On Manhattan, Game Theory Makes The World Go Around (And Ruins People's Lives)

Illustration for article titled On Manhattan, Game Theory Makes The World Go Around (And Ruins People's Lives)

Manhattan isn’t wasting any time raising the stakes this season. Much of this week’s episode was a set piece centered on the plight of “disappeared” physicist Frank Winter as his situation goes from bad to worse. It’s entitled “Fatherland,” but the writers could just as easily have called it, “Oh, Just Give John Benjamin Hickey an Emmy Already!” Because Hickey gives a truly a knockout performance.


Spoilers below....

So where is Frank Winter? He’s in a grungy prison cell, a good 10 feet underground, as Occam — a.k.a. Avram Fischer (Richard Schiff) — tells him. Fischer still thinks he’s a spy, and now we find out why: in 1936, Frank went to Sweden to see a friend receive the Nobel Prize in Physics. He took the opportunity to make a side trip to Leipzig, Germany, staying two months — a detail he was careful to conceal when he interviewed for the Manhattan Project. Fischer leaves his prisoner with a sandwich, a file of documents, and an admonition to consider his next move carefully: “I’m the only living soul that knows where you are.”

That’s bad news for Frank, because Fischer was brutally murdered in last week’s episode. Frank could die in this underground cell, catching glimpses of daylight through the grating above and listening to the plink-plink-plink of water dripping into a metal bucket.

Cut to that same bucket, now nearly full. Who knows how many days have passed? Frank hallucinates his wife, Liza (Olivia Williams), as he rifles through the file Fischer left for him, which includes photographs of equations of German scientists supposedly provided to the U.S. by “Magpie”—their spy in the German camp, who lost his head when his treachery was discovered in Season 1. “You missed something,” Vision-Liza tells him. And then he takes a closer look at the variables in those equations. They spell out his daughter’s name: C-A-L-L-I-E. (See? I told you that detail would be relevant.) The Nazis have Frank’s work—which means he was wrong and Fischer was right: there is a spy on the Hill. “The Nazis are building their bomb on the back of my goddamned math.”

Illustration for article titled On Manhattan, Game Theory Makes The World Go Around (And Ruins People's Lives)

Now he’s ready to talk. And someone must be listening, because the next time he wakes up, his cell door is ajar. He wanders into the main cell block — and an MP knocks him out with a rifle. The officer in charge has no idea who Frank is, or how he found his way into an active internment camp (they nickname him Houdini). “Anyone shows up here, off the books? That’s someone Uncle Sam wants disappeared.”


And thus an elaborate game begins. The MPs call it “Tosa,” after the Japanese fighting dogs. They throw another prisoner in with him in the cell block—and wait for them to fight to the death. What does it take to drive an otherwise decent man to murder? Frank’s knowledge of game theory serves him well here; he reasons with his opponent, assuring him that they can trust each other and eventually escape. The other man says he is Joseph Beuker; Frank gives his name as “Charlie Isaacs.” (So much for trust.)

Why pair these two men together? They gradually share personal details as Frank looks for a working telephone box, and/or a handy escape route, so he can warn Oppenheimer about the spy. Frank keeps hearing strains of a melody being played on a distant piano—the tune turns out to be the “Mourning Cantata for King Frederick” by 18th century German-Danish composer Johann Adolf Scheibe, who just happens to be experiencing a resurgence of popularity in Nazi Germany. Joseph figures he’s a fellow Nazi sympathizer and pesters him about who played Scheibe for him. Then he goes all “heil Hitler” on Frank, insisting he has nothing against the Jewish people, he just wants “open debate” about the impact of the Jews on their “host cultures.”


This is all part of the plan. The dogs won’t fight, so the MPs heat up the cage. They also slide two covered plates of food into the cell block, but instead of food, there’s a bullet for one of them, and a gun for the other. Eventually they’re trapped in the boiler room, and the tension comes to a boil. An exhausted Frank confesses his real name, and tells Joseph that his mother was the one who played Scheibe for him. A German mail-order bride, she abandoned her family when Frank was young, and he only found her again in 1936. That’s why he went to Leipzig. And when he finally found his mother, she called the Gestapo on him.

Then Frank, in desperation, grabs the gun from Joseph, loads the bullet to shoot him, and discovers the gun is a fake. “Uncle!” Joseph shouts—and the MPs come in. It was all elaborately staged to get Frank to talk, by none other than Colonel Darrow (William Petersen). And Darrow isn’t the least bit surprised when Frank tells him the equations Magpie supposedly provided were actually his. He already knew.


So Frank can go home now, right? Right? As if. Now he knows too much—namely, that the Army has no idea how far along the Germans are with their bomb effort. They’ve just been spreading propaganda. How do you get peace-minded physicists to build an atomic bomb? The same way you get dogs to fight: “heat up the cage.” Of course, there really is a spy on the Hill (Meeks), but he’s apparently not the one who passed Frank’s implosion equations to the Nazis; the Germans don’t have Frank’s equations after all. The final shot is Frank back in his original cell, listening to the plink-plink-plink of droplets falling into the bucket.

Bravo! There’s ample material here for an Emmy nomination reel, I’m just sayin’. But as impressive as Hickey’s performance is, he can’t act in a vacuum. So let’s also give a well-deserved shout out to the two actors giving equally nuanced performances opposite him: Olivia Williams and Justin Kirk (Weeds), the actor who plays Joseph.

Illustration for article titled On Manhattan, Game Theory Makes The World Go Around (And Ruins People's Lives)

Meanwhile, back on the Hill:

  • Now that her daughter is safe, Liza Winter is hewing closely to the military’s party line about Frank’s continued absence. He’s been transferred to a top-secret location, and she just spoke to him the other day, she swears!
  • Science! The core members of the implosion group—Helen, Crosley, Fritz, and Meeks—head five miles out to the desert for a little experiment. They’ve been charged with devising a cheap and easy means for detecting WAMDs (Weapons Adaptable to Mass Destruction) so the U.S. Army will know what to look for once they have troops on the ground in Germany. That means searching for radiation signatures. Helen has a MacGuyver Moment and comes up with a clever plan involving Kodak film. The five-mile trek is laterally comparable to an army plane flying five miles above Berlin, and radioactive particles—like those emitted by uranium isotopes necessary for an atomic bomb—destroy photographic film. If their mounted plates pick up radiation from the Hill five miles away, that means the technique should (in principle) also work from the air. As Fritz puts it, “All you need to find a German reactor is an airplane and roll of Kodak.”
  • Our secret spy, Jim Meeks, is putting on a good front until Fritz wants to tell spooky stories around the campfire as they’re waiting to test the last six plates. Crosley offers a “spook story”: rumors are flying about the disappearance of Fischer. He “vanished into the ether,” per Crosley, and all anyone found was his badge by the side of the road. A nervous Meeks flashes back to the night of the murder, where he had to help dispose of the body. Poor Fischer was unceremoniously dumped in his car trunk in the vast desert expanse. So Meeks over-reacts when the group finds a dead coyote, insisting they should bury the animal. Transference much?
  • Finally, Charlie and Abby have started the painstaking process of rebuilding their marriage, and this apparently entails No More Secrets. Specifically, Abby wants to know exactly what the scientists are building on the Hill. So Charlie breaks protocol by telling Abby all about the Gadget. (This is not unprecedented: the late Reed Ackley’s wife, Rose, knew about it, too. But it could definitely get them into trouble.)
  • And here we see just how much Abby has changed from that naive young woman pretending to be Betty Crocker for her academic husband. She suggests that rather than look for the German bomb project, the physicists on the Hill should betray their German colleagues by giving their personal information to the military: home addresses, photos of them, their wives and chldren. “You can look for the stadium, or you can get rid of the New York Yankees.” It’s a coldly calculated, ruthless plan, and Abby doesn’t bat an eye when she suggests it. Everything she’s seen since they came to Los Alamos has moved her firmly into the kill-or-be-killed camp.

This is what it takes to get the dogs to fight.

For those new to the series, I highly recommend catching up on Season 1, readily available on DVD or via streaming on Hulu. Alternatively, I recapped all the episodes for Scientific American last year.




I binge-watched this show last week, glad I did. It’s extremely well-writen, coupled with great acting. I found myself connecting with the characters, something I rarely do.

I would give Manhattan more than two thumbs up, but I only have two thumbs.