There’s been a ton of discourse about Oppenheimer since it came out two weeks ago, and a lot of it’s been centered around Florence Pugh’s Jean Tatlock. In addition to her questionable sex scenes that have raised a few eyebrows—surely there was a less jarring way to introduce that “I am become death” quote—Jean’s drawing criticism for serving a familiar role to any Christopher Nolan fan: she’s the male character’s seductive, troubled, thinly-drawn love interest.
Jean Tatlock compared to other Nolan characters
Much like Rachel Dawes in the Dark Knight trilogy or Mallorie Cobb in Inception, Jean is always frustratingly out of the protagonist’s reach. She loves Oppenheimer, but only sometimes, and definitely not often enough for a marriage to work out between them. Halfway through the movie, Jean dies; it’s a fate shared not just by Rachel and Mal, but by the wives of the characters in Memento, The Prestige, Interstellar, and Tenet.
The discussion around Jean’s depiction in the film is complicated because, unlike Nolan’s other female characters, you can’t really blame him for her fate. The real Jean Tatlock also died in the same manner. The real Jean also suffered from clinical depression, and that was a big reason why her relationship with Oppenheimer fell apart.
You also can’t really blame Nolan too much for how little we get to know the character; the movie is told through the perspective of a fairly self-centered man, a womanizer who can’t fully commit to any specific person or cause. We get a limited view of Jean because Oppenheimer himself has a limited view of her, and the movie isn’t interested in didactically spelling out all of its main character’s flaws.
Still, it’s hard not to wish the movie had dwelled just a little more on Jean. Most of her scenes either involve her having sex with Oppenheimer, her being depressed, or some mix of the two. Jean Tatlock had an entire life outside the man, and while the movie might not be named after her, there was a depressingly large amount of details about her life the movie left out, or which it only briefly mentioned in passing.
Jean Tatlock’s political views
For instance, there’s the fact that it was Jean who largely served as the catalyst for Robert Oppenheimer’s political awakening, pulling him deeper towards the Communist party that would cause him so much trouble later on. “It was Tatlock who ‘opened the door’ for Robert into this world of politics,” wrote biographers Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherman in American Prometheus, the book Oppenheimer draws from the most. “Perhaps it was only natural that Jean’s activism and social conscience awakened in Robert the sense of social responsibility … He soon became active in numerous Popular Front causes.”
Oppenheimer stops caring about Jean’s politics after her initial hook-up with the titular character—her communist leanings are treated as an obstacle to Oppenheimer talking to her during the Manhattan Project, but they aren’t explored much further than that. It’s a shame because there were a lot of similarities between her and Oppenheimer’s relationships with the Communist Party. Just as Oppenheimer was frustrated by physics’ abstract nature and therefore looked to politics as a way to push for tangible change, Jean was frustrated by psychology’s limits. She thought of psychology as “like expert surgery.” It was just one way to make the world a better place, but hardly the only one she felt should be explored.
She also faced the obstacle of the Communist Party’s insistence at the time that Sigmund Freud and Karl Marx’s writings contradicted each other. It was a problem for her, considering she was a communist going to school to be a psychiatrist, and Freud’s works fascinated her. It was also a clear-cut parallel to Oppenheimer’s initial fascination with quantum mechanics: His first lecture at Berkeley starts with him talking about things that should be contradictory, that both shouldn’t be able to exist at the same time, but somehow still do. This is the central theme behind the movie: Oppenheimer can’t take any strong stances because he’s running on multiple competing, contradictory philosophies, and that’s what leads to his ruin. It’s also part of what leads to Jean’s.
Jean Tatlock’s death
“I am disgusted with everything,” Jean wrote in her suicide note in 1944. “I wanted to live and to give and I got paralyzed somehow. I tried like hell to understand and I couldn’t… I think I would have been a liability all my life—at least I could take away the burden of a paralyzed soul from a fighting world.” We never get to see or hear any of this in the film, which is odd not just because it sheds some extra light on Jean’s character, but because a “paralyzed soul” in “a fighting world” is a pretty apt description of Oppenheimer himself in the aftermath of WWII.
Also omitted in the movie is another potential motive for her death by suicide: Jean’s life-long struggles with her sexuality. “At the time, Freudian analysts regarded homosexuality as a pathological condition to be overcome,” American Prometheus notes, but Jean was never able to overcome it. She developed a particularly strong, potentially romantic relationship with her socialist friend Mary Ellen Washburn, and in the end, it might have been Mary’s absence—not Oppenheimer’s—that might’ve significantly led to her death. Jean had called Mary the night before, but Mary wasn’t able to come over. The movie implies that it was Oppenheimer’s cutting himself off from her that led to Jean’s suicide, which makes sense considering this is being told from Oppenheimer’s guilt-ridden perspective, but the reality is that it was far more complicated. Jean’s life did not revolve around Oppenheimer anywhere near to the extent the movie implied.
One detail the movie did include, if only briefly, was the speculation that Jean’s suicide might’ve actually been a murder. Historians have long been perplexed by the fact that her father waited four and a half hours after discovering her body to notify the authorities, and that he burned a lot of her letters and photographs during that period. Bird and Sherman also noted that it had been suggested by investigators that Jean had been drugged with knockout drops without her knowledge, and then “forcibly drowned” while unconscious. While her death has in the end been ruled a suicide, theories about her potential murder have never quite gone away.
These theories are referenced in that brief shot of black gloves forcing her head into the bathtub. It’s not only a blink-and-you-miss-it shot, but the color of the gloves blends in with Jean’s hair to the point where it’s very easy to overlook. But even if you didn’t notice the gloves, that hallucinatory, paranoid tone is still clear, perfectly in line with the fervent anti-communist hysteria the movie deals with.
But for viewers consistently frustrated with Nolan’s treatment of women, everything going on in this scene might be overshadowed by the realization that Nolan has once again killed off the female love interest. Despite being featured heavily in the marketing for the film, Florence Pugh is only in the movie for about fifteen minutes total, and she’s forgotten almost entirely by the halfway point.
Viewers frustrated with the sidelining of Jean can at least take solace in how Emily Blunt’s character Kitty is given such refreshing material in the film’s final act. Another alcoholic with emotional problems, Kitty initially seems like she’s a repeat of Jean, another female love interest falling down a dark path that Oppie can’t save her from. Instead, she’s slowly but surely revealed to be the tough, dependable one in their relationship. Her scene at the board hearing is riveting, badass, very true to life, and proof that Nolan can write female characters beyond his familiar tropes. Oppenheimer might not have given Jean Tatlock the focus she deserved, but at least Kitty Oppenheimer got her due.