Prodigal Son Season 1 Episode 1: Pilot Recap/Review

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Hey kids, how about we check out Fox’s new crime drama/psychological thriller, Prodigal Son? It stars Jesus and the angel Aziraphale as the titular prodigal son and his serial killer father, so how can we go wrong?

Tom Payne, who played the character nicknamed Jesus on The Walking Dead, stars as Malcolm Bright, an unstable but brilliant criminal profiler who changed his last name to distance himself from his father’s notoriety. Michael Sheen, who played the angel Aziraphale in Good Omens, plays his father, Dr Martin Whitly, AKA The Surgeon, a notorious serial killer.

The Surgeon was arrested and imprisoned when Malcolm was a child. For many years after, the two worked together during Malcolm’s regular visits in an attempt to understand the minds of serial killers, at first in order to answer Malcolm’s questions about his father and himself. Later, their work continued as part of Malcolm’s college education.

Five minutes in, it’s clear that Prodigal Son with be depending heavily on Michael Sheen’s ability to smile insanely and Tom Payne’s wild yet sympathetic blue eyes to sell their characters and the storylines. The show has put the TV series House, Mindhunter, Hannibal and American Horror Story all together in a blender and added a its own talented cast.

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I didn’t see a flashing lights warning on this episode for those of us who are photosensitive, but there should have been one.

Recap

During the cold open, Malcolm helps find a serial killer who works out of a slaughterhouse by paying attention to details like the victims’ skin. The man has shelves of jarred and preserved heads. (I really want to say they’re pickled, like pickled pig’s feet.) His current group of victims are unconscious, but still alive.

Malcolm goes in alone and is able to talk the killer into lowering his weapon by promising to explain the man’s own psychology to him. But as soon as the killer stops pointing the gun at Malcolm, the local sheriff shoots him in the head, killing him instantaneously. Malcolm is enraged, because the killer wasn’t an immediate threat.

Not only does Malcolm identify the man with his father, the sheriff has taken away the opportunity to interrogate him and find out who his victims were, where any others might be hidden, and further understand his psychology.

Malcolm is fired for his erratic behavior and especially for punching the sheriff. The board who fires him are concerned that he has the same narcissistic and psychopathic tendencies as his father. He corrects their terminology, because his father is a predatory sociopath, not a psychopath.

He doesn’t deny that he has complex PTSD. He also has an unexplained tremor that he tries to hide during his hearing, which his father refers to as a psychogenic tremor. He sleeps with some kind of Hannibal Lechter retainer in his mouth and chains himself to his bed. Then he takes a half dozen pills in the morning, which I’m assuming includes at least one antipsychotic, or it wouldn’t be worth mentioning.

The morning after he’s fired he wakes up from a nightmare of the last time he saw his father. Their final visit was when Malcom got accepted into Quantico, the FBI training program. Dad didn’t take the goodbye well. It was the second difficult goodbye of their relationship.

Earlier I forgot to mention the first time, which was during Martin’s arrest when Malcolm was a child. As the police waited to put him in the squad car, Martin pulled Malcolm aside for a heart to heart, to make sure that his son understood how much his father loved him and thought they were exactly alike.

Hence the PTSD.

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Anyway, this morning Malcolm has a walk and talk breakfast with his younger sister, Ainsley Whitly, who didn’t get special attention from their dad and thus is blissfully normal. She’s a reporter who’s hiding something from him for his own protection.

After Ainsley leaves, Lou Diamond Phillips is waiting to meet with Malcolm to offer him a much better job than the one he lost. Phillips plays Gil Arroyo, who works for the NYPD, has known Malcolm for 20 years, and is some kind of former mentor figure for him. This means he’ll show favoritism toward Malcolm when he acts out that will help our antihero keep his new job.

Gil takes Malcolm straight to a crime scene where a woman’s body is still lying on the floor. Malcolm meets Dani Powell and JT Tarmel, two of Gil’s associates at the NYPD. Dani is another profiler and JT is the NYPD equivalent of the local sheriff, a no nonsense cop and non believer in profiling.

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As with Mindhunter, the idea of thinking like the criminal is shocking to them. I’m not sure how cops ever solve crimes, if they can’t think like a criminal in order to predict possible future actions, so these reactions seem like disingenuous TV writing to me. But what do I know?

Malcolm quickly surveys the scene and figures out that the killer used his father’s exact methodology. With a sickened expression, he tells the rest of the team that they have a copycat on their hands. It turns out that Gil already knew that it was a copycat. He just wanted Malcom to confirm it. He feels bad about potentially traumatizing Malcolm further by exposing him to a case that’s so close to his personal demons. Malcolm assures Gil that his demons are always with him anyway.

The copycat is working through a series of four murders known as The Quartet, which were committed by The Surgeon in 1992. The copycat has replicated 3 of the 4 deaths. After ten years away, Malcolm doesn’t want to return to his unhealthy relationship with his father, but he will work up a profile on the copycat.

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When Malcolm returns to his apartment, someone is already there. He calls out before entering, nervous that it’s someone who wants to hurt him. It’s his mother, so the jury’s out on whether he’ll end up hurt by the end of the visit or not. Oops, the first thing she does is tell him his choice to work as a profiler sucks, so he’s definitely going to need to tighten his chains and add to his meds tonight.

OMG, Mom brought a maid with her to clean his apartment, and a nice variety of extra meds. She can break into my place anytime. Malcolm is an independent spirit, so he doesn’t like the maid touching his restraints.

She also made him chamomile tea laced with love and thinks her daughter, who doesn’t remember her serial killer daddy, is perfect. It’s just her and Malcolm, who lived with his twisted manipulations for years, that she’s got an arsenal of fixes for.

This all seems reasonable to me. I imagine Ainsley will show some cracks under the surface eventually. There’s no point to creating a Barbie doll character, so I expect she puts on a show for Mom. She may not remember the serial killer, but she still lived with him and lives with the damage he inflicted on her mother and brother.

Mama Jessica takes off after inviting Malcom over to her place for a small soiree the next night. Malcolm gets to work on his profile.

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In the morning, the team meets with the medical examiner, Dr. Edrisa Guilfoyle, who’s a true crime buff and really excited to see The Surgeon’s crimes acted out in real life. Malcom, in turn, is a fan of her suturing technique. Without having previously consulted, the two of them explain the killer’s profile and the evidence which backs it up, finishing each other’s sentences.

The 3 victims are connected by similar bruising on their wrists, which doesn’t match The Surgeon’s pattern and which they each acquired a few days before their deaths, most likely in a BDSM situation. The team assume that all three were seeing the same dom for hire and track him down.

Malcom, JT and Dani visit the dom, Nico, at his apartment and break down the door when he doesn’t answer it or his phone. The apartment is set up as a kill room and chemical weapons lab, with walls lined in plastic and a table full of tools and substances waiting to be used. When Malcolm sees the set up, he realizes that his profile was wrong. The killer is more than just a copycat. He’s building electronics and compounding his own drugs.

While they’re distracted by the table, the killer escapes out the front door behind them, which is just dumb. Wasn’t the whole point of this show that Malcolm is a genius, quirky super cop who can think like a killer? He couldn’t figure that basic move out? Don’t the other two cops have a protocol when they search a house for a perp that calls for someone to watch the doors?

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Dani leaves to chase the killer.

JT and Malcom find a man handcuffed to a chair who turns out to be the real Nico. He’s been held hostage while the killer impersonated him with clients, then murdered them. He never saw the killer’s face.

Once the killer is far enough away, he activates a bomb attached to Nico’s chair. Its timer is set for a little over a minute away. Now we know why the killer was building electronics.

The situation seems hopeless, but then Malcolm remembers seeing an ax. He sends JT to get ice from the fridge and tells Nico the only solution is to chop off his hand. Malcolm, who’s inappropriately excited by the prospect of dismembering someone, assures Nico that reattachment surgery has come a long way. Just as Malcolm swings the ax, JT yells for him to stop.

I should have added Dexter to the list of shows this show is building from. Not sure how I missed that before.

Our perspective changes to the street just as the bomb goes off. Gil pulls up in his vintage El Camino and Dani gives him a quick sitrep. JT, Malcom and Nico stumble outside. Malcolm has Nico’s hand in a cooler. Wild eyed, he tells Dani that he has to give the ambulance a hand.

Later, Malcolm goes over what he learned with Dani and Gil. He now thinks the killer’s motive is revenge and he was using The Surgeon’s techniques to test out painful ways to die. He’s a rich, middle-aged, white romantic who hates his own body. Since the guy they saw leaving the apartment was large and imposing, Malcolm assumes he must hate that he’s bald.

Ainsley texts him to rescue her from their mom, so he joins the small family dinner after all. When Jessica makes noises about getting him a date with the daughter of an acquaintance, Ainsley distracts her by telling her about Malcolm’s new job. Malcolm explains that he’s working on the case of a copycat killer.

Turns out that Jessica has all of the details of The Surgeon’s murders memorized to this day, just like Malcolm. The fact that her husband took 23 people from their loved ones and she didn’t realize it or stop it haunts her. That’s what all of the substance abuse and seemingly frivolous socializing is about. She’s just trying to keep going and keep the memories from overwhelming her.

She begs Malcom not to become involved with his father again. She’s afraid Martin will get into Malcolm’s head and poison him. She can’t understand why Malcolm wants to spend so much time thinking about murder to begin with.

The evening ruined, Jessica dismisses Ainsley and Malcolm and goes to bed.

Malcolm goes back to the station to contemplate the murder board. He drifts off to sleep and into a memory-nightmare of his father explaining how the nerves of the hand and arm work to his child self. Afterward, his child self wanders into a basement room, where he finds a locked steamer trunk. Though his adult mind yells at himself not to open it, his child self does, and finds a female body inside.

Adult Malcolm jumps out of his chair at the police station and runs straight into Dani, knocking them both to the floor. They wrestle for a minute as she tries to wake him up. The other cops in the station pull their guns, thinking she’s wrestling with a perp, while she yells at them that it’s okay, he’s asleep. When he wakes, he holds onto her in fear.

This would be the reason for the chains on his bed.

The next morning, Dani has a great story and Malcolm has to explain his night terrors to Gil. Gil is worried that Malcolm is out of control.

You’d think he might have been clued into that when the FBI fired Malcom for being out of control.

Malcolm realizes that Gil is worried because he has a new clue that he thinks might send Malcolm even further over the edge.

Let’s hear it.

They discovered that the killer had detailed diagrams, in Martin Whitley’s handwriting, of the techniques used in the first three Quarter killings. But how did he get them? Martin only talks to Malcolm.

Though he denies it, Malcolm takes this as the chance to visit his father that he’s been looking for all night. Gil halfheartedly tries to talk him out of it, but we all know this is what the episode has been building toward.

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Dad is thrilled to see Malcolm. Dr Whitly has gone gray in the last ten years, yet he still has his signature crazy smile. And a larger, spruced up cell, with a library, paid for by Saudis who have been allowed to see Martin for medical treatment for some reason. Also, The Surgeon has gone vegan.

Malcom shows Martin the diagrams and accuses him of helping a protege. Martin recognizes the pages as being stolen from his private journals. Malcolm is able to find where a page was torn out of one of the journals, proving Martin’s story. They figure out that Martin’s Saudi patients were the only ones who would have had access to to the books.

Malcolm quickly goes through Martin’s patient files. It doesn’t take long to narrow them down to two potential killers. He’ll need Martin’s knowledge of the two patients to decide which is more likely to be their man.

Martin doesn’t want to help the police, but he’s also afraid he’ll never see his son again. Malcolm uses this as leverage, promising he’ll visit again if Martin gives him the information he needs. Martin confesses that Carter Berkhead is a dom who had a heart attack while whipping a sub in a sex dungeon.

Dani and Malcolm, who appear to be partnered up for ops, arrive at the Berkhead’s club together. Dani explains that the Berkheads are old money and currently hosting a charity event. Malcolm’s family, despite their notoriety, are also old money, and sure enough, Jessica is there. Malcolm points out his mother, then decides that he and Dani need to split up to search for Carter Berkhead. He zips aways from the main party room.

Dani quickly spots Carter’s wife, Blair. As soon as Dani mentions Nico, Blair brings her upstairs to a large private room to talk. It might be the actual sex dungeon. Meanwhile, Gil calls Malcom to let him know that Nico woke up and identified Blair as one of his clients. Malcolm figures out that Carter wants revenge for Blair cheating on him with another dom. Carter intends for her to be the fourth victim of the Quartet.

Blair tells Dani that Carter is out of town on a hunting trip, so they can speak freely. But then Dani notices a table covered with murder implements, similar to what they found in Nico’s apartment. Just as she begins to tell Blair that they’re in danger, Carter jumps her and knocks her out. Then he goes after Blair.

Carter has a gun and his syringe of paralytic. He’s working up to his next step when Malcolm walks in and suggests that he doesn’t have enough paralytic for both women and that the gun would be too loud. Carter turns on him.

Malcolm introduces himself as a profiler and says he’s unarmed, so Carter is still in control. He says that this is about Carter’s control of himself, his passion, his desires and needs. He has to be the one who causes pain, especially his wife’s, so when she turned to Nico after his heart attack, at his weakest moment, it was a huge betrayal.

Dani wakes up and slips a knife out of a pocket. Before she can use it, Carter steps on her hands and kicks the knife away.

Carter tells Malcolm that after The Surgeon saved his life, he was obsessed with Martin’s murders. He tries to shoot Dani, but Malcolm distracts him by going for the paralytic intended for the fourth Quartet victim.

Carter insists that Malcom put it down, because the drug is intended for his wife. Malcolm isn’t evil enough to deserve it. So Malcom confesses his true identity, Malcolm Whitly, laka the son of Martin Whitly/The Surgeon, a man who betrayed his own father and people like him out of fear that he would become like them.

Malcolm holds the syringe of paralytic to his arm and practically hypnotizes Carter into coming for him instead of Blair. He tells Carter that he’s ready to let go.

Carter prepares to inject Malcolm, but JT and Gil arrive just in time and shoot Carter dead.

Dani, who was screaming at Malcom to stop, runs over to him and makes sure he’s okay. She snaps him out of his suicidal trance. Then she asks for reassurance that he wasn’t really going to let Carter inject him. Malcolm says, “Of course not. That would be crazy.” He manages a mixture of exhilaration, regret, irony, feverish intensity and exhaustion.

The episode began and ended with Malcom putting himself, alone and unarmed, between the world and a deadly serial killer. He’s been fighting this fight a long time, and suicide by father substitute is his chosen way to die. He’s just waiting for the odds to catch up with him.

Dani is already getting attached, which is unfortunate for her. You can’t save someone from themselves if they don’t want to be saved, even though art and literature have always made it look romantic to try.

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While the crime scene is being cleaned up, Dani and JT question Gil about Malcolm. He tells them how the two met. In 1998, a kid called the police on respected Dr Martin Whitley. The police assumed it was a prank and sent Gil to sort it out. Martin invited him in for some tea.

The Surgeon tranquilized his victims by giving them tea laced with ketamine. While Martin was pouring the tea, young Malcolm found Gil and told him to take out his gun because Martin was going to kill him.

Malcolm was the one who called the police. He stopped his father and saved Gil’s life. The nightmare where he finds the girl’s body in the box was real.

Before Gil left Malcolm with his mother that night, he knelt down and looked Malcolm in the eye, just like Martin had done earlier in the evening. He gave Malcolm a piece of candy, patted him on the head and said, “You’re a real hero. Don’t you ever forget it.”

As Malcolm walks home in 2019, he gives himself a piece of candy. He has 2 fathers, and he’s just like both of them. And he’s like his mother, who’s tried every coping technique possible. Some damage can’t be undone, but they both keep trying. And drinking tea laced with love, not ketamine.

 

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Malcolm goes back to see his father, as promised. Martin is thrilled by his son’s success, and by his own part in it. Malcolm wonders how Carter managed to tear pages out of Martin’s journal without Martin noticing, when Martin would have always been in the cell with him.

Malcom can’t help but wonder if this was all an elaborate plot to bring Malcom back into his orbit. Martin chuckles at his son’s paranoia. How would he have carried out such an elaborate plan?

How indeed?

When Malcolm gets up to leave, Martin plays out a repeat of their previous last visit, trying desperately to change Malcolm’s mind.

Malcolm doesn’t respond well to his father giving him orders, so Martin changes his approach back to the kindly father. He tells Malcolm that he still has so much more to teach him about murder, and maybe he could even help solve a few. They could work together. He doesn’t want to lose his son again.

Malcom just says, “Goodbye, Dr Whitly.” And walks away. After a moment, Martin smiles and says, “My boy.”


Commentary

Geez, it looks like Angela Bassett is going to have her hands full this season with that tsunami on 9-1-1 during the hour before this.

They will find a way to bring Michael Cerveris back, right? They wouldn’t waste a Tony winner, former Hedwig and and Fringe’s September on just the pilot? Surely Malcolm will want to question him extensively, over an entire season or two, about Carter’s relationship with Martin.

I’m looking forward to seeing how Ainsley’s character (hopefully) evolves. The one supposedly normal person in a messed up family always fascinates me. How did they remain resilient? What are their hidden curses? I don’t want her to remain a paragon of strength or to be revealed as the truly evil sibling. Just let her show that she’s a real person, too.

Halston Sage was great in the few episodes of The Orville I’ve seen. I’m hoping all of the female characters are eventually given more of a chance to shine in Prodigal Son. Bellamy Young/Jessica and Keiko Agena/Edrisa were both given some promising moments in the pilot, and Aurora Perrineau/Dani was given screen time, so there’s hope.

Seriously, do these producers think a few prescriptions and some sleep accessories make Malcom unusual these days? Crazy Ex Girlfriend just won an Emmy for the song Antidepressants Are So Not a Big Deal for a reason. Plus, if Malcolm has both PTSD and a tremor, there are likely at least 2 separate prescriptions for those. Then there’s his anxiety, his depression, he seems obsessive and compulsive, plus I noticed him reacting to strong stimuli, like light and sound, so he probably gets headaches and dizziness…

I’m not sure there are many neurotypicals left in the world, truth be told. If you add up everyone with any form of mental illness, migraines, other brain injuries and illnesses, and processing issues such as the autism spectrum, dyslexia, dysgraphia, etc. you’ve covered a significant portion of the population.

I like the cast, overall. It feels like it’s going to take a few episodes for them to settle into their characters, and for the characters to be fleshed out, so I’m not going to judge their acting yet. That goes double for the female characters.

The pilot showed us two shows layered on top of each other. One is about a quirky, traumatized profiler who occasionally gets carried away with his work. That show isn’t too different from Monk or House, with a damaged but still relatable, lovable lead.

The other is about the son of a serial killer who uses his work in law enforcement to reenact his relationship with his father over and over. The lead in that second layer lets the fates decide which one of them, himself or the murderer, will win their battle of the wits in each encounter. He’s on the edge of suicidal and cares more about the murderers lives than his own.

That show is closer to a dark, twisty cable show like Dexter, The Walking Dead or Breaking Bad, where we’re not always sure whose side we should be on.

The show itself felt like it tried a little too hard to be “out there” in the pilot, but also like it has potential. If Tom Payne and Michael Sheen are allowed to settle in and give the nuanced performances I know they can give, with support from Lou Diamond Phillips, this could be an interesting show.

But they’ll need to focus on the dynamic of Malcolm being torn in three different directions, each of which should have some appeal. In the pilot they tried to have Malcom reject his mother as an influence, but his adult homelife reflects hers, living alone with drugs and objects to take the place of people, so that he doesn’t hurt anyone else.

They both appear slightly manic when they’re around others and find ways to be around people but avoid intimacy. They both care a great deal about other people and are broken inside because they loved/love Martin so much and he did such terrible things. Neither can forgive themselves for the things that Martin did.

Malcolm has the added burden of being Martin’s prodigal son and knowing that he shares some of Martin’s psychology. It’s clear that he does get a thrill from the hunt and from playing mind games with people. That’s part of why he rushes in toward killers by himself. He needs the rush of outsmarting them.

Malcolm is the monster who’s willing to be tamed, even though he can never be fully domesticated. Gil understands this about him.

Prodigal Son will have to walk a fine line to find its own niche amongst the serial killers who work with the police and the various types of quirky detectives who have come before. They’ll need to find a way to blend the storylines together more seamlessly, so that it doesn’t feel like there are separate, unrelated stories being told, the way it did in the pilot.

The best strategy would be to equate the story of an old murder with the case of the week, and then weave Malcolm’s childhood and the present in around those stories. Those journals could be Martin’s notes from having made himself an expert on all serial killers, not just himself, over the last ten years, so that he’d be ready when Malcolm came back. And he probably encouraged a few serial killers among his prison patients, just to make sure he and Malcolm would eventually have some cases to work on together.

 

Image courtesy of Fox.

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