Alcatraz: "Cal Sweeney" (Season 1, Episode 4)


So much like our criminals of the week, Alcatraz now has an established MO. We start with a criminal perpetrating his particular criminal shtick in lurid detail. Then we go to the credits. Then we proceed with a most unholy trinity of crisscross story structure: (1) criminal goes about his spree, (2) Madsen and Soto track him, and (3) we see criminal’s flashback story at Alcatraz. Spice with obligatory sadism and end with the arrest, followed by a final minute hinting at some deep mystery. The narrative spine, such as it is, seems to be the general grumpiness of Sam Neil.

This week’s criminal is Cal Sweeney. The spree is as follows. He steals from safe deposit boxes. His modus operand is to seduce bank tellers by sending them flowers and giving them jewelry from his previous bank heist. They naturally want to make out with him in the safety deposit box room. I'm sure it happens all the time. He knocks them out there and opens the boxes with a bolt gun. His weirdo thing is to go to the house that owned the jewelry he plans to give to the next teller. He pretends to be a bank investigator, asks for the story behind the jewelry, then kills the unlucky winner with his bolt gun.

The Madsen-and-Soto investigation is as follows. They watch security camera footage from the banks. They notice the tellers with the same flowers. They go to the florist and find out who the next teller is. Even by modern police procedural standards it’s lazy. But they don’t have much time given the space allotted to the whole Sweeney Alcatraz flashback thing.

The Alcatraz flashback is as follows. Sweeney ran the contraband business in the prison laundry. You know, the thing Red did in more entertaining fashion in The Shawshank Redemption. He gets played by his protégée, who gets him to attack the deputy warden for uninteresting reasons. With Sweeney in the hole, his protégé figures to take over the laundry business. There’s some crap about an empty tin box, too. Ask someone who cared.

The arrest is as follows. The latest teller hits the alarm button. Sweeney is trapped in the bank. While Howser stalls the police by being a generic grumpy bureaucratic dick, Madsen sneaks in. She has Sweeney wear a police uniform and escort her out when the police attack. They can’t have the police picking up one of their Alcatraz guys after all. Madsen then deliberately crashes the getaway car. That incapacitates Sweeney because no one wore seat belts in the 50s.

The obligatory sadism is as follows. It’s not enough for Madsen and Soto to discover the latest victim who owned stolen jewelry in his house. Not even close. They have to meet the wife as she is coming home. So the wife opens the door, screams, and collapses next to her husband’s body, which is graphically portrayed with bolt holes. There’s a pen stabbing in the Alcatraz flashback as well.

The minute of mystery is as follows: Sweeney retrieved one of those big keys from a safety deposit box, just like Sylvane in the opener. He has no idea why he retrieved it, either. Howser takes it to the Alcatraz cave where his crack team determines both keys were cut with lasers, which weren’t available fifty years ago. Howser says they’ve got to figure out what locks the keys operate on Alcatraz.

Flash back to the Alcatraz warden taking the protégé who betrayed Sweeney into some basement. He tells him he’s earned an audience with something. The warden uses the two big keys to open a door and shoves the guy in.

The end.

There’s something irritating about a show where you’re starting to think all you really need to watch is the last five minutes each week. Come to think of it, if you string the last five minutes of each episode into a made-for-TV movie at the end of the season, that might be more entertaining than the show itself.

On the plus side, the bank escape was probably about the most interesting criminal thing done since Sylvane in the first hour. It might have been engaging if they had the proper time to spend on it. As it is, though, it’s all just filler pimping those last five minutes.

This show needs structural depth. It needs to break the pattern and surprise us. As of now, it could still have potential, but it’s still taking us for granted. Keep that up long enough and they’ll have raised the bar on the mystery to a level that’s hard to meet.

Will conservatives like this: Neutral. If we could sit through all those Presidential primary debates, I suppose we have the patience to hope a few episodes more.

Heck, next week is a guard returning. So maybe that will break the pattern. Or not—it looked like he was committing crimes.