Alcatraz may still be infuriating the fans who want the series to increase the depth of its mythology and kick aside the annoying predictability of the procedural elements, but you can’t deny that the guest stars are starting to get good. Following in the footsteps of last week’s appearance by Theo Rossi, a.k.a. Juice on Sons Of Anarchy, we areblessed by the efforts of not one but two top-notch actors this evening: Mahershala Ali, probably best known to sci-fi aficionados for playing Richard Tyler on The 4400 (and, more recently, Nathan Clay on Alphas), and the always-awesome Glynn Turman, who… well, geez, I hate to taint your appreciation of his work by reminding you of the subpar Showtime series he’s currently starring in, so let’s instead remember him as the star of J.D.’s Revenge, shall we?
Ali plays this week’s ’63 of the week, Clarence Montgomery, who makes his first appearance in the midst of a silent auction at a country club, indulging in a bit of flirtation with one of the event’s lovelier guests. At the behest of his new lady friend, Clarence and his new acquaintance go tooling about on a golf cart, seemingly having the time of their lives, but the freewheeling fun ends abruptly when, after a strange and disconcerting flash-forward, she’s dead and he’s left asking, “What happened?”
What’s happened, of course, is that Clarence has killed the young lady, although the amount of time that seems to have passed between the couple’s initial mischief and her eventual murder gives us just enough pause that we do wonder at least briefly if maybe he wasn’t the one who killed her. Sure, it seems unlikely that Emmitt Little (Turman) jumped out of his wheelchair, killed the woman, and wheeled away before Clarence could wake up, but crazier things have gone down on this show. Also, who’s to say that another ’63 couldn’t have been responsible?
But, no, in the end, Clarence did turn out to be the killer… even if, as it turns out, he hadn’t actually been guilty of murder when he ended up on the Rock in the first place.
Flashing back to Clarence’s initial arrival on Alcatraz, we learn that he was a talented chef who’d worked at a country club for more than half a decade but tempted fate by falling in love with the daughter of the establishment’s owner. Just before the two of them were planning to run away together, she was murdered, Clarence was falsely accused of the crime, and he ended up in prison. Making his way to Alcatraz, Warden James, aware of his latest prisoner’s culinary gifts (he’s painted as having the most impressive taste buds this side of Gordon Ramsay), decides to attempt to integrate the prison by having Clarence serve as the new chef. It is a plan which goes… poorly, shall we say. It was destined to go that way, but it doesn’t help, of course, that Deputy Warden Tiller decides to be obstinate and take sides against his boss.
So what turns Clarence into a killer? Why, that would be the efforts of kindly ol’ Doc Beauregard, who puts the poor bastard through something not so terribly far removed from the Ludovico technique and effectively convinces him that he is the person that the court system believed him to be in the first place. It’s an incredibly cruel scene, and it definitely has the potential to send the show down an intriguingly dark path, provided we ever actually get the opportunity to see it followed. (I for one am not overly optimistic… but, then, I’m a jaded old TV critic who’s seen too many series with potential get the axe just as they were getting good.)
As for the present-day scenes, were it not for Ali and Turman, there’d hardly be anything worth mentioning, but their scenes together are great. They’re pretty damned good when they were apart, too. Turman’s performance is uniformly strong throughout, particularly when he’s being questioned by Madsen and Soto, and I also liked Clarence’s brief encounter with Hauser, even if Hauser’s actually the one who gets the best line in that exchange: “We can talk or I can shoot you, it’s all the same to me.”
Lastly, although the scenes with Lucy and Clarence are well executed and enjoyable enough to watch unfold, we’re well past the point where I want and need more goddamned information about the goings-on between her, Beauregard, and the whole ’63 operation. Having Warden James stroll away with such a frustrating final line—“What kind of warden would I be if I kept secrets from my staff?”—is like getting a kick in the balls as a goodbye, frankly. Not exactly the sort of gesture you want to leave someone with.
- My TiVo tried to record a rerun of King Of The Hill instead of Alcatraz this week (I was watching it on the TV in my office at the time), so I can’t pull the precise quote, but I loved the brief exchange between Clarence and the warden in their first encounter, where Clarence indicates that he’s had problems cooking for white folks before, and the warden reminds him that racism wasn’t exactly the reason the white folks took issue with him.
- Having done a Random Roles interview with Turman earlier this year, I couldn’t help but be aware that, at the time his character was supposed to have been in Alcatraz, Turman himself would’ve been on Broadway in A Raisin In The Sun, with Sidney Poitier and Ruby Dee.
- “I said, ‘Bon appétit,’ you sons of bitches!” Hell, Warden, if they’re not going to eat that food, I’ll damned sure dig in. I was drooling just looking at the offerings on Clarence’s menu.
- With all due respect to Mahershala Ali’s gentlemanly charms, the way ladies throw themselves at him throughout this episodes, I was beginning to wonder if he’d sprayed himself down with pheromones before each party he catered.
- I think they’re forcing this whole Soto/Nikki thing way too hard, but it was almost worth it this week for the way Madsen delivers her “Oh, my God…”