Monday, July 15, 2024

Prodigal Son’s Dedication to Exploring Trauma is Remarkable

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Sometimes procedurals are truly the same boring non-cop consults and helps the cops solve crime premise. Sometimes they’re that but the non-cop is the son of a serial killer with 23 known victims.  Then he joins the FBI. Until he’s fired and ends up at the NYPD instead. Minus the implications that cops can’t do their jobs without consultants, it’s a trope that’s worked well for broadcast and it does so again for FOX’ Prodigal Son. Surprisingly an incredible interrogation of tropes found in procedurals, I review the best parts of the series below.

Created by Chris Fedak (ChuckForeverLegends of TomorrowDeception) and Sam Sklaver (Children’s HospitalAmerican Housewife), Prodigal Son stars Tom Payne as Malcolm Bright (Whitly) the son of Martin Whitly (Michael Sheen), known as The Surgeon. Martin was arrested in 1998 after Malcolm found his one and only surviving victim in a box and called the police.

The officer who responded ends up as Malcolm’s actual father figure and new boss once the FBI fires him for his erratic behavior. Supporting Lieutenant Gil Arroyo (Lou Diamond Phillips) are Detectives Dani Powell (Aurora Perrineau) and JT Tarmel (Frank Harts). Rounding out the main cast are Dr. Edrisa Tanaka (Keiko Agena), the NYPD Medical Examiner with a crush on Malcolm, and Malcolm’s sister Ainsley (Halston Sage) and mother Jessica (Bellamy Young).

Prodigal Son Season 1 Recap

Prodigal Son starts by introducing Malcolm Bright who after ten years at the FBI is fired for insubordination and antagonizing his colleagues. Hired on as a consultant by Gil (who cares for him like a father), Malcolm realizes the episode’s killer is copying his father Martin which leads to night terrors and panic attacks, where he relives the events leading to his father’s arrest. To solve the case, he breaks a ten year period of not seeing his father to get help from Martin who identifies the killer as one of his patients. This case leads to Martin showing up most episodes to provide some insight into the killers profiles and to antagonize his family.

We learn that Malcolm has complex-PTSD, generalized anxiety disorder, insomnia, depression, times where he is manic and is all around just struggling with his mental health. In fact, some fans have identified that he might have BPD. The guy has to sleep in restraints and a mouth guard so he doesn’t hurt himself. At one point Malcolm thrashes so badly he throws himself out his window with only a restraint keeping him from falling to the street. Tom Payne truly brings it in this role and I am so glad he got it because I genuinely do not think the show works without him and his dedication!

The show reveals that Sophie Sanders (the girl in the box Malcolm saw as a child) survived because she told Martin about Nicholas Endicott (Dermot Mulroney), a pharma tycoon and the season’s final big bad. Her sister Eve Blanchard (Molly Briggs) actually falls for Malcolm when she ingratiates herself into the Whitly family while trying to find her sister.

Elsewhere Ainsley who hasn’t seen her father since his arrest meets him for the first time in 22 years, interviews him, ends up recording him when he saves her cameraman’s life (who also becomes her ex because she’s obsessed with her dad) after he’s stabbed by another patient (all a part of Martin’s plan). Jessica and Gil restart their relationship that Jessica put a stop to ages ago just as Endicott really seeks his teeth into their family (after having Eve murdered).

Nicholas Endicott is your peak bad guy with his money ruling everything in NYC. He got Martin into his fancy (for a psychiatric hospital) room with TV and phone privileges and Martin’s even consulted on a number of surgeries since his arrest. However, this was due to Martin promising to never tell anyone what he knew about Nicholas (through Sophie Sanders).

Unfortunately for the Whitlys, Martin has to and does tell the truth about Endicott who immediately goes into attack mode. He has Martin moved to Riker’s after replacing Mr. David (Esau Pritchett) his guard for years with an assassin who fails his attempt on Martin, stabs Gil when Gil goes to ask him questions while Jessica is there (who is a BAMF and gets Gil to the hospital), frames Malcolm for the murder of the assassin, and tries to hold Ainsley hostage. Which leads us to one of the best season finales for a first season show that I’ve seen.

What makes Prodigal Son stand apart from other non-cop consultant procedurals is that Malcolm is the son of a serial killer. In other shows, the non-cop is just super smart and happens to know just how to “think like a killer” but Malcolm’s an outsider because his insights come both from studying at Harvard and his dad. Nurture vs. nature is clearly at play and the entire season the writers craft this incredible trajectory for Malcolm and Ainsley.

It’s easy to expect Malcolm to lose it and kill Nicholas when he’s talking about ruining the Whitlys, especially since he’d already stabbed his dad to save an innocent woman. However, we see from the start how obsessed Ainsley is with her dad and there are moments across the season that indicate she’s the one we should really worry about and we’re right! She slits Endicott’s throat and stabs him seven times (parallel gifset here) ending the season with Martin calling Malcolm at Riker’s (where Endicott had him moved) that he’s got a plan to get back to his family. Sage absolutely kills (hah) the delivery of the scene!

Fortunately, the showrunners really thought through the season and are correct that focusing only on Malcolm’s reactions to Martin is sexist because even if Ainsley hadn’t seen her father, she’s also grown up under his shadow. This sets Ainsley up for incredible character development and for more exploration of trauma. Recovering from trauma is a life-long journey and now she’s firmly entrenched in the exploring of trauma effects.

Exploring Trauma Effects

Which brings me to the reasons I’m into the series. I’ve written before how I grew up watching procedurals and clearly still watch a lot of them. This is probably the only one that I’ve seen in years that has truly addressed its character’s traumas on a consistent basis. Part of that is the premise since Malcolm’s night terrors pave the way for the season to progress. The other part of it is the writers’ dedication to truly exploring a “person struggling with the complex PTSD of having a serial killer for a father and all of the things attached to that” and putting him in jail. As a child, he’d continued to see his father until joining the FBI.

Though his mother loves him and Ainsley, it takes her a while to truly get what it means for Malcolm to constantly have night terrors. In fact, she like everyone else in his life (even Gil) did not believe the girl in the box existed. If she hadn’t apologized… Many people who have survived trauma are told what they experienced isn’t real or “all in their heads” so this show’s approach to Malcolm’s memories (all proven to be true) is so incredibly refreshing.

No one in his inner circle actually judges him for his trauma and all of them get that he’s seen and dealt with some shit. And it doesn’t mean that they take his shit when he takes on the role of the jerk know-it-all protagonist who does whatever he wants whenever he wants (like Patrick Jane on The Mentalist). 

Unlike other jerk know-it-all protagonists who rarely apologize for their bad behavior and mean it, he does! Like with Dani when he’s being a jerk. Of course no procedural is complete without some kind of brewing romantic relationship and here we have Brightwell which is hinted at this season but never at Dani’s expense. She’s the first one outside of Gil to really see him for who he is instead of “the son of the Surgeon.” I’m super excited to see where that relationship goes and how she (and everyone else) responds once they find out Endicott is dead. Perrineau is especially spectacular and very thoughtful in how she portrays Dani.

The rest of the cast does not disappoint. Bellamy Young absolutely delivers as a WASPy but loving (even if she’s bad at showing it) mother with her own demons to exorcise regarding Martin. When she breaks during the interrogation and tells Gil she knew something was wrong but thought it was an affair and Malcolm realizes she didn’t know what Martin was doing is in the top ten scenes for me. All the nonWhitly mains are also nonwhite and most importantly, fleshed-out characters of color! None of them exist solely to support Malcolm. Dani has an entire arc about her time undercover when she overdosed and almost died as one example.

Elsewhere, Edrisa has a crush on Malcolm which is played for laughs but not a cause for the others to make her feel less than. MEs in procedurals usually exist as filler or another character that the non-cop lead can show off for. In Prodigal Son, Edrisa is a fully developed character and even has her own run-in with a bad guy where she shows her own abilities.

In the recurring cast, both Mr. David and Dr. Gabrielle Le Deux (both portrayed by Black actors) whose characters are there solely to watch Martin and guide Malcolm respectively are afforded enough scene time for the audience to genuinely become invested in them as characters too!

We want to know why Dr. Le Deux is still willing to see Malcolm when she’s told him she’s a child psych. Though I hope we get more of her next season or her character will veer directly into only Black Lady Therapist waters. We want to know if Mr. David is okay or if his illness was a euphemism for Endicott removing him.

Fortunately, the Endicott scenes were all filmed before the pandemic forced the show to shut down production so the two episodes we lost did not impact the finale allowing the story to come to its climax.

Is it Copganda?

All procedurals are! Copganda has a long list of negative impacts on how audiences understand criminal justice in the US and I never want to disregard that. Especially right now with the absolutely justified responses to police killing Black people in May. Though Prodigal Son doesn’t overdo it like series on CBS, there are two scenes that really stood out to me. One where Malcolm tells JT that of course, he respects cops since one saved him because it’s just so obvious and entirely unnecessary. It’s clear Malcolm respects Gil and his team because unlike every other non-cop consultant series, he’s not a jerk to them specifically.

Second, the episode where an Internal Affairs investigation turns out to be a trap to catch a psychiatrist who has hurt others is peak procedural. Internal Affairs is almost always presented as a negative force in the…force and a barrier to cops doing their jobs. Here the psychiatrist isn’t actually part of the department (that we are told) so it’s less blatant. Still, Internal Affairs is ostensibly to keep track of police officers misusing their power, but in TV and real life, that’s not the case. Episodes or arcs that pit IA against the leads we’re meant to sympathize with only prime us to sympathize with cops in real life when they’re “investigated.”

On the other hand and this is absolutely the bare minimum but I appreciate that Gil is consistent about following the rules and doesn’t let Malcolm flout the law even to find killers. Most procedurals prime the audience to sympathize with their favorite police and/or their non-cop consultant leads who do things “differently” (illegally) to get the bad guy. Never mind that the actual number of murders in the US is far less than on TV. Plus profiling isn’t even used in every murder case and is far more complex than shown in the genre.

As Color of Change’s report states, procedurals

rendered racism invisible and dismissed any need for police accountability. They made illegal, destructive and racist practices within the criminal justice system seem acceptable, justifiable and necessary—even heroic.

If procedural writers (and their law enforcement consultants) won’t change, the very least audiences should do is interrogate what they’re seeing.

Finally, though I could certainly talk about this show for days (literally every character deserves a piece), I really commend the writers and Michael Sheen for never once suggesting the audience should empathize with Martin. He’s an entertaining character in that the show is entertainment, but he’s never ever posited as a good person. Even when he acts like he’s done good by consulting on surgeries all around the world, the characters and therefore the show reminds us he’s a serial killer. Too many shows, especially so-called prestige shows try to make their serial killers likable and it’s not necessary!

As Sheen puts it in this great interview with Entertainment Weekly:

There’s been a surge of interest in serial killers recently and it was certainly important to me not to become detached from the reality of it. This is a horrible, destructive, painful, grief-filled landscape that we’re talking about. People always say it must be fun to play a big villain. It’s not fun or campy in that sense. If you start to go down that road then…I don’t know what that is — not anything I’m particularly interested in.

Sheen’s choices make Martin incredibly compelling as a character and we want to know more about him because we then learn more about his ex-wife and kids. However, never do I feel swayed to his “side.” Again, he’s a great character but he’s not a good person, and distinguishing the two is something so many other shows do poorly. And in a true crime fanatic world, it’s really necessary to do so.

Of course, the series is dark (and on-screen because no one turns the lights on in shows anymore?) but it’s a very enjoyable 20 episode first season, and if you don’t mind gore, definitely worth a watch. I look forward to the next season whenever it eventually airs.

Please, someone, give Malcolm (and Ainsley) a hug especially considering the sheer amount of trauma Malcolm’s got just from this season alone. (And make Dani bi like Aurora sees her!)

Image courtesy of FOX

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