Targets of Opportunity: AppleTV+’s Manhunt

by Bryan & Heather

For all our society’s obsession with the American Civil War, there really aren’t that many modern shows or movies that focus on it. When we learned of AppleTV+’s new miniseries concerning the hunt for John Wilkes Booth after his assassination of Lincoln, then, we were intrigued. The specific events surrounding the first presidential assassination in United States history are not ones either of us have studied too closely, and so we tuned in curious to see how well showrunner Monica Beltsky might capture this era so dear to our academic hearts. While there were some notable flaws in both history and narrative structure, we were pleasantly surprised to find an even rarer entity in front of us: a show about Reconstruction and the national betrayal of freedmen after the war.

Manhunt opens on the night of April 15, 1865, only hours before Abraham Lincoln would be shot in the back of the head by John Wilkes Booth at Ford’s Theater in Washington, DC. Despite its titular focus on Booth himself, the series admirably showcases other conspirators, too, and viewers see just how far-reaching the plot was as other assailants attempt to kill Secretary of State William Seward and lose their nerve hunting Vice President Andrew Johnson. In the absence of what we would recognize as a true police force, let alone national agencies such as the FBI, responsibility for investigating the conspiracy and hunting down the perpetrators falls to Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, played by the always-outstanding Tobias Menzies. Obsessed with achieving justice for his friend’s killer, Stanton pursues his remit with single minded devotion even at the cost of his own health. All the while, the new President Johnson begins to undermine everything Stanton and Lincoln planned for Reconstruction, with the fate of freedmen like Marry Simms, servant to the infamous Dr. Mudd and ultimately a key witness in the case against the conspirators, hanging in the balance.

Edwin M. Stanton, US Secretary of War 1862-68

As much as we wanted to like Manhunt, it ended up being a very mixed bag. It’s historical framing is excellent, and while it never made the point as explicitly as we would have liked, its message that the absence of Lincoln and presence of Johnson in the early stages of what would become known as Presidential Reconstruction was perhaps the biggest tragedy of the assassination. Mary’s struggles to break free of her abusive owner and establish herself on a Federal land grant, only to have her hope snatched away is heartbreaking, and it was encouraging to see a show so fully committed to supporting Radical Republicans like Stanton and combatting Lost Cause propaganda. Also intriguing was the decision to fully characterize Booth, showing the (vain, delusional, thoroughly unlikeable) human being rather than a faceless bogeyman or MacGuffin for our protagonists to chase. Yet the specific choices made in telling that story were often confusing or downright laughable. As the main character, Stanton behaves more like a beat detective than the nation’s Secretary of War, accompanying almost every search party and nearly being present at the final standoff in a Virginia tobacco barn. The show seems to have some self-awareness here, as it repeatedly has Stanton and others comment on how he finds it so difficult to delegate things, but that doesn’t really fix the issue. Even more odd are the decisions that led to the specific manner of Menzies’ portrayal. The real Edwin Stanton was a portly, middle-aged man with an impressive Victorian beard; Menzies lacks any of these characteristics, even as other members of the cast sport exactly the kind of facial hair Menzies is conspicuously missing. Other small but noticeable fumbles abound, from lines clearly written to shoehorn in historical context or modern significance for the audience to a particularly heinous corset/dress combination on Booth’s final host. On a more structural note, Manhunt’s liberal use of flashbacks to different dates, often without obvious introduction if you aren’t paying close attention, is more confusing and disruptive than narratively clever. Rather than being a holdover from the book the show is “based on,” however (James L. Swanson’s Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln’s Killer), these flashbacks were apparently an addition from Beltsky in an effort to bring in more context for the history on display and Stanton’s relationship with Lincoln. A laudable impulse, but one that ultimately stumbled in execution.

Tobias Menzies as Stanton, conspicuously beardless

While Manhunt certainly transcends its source material and brings a much-needed portrayal of the immediate aftermath of the American Civil War to our screens, then, it fell just short of being truly excellent. Indeed, we’d almost be more interested in a show centered around what we felt was almost a second, delayed, climax of the show–Stanton’s refusal to be removed by Johnson that led to him barricading himself inside the War Department for three months. Enough remains to make it worthwhile viewing, however, and maybe someday we’ll finally get something that brings home the tragic struggle for the nation’s soul that was Reconstruction.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.