Now we're cooking with gas! We're rewarded for four weeks of rapidly waning patience with an entire episode dedicated to the glorious Robert Forster! And to boot, we get an episode that at least slightly varies from the wearisome time-traveling inmate bit by introducing a time-traveling prison guard for once. And finally, we get an episode that involves Haircut on a fundamental level, giving the character a sense of urgency and legitimacy that we hadn't yet seen. (That's on paper. Unfortunately, Sarah Jones' performance has certainly not reached any levels of urgency or legitimacy. She mostly seems vaguely bemused for much of her screen time.)
Yes, "Guy Hastings" is Alcatraz's best episode yet, and while that's a standard that isn't going to be balancing on dizzying heights any time soon, the fifth episode engaged me and gave me some hope for the rest of the season. It's too bad ratings dropped drastically this week, although I certainly can't blame viewers for not sticking by the show after four episodes of tedium. But for those who packed up their bags and moved on to Smash, they missed one full hour of Robert Forster's magnificent eyebrows. And the producers wisely cast a younger eyebrow double as Flashback Forster!
So what did we learn this week? Our eponymous time traveler is Alcatraz training prison guard Guy Hastings, played earnestly and well by True Blood's Jim Parrack, who owns a direct line to my sympathy button. Showrunners across America, if you want me to care about a character, cast Hoyt. Who can turn an apathetic eye to that boyish mug? Hastings was a good guy, a decent guard, a loving father and husband. So what's he doing beating the shit out of Alcatraz park rangers today? Hastings' story is that one day he went to work and was told his family was dead and that he and a few other guards were infected and contagious with some mysterious disease. "And then...it wasn't 1963 anymore." So...we didn't learn a whole hell of a lot of mythology intel from Hastings, but we do know that the guards weren't in on the disappearance of the inmates, that someone is very specifically giving the time travelers instructions ("they" told him to find Tommy Madsen in present day), and we learn a little detail about the hideous blood experiments performed on the inmates during Hastings' service.
The problem, however, continues to be that no one has yet asked Hastings or the gathered inmates one simple, direct line of questioning: "Who's 'they'? What do they look like? Where are they giving you these instructions?" It seems like a lot of the central mystery could be solved with some specific question-asking, but obviously, the writers don't want to mess with all that simplicity.
We learn all of the above through Hastings' interaction with Robert Forster (Haircut's Uncle Ray), because Hastings kidnaps him to find Madsen, Haircut's grandfather and Uncle Ray's friend turned brother. In the course of Haircut and Doc Hurley's investigation (and they do some actual investigating this time instead of falling on a series of coincidences that lead them to the mystery's solution), they learn that Uncle Ray is Haircut's actual uncle, and that he took the job as a prison guard in Alcatraz to either break Tommy out or possibly just to watch out for him. We learn that Hastings and Uncle Ray were friends at Alcatraz, as well. Who knows why Uncle Ray never told Haircut that he's her real great-uncle. He's Robert Forster. He can do whatever he pleases, and we are not to question him.
We are treated to a pleasant--albeit another too brief--scene of Haircut and Uncle Ray enjoying a friendly dim sum before Ray is kidnapped, and that small scene brings Haircut into the fore of what little emotional resonance this show has to offer. Ray's her only family, and they get along great. When he's kidnapped, the case actually means something to Haircut. She's instantly implicated on multiple levels, from Ray to her grandfather to Hastings. It shouldn't have taken the writers five episodes to get to this point; in fact, had "Guy Hastings" been the second episode, I'd be a lot more patient with the other issues Alcatraz suffers. The writers are going to have to go a long way to make me care about Haircut (potentially as far as re-casting her in some sort of wacky York/Sargent shuffle), but "Guy Hastings" was a start. I may never care about Haircut, but I will always care about Robert Forster, and Robert Forster cares about Haircut. So by the transitive property...
We also discover that Grandpa Tommy is more central to the arc of Alcatraz than we previously believed, and that Uncle Ray has been in on this whole mystical prison business from the start. He's seen Grandpa Tommy a few times and warns him to stay away from Haircut. Crotchety old Sam Neill attempted to recruit Uncle Ray to the Alcatraz task force before settling on Haircut, and what a disappointing exchange that must have been. He wants someone related to Tommy Madsen on the Alcatraz team, and Haircut smugly discerns that this means crotchety old Sam Neill needs her more than she needs him, so I guess she's going to stop letting him push her around. Not that she's been in any way cooperative to any part of crotchety old Sam Neill's instructions heretofore.
Hastings is gathered up by the Alcatraz team with no casualties, unless you count his right kneecap. Crotchety old Sam Neill shows a softer, less crotchety side when he takes Hastings to see his grown daughter from afar, musing that Hastings doesn't deserve what happened to him. Hopefully we'll see more of Hastings in the future--maybe he could even be drafted on to the Alcatraz task force, like poor forever comatose Lucy and the prison doc. I really liked the character of Hastings and Barrack's performance, and this show could use more characters I care about. Although I did find myself responding somewhat warmly to Chet the Stock Boy this week.
We've discussed Sarah Jones' inadequate performance, but can we talk about Sam Neill? His delivery is so weird and sketchy on this show. He manages to appear both leering and indifferent in the same line reading. I don't know how much of that is masking his true accent or his genuine indifference to this show, but I very rarely buy anything he says. I continue to really enjoy Jorge Garcia's performance as Doc. He adds a welcome bit of levity to these overly serious proceedings. I love it when he makes fun of crotchety old Sam Neill's pompous solemnity. The whole bit with Doc mocking the Bat Phone and The Room Filled With White Nerds cracked me up.
Alcatraz has had great cinematography, a terrifically stirring score and an intriguing premise since week one. This week, I cared about the characters and, more shockingly, the A-plot. If the show stays on this path, I just might have to like it.