Manhunt’s greatest strength is that Abraham Lincoln can just be a brother

There’s one moment that stands tall above everything else in the pilot of Apple TV’s post-Civil War drama: Quest, a conversation that will haunt Edwin Stanton (Tobias Menzies) for the rest of his life. He is hard at work in his office preparing plans for reconstruction when Abraham Lincoln (Midnight Mass’ Hamish Linklater) comes in with a baseball and invites him to the theater tonight (Ulysses S. Grant didn’t want to stay with his wife). Stanton is intrigued, drawn by his friend’s easy charm, but eventually backs out: he also owes his wife an evening together. And so Lincoln walks out, whining that he’ll only be hanging out with Mary’s friends, as he sees it Our American cousin.

The rest is history: that night, Lincoln would be assassinated in the theater. Andrew Johnson was scheduled to take the oath of office the next day. And Stanton – like Quest shows – would spend the next twelve days tracking down Lincoln’s assassin, John Wilkes Booth, and the rest of his life wondering what would have happened if he had said yes to a night at the theater.

It’s no surprise that Stanton could forever think about the path he didn’t take, even if he made sure someone guarded Lincoln that night. It’s a thought that’s incredibly compelling Quest Stanton’s survivor’s guilt is reversed again and again. His connection to Lincoln makes it all the more provocative: losing a friend in this way is a tragedy. But when you are also Secretary of War for one of the most important presidents in United States history, and you rely on his security and that of the nation, your actions have greater consequences. Every choice Johnson makes (or doesn’t make) in the post-war panic, every new vector point for the country, depends on Stanton’s soul, a constant reminder of his failures and of what we could have had.

As a period drama Quest has the task of educating viewers in many local and specific historical contexts. Too often the script cuts corners, makes things as simple as possible and eschews ambiguity in favor of a tidy story. The show stops every time someone is forced to emphasize the point of the scene you just watched. It can be awkward to work in an exhibit, or to tackle Lincoln as a Big Man™, and big moments often come with a desire to seen as big moments, instead of making you feel that way. It’s hard to have enough scenery to chew on when almost everyone is there Quest it feels like they should stop and tell you what it tastes like.

Image: Apple TV Plus

But it’s Menzies’ performance that grounds the show, even if the dialogue can’t fully connect those dots. There’s a heaviness to every post-murder scene, even when Stanton is energetically hunting for Booth. Menzies brings a kind of slightly manic energy, a ferocity of insult to mask the deep-seated guilt already in his soul. It’s his performance that makes Lincoln’s loss felt, even when it’s unspoken or when the show gets too busy. It’s this angle that gives Quest the sap of it, a reminder that Lincoln the myth was, first and foremost, Lincoln the man, and that he was mourned not just as a fellow countryman but as a companion.

So it’s no surprise that the moment looms large in Stanton’s office Quest‘s story. It’s the first scene where we see Lincoln as just a guy. He walks into his friend’s office, drops his feet on his desk, makes jokes and complains about his friend’s need to put in the time. It feels distinctly casual, Abraham Lincoln: The Legend, only in the precise (if distracting) makeup and costumes that the show layers Linklater behind. This is more than a man who could move a room and change the way we see ourselves as a nation; he was also a friend you could look up to. That’s the loss Quest makes us feel, and what makes the stakes for Stanton’s mission feel so incredibly high.

The first two episodes of Quest are now streaming on Apple TV Plus. New episodes are released every Friday.