It Still Stings: We’ll Never Know How Prodigal Son’s Malcolm Bright Overcomes His DemonsPhoto Courtesy of Fox TV Features Prodigal Son
Editor’s Note: TV moves on, but we haven’t. In our feature series It Still Stings, we relive emotional TV moments that we just can’t get over. You know the ones, where months, years, or even decades later, it still provokes a reaction? We’re here for you. We rant because we love. Or, once loved. And obviously, when discussing finales in particular, there will be spoilers:
In a world where crime procedurals are so formulaic that a viewer can guess the beats by how the first few frames play out, FOX series Prodigal Son is inventive and playful, surprising both in who the villains are and how the mysteries unfold. But for me, the loss after its cancellation was personal: I am too invested in protagonist Malcolm Bright’s (Tom Payne) healing. Like any love-at-first-sight relationship, I can point to the exact moment in the pilot that I fell in love and knew Malcolm (and the show itself) was going to be my closest companion during lockdown.
What is so special about that exact second? Well, it’s a hefty first five minutes: viewers have already seen a flashback to 1998 of Malcolm as a child watching his beloved-but-dangerous father be arrested. Martin Whitly (“The Surgeon,” a serial killer played with outlandish charm only Michael Sheen could pull off), handcuffed and with flashbulb light and noise erupting around him, bends down to Malcolm’s eye level, smiles, and says, “We’re the same”—an echo that will haunt Malcolm throughout the series. Then we’re thrown into real time as Malcolm, now an FBI profiler in his thirties, is at a crime scene and on the cusp of capturing a killer. As the bust starts, Malcolm wanders off, finds the killer on his own, and tries to reason with him. Staring into the barrel of the man’s gun, he says he can tell him how serial killers are created. Before he can go any further, though, a sheriff shoots the killer and celebrates. In what winds up feeling like an obvious move for the character, Malcolm punches him.
The scene cuts to a review board wherein Malcolm says, “I get it. You don’t punch a sheriff. Even if it’s not an official rule, it’s definitely unspoken.”
That’s the moment. I was laughing so hard. I had already gotten lost in the story and character. Why hadn’t I heard of the show? The first season had already aired in its entirety, and I am the exact target audience. As an academic with a penchant for mystery, I was excited to explore the philosophy of crime as a form of entertainment, something Malcolm’s mother takes particular umbrage with—she can rattle off the names of his father’s victims, even while she’s behaving suspiciously herself. But Prodigal Son also deals in “psychological” terror, not only by examining the things the outside world can do to hurt you (as most crime shows do), but by exploring and shining a light on the things your interior life can do to hurt you.
Malcolm, though, is by no means psychologically (or even physically) healthy, nor is he some self-actualized archetype who has made huge amounts of progress in processing the trauma of his childhood, though he seeks to be better. He understands intellectually how his body evaluates and reacts to pain, fear, and anxiety, but can’t put it in practice emotionally. He only deals with his past when he wants to; the rest of the time? It deals with him. He’s also aware of how atypical his coping mechanism of solving murders is, but refuses to stop. He’s kept in touch with his father out of a combination of loyalty and curiosity, both of which are double-edged swords.
As early as the pilot, he acknowledges his complex PTSD and is shown taking medication and reading an affirmation card (after unstrapping himself from bed: night terrors, naturally). Throughout the show, his morning routine is rigid: there is yoga, sometimes licorice or sparkling water, but always the affirmations and medications. Medication isn’t a plot device: it’s obvious he needs it, so a man who questions literally everything does not evaluate this truth except in dire circumstances. He even sees a therapist! Though admittedly, it is his pediatric therapist. (He’s not much for change: besides, as he correctly points out to her, adult therapists don’t have candy.)
He becomes a profiler for Lieutenant Gil Arroyo (the incomparable and warm Lou Diamond Phillips) at the NYPD, where despite Arroyo’s introducing him to the team as “Malcolm Bright: psychologist, forensic profiler, acquired taste,” it is instantly obvious that they have a strong bond. It doesn’t take long to learn that they met the night Malcolm’s dad was arrested—because Gil was, at that time, the young beat cop making said arrest.
The entire ensemble is acted with the precision of an HBO prestige drama, thanks to Bellamy Young, Frank Harts, Keiko Agena, Dermot Mulroney, Alan Cumming, and Catherine Zeta-Jones. In fact, the characters they’ve built are so compelling that Prodigal Son still lives on with a rabid fan base both on Twitter, where #saveprodigalson still trends often, and through fanfic, where a lot of fans have been licking their wounds since the cancellation.
And that cancellation really stings—there are so many hooks throughout the show that could have held answers to how Malcolm would eventually close the doors on some of his ghosts. The rest of his family kept the “Whitly” surname, deciding not to allow The Surgeon to take anything else from them; Malcolm changed his, but maintained their relationship. Gil Arroyo, in all his tenderness, acted as a father figure despite knowing that Malcolm had a father and wouldn’t be able to reciprocate. At the end of Season 1, he’s actually in a worse place, mentally, than he was at the start: sure, he solved crimes, including one no one but him believed had even happened, but by then, it’s clear that he sees his most important duty as being a good big brother. What he has to do for his sister Ainsley (Halston Sage) in the first season’s finale is harrowing, and makes him wonder if he is actually a monster. By the end of Season 2? Let’s just say it ends with a stabbing, and the knife is in his hands.
It’s a brilliant premise but within it, Malcolm struggles for answers, like how much his past is allowed to define him, how to cope with isolating pain, and whether or not he and his father are actually “the same.” There is no doubt, despite all the things stacked against him, that he will defeat his demons: but thanks to the show’s cancellation, the audience is now responsible for solving the mystery of how that might happen without the team.
Katie Darby Mullins is a Creative Writing professor who has two books of poetry, numerous short stories, and a handful of Pushcart Prize nominations, as well as many podcast, radio, and TV appearances about…podcasts, music, and TV. Recently, she has written for The Aquarian Weekly . She is also the Executive Writer for Underwater Sunshine Fest. She’s always happy to talk about anything pop culture at@katieuwsf
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