The show ‘Alcatraz’ is J.J. Abrams’s long-awaited new project, and falls nicely (yet-again) into the science fiction mystery category of stories. What aired last night wasn’t a two-hour pilot episode, but actually two episodes airing back to back. As a result, I’ll split this recap into sections to better deal with it.
Episode One: Jack Sylvane
The first hour of ‘Alcatraz’ introduces us to the disappearance of 302 inmates and guards from the Alcatraz prison in 1963, as well as the main characters of San Francisco Inspector, Rebecca Madsen (Sarah Jones) and comic book author/Alcatraz historian Diego Soto (Jorge Garcia, who you might recall is Hurley from ‘Lost’). FBI agent Emerson Hauser (Sam Neill) and Dr. Lucy Banerjee (Parminder Nagra) rounds out the special team investigating the Alcatraz disappearances.
The show opens in 1963 with Alcatraz full of guards and inmates. It’s a voiceover done by Sam Neill who informs the viewer that the reason Alcatraz closed in the 1960s wasn’t actually lack of funding. No, in fact the prison closed because all 302 inmates and guards suddenly vanished. And Hauser (Neill) knows this because he was a guard at Alcatraz right at the time the inmates vanished.
Then the show switches to the present day. Madsen, your standard jaded cop with a troubled past, is called in to investigate the murder of a former Alcatraz staff member. Turns out the murder was carried out by one Jack Sylvane, an Alcatraz inmate who was supposed to have died more than 30 years ago. The FBI’s Hauser swoops in and takes over the case right as she makes this discovery.
Madsen (of course) decides to keep investigating and enlists the help of Dr. Diego Soto, who wrote a book all about Alcatraz. Despite warnings from her uncle, Ray Archer, Madsen and Soto head to the island to try and uncover how a man from the 1960s could possibly reappear in 2012 and not be aged a day, and run afoul of Hauser and Lucy Banerjee while there. Apparently Hauser has a superbase under the Alcatraz prison, and a place out in the woods where he’s been holding the inmates who’ve been reappearing over the past three months.
Hauser brings Madsen and Soto into the fold, giving them just enough information to help in catching Sylvane. Oh and since Hauser was a guard at Alcatraz when the disappearance happened, he’s well aware of what’s going on. However he plays it close to the vest, as it were, for the sake of the series.
Jack next moves onto Barkley Flynn. He kills two cops, infiltrates Flynn’s home, and has his victim open a safe and remove a key. No apparent connection is found between Flynn and Sylvane, so our heroes assume Jack was told to get the key from Flynn and then kill him. This begs the question of who is behind the disappearances, because of course there’s always someone behind these things.
We’re treated to a few flashblacks to the 1960s in the opener, which honestly I could’ve done without. The doctors are taking vials of blood from the inmates, and we find out that Jack’s wife Sonya wants to leave him. Meh … I could’ve done with this information discovered in the present day instead. Flashbacks tend to break up the flow of a story, which makes it hard for them to be argued for. Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuck used flashbacks quite well in ‘American Horror Story’, but that’s the exception rather than the rule.
Madsen finally stops Sylvane, and he tells her someone gave him orders to retrieve the key right before he’s led away in handcuffs by Hauser and company. I’m a little more curious as to who’s behind the mystery now, but Madsen herself doesn’t really seem as into the mystery as she could be. I mean — inmates from the 1960s are just randomly showing up in San Francisco, and she’s taking it like it’s another day at the office.
After their success at catching Sylvane, Hauser offers Madsen and Soto a job catching the reappeared felons. He also reveals that he discovered the disappearance in 1963, and has devoted his life to finding out why it happened. We’re also treated to information about Madsen’s grandfather, who she thought was a guard at Alcatraz. Turns out he was actually an inmate there, and he was the one who shoved her old partner off the roof three months ago. Dun dun duuuuuuuunn!!!
Episode Two: Ernest Cobb
The second episode that aired Monday was much better than the pilot offering. Ernest Cobb’s psychosis was examined in glorious depth, and we were exposed to his obsession with being alone as well as the lingering issues he has being abandoned by his birth mother.
This episode opens in 1960 with Cobb arriving at Alcatraz. He’s happy about this move, mostly because it means he can get a solitary room away from all the other inmates. He likes being alone, this one.
In the present day, Cobb sits on a hillside overlooking fairgrounds. He appears to be having a picnic, but after taking a bite of his sandwich he assembles his sniper rifle and focuses the scope on a young couple walking through the fair.
Meanwhile, Soto trains an assistant to run his comic book store so he can work with the super-secret task force. Madsen comes in, bearing breakfast, and asks a few questions about the scant information on her grandfather in Soto’s books.
Back at the park, Cobb kills a young man, then the young couple while they ride the Ferris Wheel at the fairgrounds. Seeing the girl’s wordless scream through Cobb’s scope in the seconds before he kills her is chilling, and all together a much better image than anything from the previous episode.
Madsen and Soto arrive on the scene later, while the San Francisco PD are already investigating, and meet up with Hauser and Banerjee. The team notices dead crows nearby, which is apparently how Cobb likes to practice his aim. Odd to choose crows, but each serial killer has their own ticks I suppose. The cops think Cobb used a modern sniper rifle, so they search within a 750-yard range for shell casings. However, Madsen and Soto figure out that Cobb really used a vintage Winchester rifle. They shrink their range to 500 yards, and find a shell casing on the hill Cobb picnicked on earlier.
Flash to 1960, and Cobb becoming annoyed with the overly chatty inmate in the cell next to him. They’re then treated to the sight of an irate Jack Sylvane being dragged away from his soon-to-be ex-wife Sonya for another stint in solitary confinement. I bet Cobb’s wishing for that right about now, huh?
In the present day, Banerjee questions Sylvane about his sudden reappearance in 2012. He claims he doesn’t know why he’s here in the present, and he also claims to have no knowledge of the key taken from Barkley Flynn’s safe. A lie detector test shows he’s telling the truth, which is kind of in keeping with the whole mind control thing that might be going on. Hmm …
Madsen, Soto, and Banerjee then visit Madsen’s shifty gun merchant contact, who admits to selling Cobb the Winchester rifle. Security footage shows the 1960s sniper killer handling a distinctive hotel key, which allows the trio to track him down to where he’s staying.
Another flashback — sheesh these things are getting annoying — and Cobb makes a request of Warden James to be transfered to a solitary cell. The warden denies this request, which infuriates Cobb to no end.
Present day again, and our three plucky heroes are looking through the room Cobb’s key supposedly opens. Instead he’s stationed in the building opposite, watching and waiting. He fires a single shot through the window, which strikes Banerjee in the chest and knocks her flat. She’s not dead though! Just in a coma. Whew. Glad to see such a major character not get knocked off in the second episode.
Before she got shot, Banerjee had pulled together a database of all Cobb’s victims. Turns out there’s always a teenage girl — usually 15 or 16 — included among his victims. Soto then discovers a letter from Cobb’s long-lost half-sister, Eloise Monroe, that was never delivered. Cobb was rejected by his mother, and he grew angry because she cared for Eloise but cared nothing for him. His half-sister tried to contact him, but that never happened. As a result, he now always kills young girls that are roughly the age she was.
Another flashback. This time Cobb disobeys a guard’s orders to get thrown in solitary. The warden gets the last laugh though, as he locks Cobb into a solitary cell with that same chatty inmate from earlier. This of course is enough to drive Cobb slowly mad.
Present day one more time, and Cobb strikes a second time to kill three people at a mall. The team looks at the skyline in 1960, and figures out that only two buildings were tall enough at the time for Cobb to be stationed on. Hauser goes up one and Madsen takes the other. Madsen finds Cobb and confronts him, but he trains his sniper rifle on her at close range. Hauser then shows up and fires a single shot through the serial killer’s hand. No more murders for you, Cobb! The killer is then taken to Hauser’s containment facility, where he and Sylvane share a knowing glance.
One final switch to 1960, and we see a crazed Ernest Cobb locked into a straitjacket. Warden James has recommended him for psychiatric treatment, and you’ll never guess who his doctor is. That’s right — Lucy Banerjee herself! Now that’s what I call a switcheroo. Well done, Mr. Abrams. Well done indeed.
I’ll admit I lost faith a little bit after the first hour of this premiere, but the second hour definitely redeemed ‘Alcatraz’ for me. I’ll be watching the rest of the season with interest to see if Abrams delivers on the promise of the show. Until next week!