By David Liss
Some stories are so complicated that they require considerable effort on the front end in order to yield dividends down the road. Alcatraz is not one of them. A quarter season of largely generic maneuvering has been in no way necessary to buttress any kind of narrative architecture. The show has been laboring with a set-up that is – to use two similar culinary metaphors – both half baked and under cooked. All that said, it seems that Alcatraz is finally inching toward deploying its various elements to some effective purpose.
Last night’s episode felt like, in most ways, a major step forward. There are still some major problems related to Alcatraz’s most basic premise. Another week, and another psycho from the past is running around in the present day, commit crimes because he’s been programmed to do so or because it’s simply his nature – or, perhaps, both. This time it’s xxxx, who is a serial land-mine deployer. Um, yeah. Okay. I will say that when land-mine wielding Paxton Petty, first shows up, I thought we were going to have a grade-A badass on our hands. Madsen sees him at the scene of the crime, chases him down, and gets the drop on him – until Petty hurls a land mine at him. How cool is that? Except, that’s his last cool moment of the episode. For the rest of the show, he just looks creepily at people and digs in the sand a lot. Meanwhile, Madsen is hot on his trail and figures out exactly how to track him down by asking a couple of people some probing questions. She’s good at police work, that one. Soto tags along, trying to convince himself and everyone else that he has some purpose in the investigation and in the story. Having a Soto geek moment-of-the-week is simply not enough, though I appreciate that this week it was a reference to Sandman – the original pulp Sandman, not that Neal Gaiman stuff.
Alcatraz’s real strength has been its flashback sequences to the prison in the 1960s, but in the past couple of weeks, those segments have fallen off, delivering less dramatic punch and serving more to explicate the less satisfying contemporary narrative. This week, at least, the two timelines are bridged in ways I found interesting.
Since she was shot and rendered comatose in the second episode, there have been hints of a connection between Hauser and Lucy, and this week we get more of the picture, including a budding romance between 1960s Hauser and Lucy. This raises some very interesting questions: mainly how is it that Lucy and Beauregard have come forward in time and Hauser has not; and if they possess time travel know-how themselves, is there some opposing power that possesses the same technology? We also got to learn something about Lucy’s sophisticated reprogramming techniques, which involve ice cold water boarding followed by tea, sedatives, mints and electrocution.
The moments with Lucy and past-Hauser, as well as present-Hauser, are among the most dramatically compelling of the series so far, and they demonstrate the degree to which the show needs to give its characters more emotional life. Efforts to flesh Madsen out by introducing a wise-cracking bomb-squad pal fall short, especially since this guy is so marked for death he may as well be wearing a red shirt and be on his last day of the job. Soto being smitten with a dorkily-inclined medical examiner may have some charm value, but its only a temporary distraction from his irrelevance to the show.
As for Petty himself, despite his early promise, he proves to be the show’s most phoned-in villain thus far. He sets mines because he likes blowing people up. He won’t reveal the location of his mine fields because he’s a messed up Korean War veteran with a grudge. The efforts to keep him from setting more mines, and the hunt to find a long-hidden mine field, are marginally interesting at best – though the latter ends with another cool Hauser shoot-em-in-the-leg sequence, which, for my money, never gets old.
Finally, we get despondent Hauser abducting a dying Lucy from the hospital to the super secret neon lit prison and delivering her to Beauregard’s care, with the implication that he will be able to do things non-time-traveling medical science can’t. If that’s the case, why hasn’t she been in his care all along? Maybe we’ll find out, but maybe this is just sloppy writing. Alcatraz hasn’t given us a compelling reason to believe it must be one or the other.
The other truly interesting moment this episode was the exchange between Past-Lucy and past Tommy-Madsen, about Tommy’s endless stint in the infirmary. He offers to provide information on an investigation if Lucy will try and find out why he is living in a hospital bunk and giving blood constantly. Hopefully something interesting will come of this.
Ultimately, this episode advances some key elements, the show’s reluctance to give its audience large chunks of substance is befuddling. If we are not yet ready to find out what is going on under the prison, and who/what lives there, at least remind of that the question is still open. Give us something to go on about who is behind the time traveling prisoners, and a little piece of the why puzzle. Show us more about why characters are the way they are. Now that Hauser has stepped into the third dimension, can we hope for similar treatment for Madsen? And for the love of God, give Jorge Garcia something more substantial to do other than reminding us of his character on a better show.
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.