If Alcatraz is going to stick to the heavily-procedural format for the long haul, then let's hope that we at least continue to get more episodes like this week's effort. Although the proceedings still followed approximately the same format as previous installments, it felt for the first time as if the emphasis of the episode was as much about fleshing out more of the series' mythology as it was in solving the crime at hand. Is it possible that we'll look back on “Cal Sweeney” someday and say, “This is where the pieces of Alcatraz first began to come together?”
Well, let's not get our hopes up too high quite yet, but at the very least, this week was better than last week. Yeah, I know, that's not saying much, given that we're only in the fourth episode, but let's take the small victories where we can find them, shall we?
When we first meet Cal Sweeney, he's strolling into a bank, and he's all about the swagger. What starts as a trip to a safety deposit box quickly turns into a make-out session, only to just as quickly turn into a robbery, with Sweeney stabbing his amorous teller friend in the back of the neck with a needle and sending her into unconsciousness. (Not that we realize that right away, however: it isn't until a bit later that we confirm that he hasn't killed her.) While she's out, he begins popping open safety deposit boxes, looking frantically for...what? A necklace? “What's your story?” he asks, pocketing the jewelry. Before he can make a clean getaway, however, he's encountered by the bank manager. Bad luck for that dude.
Jumping back in time to 1960, we see that Sweeney already had his swagger even then, and we watch him working in the laundry room with the new kid on the block, teaching him all the ins and outs of slipping contraband into inmates' trousers and making money on the sly, either outright or in interest. “I take the risks, so I call the shots,” he says, quickly revealing that the secret to his success is maintaining a lack of emotion and a refusal to look weak. “You can't care about anything or anyone,” explains Sweeney. “Once they see a soft spot, they got you by the short hairs.” Unfortunately, this statement is immediately followed by Sweeney revealing his own soft spot to his new protege after a sweep of his cell by Assistant Warden Teller. D'oh!
Meanwhile, back in the present, Detective Madsen and Dr. Soto are having breakfast dumplings, a decision which doesn't thrill Soto, given that his reaction to Madsen's query about how he went from earning doctorates to owning a comic book store is greeted by his sad-voiced response, “If I tell you, can we go someplace with syrup?” Still, he does answer her question: he only got his degrees to get his parents off his back, and he apparently lost his academic credibility by writing a paper for the National Journal of Criminology using Gotham City as a statistic model. His excuse for enduring humiliation by his peers rather than tell his parents what happened: “It's a complicated relationship.”
Ah, but there's no time for further talk, as Madsen and Soto must venture back into the breach and look into the deposit-box robbery, which Soto identifies almost without hesitation as Sweeney's work. He's a smart cookie, this one, avoiding killing people whenever possible and selecting his crimes – no vaults, only deposit boxes – so as to avoid taking them to a federal level. Although it first appears that there's no particular rhyme or reason to what he's doing beyond his usual motive, it quickly becomes clear that the change in what people store in their safety deposit boxes nowadays means that he's clearly looking for something specific. But what?
Well, as it turns out, he's looking for another one of those mysterious keys that we saw Jack Sylvane with in the pilot, but I was left a little confused by his reasons for visiting the homes of various people whose items were in the safety deposit boxes. So was he was asking people for the stories behind their family heirlooms and cherished artifacts because, since he'd lost all of his family and everything he owned except for the little tin box, he didn't have any of his own? If so, then what? After hearing their stories, he got so pissed off about his own lack of a past that he killed them in anger...? Or did he only kill them because they would've called the police on him? There are some theories rumbling around from my fellow critics which note how the returning inmates have come back with far more violent tendencies than they had when when they were originally imprisoned on Alcatraz. Is this a further example of that behavior?
Continuing the trend of previous episodes, the goings-on in the past proved more intriguing on the whole than present-day events. The storyline about Sweeney trying to stymie Deputy Warden Tiller's attempts to muscle in on his contraband-dealing business would've been interesting enough, but the twist that his protege was actually responsible for all of his woes was totally unexpected. Tiller's speech during his shave was great (“When you go against the grain, that's when you get nicked”), but the money scene occurred during the dinner party at Warden James's house. This was partially because of the doctor-meets-doctor bit, with Lucy and Dr. Beauregard having a stern war of words about their respective medical philosophies – could Beauregard possibly have sounded more condescending? - but mostly it was because of Sweeney's misguided washroom encounter with Tiller, who came out the uncontested winner.
Wrapping things up in the present, the method of handling Sweeney was entertainingly unorthodox, what with Madsen breaking into the bank and convincing Sweeney to let her help him escape. More important, though, was the discussion between them in the getaway car, with Sweeney stumbling over his words like a man threatened (or under post-hypnotic suggestion) when asked questions about what he'd stolen and why he'd stolen it. Madsen's efforts to convince Hauser to tell her about Sweeney's key came to nothing, but at least we got a brief glimpse of Hauser's own personal Nerd Herd, a collective which apparently exists only to figure out the secret of the 63s. Lastly, we got a final flashback to the Rock, where we saw Warden James escorting Sweeney's protege into a door - unlocked with the mysterious keys, no? - and into...somewhere. All we know is that, per the warden, his future just got a heck of a lot brighter.
Should we take this as a sign that the same goes for Alcatraz viewers?
Random quotes and observations:
- “Some people leave flowers, others a mint on the pillow. I toss cells. Occupational hazard.”
- Maybe it's just me, but I find I feel a little more strongly about a fictional character's death when they share my first name.
- Surely all of the Facts of Life fans among us enjoyed Geri Jewell's appearance as Tiller's “gimp sister.” Still a flirty little mix, that one...
- The medical and philosophic battle between Lucy and Dr. Beauregard makes me wonder if it'll prove to be an issue if, should things go poorly with Lucy's condition, Agent Hauser turns up at the doc's lab with her body in tow.
- Tiller couldn't have looked less thrilled when the Warden gave him a pen as a present.
- The reference to Sweeney possibly having dug “a Hamburglar tunnel” made me laugh out loud, as did Hauser's announcement that he was “going to join that jurisdictional pissing contest,” but both were topped in the funny department by Hauser's snide comments about Soto's driving. Still, one interesting thing came out in the midst of his comments: he knew that Soto hadn't been behind the wheel of a car since he was 11.