Alcatraz recap: 1 x 04: “Cal Sweeney”

Courtesy of FOX

Alcatraz gives us a substantial breadcrumb this week as it (slightly) advances the mythology plot. But is it tempting enough to keep me watching and recapping?

Find out after the jump.

Despite the tease of something bigger at play (as evidenced in the episode’s final scene which I’ll get to later) ‘Cal Sweeney’ took the safe “formulaic” route this week. But I will say, in my opinion, this episode was the strongest offering of the new series thus far. The show appears to be finding its legs (even if they’re rooted in a predictable formula) and is doing less spoon-feeding (i.e. only showing present/past intertitles in the introduction; no ‘man behind the curtain’ and no ending scene in Hauser’s (Sam Neill) prison.) This week, we follow Cal Sweeney (Eric Johnson) as he hatches a plot to seduce middle-aged, single bank tellers into giving him access to safety deposit boxes. Scandalous! And he’s not even collecting the items to pawn them (because really, what is an Alcatraz inmate from 1963 going to do with any cash?) but it seems like he’s just collecting memories due to some deep rooted psychosis. His crime-spree motivations are unclear, but as forecasted in the pilot with inmate Jack Sylvane (Jeffrey Pierce), Sweeney comes back as a killing machine, (gruesomely) murdering a bunch of people without a drop a hesitation.

We get a surprising amount of character development in Sweeney’s flashback sequences. Thankfully, it was presented in a relatively subtle way vs the traditional, smack-you-over-the-head fare that we’ve seen previously. Sweeney turns out to be a smart and shrewd business man, orchestrating a cigarette “ring” from the inside, with inmates wrapped around his finger. Unfortunately his hubris is his downfall, as protégé (and Matt Damon look-a-like) Harlan (Steven Grayhm) usurps him. In stealing the only possession that matters to Sweeney – the empty tin box from his childhood which is all that remains of his family who died in a fire – Harlen tricks Sweeney into making some really stupid mistakes. Convinced that it is Deputy Warden Tiller (Jason Butler Harner) who stole his tin box, Sweeney earns himself some time in solitary, leaving the door wide open for Harlen to take over as Godfather of the cigarette operation.

Johnson was a great guest star – even though Sweeney was pretty batshit crazy, I still felt empathy for him as he stroked that tin box in earnest. And, well, his seduction scenes were pretty spot on. So the few sprinkles of character development and good acting were not lost on me during the episode. That being said, however, it just wasn’t enough to overtake the overwhelming instances of absolutely preposterous circumstances that allowed for this development to happen in the first place.

How can I not rail on how ridiculous it was having Sweeney and Harlan act as waiter-boys during Tiller’s super awkward birthday party? I’m sorry – Really?! This would never happen in the real world. First point: The actual party – Does Tiller not have any friends? Why does he have to spend his birthday on “The Rock” with all his colleagues? I mean, doesn’t he want to go home?

Second point: Alright, let’s just say I missed that part where we were told that all Alcatraz staff must never ever leave “the Rock” (Umm, doubtful, because why else would the Tiller’s sister drop in for a visit? I don’t think she lives on Alcatraz…) I still, sincerely doubt they would recruit inmates (of all possible choices) to work at party serving wine! It’s clear that the Warden (Jonny Coyne) has some cash – hire a proper wait staff so you don’t have to worry about the constant threat of getting your throat slit! (Side Note: Why didn’t the inmates do anything? There were no extraneous guards! They could have offed the Warden and the Deputy Warden in one foul swoop!)  If we are to believe that only the most evil, dangerous inmates are housed in Alcatraz, then why on Earth would they be trusted to be well- behaved, serving dinner rolls and appetizers to the very people that continually taunt them in the prison?  Absolutely preposterous.

No – this was merely an exercise to further progress the Sweeney downfall chain of events and also,  getting Lucy (Parminder Nagra) to say out loud (read: to the audience) that she intends to mess with the memories of the inmates in order to rehabilitate them. Obviously something is rotten in the state of Alcatraz. It’s also a great example of really lazy writing.

Courtesy of FOX

Unfortunately the ridiculousness continues in present day with Dt. Madsen’s (Sarah Jones) painfully silly decisions. She concludes that the only way to get Sweeney back to Hauser (alive) is break into the bank that he’s currently holding a bunch of hostages in and help Sweeney escape.  How can she thwart the dozens of SWAT members crawling around outside the bank?Why, all she needs to do is crawl into the air conditioning vent and she will go completely unnoticed! Sure, why not? The SWAT team is just comprised of extras anyway. And it gets better because not only does she help Sweeney escape, but serves as his getaway driver to boot! Well, naturally! Who else is gonna do it? Later the stupidity continues as Soto (Jorge Garcia) and Hauser decide to stop tailing the two when it’s clear that Sweeney has discovered they’re following. I don’t know much about police work, but I’m pretty sure that a) going to a second location, alone and unarmed with a known murderer isn’t the best of ideas and b) letting your partner go to a second location, alone and unarmed without backup means you’re a pretty shitty partner. Thankfully, all the ducks fall into a row and Madsen manages to best Sweeney (by not killing him) knocking him unconscious because he neglected to put his seat belt on. Safety first!

So again, everything in the primary narrative is tied up quite nicely by episode close. But I still don’t understand why the hell Madsen has agreed to capture these prisoners for Hauser in the first place. Yes, I know that she wants to eventually find her grandfather (David Hoflin) whose a 63, the aforementioned ‘man behind the curtain’, but aside from that, she’s essentially just handing these inmates to him without batting an eyelash. What is Hauser’s endgame and why isn’t Madsen more demanding of this information?

Courtesy of FOX

At the very least, we get an explanation as to why Sweeney is back (sort of). He was tasked to find an ominous key that was kept in a safety deposit box. And GASP! it looks just like the key that Sylvane was “ordered” to find back in the pilot. What are these mystical keys? And what is their connection with the time-travelling 63s? I thought Madsen finally had a bargaining chip when she managed to get the key from Sweeney before Hauser, but then all he had to do ask her for it  and right into his hands it went. (Side Note: Is it me, or is Madsen an idiot?) He then takes it to yet another “secret Alcatraz room” where some stereotypical geek-techs anxiously wait to analyse it. The big reveal? The keys are laser cut. But there were no lasers back in 1963! GASP!

And, of course, I can’t neglect to mention the last scene of the episode which serves as the Alcatraz Hail Mary, begging me to keep on watching. Impressed with his Machiavellian play on Sweeney, Harlen (the Matt-Damon clone) goes into the depths of Alcatraz with the Warden to meet “a friend”, locked behind a door in which GASP! the laser-cut keys that Sylvane and Sweeney recovered, open. We (of course) aren’t shown whose behind the door, but told that Harlen’s future is about to get “a lot brighter.”

I will admit I was mildly interested. But I’m afraid it just isn’t enough to keep me engaged. These are only crumbs – nothing of sustenance. So viewers, I’m afraid the Alcatraz recaps end here for me. What did you think? Was it enough to keep you going? Want me to suffer through more episodes for your amusement? (I will admit, the preview for next week had potential – we finally are going to follow a guard 63 – not an inmate) If you want more you gotta let me know! Have you say in the comments section below, or shoot me an email –

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Angie is a TV addict currently pursuing a PhD in media studies. A freelance researcher and writer on the side – she really misses talking about her favourite shows because none of her friends watch them. Help her out.

4 thoughts on “Alcatraz recap: 1 x 04: “Cal Sweeney”

  1. You should give it one more week.
    One of the problems for me, is that the only stuff I really care about are in the last ten minutes each week. In much the same way that the people behind Fringe realized they had to really speed things up by season two, well, the people behind ALC’Z are going to have to shake it up big-BIG, before this first season even takes it’s first hiatus/break.

  2. Alright Bill – for you, I’ll give it one more week. I am in total agreement with you that the last ten minutes seem to be the hook – but that formula can only work for so long (see: ‘The Killing’)

  3. Pingback: Alcatraz recap: 1 x 05 – “Guy Hastings” « Bitch Stole My Remote