his colleagues to be something of a wunderkind, with ideas considered groundbreaking in the Theoretical Physics of the time. In the first episode, Charlie arrives at the military base in Los Alamos with his young wife Abigail (Abby) Isaacs and their son, Joey. Charlie and Abby are Jewish and have family in occupied Europe. Initially, Charlie is bright-eyed and excited to be on the Hill. However, once he is informed by his new boss, Dr. Ackley, about what the scientists are really doing there, Charlie becomes conflicted because he does not want to build such a devastating weapon. As the series progresses, Charlie changes his mind about this and ascends to a position of great power.
Frank is the leader of the implosion group at the start of the series. He is seen as a genius but also as a workaholic, obsessed with beating the other group to develop the superior design for the bomb. Frank is gruff and stern, with quite an advanced superiority complex, yet he has the admiration and respect of his group who are all dedicated to his theory of implosion. In the pilot, we discover that Frank was the only academic reviewer who rejected Charlie’s paper for publication. Frank does not share in the praise that the other physicists lavish upon the new arrival and when Charlie confronts him about rejecting his paper, Frank tells him that the younger man has done nothing new or groundbreaking. This lays the groundwork for an antagonist relationship between the two men that has its ups and downs throughout the series. Despite his flaws and mistakes, as the series progresses, Frank emerges as a much more heroic figure, often sacrificing himself for others. It is Frank's idea of implosion that ends-up being the design used for the first atomic bomb.
Abby is Charlie’s wife. She arrives with her husband rather reluctantly, as she comes from a wealthy family and wanted Charlie to work for her father as a salesperson rather than becoming a physicist. Initially she plays the role of 1940s housewife and spends her days doing laundry and looking after the couple’s son, Joey. However, she is encouraged by other ladies on the hill to find wartime employment and she gets a job as a telephone operator on the Los Alamos Switch Board. Monitoring incoming and outgoing calls, Abby learns many things about the secret lives of her neighbours on the hill, as well as developing her own secret life as the lesbian lover of her colleague, Elodie Lancefield.
Liza is Frank’s wife and the mother of their daughter, Callie. She is also a botanist, but is initially barred from official work on the hill due to her medical history. She is a strong and independent person, and she is not afraid of challenging authority. Her marriage with Frank has become strained because he never tells her anything, although at the beginning of the second season we learn that Frank really supported her when she needed help. As the series develops, she gains more autonomy as she is allowed to work in the clinic and then on her own studies on the effects of radiation. In Season 2 we learn that she spent time in a mental institution after a suicide attempt.
Callie is Frank and Liza's rebellious teenage daughter. One night, while babysitting for Abby and Charlie, she steals some marijuana from Abby’s drawer and gets high while she is supposed to be looking after Joey. She hates life on the hill and is desperate to return to the family's home in Princeton. Callie flashes her breasts to Cole Dunlavey after she sees him lurking outside her bedroom window. Later, the two develop a romantic relationship. After Frank's imprisonment, Liza sends Callie away from Los Alamos and we never see her again.
Dr Sid Liao (Eddie Shin)
Sid is a Chinese-American scientist in Frank’s implosion group. He reveals to Frank that he has made copies of classified designs that he wanted to patent and profit from after the war is over. He was motivated by the desire to support his wife and daughter. He is imprisoned as a suspected spy and is shot by Cole Dunlavey as he attempts to flee Los Alamos. While only featured in a couple of episodes, Sid is an important character and he is frequently mentioned throughout the series.
Helen is a Dutch scientist working in the original implosion group. She struggles to have her talents and intellect valued throughout the series as she is the only female scientist working on the development of the atomic bomb. She is considered free-spirited for her time, having several sexual relationships including ones with Crosley, Charlie and a lawyer (who ends up being a spy) and she does not believe in marriage.
Paul is a snarky and sarcastic British scientist working in the implosion group. He is sometimes childish and he is initially not very loyal to Frank. Later on in the series it is also revealed that in England he was a con man. Nevertheless, as the series moves on, he becomes more astute and develops a more noble character. He is offered a job with the brand new organisation (the CIA) at the end of the series.
Fritz is an American scientist working in the implosion group. He is a lover of comic books and science fiction, and is constantly grappling with farcical dilemmas created by fictional science. As the series develops it emerges that Frits is a virgin and so Helen decides to help him out of this position by sending him to a working girl, with whom Frits ends up falling in love and marrying. Unfortunately, after learning of Jim's involvement in his wife's death, Fritz kills himself.
Another American scientist working in the implosion group, Jim is devastated after Sid is killed, having been good friends with him. He is a also quite close to Frits and acts as Best Man at the latter's wedding. However, later in the series he betrays Frits due to events that result from the shocking revelation at the end of the first season that Jim is in fact a spy for the Soviets.
Frank’s old friend and former mentor, also an American scientist initially employed in the implosion team. In the beginning, Glen is highly loyal to Frank and also provides a lot of support to Liza, but his friendship with Frank is tested at the end of the first season and he leaves to take on an administrative role on the Hill instead. When he is accused of being a communist, Babbit tells Frank that he is gay and that is why he was involved with Richard Lavro and not because he was involved in "subversive" activities.
Dr J. Robert Oppenheimer
One of the few historical figures to feature by real name in the series, Dr Oppenheimer is the head of the scientific teams at Los Alamos. His wife Kitty, as well as his mistress, Jean Tatlock, also feature briefly in the series. The series portrays Tatlock's suicide as a government cover-up for her assassination, for which there is some historical evidence.
Dr Reed Akley
The head of the original 'Thin Man' group, Dr Akley has invested his life's work into the Thin Man design for the new bomb. Akley kills himself after Charlie and Frank discover that the Thin Man plutonium design for the bomb won't work.
A man who always interrogates those suspected of spying or other treasonous offences. He is murdered by a Soviet spy.
Cole 'Iowa' Dunlavey
Private Dunlavey is on guard duty when Sid Liao tries to escape from Los Alamos after being accused of being a spy. Dunlavey shoots and kills Sid. He develops a romantic relationship with Callie, Frank and Liza's daughter. He is killed in action after he is sent to the front.
Dr Theodore Sinclair
An American physicist who is sidelined because he is black. He is desperate to come to work on the project and finally gets a chance in Season 2.
The French wife of a scientist on the Thin Man team. She works on the Los Alamos switchboard, where she meets Abby. She and Abby have a love affair. Abby betrays her and she is arrested and sent away at the end of Season 1.
Elodie's husband who feels that Charlie has usurped him from Akley's favour.
Frits’ wife, Jeannie is an army girl. Initially she is a working girl who charges men for sex and this is how she meets Frits who begins to date her. When she discovers the terrible secret Jim has been keeping in Season 2, she is murdered by Nora, who is also a Soviet spy.
Col Emmett Darrow
The new military leader of Los Alamos from Season 2. Darrow is a hard and inflexible man. He is also very religious and expects those who "sin" to pray for forgiveness with him. He records all conversations that people have with him in his office.
Another Soviet spy who arrives on the Hill after Occam is murdered. She strikes-up a relationship with Jim. She tries to murder a young boy who has been an eye-witness to Occam's murder, but Jim intercedes to prevent this. She murders Jeannie and tries to convince Jim that they should blow-up everyone at Los Alamos so that no one can ever make another bomb.
- Atomic Heritage Foundation (2014), "Manhattan: Episode 1 - You Always Hurt the Ones You Love." Available at: https://www.atomicheritage.org/article/manhattan-episode-one-you-always-hurt-ones-you-love.