Episode 3 of Prodigal Son begins with a nightmare, as all of Malcolm Bright’s days do, but this one is particularly memorable. More on that later.
The episode improves for him, as he has an exciting murder case to solve that involves one of his psychology idols and a unique MO. His mother, Jessica, has also discovered that Malcolm is seeing his father again and she goes to great lengths to disrupt their relationship, as she has with both of her children since Martin’s arrest.
If he weren’t such a notorious psychopath, and she weren’t such a dedicated single mother, the steps she’s willing to take in order to keep her children and husband from speaking to each other might make you suspicious.
In 1998, soon after his arrest, Jessica visits Martin in prison. He’s spoken to his attorney, who assures him that they can beat the charges against him. Or is it them? Martin speaks to Jessica about what “we” can do, as if they’re both guilty and possibly both up on charges. The conversation takes on a whole new meaning when listened to from this perspective.
On the surface, it sounds like Martin is guilty, but assuming his family will stand by him, while Jessica is horrified at what she’s learned about her husband. She says that her mother taught her that marriage will be long, hard and full of sacrifices, but this new development is too much. She and the children will never speak to him or visit him again. Then she says, “Do you understand?”
Martin is hopeful during this conversation, assuring Jessica that she’s been a good wife and has done everything necessary to support him so that they could have a good life. At a certain point, it seems to dawn on him that she’s sold him out in some way. He won’t be receiving her loyalty during his trial, which is a reasonable decision for the wife of a serial killer.
But she gives him pointed looks and he receives them like a coded message. Perhaps, despite the fact that she’s sold him up the river, she still has something to hold over his head that will keep his mouth shut about her involvement in The Surgeon’s crimes and keep him on good behavior in prison.
When she says “Do you understand?” he does, and keeps his end of the bargain, whatever it is, for decades.
In the present day, Jessica pulls up outside of of Malcolm’s building. She rings the buzzer and tries her keys, but he’s in the middle of a nightmare and has changed the locks. Jessica angrily yells upstairs toward his apartment window, “You changed the locks?”
In his nightmare, Martin is asking how many other people died after Malcolm discovered the girl in the box and why he can’t remember the details. He tells Malcolm to be careful. Malcolm thrashes around in his sleep more and more violently. After Jessica yells upstairs, Malcolm thrashes so violently that he pulls one of his restraints loose from the wall, allowing him to break through his bedroom window.
He ends up hanging out of the window from the other restraint, with Jessica on the sidewalk below. Once she ascertains that he’s ok, she’s impatient for him to let her in. She also reminds him that she owns the building that he lives in.
She’s not at all worried that the other restraint will give way and he’ll fall.
Once inside, she harangues him for seeing Martin and suggests he find another hobby, like alcoholism or books on tape. He insists that his interviews with Martin are for work or to help recover the memories that haunt the edge of his consciousness. But since Martin can’t be trusted to tell the truth and she refuses to discuss the past, Malcolm has no choice but to listen to what’s hidden in his subconscious.
Jessica assures him that she refuses to answer his questions for the sake of his mental health. And she wants new keys to his place by tomorrow or she’ll replace him as a tenant with a Panera.
Though Malcolm told his mother that his mental health was great, he admits to his therapist, who is the child psychiatrist he’s seen seeing since he was 11 years old, that his mental health is fractured, eroding and may be past the point of repair. Dr Le Deux says that he has a healthy sense of hyperbole, as always. He admits that among the many reasons he can’t quit her is the fact that age appropriate therapists don’t give out lollipops.
Malcolm gets serious, asking what she thinks about repressed memories, specifically his nightmares/memories of the girl in the box. He now believes that the police never found her because Martin drugged him with chloroform and more time passed than he realized between when he found the girl and when he called the police.
Dr Le Deux disapproves of Malcolm seeing his father. She thinks he won’t be able to overcome his PTSD while he’s in contact with Martin.
Malcolm gets called in on a case and has to leave. The doctor also doesn’t approve of him working with the police before they’ve talked about why he was dismissed by the FBI. Malcolm takes a handful of lollipops with him, including a rootbeer for himself.
He passes the candy out at the crime scene to Gil, JT, Dani (who gets lemon-lime) and Edrisa, who he specifically saves cherry, the best flavor, for. It’s Edrisa’s favorite. She wonders if she should run and get Malcolm a small gift in return.
It’s true love, I’m just saying.
The victim is Dr George Holton, who ran a psych lab at the university. His eyes are completely white, which Malcolm says could be the result of a botched lobotomy. Edrisa says hello by way of responding that the white eyes also indicate damage to the optic nerve.
Edrisa hasn’t determined the cause of death yet, but they can surmise from a cursory examination of the scene that the victim was bound, killed somewhere else slowly, and then the body was dumped at the scene. They find a note inside the victim’s shirt which is incoherent and scrawled on the page. Malcolm feels it points to a severe psychotic break, maybe even a visionary killer, one who convinces themselves they’re listening to a higher power, such as God or the devil.
Edrisa continues examining the body and discovers that the skull was sawed open and the brain was surgically removed. Back at the station, she informs the team that the perpetrator must have at least a basic knowledge of cranial anatomy. But the cause of death is cardiac arrest. Malcolm notices that Holton clenched his fists until they bled and wonders if he was scared to death.
Edrisa is still working on her cherry lollipop and tells Malcolm it’s delicious. She admires the skillful way he develops his theories.
Then Gil shoos her out because he’s against young nerds in love and is the true villain of this show.
Malcolm explains that taking his victim’s brain meets some deep psychological need in the killer. Malcolm just has to figure out what it is. Dani informs the team that Holton lived alone, but his neighbors saw him leave home a few days ago and he never returned. He was on a sabbatical leave from the university this semester. His lab was being run by his partners Carl Mitchell and Elaine Brown.
Malcolm perks up when he hears Elaine Brown’s name. She’s one of the researchers he studied in depth in his FBI training at Quantico.
An officer steps in to tell Malcolm that his doctor is on the phone. It takes him a beat, but then he figures out which doctor it is- Dr Dad. He tells the team it’s his dentist.
Martin has already guessed that the killer took the brain. He’s also impressed with Ainsley’s reporting and thinks she’s destined for greater things than the local news.
I’m always glad to hear that Martin remembers he has a daughter, twisted as that might be. He’s a dad who knows how to lavish praise on his kids and is proud of their accomplishments, you have to give him that.
Martin thinks the killer was trying to send a message. He maneuvers the conversation so that he’s giving advice to Malcolm, suggesting that a debilitating fear response was involved. When he refers to “our case”, Malcolm balks, but Martin explains that it’s natural for him to take an interest in his children’s activities. Since both of his children are involved in the case, of course he’s involved as well.
Before Malcolm hangs up, Martin warns him that fear has always been his greatest weakness, so this could be a difficult case for him. He points out that Malcolm represses fears and pretends they don’t exist, but they do, and they’re expressed through his nightmares and tremors.
Malcolm blames Martin for his fears. Martin dismisses this as the blame game and changes the subject to Elaine Brown. He asks Malcolm to tell her that her ideas inspired him to “resist convention.”
That could mean almost anything.
Malcolm and Dani visit the psych lab to question Carl Mitchell and Elaine Brown. She insists that everything is fine and they would have noticed if anyone in their department was seriously mentally ill.
Malcolm plays fanboy and asks her to sign his copy of her book. He has to borrow a pen from Dani, who gives him a dirty look.
Carl Mitchell interrupts Dr Brown to say that there was a graduate student, Alice Downey, who killed herself 3 months ago. Holton’s sabbatical was really a mental health leave because he blamed himself for her death. Dr Brown is annoyed that Mitchell brought Alice up and insists that she succumbed to the pressures of graduate school. There was nothing more to it.
Jessica visits Ainsley at work to chastise her for hiding that Malcolm has visited Martin. She wants Ainsley to convince Malcolm to stop seeing Martin, but Ainsley refuses to be put in the middle. Ainsley is curious about her father, since she doesn’t remember him at all. She only knows what Jessica wants her to know about Martin. Jessica says that Ainsley should be thankful that her mother protected her so thoroughly from her father, so that she can sleep at night without knowledge of her father’s horror show.
The team agrees that Dr Brown is lying about Alice’s suicide. JT had the administrative department dig up a complaint letter about Dr Brown written in the same handwriting as the killer’s note. The author accuses the psych department of running off the books experiments involving grad students taking LSD. Alice had taken the drug just before she jumped off a building.
Malcolm wonders if the professors were measuring the students’ responses to the drug lowering their fear and inhibitions.
He can tell that the complaint letter is older than the crime scene letter. It’s more organized and coherent, meaning the killer’s mental state deteriorated over time.
Carl Mitchell calls Dani to share information he couldn’t bring up during the interview with Dr Brown present. She asks where he is and tries to arrange a meeting, but he drinks some tea and realizes that there was a high dose of LSD in it. He’s the killer’s next target.
He told Dani that he was in the psych building, so the team rush over and find him tied up on the roof. The killer has his surgical instruments prepared to use on Carl. Dani and JT chase the killer while Malcolm tries to talk Carl through his acid overdose. Malcolm is distracted for a moment and Carl grabs him, holding a knife to his throat.
Dani sees them and points her gun at Malcolm, but he stops her from shooting. Carl is raving incoherently and waving the knife perilously close to Malcolm. Malcolm elbows Carl, hard, with both elbows, sending him down to the balcony on the floor below them. Dani thinks Malcolm has killed Carl at first, because they always assume the worst of him. Instead, Carl is unconscious.
Dani, Gil and JT all assume that Malcolm went for unnecessary brutality again. They come up with various insulting ways to describe Malcolm’s save of both himself and Carl for their report. When Gil reports that Carl is stable, but has a fractured rib, and joins in the chorus of blaming him, Malcolm has a report suggestion of his own, patterned after JT’s: “Whack job consultant’s detailed understanding of the human psyche led him to anticipate that until diazepam could be administered, physical pain might be the only thing to deliver the victim from his psychedelic experience.”
As Malcolm is finishing his rant, Edrisa brings in the result of Malcolm’s tox screen, which shows he had 50 times the standard dose of LSD in his blood. Holton had a similar concentration in his blood. It’s “more than enough to induce extreme panic, fear leading to cardiac arrest.” She’s delighted that Malcolm was right. The other three members of the team apparently weren’t paying attention during class.
Malcolm realizes that the killer doses his victims on purpose, as part of his MO. He’s someone who was part of Dr Brown’s experiments and was overcome by the fear he felt. Removing the brain represents the destruction of his own mind. He was harmed by the experiments and now he’s inflicting that pain and destruction on the people who harmed him.
Gil realizes that Dr Brown is the next target. The team finds her at her house. She still feels that the experiments aren’t to blame. She claims that Alice and the other graduate students take part in the unsanctioned experiments of their own free will, but Malcolm points out that it’s impossible for them not to feel pressured due to Dr Brown’s power and influence.
He describes his profile of the killer and shows her the two letters. She immediately says that it must be Dominic Render, a former doctoral student who dropped out six months ago. The team takes the opportunity to mock the respected female psychiatrist some more. She notes that the drug protocol was used on hundreds of people with no side effects.
Malcolm hypothesizes that it triggered paranoid schizophrenia in Render. When Render heard another student had died, he decided on revenge.
Graduate students are at the age when schizophrenia and other severe mental illnesses tend to develop anyway. It’s reckless of Malcolm to decide, based on so little evidence, that the drug triggered the illness. The drug could have caused Render to publicly reveal a psychotic break that was already in progress.
Jessica shows up in Gil’s office without an appointment and pretends that she’s there to offer condolences for his wife, who died 3 years ago. She’s really there to tell Gil to force Malcolm to stop working on murder cases and seeing Martin. They argue over whose fault it is that Malcolm started seeing Martin again to begin with, referring back to when Malcolm was 11. Jessica says that Gil had a case to close, while she felt like she was losing Malcolm, because he worshipped his father. She wanted him to see what Martin was really like, hoping he’d reject his father. Now she wants Gil to help her fix her mistake, but Gil doesn’t think anyone can control Malcolm. Jessica thinks he’s wrong.
Later, Jessica sits at her vanity mirror and remembers the conversation from the episode’s cold open. After she said, “Do you understand?” her husband answered her. He tells her that she’s right, they were happy, because he had needs and he did what was necessary to meet his needs while still giving her the life she wanted. “You knew what I was. You’ll be back.”
He was right, but it’s taken decades. She prepares to visit him at Claremont Psychiatric Hospital.
JT and Malcolm sit outside Dr Brown’s house, watching in case Render shows up. Gil and Dani are out searching for the perpetrator. JT tries to get Malcolm to leave, but since Malcolm doesn’t sleep much he loves a stake out. He tries to get JT to tell him what the initials stand for.
JT insults Dr Brown again, then refers to her as Malcolm’s people and disagrees when Malcolm says JT is one of his people. JT explains that the military and and law enforcement are based on rank and hierarchy, which command respect. He doesn’t feel that Malcolm respects his rank or the badge.
Um, wouldn’t Malcolm, as a former FBI agent, automatically outrank JT and deserve respect? Isn’t JT just a detective, while Malcolm has advanced degrees and special training, which is why they bring him in as a consultant on cases they can’t solve alone? Malcolm hasn’t bowed down at JT’s feet, but he’s respected him as a professional and made multiple attempts to get along with him personally. JT hasn’t returned the favor. He’s repeatedly questioned Malcolm’s professional opinion and let Malcolm know he doesn’t like him as a person.
Seems like JT is at the bottom of the hierarchy on the team, and doesn’t like it that Malcolm pushed him down another notch. Plus, Malcolm is old friends with Gil. JT is jealous that Malcolm took his place in Gil’s attentions.
Malcolm reminds JT that the police, meaning Gil, saved him from a serial killer who lived in his house when he was a child. He has immense respect for the badge. Then he goes inside to talk to Dr Brown.
Malcolm tells her his story off camera and asks her about repressed memories. He says he’s been diagnosed as depressed, generalized anxiety, PTSD… Dr Brown notes that all of his diagnoses are linked to fear. She brings up his belief that Martin drugged him with chloroform and describes the drug’s smell to him. It has a chemical, sweet smell. She explains that memories linked to smell can be the most persistent and the odor can conjure up the memories long afterwards.
Malcolm asks if Dr Brown has fears. She replies that she has regrets, which can evolve into fears. She tells him that his blocked memories may be attached to a subconscious fear. The only way to retrieve the memories is to face the fears.
While she’s speaking, Malcolm examines the artwork in the room. He recognizes a carved African mask which represents Lucifer. Render’s writing in his letters appeared random and disorganized because he was arranging the words to draw a piece of the mask on each page. Malcolm puts the pages together like a puzzle to form the mask.
Dr Brown tells Malcolm that Render has been to her house before, like many of her students, and was fascinated with her collection. He deduces that Render plans to kill her in the house. She’s been drinking her nightly cup of tea and is feeling strange. He realizes her chamomile tea has been dosed with LSD just as she notices that the floor is melting.
He tries to get her out of the house, but the power goes out.
JT notices the power’s out and rushes to the back door, since the front door is locked. Malcolm, who is normally brilliant, leaves the stoned woman alone so he can search the house with a fireplace poker to the sound of some classic psychedelic rock.
Doesn’t it make more sense to guard the woman who we know the killer is after, and who’s in no condition to defend herself? But that would make for boring TV, so instead of following JT while he finds the killer, we’ll follow Malcolm with the fireplace poker on the stairs.
One of the trademarks of the show seems to be the weekly wild showdown at the end between Malcolm and the killer.
JT has to break in through the back door. Malcolm finds Render on a landing midway up the stairs, where they fight. Render is about to kill Malcolm when Dr Brown shoots him from the bottom of the stairs.
So, she’s not defenseless after all, and is still a good shot while stoned. However, she thinks the walls are breathing and she aims the gun at Malcolm next. JT finds them and is ready to shoot Dr Brown, but Malcolm is able to talk her down.
After Jessica is shown into Martin’s cell, they flirt for minute before she tells him to stop seeing Malcolm. Martin is sad that he doesn’t share a secret with his son anymore. Jessica asks what Martin wants from Malcolm. He tells her he just wants to have a relationship with his son.
Jessica says she’s going to flush Martin’s ashes down a toilet when he dies. Unperturbed, he tells her that he’s proud of how well the kids turned out and what a fantastic job she did with them. He knows Malcolm will be fine.
He thanks her for taking care of the family and reaches out to caress her face, but she jumps away, terrified. She tells him he’s a monster and she’s terrified of what he could still do to the family. Martin reminds her that Malcolm and Ainsley are still his family, too. She denies it, saying that they lost him. He became dead to her when she killed him in her mind because she’d loved him so much.
Jessica: “My mother warned me. You were basically penniless. You couldn’t maintain my lifestyle. You would hold me back. But, oh, she was wrong. We had everything. And I would have done anything to save it.”
Martin: “We were happy.”
Jessica: “Until everything was taken from me. Everything. Except our children. And now you want them, too. How can you do this? Martin.”
Martin: “Don’t. Don’t do that, Jess. I was there. I know the whole story. What happened to them wasn’t just about me.”
Jessica: “You are breaking him. He is nearly broken. And I am begging you, leave Malcolm alone. Don’t take the one thing I have left.”
Martin watches her with a neutral, almost wary, expression on his face.
Malcolm puts some chloroform directly on his pillow and lies down, without his restraints. He quickly goes into a memory of approaching the trunk where he found the woman’s body. Before he can open the trunk, Jessica, who is dressed up for a formal evening out, roughly turns him around and tells him he shouldn’t touch his father’s things. Malcolm says that he saw a woman in the trunk, but Jessica tells him that the woman doesn’t concern him and he should never speak of it again. She says, “You have no idea what your father is capable of.”
Malcolm realizes that his mother covered up for his father’s crimes.
I think we can all agree that no one should ever drink tea on this show, especially if a member of Malcolm’s family is in the vicinity. It’s a curse they carry with them.
For sure the phrase “You changed the locks?” will come up again as a childhood trigger. The locks were changed after Malcolm found the girl in the box, or some other important occasion. There’s a reason Malcolm crashed through the window when he heard his mother say those words.
As a child he was manipulated by the killer, or possibly both parents, based on his fear responses. He has to learn how to work through some of that purposefully ingrained panic before he can deal with his childhood. I think his parents intentionally gave him layers of phobias that would hinder him from accessing his memories and make him seem like he had childhood psychosis to anyone he tried to talk to about what he’d seen and overheard.
It’s seemed clear all along that Jessica is hiding something. The questions are how much she knew and how involved she was in Martin’s activities. Or were they her activities and Martin helped her cover them up?
I predict that she was the one who poisoned Gil’s tea, at the very least. But there’s a good chance that she’s the mastermind behind the murders and has held the kids’ lives over Martin’s head all these years. That’s what “Do you understand?” meant. If you say anything, I’ll kill the children, and you’ll never see them alive again. That’s also the implicit threat she’s making by saying that Malcolm is almost broken.
Maybe the threat extended to Martin as well and this was a case of the prisoner feeling safer in a maximum security prison than he would on the outside. Except Jessica’s reach extends all the way into his cell, so he’s not safe anywhere.
There’s no doubt now that both parents were involved in the crimes. Jessica’s refusal to speak about the past or let the children have any contact could be a misguided attempt to protect them or it could be a brilliant attempt to stop Martin and herself from saying anything incriminating in front of them.
There’s no good reason why she would still refuse to answer any and all questions if it would help ease her adult son’s suffering. He fell out of a window in this episode and is self-destructive at the best of times. She owes him the answers, especially if she cares about him.
After watching Jessica’s performance while Malcolm was hanging out of the window, I have to wonder if she’s a psychopath who lacks empathy. It’s hard to tell how either Jessica or Martin actually view their children. Do they love the kids, view them as possessions to be fought over, or see them as mere extensions of themselves to be used as they see fit? Jessica’s repeated emphasis, in every episode, on their wealth and lifestyle is chilling, especially when you think about how Malcolm threatened her privilege. It’s easy to see how she could hate Malcolm most of all, whether she’s the killer or not.
Here’s a thought- maybe Martin told Malcolm “You’re just like me” because Martin isn’t the killer. Maybe he knew Malcolm already knew which of his parents was the killer and which was the accomplice, but had repressed the knowledge, and would remember it someday. He didn’t know if he’d ever have another chance to look his son in the eyes and speak to him that way. Maybe that statement was a reassurance that he’s not the psychopath his mother is, he’s only the sociopath his father is.
If you rewatch the childhood bedroom scene from episode 2, Martin tells Jessica that Malcolm was in the hobby room, then maneuvers her out of the room, making her think Malcolm’s fully unconscious when he’s not quite. Looked at from another perspective, Martin could have been trying to keep the real killer from being alone with his son and to convince her that he’d taken care of the situation so that she wouldn’t harm Malcolm.
Maybe this is a show about the serial killer’s husband and assistant taking the fall for her crimes because he was in love with her, but also because she threatened his life and the lives of their children. The real through line of the series could be the attempt to prove that Jessica is the real killer and to bring her to justice, without letting her know that Malcolm is investigating her.
Images courtesy of Fox.