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Manhattan, S01E03: The Hive; Review by Robin Franson Pruter

manhattan 1Originally aired 10 Aug 2014
Written by Nathaniel Halpern & Lisa Melamed
Directed by Christopher Misiano

Starring John Benjamin Hickey, Ashley Zukerman, Olivia Williams, Rachel Brosnahan, and Harry Lloyd

My rating:  ★★★ stars

Episode reveals complex characterization and subtle storytelling.

The death of mathematician Sid Liao in the previous episode has created repercussions throughout the community. “The Hive” focuses on the way Sid’s death affects the characters personally and in the business of the scientists.

The most touching parts of the episode are the scenes that involve Private (later PFC) Cole Dunlavey (Jefferson White) as he struggles to deal with his feelings about killing Liao. White is moving as the confused and conflicted young soldier. His character struggles with the attention he gets as the base’s new hero. Dunlavey doesn’t know how to reconcile killing someone with his quiet, kind disposition. He feels conflicted when Col. Alden Cox (Mark Moses) tells him to claim falsely that confidential documents were discovered in the car Liao was in when he died. Cox assures him that it’s the right thing to do, but lying goes against Dunlavey’s nature.

He seeks out Frank Winter for reassurance that Liao was, indeed, a spy and ends up discussing the matter with Liza instead. In an understated but powerful moment, she asks him how he knew Liao, and Dunlavey responds with military speak that he seems to have memorized from rote about his “duty to protect the base.” He can’t directly say, “I killed him,” not just because it would be socially awkward, but because he can’t come to terms with the act. The only way he can process what he did is by thinking of it in a detached and official way.

Liza is exceedingly kind to the conflicted soldier, further endearing her character to the viewers. Yet, this episode plants information about Liza that will become significant in later episodes. When Abby goes through a polygraph test in order to get a job on the base, she’s told that Liza failed it, making her unable to work on base. We wonder just what it was about Liza’s answers that caused her to fail the test.

Winter’s team struggles with mourning their friend Liao. Jim (Christopher Denham), Helen (Katja Herbers), and Fritz (Michael Chernus) deal with Sid’s death in a typical fashion. They take comfort in reminiscing about him, enjoying fond memories, while letting themselves feel sad and emotional. On the other hand, Crosley (Harry Lloyd), a brash, young British scientist, makes inappropriate and insensitive remarks. The viewers, who have yet to know much about these characters, are positioned to dislike to Crosley.

Yet, the end of the episode plays out with a voice over of a thoughtful and moving letter Crosley has written reaching out to Liao’s wife. Thus, the viewers get a glimpse of Crosley’s inner life. His outward insensitivity is his way of handling his emotions, which are deep and significant. This approach to acquainting the viewers with the character—creating an initial dislike and then soon undercutting it with a view into the sympathetic inner life of the character—is a novel one. It makes Crosley immediately seem three-dimensional and distinguishes him as an individual from his coworkers. Unfortunately, after Crosley mails his letter, it’s suppressed by army censors.

The episode presents Jim in a nearly opposite fashion. His initial sadness about Sid, which endears him to the audience, is undermined by his callous confrontation with Dunlavey at the base’s recreation center. Jim’s feelings of anger toward Dunlavey are an understandable part of his grief. However, the episode has made Dunlavey an extremely sympathetic figure to the viewers, and we can’t help but feel that Jim’s treatment of him is unfair.

Frank finds the progress on the development of his model of the bomb stymied by the confiscation of all the parts that Sid Liao worked on. He spends much of the episode searching for a way to recover the necessary information. He channels his sadness and guilt into the work. For Frank, this justifies his actions in outing Sid’s innocuous lapse, copying his work papers, to Cox—a move that set in motion the events that led to Sid’s death–and allows him to avoid facing his own sorrow.

Near the end of the episode, Cox forces Frank to confront his grief and culpability by showing him Sid’s body. Frank ends up talking out his feelings with Liza and stating his belief that the invention of the bomb will not only end the war but prevent all wars in the future. From our vantage point, it’s a staggeringly naïve idea. Nonetheless, we come to understand why Frank is so driven to make the bomb work.

In a nice bit of contrast, Akley gets to explain his take on the project. Unlike Frank who wants to aid humanity and end war forever, Akley is driven by competition—both in terms of military supremacy by winning the war and of scientific supremacy by surpassing Germany’s scientists.

Winter’s efforts to retrieve necessary information from Akley’s group are blocked by new rules of compartmentalization that have been instituted as a result of the incident with Sid. In a key scene, Akley sends Charlie, the member of his group with the least seniority (the insult and Frank’s umbrage at it are implied) to tell Frank that the information can’t be shared. This scene brings the two focus characters together in conflict again, as we’ve seen them in all their previous encounters, but suggests that they may find common ground in the future. Charlie, alone of all the people outside Frank’s group, sees implosion as promising. He says he would share the information if it weren’t against the rules because he believes that science depends on the exchange of ideas.

This scene will prove important as the season goes on, and I’m ambivalent on how it is handled here. For viewers who are seeing it for the first time, nothing about the scene is presented as striking. It appears as just another argument between Frank and Charlie, easy to dismiss—its importance only becoming apparent upon reviewing.  On the one hand, indicating in some way that this scene is important would help the viewers follow the trajectory of Frank and Charlie’s relationship and of the scientific arc in the season. On the other hand, telegraphing the importance of the scene may be giving viewers too much of a sense of what’s going to happen.

Frank ends up stealing the necessary information, allowing him to prove implosion works (if only to himself in a private experiment alone in the desert). When sneaking through the Akley group’s offices, he sees Charlie asleep while working on a problem that Akley has told him only Charlie has the mind to solve. Frank quietly erases Charlie’s work and solves the problem for him. Thus, we viewers see that Frank has the immense intelligence that Akley credits Charlie with. Akley has told Charlie that Charlie has probably been surrounded his whole life by people who aren’t smart enough to recognize how smart he is. When Frank steps in and solves the problem, he proves that Akley could have been talking about Frank and that Akley and everyone else on the base are those people who aren’t smart enough to see how smart Frank is.

This episode, like much of Manhattan, requires careful viewing to parse all of its layers. Its conflicts and stories are not showily dramatic. For example, this isn’t the kind of story where Crosley will find himself killed by a barbarian who pours molten gold on his head (as happened to Harry Lloyd’s character on Game of Thrones). Manhattan is subtler even though the stakes of the series are just as high. After all, despite the seemingly small dramas between the characters on the base, they are fighting a world war and building the most destructive weapon in human history.

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