The shankings of Alcatraz

The first, rather short, season of Alcatraz has come to a cliff-hanging close. Has the big-mystery series shanked itself with the season finale?

This Monday was the double-episode season finale of Alcatraz, the prison-break, big-mystery, sci-fi show which has seemingly won out over Terra Nova for a more permanent home on Fox.

The 13 episode season starts strong, and makes clear its premise and over-arching conflict immediately, which I think is a great change from previous big-mystery shows, which leave even the nature of the driving drama as a darkness-enshrouded, hooded form until well into the first season.

Rebecca is a San Francisco cop with a family history that ties her into Alcatraz. She thinks that her grandfather and granduncle were both guards, but she soon finds that her grandfather was, in fact, an inmate, and he, still as young as the day he was put away, is on the loose, and even murdered her partner.

Her new partner, Doctor Soto is a rotund Alcatraz expert, and comic store owner, who brings an interesting perspective to the cases, both with his knowledge of Alcatraz and his geeky wit. Together, with Emerson Houser, another former guard, they are tracking down all the people who have seemingly jumped time from the moment Alcatraz closed, people they refer to as the 63’s.

Each episode is named for, and follows the exploits of a different ‘63 – not all of them are inmates. The story is as much about the 63’s as it is about the detectives. They have their own stories, and surprisingly, most of them are rather sympathetic. Many of them seem to have been reformed, or, in one case, even innocent, before showing up in our time to commit heinous acts. They don’t understand themselves why they are committing these crimes, their own motivations and controls are hidden from them. Someone brought them all here for a reason, and none of them know what that reason is, or sometimes even why they know the things they do know.

This part of the mystery, and the closeness with which the show follows the individual stories of each 63’ is what makes them so sympathetic, and at times, we can start to see the 63’s as victims just as much as those they kill or rob in our time.

Warning: Spoilers follow

In the last two episodes, we really start to get some idea, if not about what truly happened, or how it worked, at least of who was behind it, and a little bit about why. Of course, there are still many questions – it wouldn’t be a big-mystery show without them, but we know who our villain is now, we know who is the top dog, controlling the actions of these 63’s, though we have not yet seen his face. Of course, we’ll likely find out eventually that there is a motivator above that person as well, but for now, the detectives have a target in Warden Jones, who, it seems, has also returned, and resides somewhere out in the world, likely without the traceable silver blood.

Leaving the introduction of the mysterious scientist behind the jump until the end of the season was an interesting move. It was a clever way to answer questions while creating more, but I think they are taking a huge risk with the fate of their protagonist. Ending the season with a flat-line like that may create drama, but it also will put off a lot of viewers. They can’t kill that protagonist and expect that the show will retain people’s interest, surely. In the first episode of the new season, they will find some cure for her, but that kind of cliffhanger is so clearly a poor excuse for suspense that it will still leave many viewers with a bad taste in their mouths – at least those who don’t simply write off the show due to the contrived cliff-hanger.

While I enjoyed the season as a whole, and still like the concept and want to know where the show is going, I’d recommend that anyone who hasn’t started in on it yet wait to make sure that the second season really is coming – it looks like it is, but no official announcement has been made yet – before watching, because if this was the end of the show, it’s a terrible ending.

Even if it’s not, the writers have a real challenge to make the next season premier work without irreperably damaging their own story world because once the possibility of something like true ressurection is introduced to the canon, almost all future plot-lines become automatically hole-filled.

The second season of Alcatraz will likely arrive in January 2013. If you want to catch up, you can watch the first season on Amazon instant video