An innocent man turns criminal after some dubious experimentation

By Joseph Brannigan Lynch
Updated March 13, 2012 at 06:38 AM EDT
Liane Hentscher/Fox

After last week’s highly rewarding Alcatraz one-two punch, I was a bit let down by last night’s episode. “Clarence Montgomery” was supposed to air two weeks ago but was delayed because of NASCAR — so it’s actually the 8th episode of the season although it’s airing as if it were the 10th. So that’s the deal if you care about such things.

In spite of a very weak explanation for an innocent man’s conversion to an unstoppable murderer (they made him watch a mean movie!), the actor who brought Clarence Montgomery to life, Mahershala Ali, did an excellent job.

A very strange side note about Ali: He was one of the stars of a sci-fi series that ran on USA Network from 2004-2007 called The 4400. Why is that odd? Well, that show was about 4400 people who disappeared at various times in the past and now find that they’ve reappeared — un-aged and without any memory of where they’ve been — in present day. Sound familiar? Yeah, a lot of people pointed out that similarity when Alcatraz premiered. The fact that they cast one of The 4400 cast members as a guest star shows that the producers are fully aware of the similarity.

But moving on to the episode at hand. Its cold open was successfully creepy. The inmate of the week, Clarence Montgomery, responded to the amorous advances of a woman at an auction they were attending. At her behest, they purloined a cart and took it for a spin on the golf course greens. Just when things were about to go schwing, a series of images flashed in front his eyes and the next thing he knew, he was running across the golf course with the girl’s bloody, limp body in his arms. Moral of the story: Don’t go golfing with someone until the third or fourth date.

Back at the Rock, Soto was digitally rummaging through reports of the various murders across the San Francisco area, waiting to find one that matched the M.O. of a former inmate. So.. is sitting around and looking at corpses pretty much what he does in his spare time? If so, cool!

Soto noticed a dead body positioned exactly like former inmate Clarence Montgomery’s alleged victim, and so the next morning the team descended upon the country club. Hauser wasn’t convinced the murder was the work of a ‘63, and he was additionally reluctant to take on the case because the local police were starting to push back against the Feds constantly swooping in and stealing their murder victims. But after screwing up his face to its surliest, he allotted Soto and Madsen 12 hours to investigate a possible connection to Montgomery.

Not knowing where to go in 2012, Montgomery showed up at the house of one of his friends (and a former Alcatraz inmate), Emmitt Little. The wheelchair-bound Little was naturally astonished to find his old friend alive and young. For his part,Montgomery offered us an ever-so-slight explanation of what happened on Alcatraz. “They took my blood, messed with my head,” he told Little. “You think you know who you are, but they push you and they twist you and something just snaps.”

It was a fine performance from Ali, but at this point, it would be nice to get a slightly more detailed explanation of what the warden and doctors were doing to the inmates in the ’60s. But with the two-hour season finale of Alcatraz coming up in a mere two weeks, maybe I should just sit tight.

When Dr. Lucy Sengupta interviewed Montgomery back in the early ‘60s, we learned that he was the first African-American head chef at his country club. He started a romance with the daughter of the owner, but when she turned up with her throat slit one day, it was curtains for him (jailhouse curtains, specifically), even though he didn’t do it. Unfortunately for him, he was a black man connected to a dead white girl. Back then, that was sometimes all it took for a jury to put someone behind bars.

NEXT: Romancing the Soto and the Ludovico technique finds its way to the Rock

Back in the present day, Det. Madsen had her friend Nikki (Soto’s burgeoning crush) check out the dead girl’s body for clues. After some tests, Nikki uncovered a few convenient facts. 1) The man who killed the girl in 2012 has Wilson’s disease, which matches up with the medicine they found amongst Montgomery’s possessions. 2) However, the man who killed the latest girl could not have been the same guy who murdered Montgomery’s girlfriend back when, because one of these killings was done right-handed and the other left.

So while Montgomery is murderous in 2012, he was innocent of the crime that sent him to Alcatraz in the ’60s. Incidentally, that’s sort of a big gaffe for the jury — and Montgomery’s defending attorney — to overlook back then, right? I guess we’re assuming racial bias obscured that fact as well.

More important than technical detective work, however, was the fact that Nikki basically asked Soto out on a date. Bada-bing! Soto, you lady killer! Wait, not that. That compliment doesn’t work at all in the context of this series.

Moving on to a new target, Clarence used his culinary skills to gain access to a new country club where he found yet another girl who was just his type: Easily murder-able. I’m always shocked at how fast the ex-cons in this show, presumably without modern documentation, get hired at jobs. San Fran has a thriving time-traveling ex-con workforce these days.

The most interesting part of this episode was the ‘60s flashbacks involving the race riot that ensued behind bars when Warden James gave Montgomery the position of head chef at Alcatraz. Although the warden marveled at his intuitive knack for spices and flavoring, plenty of the bigoted inmates refused to touch food cooked by an African-American man. Silly racists, prejudice is for a–holes!

When a jailhouse riot broke out, the warden happily waltzed out of the cafeteria and let the inmates kick the crap out of each other. While Warden James and Deputy Warden Tiller — who was exceptionally sleazy this episode — once again butted heads, I think Tiller misunderstands his boss’ motives. I don’t think Warden James is actually trying to reform the prisoners. I suspect that he knew the trouble he was inviting when he put an African-American in a position of power within a mostly racist prison. He seems too in touch with the climate of the Rock not to understand the consequences of doing that.

Honorable mention goes to the moment when Warden James tries to goad the racist prisoners into eating by shouting, “I said bon appetit you sons of bitches!” Hilarious.

Unfortunately, when the show tried to explain how Alcatraz had turned Clarence from a cynical, beaten-down inmate to a blood-lusting killer, things got real lame, real fast.

Beneath the main complex, Dr. Beauregard — wearing a creepy bow tie usually reserved for ventriloquist dummies — tied down Montgomery. Next up: electroconvulsive therapy mixed with a matinee!

Dr. B played a short film that assaulted the innocent man with images of his dead girlfriend, the word GUILTY, sawed bones and riots. Apparently, shock therapy combined with a transgressive art movie can turn a man into a monster, like a reverse Clockwork Orange. “It works in one direction, I don’t see why it can’t work in both,” Beauregard reasoned aloud.

First off, no. Mental therapies aren’t necessarily a two-way highway. Secondly, the “benefits” of shock therapy are short-lived — it’s certainly not the kind of procedure that can make a lifelong killer out of someone. And even if we want to read into the combined effects of the injection, the electricity and the film, the whole thing just came across as a bit… silly. Given how gritty and gory the show can be, the viewers deserve a more satisfying explanation for Montgomery’s change. Heck, a vague explanation that left something to the imagination would even have been better.

NEXT: Chatty Cathy Returns and the gunfight at the O.K. Corral

To make it clear that electroconvulsive therapy changed Montgomery for the worse, we saw a scene of him freaking out back in the ‘60s and murdering a fellow inmate (then arranging the body in the exact position in which his dead girlfriend was found). There was a nice bonus touch of continuity, too. The inmate he slashed was the Chatty Cathy from the episode with the sniper, “Ernest Cobb.” Good to see that guy finally got what was coming to him. Kidding! I would never wish harm on a fictitious character.

In 2012, a tip from Nikki helped Soto and Madsen track down Montgomery, who had acquired yet another cooking gig. After a spectacular chase sequence along a wharf that found Montgomery rolling under a moving vehicle, the trio of special agents tracked him down to Emmitt Little’s house.

Little, a former Black Panther and apparently a card-carrying NRA member, welcomed Madsen, Soto and Hauser by blowing a hole through his door with a shotgun.

“The Lord gave Clarence a second chance, he sent him back same as he was before, and you ain’t taking that chance from him!” Little shouted out as he blasted away. I suppose it’s hard to argue with that logic, particularly when someone is trying to blow your head off.

Eventually Hauser worked his way around to find Montgomery sitting alone, crippled by guilt and indecision. After Hauser got him to acknowledge that he was once innocent but has now become a killer who can’t stop, Montgomery confessed to his friend Little and asked to be taken out of his misery. Distraught but sympathetic, Little complied, shooting Montgomery dead on the spot. So… nice pep talk there, Hauser!

I have to point out that of the few African-American characters on this show, almost all of them have bit the dust within the same episode they were introduced. First there was Rebecca’s partner, then her affable friend on the bomb squad and now this guy. Sure, Emmitt Little made it out alive, but I’m guessing we won’t be seeing him again. I’m not accusing the show of having an early ‘60s attitude toward race, but the growing African-American body count just seems a little ridiculous at this point.

Before the episode wrapped, it reinforced a sense that whatever was going on at Alcatraz in the early ‘60s, Warden James was behind it.

“Clarence Montgomery, the only innocent lamb in our great pasture…. Not any more,” the warden said philosophically to Dr. Beauregard after Clarence killed the other inmate. “You asked if it could be done,” the doctor responded, referring to the damage he had wrought on Montgomery’s brain.

Hoping his faithful service would be enough for the warden to take him into his confidence, Beauregard asked, “What are you doing to the blood between the time I take it out of them and then put it back in?” But Warden James feigned indignation, insisting he wouldn’t hide anything from his staff. But we all know you can’t trust a guy who looks like Evil Ed Asner.

What did you think of last night’s episode? Are you disappointed at the sluggish pace at which the mysteries are being revealed, or did you actually really dig this episode? And how about the guy from The 4400 guest starring? Let us know what you think below.

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