Four episodes into Alcatraz, and it feels like it may be starting to get a bit too comfortable. It seems somewhat fitting that in “Cal Sweeney,” the criminal of the week, is a man who has a clearly laid-out plan for how he goes around robbing safety deposit boxes. Everything is familiar, structured. It seems like Alcatraz is also suffering from that rigidity, getting more procedural than the show deserves to be.
In the episode, Sweeney seduces bank tellers, knocks them out, and then steals from very specific boxes. While in the past that would be enough, now he is visiting the owners of the boxes as well. In the past, Sweeney usually left the bank employees alone, but he now is killing bank workers and the box owners, in a very Anton Chigurh-ish way, by using a device that kills cattle. After one bank robbery in the present goes wrong, Madsen must sneak into the bank he is holding hostage and get him out so they can put him in the new Alcatraz. Once she goes through the process of doing this, we find out that the whole reason he broke into this final bank was to steal a key for someone, leaving the mystery for the audience.
Back in the 1960s, we see that Sweeney was an expert at sneaking things into the prison. When Deputy Warden Tiller wants a piece of his action, he works his way to his dinner party, thrown by Warren James, and threatens him. There doesn’t seem to be much importance to this flashback sequence however. His best friend Harlan betrays him, stealing the only thing Sweeney had remaining from his childhood, and Harlan says that he will take over Sweeney’s business as he rots in solitary for 30 days. By the end, we see Harlan being thrown into a room that appears to be a cellar. The key that opens this door is, you guessed it, the one Sweeney stole. However the door needs three keys, and as we see from Hauser and his crack team of scientists, they only have two. Another nice piece of info we receive is that even though it seems like Hauser is secretive and knows more than he lets on, he doesn’t know how the inmates jump through time.
The episode seems almost shoddily put together though. Sweeney has become a more violent man, without any explanation. In addition, we never get any answer as to why he is visiting the owners of the security boxes, other than the hint that he may enjoy hearing the stories behind what he is stolen. We also get a lot of pretty terrible monologues, one from one of the tellers about how she met Sweeney and they bonded over microwavable alfredo dinners and another from Deputy Tiller as he gives a heavy-handed metaphor about shaving and inmates. Neither seems necessary, and both are more laughable than beneficial to the story.
Alcatraz is doing a great job fleshing out the criminals, yet it still feels like we don’t really know the main three investigators. The show has a sloppy “getting to know you” moment in the first few minutes, but boils down to not telling us much. If asked, I could probably explain more details about the lives of the four criminals we’ve seen so far than of the show’s three stars, which is unfortunate. Maybe the background of these criminals will form a bigger picture in the end, but for now it is starting to feel more like just a way to fill an hour.
The criminal mostly takes up that hour as well. While it feels like the show is setting up mysteries that may build to something larger over seasons, it almost seems like a viewer could fast forward to the final 10 minutes of each episode to get their mythology fix and skip the criminal aspect altogether.
This isn’t enough to damn Alcatraz, but they are a few problems that the show should address. We need to know our main characters before we get entire dossiers on superfluous characters. Shows like this are best when you tool around with the structure a bit, making changes and surprising, rather than staying stagnant. Alcatraz needs to mix up their formula a bit before the show goes straight down the procedural path.