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'Alcatraz' unlocks various mysteries

Campus Correspondent

Published: Monday, March 19, 2012

Updated: Friday, August 23, 2013 16:08

“Alcatraz’s” FBI Task Force continues its hunt for escaped inmates in this week’s episode. With the hunt for convict Tommy Madsen put on hold due to a lack of new leads, the authorities focus on tracking down the newest escapee, Clarence Montgomery. Montgomery was convicted and sent to Alcatraz back in 1960 for the brutal murder of his girlfriend. Now he has returned to present-day San Francisco to start a killing spree.

For those who have never watched “Alcatraz,” some plot information is necessary in order to fully understand this episode. Alcatraz, possibly the most infamous prison ever built, was closed back in 1963, with all of its inmates and guards relocated to other facilities. However, this never actually happened. All of the prison’s staff and inmates mysteriously disappeared on the night of March 21, 1963, and are just now starting to return, having not aged a single day since. As dangerous as these convicts were in 1963, many of them¬ and even some of the guards and prison staff– have become more violent and deadly since then. Thus, an FBI task force was established to track these individuals down and bring them to justice.

This latest episode has an interesting factor that has not been seen so far in the show. Most of the flashbacks take place in 1960, before any legitimate civil rights legislation, so racism was heavily present throughout Alcatraz. However, all of the escaped convicts have been white so far, making Clarence Montgomery the first African American inmate in the show’s spotlight. This episode details Montgomery’s attempts to serve out his prison time without incident, only to face racism and beatings at every turn on the part of the prison’s white populace. I’m glad that the show has finally documented these injustices – the subject had not been discussed in the slightest before this episode.

An interesting twist occurs halfway through the episode, when the warden subjects Montgomery to a type of subliminal mind control that basically turns him into a serial killer. This alone is a shocking turn of events, but becomes almost mind-blowing when combined with a revelation: Montgomery was framed for the murder of his girlfriend. So put this all together, and you’ve got an innocent man being sent to Alcatraz, where he gets conditioned to be a serial killer – sounds like a pretty cool setup for an episode, right? Well, yes and no.

My problem with this episode is threefold: its timing, its poor explanation of its plot devices and its negligent development of Montgomery’s character. First, the bad timing: this episode comes after it is revealed that one of the main characters, who has been comatose after being shot by a sniper, is dying. The other characters have been trying everything to either stabilize her or wake her up, but for some reason, this whole plotline has been put on hold without explanation, and barely referenced at all. Throughout the episode, I’m constantly wondering what’s happening with the comatose character, but nothing is ever said, like the event was somehow forgotten by the writers.

Second, the main plot device is explained badly. The mind control is introduced, and shown for maybe 30 seconds, with brief subliminal flashes of it occurring throughout the episode. Its presence is not explained, nor why the warden chose to use it on Montgomery. For something that leads to the deaths of four people in this episode, I think that there should be a better explanation for the mind control device. Finally, while Montgomery is an interesting character, he needed more developmental screen time; no joke, he’s basically seen throughout the episode either cooking something or killing somebody, and that’s it. Where did he come from, and what’s his personality like? Who really killed his girlfriend? These topics are touched on barely, if at all.

This was a good episode, with a really cool plot. Somewhere along the way, however, the writing became flawed. This could have been a much better episode if better attempts at explaining plot devices and fleshing out characters were made. This might have been on purpose, for all I know – “Alcatraz” is produced by J.J. Abrams, the mind behind “Lost” and “Fringe,” two of the most mysterious shows to ever air on television. While Abrams loves to keep the audience in the dark, he may not realize how frustrating this tactic is to the viewer. Hopefully, Abrams will soon realize that if the audience is already confused, confusing them further isn’t going to help the situation.


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