By David Liss
Last night’s episode of Alcatraz represented a considerable step in the right conceptual direction, and even if the end result was less compelling than I would have liked, it nevertheless bodes well for the direction of the show.
We begin, as regular viewers have now come to expect, with the appearance of the psychopath of the week – though this time there is a twist. The man from 1963 who appears in modern times is not a prisoner but a guard, Guy Hastings. That is pretty much were the differences end, however, as he proceeds immediately to pummel the crap out of a park ranger and launch himself upon a crime spree.
But here is where Alcatraz starts go get things right. Hastings is directly connected to former guard Ray Archer, whom we have been told is Madsen’s “uncle” – which is to say, not really her uncle, but the family friend who raised her after her parents died. Hastings proceeds to abduct Archer because he’s looking for Tommy, Madsen’s grandfather, and the guy who killed her partner in the series opener. See, things are getting all soap-opera-like and inter-connected now. Cool, right?
Yes, but not as cool as I want it to be. Part of the problem is the by-the-numbers feeling of the episode. Another returned psycho, another abduction and ticking clock. The problem with formula is that it begins to feel, well, formulaic, if you don’t distract the audience with enough real drama. Even though Madsen is ostensibly at the center of these events, she still feels generic and uninteresting, and Jorge Garcia’s Soto is little more than an afterthought in this episode. Once again, it is the returned prisoner who is the interesting character in the story, but if this episode had more relevant contemporary drama, its flashback sequences lacked the intensity of previous weeks.
To compensate us for relative absence of prison drama and creepy warden action, we get some bat-shit plotting. At the beginning of the flashback, Guy Hastings is training a new batch of guards, including young Ray Archer (remember he’s Madsen’s “uncle,” for those of you keeping score). We’ve already learned that Archer was a childhood friend of Tommy Madsen, and so when prisoner Tommy sees guard Archer in the mess hall, Tommy proceeds to mess up Archer’s face using nothing but his lunch tray and a bad attitude.
What’s it all about? Well, it turns out that Archer is not so much Madsen’s “uncle” so much as he is her uncle. Ray Archer was originally Ray Madsen, and he and Tommy are brothers. Archer did what any of us would do; he changed his name so he could get a job at Alcatraz and be near his brother. The two brothers reconcile their differences, even if we don’t really know what they are, but only after Archer repeatedly slams Tommy’s face into some prison bars. Then they hold hands. It’s sweet.
Back in the world of tomorrow, Hastings is deadest on finding Tommy, though he doesn’t know why. He has, apparently, been programmed by the people who have sent the prisoners forward in time (Soto says, “Oh, right. Those guys.” It’s the Hurley-esque moment of the week) to find the rogue Tommy. To fulfill this vaguely-understood but all-consuming mission, he abducts Archer and brings him to Tommy’s childhood home where they wait for Tommy to show up. Instead they get Hauser and Madsen, and Hastings is captured.
Some of the best moments of this episode come in the denouement. First, Hauser takes Hastings to look at his adult daughter and her family, and tells him that he is a casualty in all this and he’ll never see his family again. No doubt he’s heading off to the high-tech, neon-lit prison. Sad. Secondly, Madsen learns that Hauser tried to hire Archer 16 years earlier, which means that 16 years ago, Hauser knew Tommy Madsen was the key to everything. This, Madsen concludes, means that Hauser needs her more than she needs him. Oh, snap, Hauser. Madsen’s got you over a barrel now, and she’s not going to use her leverage to get any information at all. Take that. Finally, we get Tommy paying a visit to Archer at his bar. Archer has known Tommy was back for a long time, and while there’s not love between them (“If I see you again, I’ll kill you,” he said clichéishly) it still means that Archer knows more about what’s going on than he had said. And so the episode ends with the promise that at some point someone is going to start caring about the events as they unfold.
Other things that we learn this episode include the experience of the time travelers themselves, who have no memory of getting from there to here. Hastings was told that his family had been killed and that the guards needed to be quarantined. Hastings’s wife, meanwhile, was told that the guards had been killed, and their families needed to get the hell of the island. We now know that experiments being conducted in the lower reaches of the prison, and in the infirmary, but we don’t know anything more than that.
Ultimately, what I find so frustrating about Alcatraz is that some people do know more than that. Hauser is still locking himself away with the techie hipsters, making decisions based on information we don’t have. In response to this, Madsen and Soto are not saying, “Tell us what you know or we’re out of here.” Tension, manufactured artificially by withholding information, can work in small doses, but it cannot function as the axis upon which the narrative turns. Great conspiracy stories make the viewer feel in league with the characters, not as though the story, but when characters are keeping secrets, and other characters know it, and no one is asked to disclose – well, it feels like cheating. To save its viewers, and its soul, Alcatraz needs to come clean and let us know what Hauser knows. If, at that point, the viewer still wants to know more, then we’ve got something we can work with.
David Liss is the author of seven novels, most recently The Twelfth Enchantment. His previous books include A Conspiracy of Paper (2000) which was named a New York Times Notable Book and won the 2001 Barry, MacAvity and Edgar awards for Best First novel. The Coffee Trader (2003) was also named a New York Times Notable Book and was selected by the New York Public Library as one of the year’s 25 Books to Remember. A Spectacle of Corruption (2004) was a national bestseller, and The Devil’s Company (2009) has been optioned for film by Warner Brothers. Liss is the author of the graphic novel Mystery Men and writes Black Panther for Marvel Comics as well as the forthcoming series, The Spider, from Dynamite Comics.