Prodigal Son: “Alone Time” Review

John Watkins is considering what to do with Malcolm Bright

We’re back from the winter break – ready to find out if Malcolm has survived his kidnapping?

With shows like these premieres and finales tend to play out like movies. The blunted colors, the high stakes, the dark themes both obvious and implied, yes…Prodigal Son gives a nice little filmic conclusion to the winter season finale cliffhanger. Does Malcolm survive? Of course, he does, he’s the main character of the show, and unlike some shows (hi, The Magicians) which might take the risk of killing off their protagonist (albeit after 4 years), Prodigal Son is still in its first year so breathe easy, kids. Malcolm’s gonna make it out of this. But, is the rest of the family?

Turns out dad did the family dirty in more ways than one. Not only did he carry on a killing spree literally and figuratively under their noses, he brought his protégé to the house – apparently showing him all the nooks and crannies. This leads to the big reveal of our mini-movie: After a frantic search for Malcolm and Watkins ends in failure, we learn that the killer is coming from inside the house! And how do we find this out? One give away is Malcolm figuring it out, the other is Mom and Ainsley sharing a bonding moment over Ainsley’s childhood imaginary friend (hi, Mr. Boots), who, as it happens, isn’t actually imaginary! Mr. Boots is the Junkyard Killer, and he’s kidnapped Malcolm only to stash him away in the hidden cellar of the Surgeon’s home. Exciting, right? Remind you of any number of serial-killer movies? Good. Mission accomplished!

Now that that’s out of the way, let’s explore what else this episode is offering:

Firstly, we have Malcolm’s side of things. While, he is indeed still alive, he’s not doing well – dad’s stabby camping friend, Watkins, is not happy with how things ended between him and Malcolm on that camping trip (hint: it involves stabbing!). Initially Watkins is all for killing Malcolm, but then he decides maybe it’s best to transform the boy…

This brings up an interesting question – one that criminologists, philosophers, movies, tv shows, and comic books have been trying to answer for ages: What makes someone a serial killer? What breaks a person so severely, assuming he or she isn’t born with a propensity for it (hi, psychopaths), that they would decide to kill others?

Prodigal Son posits heavily that nurture is the rulers over nature – and that’s a nice thing to see in the main-stream media, because most of the time shows and movies like to just throw “he/she is a psychopath” at the problem and justify treating the individual as a monster to be vanquished. Malcolm’s very first question when confronting a serial killer in the pilot is “Who hurt you?” followed by his personal motto “None of us are born broken, someone breaks us.”. Now, this could be attributed to good old-fashioned projecting – Malcolm feels like his father broke him, and he sees others as having been broken too, but this is also a novel approach to thinking about criminals. When I first heard the line, it stuck with me. And this episode shows exactly how invested this show is in the idea of it: Watkins’ means to transform Malcolm is to murder his family.

And, oddly, this does work in a way. Malcolm’s coping mechanism so far has been to imagine his shrink is talking him through things – helping him calm down, helping him not die from his stab wound, but when Watkins threatens his family, Malcolm’s inner-guide changes. We see Martin – who in the real-world is speaking with Gil and losing hope that his son is still alive once he’s informed his protégé has him. But, to Malcolm, Martin is the cold, logical solution to his current problems. If he doesn’t do what needs to be done, his mother and sister will be killed. This sends Malcolm into a determined rage – he breaks his hand in order to escape his cuffs and goes hunting for Watkins looking every bit ready to kill the man once he finds him. This leads the audience to question: Was Watkins right? Did he succeed in bringing out the Martin in Malcolm?

Obviously, no. Though Malcolm’s solution is to trap Watkins in a box – effectively psychologically torturing the man who would have killed his family. Is that worse than killing him? Could be argued it is…

So, all in all, I gotta say this was a pretty good return. Maybe a little formulaic, sure, but entertaining none the less and that’s what matters to me.

A few additional notes:

Gil and Jessica still have that sexual tension, but it was fun to see Gil talk with Martin and have the Surgeon take notice of it – is that jealousy? You betcha!

The fine habit of local cops hating the FBI remains a media staple – though that always tends to go whichever way the audience has been trained to trust first (ie: this is a show about the NYPD so the FBI is bad, but with a show about the FBI, local cops tend to be shown less favorably – Criminal Minds should get some credit for being fair on both sides).

And, fun fact: almost all of our series regulars show up before the halfway mark – guess who shows up with just 5 mins to spare? That’s right Ainsley! Good to know we’re still keeping some traditions alive. On the bright side, she does turn out to be the key to saving herself and Jessica when the plot picks up.

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