Last week, I complained about the difference between mystery and human nature. We don’t need to, or even want to, know who has been taking the Alcatrazians’ blood and what they have been doing with it as soon as we learn that it’s being taken. But it would behoove the showrunners to at least begin the process of answering why the POTWs commit crimes as soon as they come back to Earth, as though it’s an uncontrollable impulse. Or at least have one character (Soto being the most obvious choice) ask the question “why?” As “evil” as the Alcatrazians are supposed to be, there appears to be enough of an intelligence and humanity in them for at least one to say, “well I just woke up, maybe I shouldn’t start slaughtering immediately.” That Lucy and Beauregard don’t fall towards mindless criminality shows that not all the ’63ers are “brainwashed” into robots.
Similarly, people from the 1950s/1960s readjusting themselves to 2012 technology is a story in and of itself, and one that the show basically ignores. These guys get jobs (in a down economy), they know their way around town, and they don’t seem confused by anything. I assumed they received some form of training, but Johnny McKee not understanding smartphones or the internet pretty much shattered that idea. (I know I commented on that last week, but it’s a huge sticking point for me.) There are many reasons why Alcatraz doesn’t work (bland main characters, boring procedural elements, glacial “mysteries,” etc.), but it’s the show’s unwillingness or inability to acknowledge what should be its core draw that makes it such a misstep.
And this is nowhere more evident than in tonight’s episode, Clarence Montgomery, which was supposed to air two weeks ago.
Tonight’s POTW Clarence Montgomery (Mahershala Ali) was a black man and presumably awesome cook who was the only wrongfully accused man incarcerated in Alcatraz. (The only one? Give us some credit show. We know about Innocence Projects. You’re telling us the justice system from the 1950s/60s was only flawed in this one case? At some points, this show might make more sense if viewed as a modern day interpretation of those whitewashed, Quinn Martin shows from the era.)
Montgomery’s alleged crime was killing his white girlfriend. However, in Alcatraz, Beauregard possibly brainwashes him into believing he committed the first crime but definitely convinces him to recreate the crime by subjecting him to electroconvulsive treatments while he is forced to look at pictures of his crime with words like “guilty” interspersed throughout. I wouldn’t give it the honor of comparing it to the Ludovico treatment, so I’ll liken it to that thing Mac from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia underwent during his stint on Lost.
Beauregard’s treatment, which he describes as a reverse of Lucy’s procedure, works, and Montgomery kills William Gant (the talkative inmate whom we first saw in Ernest Cobb) in the same fashion as his first “victim,” going so far as positioning him in the same way as her. In 2012, he starts slaying pretty white women in the same way, but he lacks both memory of committing the crime and the ability to control any of his actions. However, it’s not his fault; it’s because of white guy Beauregard. It reminded me of Cartman’s quote from the South Park episode 1%, “Because in today’s time, black people are somehow incapable of doing anything wrong.” (Season premiere this Wednesday!)
Eventually, Montgomery reconnects with a fellow former inmate. Team Alcatraz tracks him to the apartment, and his friend kills him with a shotgun at Montgomery’s request. It’s an offensively egregious way to eliminate a general moral conundrum that Team Alcatraz should have to face.
What makes this episode especially terrible is that we do not get any insights into Montgomery’s thoughts behind the societal changes between the time he was incarcerated and 2012. You may be trained to understand technology, but the public’s view towards race between then and now must be experienced, not just told about. (I assume.)
We get nothing from Montgomery about 21st century America. About us having a black President. When he goes to fancy bars/events/country clubs, he doesn’t think twice about talking to a white woman. He shouldn’t, but when you’ve a) lived most of your life in the early part of the 20th century and b) got unjustly arrested and convicted for killing such a person, at the very least you’d have some second thoughts. You’d weigh the risks and rewards before inviting someone for a drink. Montgomery does none of those things, and, despite some lip service paid to segregation back in the 1960s and the civil rights era, the show doesn’t care much about it either.
This episode was a major test for Alcatraz. Over the past fifty years, it’s difficult to think of areas more affected than race relations when it comes to cultural mores and attitudes. I’m not saying things are perfect or that racism does not exist, but I am saying that the shift is significant. Or, alternatively, if you want to say that things aren’t that different, feel free to make that argument. But to practically flat-out ignore these crucial differences is unforgivable. Montgomery goes beyond ignorance and into an area of willful blindness. Don’t broach such an important and weighty topic unless you’re willing to delve into it. I’m sure the audience would appreciate it more than Soto getting a date with Coroner Nikki or Madsen’s wide-eyed look of smug self-satisfaction when she realizes something that the audience (and probably Hauser and Soto) figured out several scenes earlier.
The only scene of quasi-interest occurs at the end when Hauser meets with the Chief of Police. They apparently have a relationship and a regular meeting spot, but it’s left unexplained just how much the Chief knows about Team Alcatraz. As is typical Alcatraz fashion, the concept (in this case, of their relationship) is more interesting than the execution (the Chief explains that the cops are irritated because they’re just sitting on their thumbs and not solving real crimes). For a morale booster, Hauser gives him the information about the real person who committed Montgomery’s “original” crime. Although he makes it sound as though this cold case will soothe the bruised egos of the cops, it doesn’t seem like it would make the majority of the police happy. Nor would it put the fears of a city to rest. But it does raise a question about how much information Hauser is holding back at the expense of justice.
• It was difficult to write this review without wondering if I was sounding racist throughout.
• Did the Warden want Montgomery at Alcatraz just because he could cook really well? Like some sort of Iron Chef: The Longest Yard? It was implied (or at least I read into it) that he knew or at least didn’t care about Montgomery’s innocence, but just wanted his fine cooking.
• So EMTs will just put body bags in the back of black SUVs? That seemed unintentionally hilarious, or I am ridiculously uninformed.
• Coroner Nikki knows how doctors treated diseases 50 years ago?
• I’m not saying that brainwashing isn’t going on in wherever the 63ers have been. Criminals commit crimes, Beauregard continues acting as a doctor conducting his own insane experiments, Lucy wants to help people. Maybe being off-world forced them to reveal their “true” selves (criminal, mad doctor, etc.), but because Lucy’s been in a coma since early in the second episode, we don’t know just how focused she is/was on her job.
• This might be a small thing, but the location of Montgomery’s second actual victim was a place that holds upper-middle class weddings, Bar Mitzvahs, retirement parties, etc. Team Alcatraz realizes that Montgomery’s there because the menu reads “Starters- Mixed Greens with Balsamic Vinaigrette; Assorted Fresh Basked Artisan Rolls” and “Second Course- Annie May’s Smoked Pork Ribs,” which was Montgomery’s old recipe. Ignoring the question “would rolls be included under ‘starter’?,” the place didn’t seem like the type of establishment that would have “Annie May’s Smoked Pork Ribs” on the menu. That seems more like a name given to an entree at a home cooking restaurant, not the second course at a fancy affair. Also, what event would only have one item for its second course and a meat one at that?