Welcome to Alcatraz... After a shaky pilot episode, Alcatraz continues its strong improvement curve this week. The curse of a procedural show is that each episode lives or dies on the strength of its central plot - often, you can't rely on character development or the evolution of a story arc. This series - with its one-off crooks of the week - knows that better than most. Luckily, the writers have struck gold with 'Cal Sweeney'.
At its heart, the episode has a fun premise - there's a dashing, ruthless con man-and bank robber on the run, thwarting the authorities with a combination of charm and skill. It would be easy to portray Sweeney as a paper-thin cliché - all smarm and no menace - but the character displays enough facets to keep the viewer hooked.
At times, he's a tragic figure - yearning for a lost family - and often he's plain demented - obsessed with the back-stories of his victims' trinkets and finally butchering those from whom he stole. And while he's basically just doing his best impersonation of Lost's Josh Holloway, Rookie Blue star Eric Johnson is fine in the role.
Speaking of impersonations, Alcatraz star Sarah Jones appears to be warming to her role - as the show grows more confident, so does its lead. Delving further into the character's life outside of the famous island prison would help to humanise the character and help Jones to avoid being seen as simply Anna Torv-lite. This week's opening scene, in which Madsen and Soto briefly bond over a Chinese meal, is a step in the right direction.
'Cal Sweeney' also saw Jason Butler Harner's E.B. Tiller get some much-needed screen-time, exploring the deputy warden's fractious relationship with Johnson's inmate. We've heard a lot about how ruthless Tiller can be and this episode we got a real glimpse at his dark side. The scene in which he viciously stabs Sweeney with a pen says far more about the character's merciless nature than reams of expository dialogue could ever hope to do.
In addition to fleshing out Tiller's character, this week's '60s flashbacks also provided a few morsels of plot arc development. While present-day, comatose Lucy Banerjee (Parminder Nagra) remained MIA, we got another glimpse at her mysterious past as 'Dr Sengupta' and Dr. Beauregard also reared his ugly head again. No sign of the enigmatic prisoner 2002 - could Madsen's grandfather be the unseen 'subterranean resident' discussed in the episode's final scenes?
We're also treated to relatively little of Sam Neill's scenery-munching Hauser and we're no closer to learning how much he really knows about the '63s (though he does get one of the episode's best lines in "I'm going to join that jurisdictional p*ssing contest…"). It's perhaps an unfortunate side-effect of this show's format that the one-off criminals are often portrayed in more depth than the regular characters.
Ultimately, Cal Sweeney's reign of terror comes to a somewhat disappointing end, as a rather dull chase comes to an undramatic conclusion. But the final scenes restore the viewer's faith with a one-two punch - in the present, we delve deeper into Hauser's operation and get another glimpse at the mysterious keys held by the Alcatraz inmates, while in a final flashback, we learn that a mysterious figure lurks beneath the prison...
We're hoping that Alcatraz can keep this kind of quality up - the series seems to be hitting its stride and we'd hate to see that derailed by a duff episode or two. This show's never going to change the world, but for 45 minutes of slick, popcorn entertainment, you could do a lot worse.
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