So I know it’s been a slow few weeks here on ABPW. I just moved into a new apartment after losing my computer to repairs for two weeks, and I know there have been some new jobs and things floating around for your other writers, but no fear – we’re back! I just thought I should say something for you loyal readers, since we’ve been, uh, less than present lately. That said, it’s time to dig into Alcatraz.
I’ve been a dogged supporter of Alcatraz for its entire run, although I will have some things to say about it if it gets renewed (mostly just that the villains are far too awesome and outweigh the heroes by a lot, which means that the heroes need to get better, not that the villains need to get less awesome). I’ve marathoned the last few episodes this afternoon, and here are my quick recaps and finale thoughts. If you intend to watch the show, don’t read this – there are a couple of pretty huge spoilers mixed into the recaps.
Sonny Burnett (Theo Rossi)
In the 60s, Burnett was a young kidnapper who kept 14-year-old Helen Campbell as his kidnapped accomplice for three months before she escaped and turned him in. Now, he’s back to get revenge on her in one of my favorite plotlines yet. In Old Alcatraz, Burnett was shanked three days in for failing to deliver on the cash he promised for a deal because when the outside men went to get it, the money was gone – and it doesn’t take a genius to know that he’s certain Helen took it or knows what happened to it. In the present, he kidnaps her husband and daughter (killing the husband, but the daughter is rescued before she dies) in revenge, likely knowing he’ll get caught. Best moment: When Hauser commands Soto and Rebecca to not shoot any inmates, and they’re all, “Uh, does he know he’s the only one who’s shot any of them?” Sometimes this show tosses out something so meta and I love it.
Clarence Montgomery (Mahershala Ali)
In the late 50s, Montgomery was admitted for murdering his white girlfriend (keep the civil rights era in mind), although it appears he didn’t murder her. In the present, however, he has apparently actually murdered a similar girl and posed her exactly the same way. Much of this episode takes place in the past, which gave me a lot of feelings about its discussion of civil rights (which I think it did mostly well), and which also means that we see that Dr. B put Montgomery through shock therapy to make him a killer in the style he was jailed for (yet another extension of Dr. B’s jealousy of Lucy/Dr. Sengupta’s successful methods). In the end, Montgomery winds up dead but exonerated for the original crime he did not commit, though still guilty for the ones he did commit in the present. It’s also revealed that the Warden, not Dr. B, is behind the experiments on inmates’ blood.
Webb Porter (Rami Malek)
In the past, Porter was a genius who survived an attempted drowning by his mother as a child, and was taught by Lucy to channel the remainder ringing in his ears through music. In the present, Porter is still drowning women in the bathtub after cutting off their hair to string his bow with. Curiously, there are no records of anyone playing violin at Alcatraz, as Soto notes – until they find Porter’s violin and realize that he wasn’t targeting musicians to kill. Once Porter is captured while pretending to perform at the Philharmonic, it’s only a matter of time before Soto and Rebecca are looking at pictures of him from the past and realize that Lucy was a ’63. Also, Hauser uses Porter’s blood and music to wake Lucy up, since apparently he was one of her more invested cases. Looks like we’re really in for it now! And by it, I mean, a fast-moving plot, which is nice because I was getting tired of the slow burn.
Garrett Stillman (Greg Ellis)
Now that Lucy is back on her feet (and with some of Webb Porter’s altered blood in her), it feels like we’re back on business, sort of as if Hauser was shooting blind without her. I imagine Stillman’s episode would have been more impressive to me if I weren’t coming immediately off the Webb Porter episode – two geniuses in a row makes the second one less plausible, especially when Rami Malek as Porter was absolutely believable. However, Stillman is a genius thief with multi-step plans who we believe holds the keys, literally and figuratively, to getting to Tommy Madsen and solving the rest of the major plot arc this season.
However, this whole episode felt like one giant set up for the last hour of the season, and I felt a little cheated out of a good villain. Stillman was one of the smartest men we’ve seen yet, and his plotline almost felt wasted because they were so focused on Lucy being alive that they were only half-interested in catching him. And, honestly, I hope it wasn’t meant to be a surprise that he was working for Tommy because I saw that one coming a mile away. Stillman was basically a placeholder for the plot line of a more major character, and I have to say that as a very invested viewer, I didn’t really appreciate that.
Tommy Madsen (David Hoflin)
In the season finale, we find out exactly what was going on with Madsen in Alcatraz, why they were testing and taking his blood, and that they intend him to be the “leader” after the jump. In the present, Lucy vacillates between solving the cases and being confused about her deteriorated relationship with the now-obsessed Hauser. In search of the final key, held by Joe “Ghost” Limerick, our protagonists find themselves further intwined in discovering Madsen’s place in our present and just how involved he was in the jump. As the episode ends with Rebecca dying in the ER after being stabbed by her own grandfather Tommy Madsen, Hauser and Lucy unlock the Warden’s door and discover not only the time jump laboratory but the mad scientist behind it all.
And here we are, with a finale that was either a really great season finale or a really terrible series finale. With the way Alcatraz’s numbers have fallen in recent weeks, I’m afraid they won’t get renewed and this is what we’ll be left with. Dead protagonist, escaped lead fugitive, and a situation (Lucy revived, information revealed about the disappearance) that should have been opened up at least a few episodes ago. That’s what we get with a 13-episode season, though, I guess. Don’t get me wrong – I’m pleased as punch with the finale, but I’m really worried that’s all they’re going to get. Though I suspect that if they were really worried about cancellation, they would have wrapped it up a bit more (you know, by not killing the lead character). Jack Bender doesn’t do things halfway, and I trust him with this.
If there were a best episode of the season, it was the Clarence Montgomery episode. While we didn’t advance the overarching plot as far as I’d hoped, we do see a very focused look at not only prison tensions, but at racial tensions right in the middle of the Civil Rights Movement. Montgomery is a black man imprisoned for murdering his white girlfriend on circumstantial evidence, and though it’s clear to the viewer that he’s innocent, it’s also clear that the other characters dismiss his potential innocence because of racism. It’s also important to note that Dr. B knows Montgomery is innocent and uses racial tensions to exploit that through shock therapy, causing Montgomery to become a murderer in the style for which he was framed. I wish we could have seen more racial tensions in our flashbacks since this was such an emotionally charged episode, but I’m glad that the powers that be didn’t shy away from this topic – if they had, it would have been a massive insult to one of the most important movements in American history.
Something I do really appreciate about Alcatraz is that they don’t shy away from difficult topics. If there’s one thing they’ve made clear here, it’s that the men sent to Alcatraz in the mid-1900s were put there not because they had committed crimes but because it was felt that there was something fundamentally wrong with them that had caused them to commit those crimes (unless you were Clarence Montgomery and your imprisonment was the result of racism). There’s a reason Lucille Sengupta was brought on board to work with these inmates’ minds. Even if the psychiatry of that era was not exactly the most precise, this was a time when new advances were being made and new experiments tried out, to try to find the root of problems. Many of these inmates have real mental illnesses, and misdiagnosed though they may have been, I appreciate that the show didn’t make these men killers for the sake of killing. Instead, they each had a purpose, a reason they were the way they were, and instead of creating an easy way out, the show forced us to look at mental illness through a lens we haven’t seen before. This is something that I think is very important for pop culture right now, and though it doesn’t appear that viewers are ready for insight into criminal minds, I think it’s something that really needs looking into.
Something else that fascinates me here is how our view of Hauser has changed. As the show has progressed, we realize that he isn’t just a hardboiled cop in search of answers. He’s a confused, worried man whose love of his life isn’t sure if she loves him anymore, and his life’s work isn’t making as much sense as he thought it was going to. He’s slowly becoming desperate, especially in his ruthless quest to squeeze answers from anyone around him. Maybe it was more subtle over the course of a few weeks, but it was very interesting to see him repeatedly tell his peers not to shoot the inmates and them to be confused because, as Soto notes, Hauser is the only one who’s ever shot anyone. They all know he’s a bit on edge and they’re all a little afraid of him, which I think is a path I am dying to see explored in season two. He seems ripe for a mental breakdown, which would be another facet that would make this story more interesting.
But what I most want to talk about is how much I dislike the main characters. Well, that’s not true. I like them. I just don’t really care what happens to them. When I say main characters, I mean Rebecca, Soto and Hauser. As I just mentioned, Hauser got a bit more interesting in the last few episodes as he became more unhinged, which I think is telling of the tone of the show. Rebecca is just, in a word, boring. When she was stabbed, all I thought was, “Oh, well, that’s inconvenient.” I wasn’t heartbroken nor was I that curious about her survival prospects. And Soto is clearly very knowledgeable, and you just can’t dislike Jorge Garcia, but again, not super interesting. Hauser is by far the most interesting of the three, and the way that he shuts the other two out effectively makes them less interesting as characters.
And if it were just the three of them on the show, they would be fine as characters. But you have these three neutral characters who are facing up against a slew of villains, all of whom are much smarter and much better prepared than the trio – and they’ve been gone for fifty years and have to deal with modern technology! Without fail, every single week, I’m much more invested in the villains than I am in what happens to Rebecca Madsen (since she doesn’t give me anything to actually react to, really). Even Dr. B and Lucy are better characters than Rebecca, which again isn’t saying much. But that’s where this show has gone wrong. The writers put so much focus on the villain-of-the-week that he winds up being a much more fleshed out and interesting character – as the weeks have gone by, I’ve found myself wondering more about their pasts. I want to know more about them, more about what’s happening to them, and it’s not just because every single one of them is ridiculously good looking.
The answer is not to make the villains less interesting or give them less screen time. The answer is to make the protagonists compelling. Right now, the only one I want to see survive is Soto, and that’s for Jorge Garcia Reasons. I want to like all of them, really I do, but when everyone else is so much better, I just can’t. As sad as I’ll be if this is the only season, at least we got some really, really quality narrative out of the inmates’ stories. This is a show that I’ll be buying on DVD, regardless of how many seasons there are. So much potential – I hope they get a chance to fulfill it.
Have you stuck it out this season? Ready for a renewal – and if they get it, what do you think having a doubled season will do for them? Anything you’d like to see more or less of?