This post contains spoilers through the January 30 episode of Alcatraz.
By David Liss
Alcatraz, I’ve come to realize, would be a much better show if it were about strange goings-on in the prison in the 1960s. The time-traveling inmates on their psychopathic 21st century crime sprees remain the least interesting part of the show, but last night’s episode demonstrated how transcendently weird and wonderful this series can be when it is allowed to linger on its core strength: Alcatraz of the past.
This week’s time-hopping prisoner is Cal Sweeney, a bank robber who only targets safety deposit boxes — ostensibly because that keeps the robbery being classified as a federal crime (though he ends up in federal prison anyhow, doesn’t he?), but we learn that there is a deeper psychological component involved. In the modern era, Sweeney’s m.o. is to romance a bank teller and gets her to give him unmonitored access to the safety deposit boxes (though, at least in my bank, it’s not the tellers who do that). Then he jabs a needle in her neck, robs the boxes, and tracks down the owners of the stolen objects, whom he tortures and kills. Neat.
Back in the 1960s, Sweeney has a contraband operation going on through the prison laundry room. It’s all going swimmingly until crooked deputy warden Tiller tosses Sweeney’s cell. A precious object goes missing, and when Tiller demands a cut of the contraband business, Sweeney says no way until his beloved box is returned. It’s Harlan, laundry room protégé and next-cell-neighbor, who comes up with the solution. Infiltrate Tiller’s birthday party, held at the warden’s residence, and get a word alone with the deputy warden.
The two narratives proceed much as they have in previous weeks, but never before has the magnetic pull of the flashbacks so effectively dwarfed the contemporary “main” story. Madsen and Soto have come to feel totally forgettable despite their being the stars of the show. They’re there to follow around the bad guy and collect clues so we understand him better. Along the way, we come to care about and be interested in, if not like, Sweeney. We still don’t give a crap about the protagonists despite half-hearted efforts to give them character by showing Madsen loving dim sum or having Soto talk about his (absurd) journal article which used Gotham City crime figures as a statistical model. Meanwhile Sweeney and Harlan end up as waiters at the deputy warden’s birthday bash, which is the most bizarre and riveting sequence of the series thus far. I’m still not quite sure why high ranking officials would choose to have a dinner party on the island, with prisoner labor, but maybe that’s just my short-sightedness. Anyhow, who cares when you’ve got Tiller’s wonderfully deranged sister at the table? Plus, there’s the 1960s version of Lucy Banerjee talking about her experimental therapy to treat violent criminals by removing their traumatic memories — so clearly we have a hint about why it is the returned prisoners can’t remember where they’ve been or why they are doing what they do. And this leads to some questions about Hauser’s operation. Is he trying to figure out what has happened to these prisoners, or has he known all along because he is running the operation behind it? Unfortunately, you probably don’t care. I know I don’t. Sweeney follows Tiller into the bathroom, where we’re treated to a fantastic brawl: Tiller gets his head dunked in the toilet and Sweeney gets stabbed with Tiller’s crappy birthday pen. Also, Tiller claims he has no knowledge of the missing box. The mystery deepens! But not back in the present day, when Sweeney’s latest bank robbery turns into a hostage situation. Hauser orders Madsen to break Sweeney out of the bank so that they can protect the secret of the returning prisoners. She does, and we discover that this robbery had a purpose; Sweeney was after a key, much like we saw in the first episode. He doesn’t know why he wants it or what it means, much like in the first episode. More mysteries that don’t resonate.
We get a couple of big reveals toward the end, including Hauser confiscating the key and delivering it to his gang of super scientist/hipsters. Meanwhile, back in the prison, we learn that it wasn’t Tiller who took Sweeney’s precious box — the only memento of his family, killed in a fire when he was a boy. It was Harlan, the protégé next door. Oh, the irony. Sweeney is sent down to the hole as punishment for toilet-dunking Tiller, but at the end we see its Warden James, not Tiller, who brings him to a secret room under the prison, opened by the super-mysterious keys, where Sweeney is going to meet some kind of person or thing….
The ending of the prison sequence is remarkably effective, and for the first time since the show began, I actually wanted to know where the story was going. This secret works because it promises to reveal something important about characters we’ve come to find interesting: James and Sweeney. Back in the present day, the mystery feels empty and tacked on, largely because we have never given any reason to care about Soto or Madsen. Even riveting lines of dialogue from Hauser (“We can do this the easy way or the hard way!”) can’t infuse any real drama into the story.
If Alcatraz were to start all over again, and someone were to ask my opinion, I’d recommend making the prison the center of the story, and have the present day characters in secondary roles — snippets, much like the flashbacks in the current formula — and have the two time lines come together somewhere down the road. The reason is pretty basic. The prison sequences work so much better because prisons make for great settings for stories. Prisons are relatively closed institutions, and like that other great setting for stories — high schools — the limited options of the inmates, and the incredible power held by those in authority, make every choice and action weighty with consequence. Guards and inmates alike are in a crucible in which every decision counts. Meanwhile, Madsen and Soto participate in an institution whose scope, purpose, power and personnel remain hidden. They are motivated by a general sense of curiosity and a vague desire to do what’s right, but as I’ve been saying all along, there is no reason why they can’t be replaced at any time by other characters without the show missing a beat. That’s a bad sign. Meanwhile, back in Alcatraz, Tiller, James and each prisoner is bound to the story and the location by physical and emotional bounds that are clear and fascinating.
So, can Alcatraz be fixed without a reboot? Probably, but not without figuring out how to make the contemporary characters count. Let’s have some flashback for Soto and Madsen. Let’s see them have secrets and complicated pasts and conflicted emotional lives. Better yet, let’s tie these complications and conflicts to the prison of the past. I don’t really know how to do that, but then I’m not privy to Alcatraz’s secrets. The bottom line is that Alcatraz is a series in which the context is much more interesting than the text, and that is a real problem.
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.