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Manhattan, S01E02: The Prisoner’s Dilemma; Review by Robin Franson Pruter

manhattan 1Originally aired 3 Aug 2014
Written by Sam Shaw
Directed by Thomas Schlamme

Starring John Benjamin Hickey, Ashley Zukerman, Olivia Williams, Rachel Brosnahan, and Daniel Stern

My rating:  ★★1/2 stars

Series struggles to find its footing with this uneven episode.

Tick…tock…Is this episode over yet? That’s how I felt rewatching it to do this review.  While I know the series is structured to build the action over the course of the season, this episode, despite being jam-packed with goings-on, moves by at a snail’s pace.

The two major conflicts presented are what will happen to hapless Sid Liao and how will recently-arrived plutonium be divided among Akley’s and Winter’s groups (with Winter’s group initially allotted none). The former conflict has more dramatic potential. We understand what the stakes are. Sid Liao faces imprisonment or worse. The stakes on the latter conflict are unclear. If Winter’s group doesn’t get the plutonium, what? The show never explains why Winter’s group needs plutonium, or for what purpose it will be used or tested.

In the end, Winter fails to convince the powers that be that he should get plutonium, and Sid Liao is killed. One is a clear disaster. For the other, I have to say, “So what?”

For a smart guy, Liao makes some bone-headed moves. He should never have taken research papers with him to begin with, no matter how benign his motives. And, when Winter offers him the opportunity to avoid charges by entering the Army, Liao should have accepted the deal. His choice to run could have had no good outcome. He acts irrationally. If he had a sick child, he cannot possibly think that he could take his family into hiding. But, perhaps, that’s a key idea in the series. That no matter how certain the science, the humans behind it don’t act rationally.

The Sid storyline introduces a new and terrifying antagonist, an intelligence officer played by Richard Schiff. The man doesn’t have a name or an identifiable agency. He has power, just how much is uncertain. And like the Terminator, he can’t be reasoned with. Schiff is chilling here. His quiet manner presents a greater terror than stentorian displays of authority.

Also nice about this storyline is the way the episode interweaves small bits about the MP, who eventually shoots Sid. He doesn’t seem important throughout the episode. But, at the end, he’s not an anonymous functionary to us. The early bits we’ve seen of him have made him a person in our eyes.

The other major storyline frustrates. Anyone with a basic understanding of narrative knows that Winter will fail in his initial attempt to prove that his team has a workable design for an atomic bomb. Early setbacks are necessary for any underdog story. The predictability of the way this storyline progresses makes watching it tedious.

The episode contains a subplot about character relationships. Liza Winter aids Abby Isaacs in navigating the complex underground bartering system in the camp and invites her to dinner, bringing Frank and Charlie together in a social situation. Charlie can’t let go of the rejection of a student research paper of his some time ago by Frank, who has little emotional energy to spare for Charlie’s insults. Frank simply throws the man out of his house. These scenes are the most interesting in the episode because they deal with character and not plot. They’re about people interacting in, yes, predictable ways given the animosity that exists between Charlie and Frank, but anytime characters with personality, rather than storyline, conflicts can be brought together, it creates an inherent human interest.

Ultimately, the first two episodes of Manhattan contained enough promise for me to continue to watch the series. However, the show didn’t come bursting out of the gate. It will pick up speed, though, and soon, despite its uneven start.

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