During Season 1, WGN America’s Manhattan introduced viewers to a complicated world full of science and history, populated by multi-faceted characters figuring out how to survive comfortably in a place built specifically to develop a world-changing bomb. Life at Los Alamos would be a strain on anyone’s mental state, but it seemed to take a larger toll on that of Olivia Williams’ Liza Winter. As Liza’s role within the community grows next season, one has to wonder just how mentally unstable she is, and how it will affect her moving forward.
I got to talk with members of Manhattan’s cast and crew recently, and because Liza’s questionable thought processes in Season 1 intrigued me so much, I had to ask just how much her mental facilities will enter into her story this season. And according to Williams herself, it’s more subtle than obvious.
I think they, as anyone who suffers from any form of mental illness, they both create this brilliant scientific brain and create the things that confine it, so it’s a continual battle. It doesn’t dominate this season. It’s sort of hanging in the background.
It sounds kind of like we’ll get something that resembles her problems in Season 1, which saw Liza getting obsessed over the fact that her and Frank’s bedsheets (among other things) were full of radiation, only to later find out that she was wrong about everything. The possible conspiracy of switched-out radiation meters and antipsychotic pills made for good subtext, but it seems like it really was all just in Liza’s head. It’s possible the same kind of subdued touches will come in and out of Liza’s life during Season 2, as her scientific mind is more widely recognized and she earns more responsibilities.
And the way show creator Sam Shaw puts it, it’s this life within Los Alamos that might be affecting her mental standpoint just as much as the mystery-shrouded psychotic break she experienced in the past.
I think part of why the dementia’s interesting to us in her story is that there is this kind of border line between something that’s diagnosable and a sort of culture experience and what happens when you are the one voice of sanity or the one person with her eyes on the horizon of this future, this atomic future that’s coming, and imparting news that maybe other people don’t want to hear. Sometimes when you’re the lone sane voice in an insane world, other people will call you crazy.
It can’t be easy for Liza to watch her husband Frank get dragged down so deeply into this war-driven world, knowing that there are so many other places outside of that community where they could live a relatively normal academic-driven life. And it’s much more realistic for Shaw and his writers to keep Liza’s troubles as insulated within her as possible, without sensationalizing them. As executive producer and episode director Tommy Schlamme told me, her mental illness is something that exists inside her, where she has to deal with it, but not necessarily in the storytelling.
Get ready for a fallout, either nuclear or mental, when Manhattan Season 2 premieres on Tuesday, October 13, on WGN America.