Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Alcatraz: “Johnny McKee”

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Every new series has its growing pains, struggling to shrug off the less-successful elements of its pilot while still building on the bits that worked from the get-go, but you can usually tell when a series has hit the point where the producers have finally figured out the formula they were looking for all along. Maybe it’s a bit optimistic to say so, but it certainly seems like “Johnny McKee” might be that episode for Alcatraz.

First and foremost, things kicked off this evening neither with a flashback nor a look into one of the returning ‘63s but, rather, with Hauser visiting Lucy in Dr. Beauregard’s facilities. It’s not the most eventful visit as far as Hauser’s concerned, as her condition remains unchanged despite Beauregard’s best efforts to rouse her, but it was a scene that started out intriguing and became even more so by the end of the episode. Apparently, Lucy isn’t waking up because her mind believes that the dreams she’s dreaming are better than whatever awaits her in the real world, a fact which leads Beauregard to suggest that the sound of Hauser’s voice might help bring her back.  “She needs a reason, sir,” says the doctor. “Love is a good one.” Perhaps so, but the mere idea causes Hauser to hem, haw, and ultimately head out of the infirmary, leading Beauregard to ask, “What are you afraid of, Emerson?” The question goes unanswered, but as we learn later, it does not go unconsidered.

Okay, now it’s time to check in on our ’63 of the week. When we first see Johnny McKee, he’s behind the bar of some trendy-looking Chinatown nightclub, doling out drinks with a side of Jules Verne, but when a mouthy patron comes up and gives him a bit of lip, he’s straight over to whip up a poisonous concoction. Cue the first flashback of the evening, where we’re witness to McKee being asked by fellow inmate Mikey Cullen to off the prison librarian, a “squirrely mug” who’s screwing up the status quo by distributing shivs in the spines of certain library books. McKee’s not particularly interested, but when Cullen growls, “You don’t want to say ‘no’ to me,” McKee shrugs and says, “I guess every schoolyard’s got a bully.” True enough. When we jump back to the present, we discover for the first time—but not the last—that McKee’s gift for chemistry provides him with a perfect method for dispatching any bullies that cross his path. As the mouthy patron and his pals endure the effects of what’s become their final beverage, McKee calmly folds his apron, sets it on the bar, and strolls off to find another job.

Back at Alcatraz HQ, we discover that the gang has got a search engine set up to troll YouTube for the sudden appearance of videos that might relate to ‘63s, then scan them with video-recognition software to identify any Alcatraz inmates and guards contained therein. Lo and behold, some quick-moving soul with an iPhone has captured the last moments of McKee’s victims as well as a shot of the man behind their demise, calling it “Freaky Deaths at Club.” (By the way, I question if even Hauser’s seemingly lengthy reach can do away with every single appearance of a video that’s gone viral, but I admire that the show is at least attempting to address that they’re trying to keep the ‘63s and their crimes under wraps.)

Of McKee’s present-day activities, the shot of him folding towels in front of a swimming pool filled with dead bodies was pretty damned creepy, but by the time the subway car situation came to pass, all of my interest was on the crime he was committing in the past. Maybe I’m the only one, but despite his comment about schoolyard bullies to Cullen in their initial encounter, I still figured that the librarian was going to be the one to go down. (Truth be told, I was hoping for a future episode entitled “Mikey Cullen,” but somehow I’m guessing that’s probably not going to happen now.) As such, it had already proved to be the most successful flashback for me even before we got the concluding scene with Dr. Sangupta getting the secret of Ginny Winters out of him…which, as you may have already guessed, I also didn’t see coming. Wow…

The use of Jack Sylvane in the episode was also well done, not only by tying him into McKee’s tale by having him be privy to the Ginny Winters story, but also by giving Madsen a few minutes with him, thereby opening her to later asking Hauser such very important questions as, “Exactly where is Sylvane being imprisoned, anyway? And who the hell is this Beauregard guy he mentioned?” And let’s not forget those great last lines from Sylvane: “Your name's Madsen, right? You got the same eyes…”


Things wrapped up with a nice bit of book-ending, as Hauser returned to Lucy's bedside and begrudgingly sat down to read to her. Turns out that Beauregard was just pulling his leg about his reading material, though: Instead of The Carpetbaggers, he's actually reading Ovid's Metamorphoses, which makes him a far better man than I am, as I had to look it up to even know what it was. (I've always been more of a Harold Robbins guy.) As Lucy continues to dream, however, we now know from Jack Sylvane that the '63s are not dreaming. Not anymore, anyway. Coincidence? Surely not.

This proved to be the best blend of both past and present and procedural and mythology since Alcatraz began. Now let's see if the show can keep it up.


Stray observations:

  • I loved that Dr. Beauregard lit up a cigarette immediately after Hauser left the infirmary. You can take a doctor out of the '60s…
  • Finally, one of the '63s is seen to be at least somewhat confused by modern technology.
  • It was fun to see more Soto / Nikki interaction, especially since it wasn't quite as awkward this go-round, but I couldn't tell what was on Nikki's shirt this time. Anyone?
  • “Easy now, McKee.” I rewound the Warden's entrance into that shot three times, laughing just as hard each time at the sound of his chair wheeling into view. I'm still not sure how in God's name Jonny Coyne ever managed to do that without bursting out laughing.
  • So apparently Hauser can speak Chinese, too. That guy can do anything!
  • For those of you seeking an update, on February 17, 2012, Sam Neill called my house after filming a scene for an upcoming episode of Alcatraz, intending to finally do our Random Roles interview, but my family and I were out at dinner with friends. He knew this might prove to be the case, as I'd only had a few hours' advance warning that the interview might go down and couldn't reschedule my plans, so he was supposed to leave a number for me to call him back. Only that's not what happened. Not at all…