By: Keith Nelson Jr (@JusAire)
"In this war, the scientists are the soldiers"-Frank Winter on Manhattan
Fictionalizing history is only an act of deceit when the historical context is a glorified plot device rather than the foundation for deeper examination. From the mind of former Masters of Sex writer Sam Shaw is WGN America's Manhattan, a riveting reimaginging of The Manhattan Project and the creation of the atomic bomb during World War II. Families of brilliant scientists are uprooted and transplanted into a roughly 70 acre, government-controlled secret society where the most deadliest weapon in human history is being built unbeknownst to many of its residents.
Lila Byock wrote the penultimate episode (and fourth highest rated episode of the series, so far) which aired last Sunday, two days before the series was renewed for a second season. In our EXCLUSIVE interview with Lila, she explains the writing process of the penultimate episode, female influence how the complicated marriage of Manhattan characters Liza and Frank Winters compares to her real life marriage with series creator Sam Shaw
CULTUREDAPPROVED: You mentioned on Twitter that the vast majority of episodes of Manhattan passed The Bechdel Test, which requires a TV show/movie to have two named females whom talk to each other about something other than men. How much of that was a goal prior to writing a single word for Manhattan?
Lila Byock: That was never a goal. You probably know if you've read my blog that Sam Shaw, the one who created [Manhattan] is my husband. He and I have been talking about this show for years. He first had the idea for it six years ago. For him, I know one of the things that really attracted him to the material from the very beginning were the stories of the women who were involved. As well as the ones that were not involved, in the sense that many of them had no idea what their husbands were working on behind the fences. So, I think the women were at the heart of what this show was going to be from its very inception.
So it wasn't a conscious effort to pass any test of gender equality. That says a lot about a show, with such dynamic female characters, that it naturally developed that way. Do you foresee this trend of complicated female protagonists continuing?
I hope so. There have been so many great, new dramas that primarily focus on women or have woman protagonists. I think I speak for Sam too, some of the shows we've loved watching together in the last two years have women at the center of them. We're huge The Good Wife fans. Top of the Lake on the Sundance Channel. We loved The Honorable Woman, which is also on the Sundance Channel. Obviously Homeland has been a huge success with a complicated female protagonist. For a long time there was this false logic that you can only make great, complex dramas about complicated men and that's obviously not the case. Our show does not have one woman at the center of it. It's very much an ensemble show about all of these different characters. But, we try really hard to make the female characters as compelling and complicated as the male characters.
In one episode, Frank Winter says "In this war, the scientists are the soldiers". After the last two episodes involving Abby Issacs planting the documents in Tom Lansfield's home and Liza's speech at town council demanding more transparency from the Army, what are the wives in this war if the scientists are the soldiers?
Good question. I'll have to think about that. I don't know. Maybe they're the guerrilla soldiers. The wives and the women who work behind the scenes of The Manhattan Project..there's a lot that we invented and fictionalized for this show. But, it is absolutely true that the women who worked behind the scenes on The Manhattan Project had huge roles to play. In fact, many of the very best and most vivid memoirs that we drew on for material for the show were written by the wives of the scientists and by W.A.C.(Women's. Army. Core) soldiers who were stationed at Los Alamos at this time. All that stuff about the W.A.C. dorms being kind of a brothel is completely true. We did not make that up. Everyone can make their own moral judgement about. I just think there's something so fascinating about the idea of all these single women who were on their own for the first time
You wrote the penultimate episode "The Gun Model". What was the writing process like for that episode? Did you already know what the season finale would be before starting to write the episode?
It's very much a collaborative process. We have a writer's room and a bunch of writers and we really mapped out the whole season. So, by the time I got to episode 12 it wasn't like I was starting from scratch by any means. We really knew what the scenes were going to be and what they were all leading to. By the time you get to the penultimate episode we know those characters inside and out. I think it's a show that builds as it goes along. The second half of the season is incredibly rewarding if you stuck with the first half, because we really tried to set up a couple of chess moves that are paying off, one by one.
Maybe you and the writers of Manhattan fully knew these characters by the penultimate episode, but I have no idea why Reed Akley just decided to end it all. It really called back to what Charlie Issacs said earlier in the episode about there being casualties of Frank Winter's ego. Was Reed Akley one of those casualties?
Well, that's a good question. I think that's sort of for the viewer to decide. Frank is a really complicated guy. I think you either love him or you hate him and in fact I think a lot of people have felt both things about him over the course of this season and maybe both things at once. [Laughs]
In this new age of social media where opinions are given before they are fully formed, what has the reaction and criticism been towards Manhattan?
It's been great. On the whole, we've been gratified by the whole response from critics and from the Twitterspehere. I think we have a really passionate and devoted group of fans who tweet only positive things about the show and occasionally some complaints. We've got criticism from some quarters. I think there's a certain demographic who heard about the show and thought "Oh, great. It's going to be a show about building the atomic bomb. I know who Robert Oppenheimer (Head of The Manhattan Project) is and I know who Richard Feynman is and it's going to be a show about them. When they tuned in and found out it wasn't a show about them and we were featuring the stories of women and minorities and gay people...there's a vocal minority of people who are really upset about that and feel like our show should be about these brilliant, white scientists who built an atomic bomb. So, to a certain extent, it gratifies me when those people aren't happy with the show. [Laughs]. It makes me feel like we succeeded in not making that version of the show.
What are some things from The Manhattan Project that will be explored on Manhattan in Season 2?
We're definitely going to keep relying on that underlying first material to tell the story for the second season. The real history of this time and place is the scaffolding on which we tell the stories and that is not going to go away. But, really I think the second season is going to be about Frank and Liza, Charlie and Abby and the whole implosion group.
What was the most gratifying and/or shocking scene from the first season of Manhattan?
I know you read that blog post I did. I really loved writing that scene for Olivia [Williams] when she announces her candidacy. I loved writing that speech and I loved watching Olivia perform it so brilliantly. For that character, her arc over the course of the season has been a really difficult one and that felt like a moment of real redemption for her. A moment when you saw Liza reach out and grab power again. For me, that was incredibly gratifying to watch.
What about you is in these characters? Not just the female characters but any of the characters on Manhattan?
Hmmm. That's a good question. I definitely hope that my marriage is on much stabler grounds than Liza's, but I definitely think about them a lot as a woman in an equal marriage where both of us are passionate about our careers. Sometimes the demands of the job take us away from each other. I think Frank and Eliza have a very modern marriage in a 1940's setting. Those complications are something I can see my life reflected in in some ways.
CHECK OUT THE TRAILER FOR MANHATTAN'S SEASON FINALE BELOW: