Alcatraz: Filling in the Gaps

When I first wrote about the problems in the initial two episodes of Alcatraz, I did not think they would be quickly fixed. Instead, the next two episodes went out of their way to not only prove me wrong, but to begin to settle into a steady rhythm. Now, I want to state quite clearly that the problem solving is still maddeningly “easy breezy”, and the formula of “We have figured out what’s going to happen next. Oh no! We are slightly too late and tragedy has occurred!” is one that will rapidly grow old if they continue trotting it out. It’s also evident that the show is carried by the phenomenal acting of the bit players. Johnny Coyne and Jason Butler Harner are simply fantastic as Warden Edwin James and Deputy Warden E.B. Tiller, respectively. Sam Neill is great at being gruff and creepy Sam Neill with questionable motives. It’s not like Sarah Jones and Jorge Garcia are doing poorly either, in fact Jorge Garcia is doing much better than I thought he was going to do. His level of insecurity comes across palpably, it’s impressive and subtle acting that relies entirely on his body language. While I enjoyed him in Lost, I remained unimpressed in the other cameos I have seen him in. Alcatraz is getting me to change my mind about that, at least these few follow up episodes have showcased this particular talent. To sum up, I have greatly enjoyed the third and fourth episodes of the show. Rather than pick apart the episodes, I wanted to focus on something I found amazing about this week’s episode. I recommend not reading any further if you have not seen episode four, “Cal Sweeney”.

The title character, and prisoner of the week, is seen going into a bank in a suit, flashing a handsome smile and going into the vault to “check his safety deposit box”. This results in some light hanky-panky with some up-against-the-wall action about to go down. Instead, he whips out his needle, not a euphemism, and proceeds to take his bolt gun to the boxes, again, not a euphemism. He uses the bolt guns to pop the lock on the safety deposit boxes and begins rifling through certain box numbers. In one of these first ones, he finds a beautiful silver necklace with a large sapphire inset. Cal stops and admires the gem, saying “Hey now. What’s your story?” Here’s where the writing and directing hit me in a way I was not expecting. This sapphire necklace has absolutely nothing to do with the plot of the show. In fact, some reviews were complaining about this fact and showcased it as a piece of bad writing. The fools! This was the best writing the show has done to date, and the direction made it come to life.

The character’s back story reveals that the thing he cherished most in the world was a blackened tin box. This was the only thing that remained after his family’s house burned to the ground in a fire. It’s the only keepsake from his child hood. While the “Back in ’63” story line focuses on this, it’s not what I found interesting. It’s that necklace in the cold open. Cal finds himself at the house of the necklace owner and go into the guy’s house under the pretext of filing an insurance claim. Instead, he keeps asking questions about the necklace, revealing that the necklace was a gift to the man’s wife. When Cal explains he needs to know how the man met his wife, the man balks and Cal is forced to resort to bolt gun torture. He then says the telling words, “I don’t need to know for the insurance. I need to know for me.” That’s when I realized what was going on, something that is never explicitly explained in the entire episode. Cal doesn’t rob safety deposit boxes because of the money and treasures in them, or because it keeps it from being a federal crime. No, he robs the safety deposit boxes because that’s where people keep their treasured possessions. Things for them that carry deep, personal meaning. During the next heist, the woman he is conning whispers the words “tell me again about the necklace.” He doesn’t care about the necklace at all, he gave it to the teller after all. He only cares about the story, and the memories associated with it. In fact, the show quickly moves on from there, stating that in all of the heists that have been occurring, Cal has killed one person each time, but that most items he stole were just “legal stuff”. The detectives make comments to the effect that money and gold aren’t kept in safety deposit boxes any more, but it’s really not about that. It’s clear that Cal is killing people and taking their memories from them, because he has none.

This is further emphasized in a flashback, when Dr. Lucy talks about her work as an MD/PhD in the field of prisoner rehabilitation mentioning that she believes the brain can be rewired in a way that allows them to remove the traumatic memories that lead to their undesirable behavior. The way this was pitched certainly had the gravitas that this will be important later, but for now, I want to focus on Cal. The look on Cal’s face was one of horror. It really gave credence to the story that this was a man who had nothing any more, should his memories be taken. This is the purest example of showing rather than telling I have seen in a serial show on broadcast television in a very long time. The subtext is all there, and importantly the main characters don’t pick up on it. They are able to track him and catch him, but they do not understand the guy even a little bit. This was absolutely brilliant. The rest of the show was well done, too, but it paled in comparison to the extremely brisk character development of Cal.

In short, those reviewers didn’t know what they were talking about and this was by far the most well crafted episode of the show so far. I hope to see more of this careful story telling done in the future. It was fascinating and gripping in a way that few dramas on broadcast television ever achieve. Importantly, even if you missed this nuanced story, the episode still makes sense when taken from the perspective of the main characters. It’s rare that two different stories mesh so well in the world of serialized television.

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