By David Liss
Alcatraz, I am running out of patience. All you have to do is give me some reason to care about your main story and the characters who inhabit it, and I’ll be happy. Why is that so hard to do? This week’s episode is a big step backwards from last weeks’ mythology-builder, and instead we get something that is episodic and phoned-in, ignoring those the main thing the show does well – intriguing prison flash-backs – and replacing them with a generic and under-wrought generic cop show.
That said, last night, Alcatraz delivered its most literary episode yet – with references to Harold Robbins, Ovid and a character who is obsessed with Jules Verne as imagined by writers who have clearly never read him. All of which, it turns out, is in the service of nothing. Fox had teased that this week’s episode of Alcatraz was going to reveal some important back story, including information on why Tommy Madsen is so important to the show, but that turned out to be a bluff. Instead we get another wheel-spinning installment that drops vaguely suggestive hints at a larger story which it does little to advance.
Our returned psycho this week is Johnny McKee a serial poisoner, who targets people he has decided have it coming – plus those people who happen to be near by. He has a particular thing for bullies, and when we first meet him he is working as a bartender and poisons a quartet of men because one of them was being an over-the-top-dick. So, right away we get a sense that McKee has no sense of proportion. Just as I’m wondering how a guy from the past, who has no present-day identification, can get hired at all, he takes a job as a pool boy and is immediately confronted by more improbable assholery. One jerk throws a towel on his head, so he poisons everyone in the pool. Ultimately we learn why McKee can’t just take a chill pill. The one girl in high school who was nice to him was put up to it by the football team, who ambushed him and threw firecrackers at him, one of which – wait for it – blew off his testicles. I can see how that might make someone angry. McKee goes off, learns chemistry, becomes a wiz at poisoning people, reads lots of Jules Verne, and ends up at Alcatraz. When he was first arrested in the ‘50s, he’d killed more than 70 people, which I think would make him the most prolific serial killer of all time, no?
In Alcatraz he’s just another murderer, but when the local kingpin hires him to kill a rival in the shank business, McKee identifies the kingpin as a bully, so we all know who is going to be on the business end of his homemade poison. These prison sequences tend to be the highlight in an otherwise lackluster show, but this one felt phoned in to me. No real drama, no warden craziness (other than his loony introduction to prison movie night) and nothing that sheds light on the time traveling mystery.
Hot on his heels in the present day, we learn that Soto has the cell assignment of every inmate in Alcatraz committed to memory, that Hauser speaks Mandarin fluently, but without any understanding of tones, and that Madsen is perfectly okay with Hauser stepping all over her interrogations. This happens when Soto suggests they speak to Jack Sylvane, since he was McKee’s next door neighbor. Hauser refuses to let Madsen go to the facility where he is being held, won’t explain who the soldiers guarding the interrogation are, and doesn’t let Hauser answer any questions that don’t have to do specifically with Mckee – including the ones that might shed some light on her own grandfather. And she takes it all without batting an eyelash. Where’s the tough chick now? Given what Madsen has learned in previous weeks, why is she so willing to let Hauser hold back on her and not complain. There’s so much potential for drama and conflict here, and it’s all going to waste. Instead we get vague gestures toward character, such as when Soto goes to visit the hot coroner with a soft spot for golden-age heroes. She finds that fact that Soto doesn’t like dissected corpses oh so cute.
But back to the exciting manhunt. Investigations lead to an abandoned school house chemistry lab – which Madsen and Hauser investigate without backup – and then an 11th hour realization that McKee is plotting to gas a BART train. Madsen and Hauser head to the scene, again without backup. If more than one bad guy ever emerges at the same time, they are not going to have enough personnel to handle the crisis. In the end, the ticking clock is stopped, the bad guy is apprehended, and everyone goes back to not wondering what the hell is going on.
Framing all this is comatose Lucy. At the start of the episode, Dr. Beaureguard declares that he’s tried Lucy’s alternative techniques – which turn out to be more odd ball/new age and less super-secret scientific – than we’ve been led to believe. Shock therapy and acupuncture have had no success, and now Lucy is comatose but dreaming. Dreams later become suggestive throughout the episode. McKee claims not to dream at all, but historical Lucy knows he’s lying, and that his dreams hold the key to the truth about his secret of explosive castration. Sylvane reveals that one of the side effects of being post time travel is that he no longer dreams.
And then there’s the inexplicable business with the book. Beaureguard tells Hauser to read to Lucy, handing her a copy of a Harold Robbins novel, but Hauser refuses. At the end of the episode, Hauser picks up the book and it turns out to be a copy of Ovid’ Metamorphoses in disguise. The significance of dreams – and who has them and who does not – is never explained, and I feel like there is something going on when we see a work of classical poetry disguises as a potboiler, but I’ll be damned if I know what it is. In the end, we get another episode with insignificant forward movement and little pay out. Alcatraz, you are on notice.
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.