The unsettling calling card from an Alcatraz child-killer pops up in a present-day kidnapping

By Joseph Brannigan Lynch
Updated January 24, 2012 at 09:14 AM EST
Fox

Alcatraz

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In its second week but already on its third episode, Alcatraz seems to have slid into its comfort zone fairly quickly, which is impressive but potentially troubling. On one hand, it’s promising that the series isn’t struggling to find a balance between its “procedural of the week” meets “over-arching supernatural conspiracy” template.

On the other hand, the fact that each episode thus far has ended with the criminal-of-the-week caught and sent back to Alcatraz 2.0 feels anticlimactic and a bit rote.

Last night’s episode introduced us to former Alcatraz inmate Kit Nelson (the ever-reliable Michael Eklund), a psychotic child-killer who was enjoying his newfound freedom in the present day by kidnapping a young boy from his bed and leaving a disturbing (yet fragrant!) calling card: a white chrysanthemum.

The next scene showed us that Doc Soto spends his free time like any reputable social outsider: He listens to the police scanner and sketches comix. Thanks to his encyclopedic knowledge of the Rock and its inmates, Doc caught the bit about the aforementioned white flower and immediately realized that another inmate was on the prowl in present day San Fran.

Following his hunch, Soto and Det. Madsen visited the scene of the disappearance and confirmed their fears, much to the mother’s horror.

Meanwhile, Kit Nelson was doing what child-killers do best: Acting horrifically creepy. He took young Dylan fishing out on a lake before ordering the boy to jump in so they could see how long they could hold each others’ heads under water, which as far as I can recall is not a Big Brother/Big Sister-sanctioned recreational activity for grown-ups and kids.

Back in the 1960s, the bloody rivulets running through Kit’s bashed-in face let us know that he wasn’t one of the more popular inmates. There was also an important reveal that pertained less to Nelson and more to the overall series arc: Det. Rebecca Madsen’s convict-grandfather was the jaded prisoner we saw talking behind a curtain in silhouette during the premiere. This means that Grandpa Madsen is at the focal point of whatever strange testing Dr. Beauregard did to the prisoners in the ’60s, at least according to what Old Man Madsen told Jack Sylvane in the premiere.

As for present day, Madsen and Soto were hard at work… drinking lemonade. Actually, they were questioning the mother for details about her kidnapped son, Dylan, but all she could offer was that her son was terrible at sports and loved comics (making Soto especially determined to save a kindred soul). A comment about cherry pie made something click in Soto’s brain and he excitedly stood up from the table, but his pie-related brainstorm was interrupted by the appearance of Hauser who had arrived at the scene of the crime and was ordering the police to vacate. Knowing Nelson would return to the house after killing the boy, Hauser was willing to let the kid die to ensure a tidy recapture.

NEXT: Hauser’s shaky ethics and a touch of Cain and Abel

The following shoutin’ showdown between Hauser, Madsen and Soto seemed indicative of what we can expect in future episodes. More concerned with keeping time-traveling cons out of the media, Hauser was willing to potentially sacrifice this one kid for the greater good. But being decent, likable protagonists, Madsen and Soto vehemently objected to that approach: They wanted to send out an APB on Nelson and save a life. Soto in particular was morally outraged — with the increasing body count and Hauser’s amorality rattling his delicate civilian sensibility, he seemed about to split apart at the seams (although to be fair, Garcia always looks like he’s about to bust out of his seams).

As for the inmate-of-the-week’s psychological motivation, I’d have to say we got a pretty middling explanation that was saved by a fantastic performance from Eklund. Back in the ’60s, Nelson’s father visited him in prison and accused him of having murdered his sibling as a child. Kit denied it, but given that he was in Alcatraz for exactly that kind of crime, Papa Nelson didn’t buy it.

Later on, in a pitch-blank solitary confinement cell, the head warden muscled the truth of Nelson during what he amusingly referred to as a “four match conversation.” As each match burned, the warden made him admit to his childhood fratricide. Kit admitted that he had been jealous of his mother’s preferential treatment toward his 11-year-old brother, so he choked him to death in a bomb shelter when the parents were away. That’s why he specifically has a taste for murdering 11-year-olds — and the chrysanthemum token is part of the mix because it was his brother and mother’s favorite flower.

Although that psychological explanation for a serial killer sounds a bit pat when you hear it on paper, the way Eklund recounted the grisly tale made Nelson seem all too real. Mixing Nelson’s man-child arrested development with an unsettling remorselessness, Eklund gave his character a disturbing gravity — for a moment, you felt like you were watching an actual serial killer.

Back in 2012, Soto’s cherry-pie hunch proved correct. After kidnapping a kid but before murdering him, Nelson took each victim on a tour of his deceased brother’s favorite activities: fishing, the movies, cherry pie, strangulation, etc. So Doc bravely embarked upon a cherry-pie tour of San Francisco hoping that Nelson and Dylan would eventually pop up eating cherry pie in a diner — which they did before his very eyes. Score one for Soto!

Unfortunately for Dylan, Dr. Soto proved to be more adept at polishing off dessert than stopping criminals. Instead of tackling the guy or calling out the kidnapping in progress, Soto nervously waited for Madsen to show up and take care of business. When she eventually did arrive, Soto’s strategy of “detain the criminal through nebbish small talk” had failed: Nelson was outside the restaurant with a gun to Dylan’s head. With a hostage to aid him, the killer stole Madsen’s car and left the two of them cuffed to a dumpster. Now that’s some solid police work!

Beating himself up for failing to act, Soto asked Madsen, “I just got that kid killed, didn’t I?” Even though the real answer was “And how!” Madsen stuck by his side and assured him they would find Nelson again. Because lightning always strikes twice.

Back in “the bat cave underneath Alcatraz,” Doc racked his brains and achieved a second eureka! moment that involved cigarettes, pay stubs and a construction job, all of which drew a convenient connect-the-dots trail to a forgotten bomb shelter near Dylan’s house. With no time to lose, the Dynamic Duo was off.

Soto had called it correctly: Nelson had Dylan in a bomb shelter in the woods, only this time the kid wasn’t just waiting around to die. After slipping off his sneaker, Dylan launched it at the lone light bulb in the underground shelter, giving him time to run while the room plunged into darkness. (And all this after his mom had said he wasn’t athletic! He could have a future in pitching!)

NEXT: The killer recaptures the boy and we learn about a second time-traveling doctor

Dylan fled into the rainy woods just as our heroes showed up, but once again too late: Much like last time, Nelson had the kid in his grip. The child-killer taunted Madsen, saying she didn’t have the guts to shoot him and risk the boy’s life in the process. But before that question was resolved, a bullet from Hauser — who appeared out of nowhere — ended Nelson’s life and saved the boy’s.

Later in the Alcatraz office, a surly Hauser confronted Doc with concerns about his past. Just like Dylan, Doc endured a traumatic experience at age 11 and because of this Hauser believed the Ph.D.-holding comic nerd is in a state of arrested development. Although Hauser admitted that Doc’s in-and-out knowledge of Alcatraz’s inmates make him somewhat indispensable, he warned Soto to pull it together.

Giving us a further tease of his “origin story,” Soto then visited Dylan to deliver some rare comics and a bit of advice. Like Dylan, Soto was abducted as a kid and managed eventually to get away. Although a pained Soto told Dylan his escape “wasn’t easy,” he assured the kid that when you know you can do something like that, “It sort of gives you a superpower, like theirs [comic superheroes], but real.” In other words, Super Hurley!

Even with the escaped inmate dead, Hauser still brought him back to the whitewashed replica of Alcatraz for storage. Before the episode ended, we found out that Lucy (still in a coma, much to Hauser’s angst) wasn’t the only doctor to time-travel from ’63 to the present: An un-aged Dr. Beauregard was living in Alcatraz 2.0. Dropping the body of Nelson onto Dr. B’s operating table, Hauser informed the doctor he would soon need his help with “a friend of mine.”

Parting thoughts:

Unlike the first two inmates we met, Kit Nelson seemed to be operating solely based on his own psychosis. Hauser implied that Jack Sylvane was acting as a hit man when he killed that guy after opening the safe, and given that Cobb’s attempt to kill Lucy wasn’t part of his usual serial pattern, there’s a good chance he made that hit based on someone else’s orders (especially since Hauser questioned Sylvane to that effect). So it seems that perhaps not every one of “the ’63s” is part of this mysterious master plan.

The fact that Doc is creating comics about his exploits with Hauser and Madsen is a great touch — one can imagine his comix diary will not sit well with the tight-lipped FBI agent.

I loved Doc’s voicemail message, but I’m not crazy about the jail bar-wipe scene transitions.

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Alcatraz

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