‘Manhunt’ Knows You Know What Happens to John Wilkes Booth

The new Apple TV+ series manages a difficult balancing act: spicing up a story whose ending is a foregone conclusion

Apple TV/Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The thing about the story of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination by John Wilkes Booth is that you know how it ends. The night out at Ford’s Theatre, the gunshot, the leap from the balcony, sic semper tyrannis, the bleeding out in a too-small bed, the hunt for Booth, the fiery barn demise, the whistle-stop tour en route to an Illinois tomb, Mary Todd generally having a time that can be called extremely not good.

There isn’t a whole lot of mystery, then, in Manhunt, Apple TV+’s new series about the search, led by Secretary of War Edwin Stanton (Tobias Menzies), for Booth (Anthony Boyle) in the days after Lincoln’s death in April 1865. Based on James L. Swanson’s 2006 book, the show doesn’t waste much time getting to the big event: The curtains rise on Our American Cousin scarcely 20 minutes into the premiere, and then we’re off to the races, as it were.

Adapting a story that is broadly familiar—particularly one about a president that audiences likely had memorized by middle school—is a tricky proposition. This spring, Apple TV+ is rolling the dice twice, first with Manhunt and next month with Franklin, which follows Michael Douglas as the founding father at Versailles while he attempts to convince the French crown to bankroll the Revolutionary War. There, too, it’s pretty likely you know how things shake out: Franklin succeeds, French assistance makes all the difference, and the redcoats are sent packing from the U.S. of A.

As a result, both series must grapple with how to introduce tension in a tale where we know the protagonist will emerge victorious. In Franklin, that’s accomplished mostly by reiterating just how close to the brink of failure the Continental Army came (with a sprinkling of the simple delight of watching Douglas’s Franklin get wine drunk in a fur cap). Manhunt, meanwhile, is, yes, largely a procedural about the hunt for Booth: The bulk of the seven-episode miniseries focuses on Stanton as he chases leads while Booth, whom Boyle skillfully animates as he vacillates between bigotry, zealotry, and self-aggrandizing buffoonery, limps around Maryland and Virginia on the lam, bouncing between the hideouts of Confederate sympathizers. (The buffoonery, for what it’s worth, cannot be overstated: This, after all, is a man who tried to paddle across the Potomac into Virginia and somehow got turned around enough to land … back in Maryland, a misadventure that is gloriously portrayed in the series.)

But gradually, chiefly in flashbacks to debates between Stanton and Lincoln about how to structure Reconstruction, a more delicate plot emerges: how Lincoln’s killing, just five days after Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox, brought much of his—and Stanton’s—plan for a reunified postwar America to a screeching halt. Andrew Johnson’s administration did not, to put it mildly, share many of Lincoln’s ideas; as Manhunt takes us closer to nabbing Booth, we see the beginnings of a relationship between Stanton and the new president that would grow so fractious that it would eventually result in Johnson’s impeachment. It’s a simplified version of that chapter of history, of course, but it provides a fascinating and frequently moving look at the America that might have been. (There’s also some not-especially-subtle expounding on the horror of anti-democratic factions who try to forcibly seize control of the government—could anything be a greater betrayal of Old Glory?!)

The show, for its part, is keen on sanding down many of the real Stanton’s edges, in ways both small (Menzies, alas[?], does not rock Stanton’s beard, which was so outrageous even for its time that the museum that operates Lincoln’s former summer residence has dubbed it “straight up Gandalfesque”) and less so: We don’t see much of the detainment and interrogation of Booth’s collaborators, the actual conditions of which—like a lot of Stanton’s actions as a government official that get little or no mention in the series—don’t square well with modern ideals of a liberal democracy. (Menzies, one has to think, got a lifetime’s worth of torturing prisoners of the state in the first season of Outlander.)

In the end, it’s the meta-drama that takes center stage in Manhunt. Stanton will get his man, of course, and there’s more than a little schadenfreude in watching Booth huff and puff about his glorious place in the history books. But to the series’ great credit, the manhunt isn’t what really matters.

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