Summer Binge-Watch: Genius

Season 1 aired on the National Geographic Channel and followed the life of Albert Einstein. Season 2 has been ordered, but it was a couple months before they announced who it would be about. I saw a lot of speculation about Marie Curie, which seemed to completely miss that she was in the Albert Einstein season so that wouldn’t make sense. I remembered that I had added a book on Picasso to my Amazon wishlist once because I thought he might make the basis for an interesting TV show, and got stuck on that thought. Lo and behold: Season 2 will be about Pablo Picasso. So I’m calling it now: Season 3 will be Mary Shelley and Season 4 will be MLK Jr. (Tesla would also be an interesting choice, but I suspect a highly volatile one.)

I’m not going to avoid spoilers because there’s nothing here you couldn’t find out on Wikipedia. The opening episode leaps in time between Einstein trying to skip his last few years of school to go straight to college, much to his father’s and professors’ chagrin, and his realization that he needed to leave Germany prior to the start of World War II. The second episode then takes us back to those school days and the series progresses in more-or-less chronological order, sometimes flashing forward or back or jumping a few years. There are separate actors for “young Einstein” and “older Einstein,” which is jarring in episode 6 when they switch and you realize they’re supposed to be representing Einstein only 4 years apart in age. But when the show is playing fast and loose with the timeline, it’s a handy way to keep track of which time period we’re in.

The moral of the story is that Einstein was a genius, but not a saint. The opening shot of the show is older Einstein banging his secretary and asking her to move in with him and his wife. (His wife later respectfully requests that he cut that shit out.) I remember when I was kid, hearing on the radio an episode of “The Rest of the Story” about a honeymooning couple where the wife was screaming at her husband because, once again, he forgot something – the keys to their honeymoon cottage. The rest of the story is that it was Albert Einstein. I don’t remember if the wife in question was Mileva Maric, his first wife, or Elsa Einstein, his second wife (they were cousins, according to Wikipedia on both sides of the family). The show didn’t address that particular story, probably because it really is so trifling. Much bigger was how he wooed Mileva by appealing to her intellectual curiosity and treating her as an equal, and then as soon as they had children expected her to be his secretary and mother at the expense of her own ambitions. When she balked, he literally drew up a contract stating that she wasn’t allowed to speak to him. Multiple people in his life observe that he is good at physics and bad at people, but the show makes clear that was a choice he made. He’s not incapable of understanding people, he’s just unwilling to put in the work necessary to learn. We see Pierre and Marie Curie, so we know what it looks like when a male scientist supports his wife in the same time period. It seems like his second marriage to Elsa worked largely because they both already had children and did not have any children together, so she was able to devote most of her time to him.

The backdrop of all of this is the growing antisemitism of pre-WWII Germany, and the United States. The Red Scare is seen as a clear cover for antisemitism, and the reason it took so long for Einstein to get a Nobel Prize is that one of the scientists on the committee is a literal Nazi. Other scientists compromise their principles and are still targeted. The build up is slow – a politician friend of Einstein’s is assassinated ten years before he finally decides to flee, but he is far from the only one. The resulting “brain drain” means Germany had no chance of winning the nuclear race, especially once Heisenberg decided to stall rather than give Hitler the bomb. The bomb which Einstein was terrified would be his legacy, perhaps with what seemed at the time like good reason but today seems like a footnote.

A funny side effect of focusing on Einstein’s pacifism is that while we’re told that he’s famous for not signing his name to things, we mostly see him signing his name to things. In fact, by the time he reaches old age, he is having his secretary write letters to the president that feel like they might as well end with “I am not a crackpot.” And yet, he’s being targeted by vindictive crackpots. As in Germany, he doesn’t realize the danger he’s really in because he doesn’t believe how actively evil people can be. Or at least, that’s how the smirking Hoover is depicted here. Einstein’s much more concerned with the passive evil his son sees him as, finally circling back to his family at the end of his life. His son is the one tasked with collecting his body after death, and while he reluctantly gives the doctor permission to keep and study Einstein’s brain, he warns him that that doesn’t come close to explaining who his father was. He’d probably also say that ten hours of TV dramatization won’t do it either, but at least it brings nuance and multiple viewpoints to play, and uses pretty CGI to explain complex theoretical physics.

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About Generation Coax

I am an aspiring TV writer, amateur photographer, and craft hobbyist.
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One Response to Summer Binge-Watch: Genius

  1. Pingback: 2017 Emmy Nominations | Generation Coax

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