ALCATRAZ Recap: Pilot/Ernest Cobb*

By Ruthie

*or "Alcatraz: Time Traveling Criminals Are Surprisingly Like Batman"

Never saw that logo design coming...
Welcome Wicked Theorists to this, our first foray into the world of Alcatraz. Were you all looking forward to this show as much as I was? Since tonight’s premier was a double episode, you also get to enjoy this special double length recap/review! (Try to contain your delight.) This is going to be a particularly long one, since the first episode crams a lot of stuff into a short time, so make sure you’ve got a nice comfy seat, and let’s get to it.

We kick right off with some nice CG of Alcatraz on a dark and stormy night and Sam Neill’s voiceover explaining that the official story of Alcatraz closing in 1963 is “Not what happened. Not at all.” Cut to March 20, 1963 when two guards, a seasoned professional and a jittery rookie arrive on the island by boat and immediately figure out that something is amiss. Inside, they find row after row of empty cells, and Jittery Rookie looks like he’s going to need to change his trousers. Sam Neill chimes in again to inform us that 302 men disappeared that night.

Jack doesn't photo well.
      And now we’re back in the present day, where tourists are poking around the cells and snapping photos. An adorable moppet wanders off and finds somebody having a nap in one of the solitary confinement cells. A park ranger kicks him out and he stumbles drunkenly to a boat looking more or less like the end product of a really excellent bachelor party. He steals someone’s souvenir copy of “Prisoners of Alcatraz” so that we can see his face in the gallery of mug shots, and, if your TV is big enough to read the tiny, tiny print, you can also learn that his name is Jack Sylvane. Then there’s a quick flashback to the 60s, where a suit by the name of Tiller plants a screwdriver in Jack’s cell on visiting day. (Jerk.) And the present again, where the same helpful stolen book shows us a photo of elderly E.B. Tiller receiving FBI honors.

Opening title, and the word hangs above the rock looking very much like the Bat Signal. (Na na na na na na Batman!)

Now we’re back in San Francisco where a blonde and a handsome bearded guy (probably cops) are chasing a clean-cut guy across rooftops in what is a dramatic, heart-pounding, and entirely improbable police chase. The clean-cut guy pushes the bearded man, who falls to his tragic death, something that three months later seems to still be haunting the blonde, Detective Rebecca Madsen. Her Lieutenant wants her to find a new partner, but before she has to agree to anyone, she gets pulled out to work a homicide.
     And the dead guy is E.B. Tiller, the suit from Alcatraz, dead in the remains of his coffee table. See, that’s why I refuse to have a glass-topped coffee table. One little fall or, uh, knife to the chest and you end up with a bum full of glass shards. Also, it’s unnatural to have to Windex your table. But I digress. Tiller is identified as a Fed, and a few minutes later, Sam Neill, or rather, Emerson Hauser, turns up and turfs the local cops out. Madsen calls him a dick, and then she dickishly steals a smashed photo from the crime scene on her way out to run prints. She identifies Jack Sylvane’s prints and then figures out the Alcatraz connection via Google. (Oh, internet, is there anything you can’t do?)
"Tea, scone, newest Walking Dead?"

Alcatraz leads her to a resident expert in the person of Dr. Diego Soto, book author, double doctorate holder, and comic book store owner, played by a very dapper Jorge Garcia (yay!). They bond over video games, he proposes marriage, and she enlists him for help with her case. Dr. Soto paints a rosy picture of Sylvane as a poor WW2 vet who ended up in jail just for trying to steal food to feed his family. Aww, maybe the time traveling con’s not such a bad guy?

      Back in the 60s, we get a few more scenes of E.B. Tiller being a dick to Jack Sylvane. In present San Francisco, Jack goes into a… what is this, a youth hostel? A YMCA? A really crummy gym? I’m genuinely not sure… and pays for access to a locker room, where he whips out a locker key and finds a gun and a prison uniform. The kid from the check in helpfully comes into the locker room to give Jack his change and a clean towel, and Jack repays the young man for his above-the-call kindness by brutally smashing his head into a locker. Remember what I said about him maybe not being so bad? I think I take that back.
      Madsen goes to a bar to ask for advice from her “uncle” Ray. Soto follows her, and she mentions that her grandfather Thomas Madsen was a guard on Alcatraz, which makes both Soto and Ray mutter awkwardly. Soto whips out Sylvane’s death certificate, and Uncle Ray strongly encourages Madsen to back off. No one ever listens to good advice on TV, so instead Madsen and Soto arrange to go over to Alcatraz the next day. They go looking for a room Soto once stumbled across which is separated from the main tourist drag by a rope and a single locked door. It’s chock full of the prisoners’ personal belongings. Before they get to really investigate, someone throws a gas grenade at them and they both pass out

Still Dreamy After All these Years
Madsen revives in a shiny room where Emerson Hauser mugs at the camera and explains that they were gassed because of strict protocols for intruders. Given that Alcatraz is a national park with thousands of visitors wandering around, I would probably suggest a few more locked doors and strongly worded signs on the way to the hidden room. Gassing everyone who wanders into an area that’s about as secure as my tool shed just doesn’t seem like the best system of security to me. Parminder Nagra (yay!) introduces herself as Lucy, and uses lots of computer graphics to really emphasize that Jack Sylvane hasn’t aged in 35 years. Because, you know, that’s really weird.
     Back in the 60s, Jack is cuffed to an infirmary bed and complaining that a doctor is taking too much blood. The doctor mocks him and walks off, but I gotta say, I’m with Jack on this one. There’s a tray of like four liter-sized glass bottles full of blood there! Is this Alcatraz’s dark secret? It was secretly populated with vampires who feasted on the inmates? Maybe Jack hasn’t aged because he joined the ranks of the undead! Another prisoner, visible only as a shadow on a screen, introduces himself as prisoner #2002. He’s a cocky bastard and he seems to know something’s up. He mentions something “below the hole” (snicker). Jack basically tells him to shut up.
     Everyone but Lucy has followed Jack to the locker room where he beat up that poor kid, and the kid hands them the license plate of the cab that Jack took off in. Apparently, the SFPD moves very quickly because just as Jack gets to his destination, two cops pull up and Jack shoots them both. Okay, clearly not the heart of gold I was hoping for. Inside the house, an Anderson Cooper-type in a sweater sees the cops and panics. “Are you Barclay Flynn?” Jack asks. “I’m here for you.” Barclay freaks out, but he helpfully gives Jack what he wants—a soft black bag containing a key. Jack coldly shoots him anyway. I’m increasingly disappointed in you, Jack Sylvane. Hauser, Madsen, and Soto turn up, but Jack escapes. Soto, who is apparently working on this on his iPhone offscreen, comes in and informs us that Jack’s wife later married Jack’s brother. Given that Jack hasn’t shut up about his wife in any of the flashback scenes, they know it’s a good lead, so Soto and Marsden chase off after Jack.
"Did someone say Pudding?"
Meanwhile, Jack knocks on a door and meets Alan, Jr., his wife’s son and Jack’s nephew. (At this point, I squealed with delight at the sight of Paul McGillion—Stargate nerds represent!) Inside, a photo of Jack’s wife and brother and their son prompts a flashback of what was presumably Jack’s last visit with his wife. She’s beautiful and shy and speaks broken English with an adorable accent. She begs her husband for a divorce, pleading “Jacky, I can’t do this anymore,” and Jack loses it and throws a chair. The guards muscle him off to the hole. Back in the present, Jack’s brother Alan comes into the room and understandably freaks out at the sight of his brother thirty years later, not dead and no older. He asks what happened. Jack pulls a gun on Alan, saying “My brother married my wife, and nothing after that matters worth a damn.”
     Marsden breaks in a short while later and finds Alan Jr tied to a chair. He tells her that his father was kidnapped, and they rush to the graveyard where the wife was buried. Jack makes a self-righteous speech to his wife’s tombstone about how he forgives his wife (who really did nothing wrong and behaved in a very reasonable way under the circumstances), and Marsden disarms and arrests him. Marsden helpfully confesses to Tiller’s murder and tells her he was told to do Flynn’s murder. Tensions escalate and he ends up shot by a sniper, but not wounded so badly he can’t walk away.

Back in the Batcave under Alcatraz, Marsden asks Hauser and Lucy for answers, but the two of them are both chronically cryptic. Hauser tells her to focus on the “next victim,” and Marsden realizes that they knew this was coming. Hauser takes Soto and Marsden into a vault full of pictures and dossiers on all 256 prisoners and 46 guards that vanished in 1963. He calls them “the 63s.” He also reveals, in case you hadn’t guessed yet (and really, you should have), that he was the Jittery Rookie from the opening scene. Remember that? He explains that all the 63s are coming back.
"You're telling me the killer only targets Texaco gas station attendants? That's pure evil!"  
Submitted by Matt Popola via our Facebook Page.
Marsden spots a photo of prisoner 2002, Thomas Marsden, and recognizes that it’s her grandfather—not a guard, but an inmate. What’s more, he’s also the clean-cut guy who pushed her partner off the roof. Surprisingly, she takes this information with a sense of casual interest. I might have expected a more emotional response. If it were me, there may have been a certain amount of cursing about here. But she’s nice and calm. Soto asks “Is anyone else’s head exploding right now?” But no, apparently, everyone is taking this all awfully well.
     Hauser hires Marsden, who insists on Soto for her partner. He is delighted. Hauser tells them that their job is to find the 63s and who took them. Then he drives Sylvane through the woods, to what can only be described as Bizarro-Alcatraz, a gleamingly modern Alcatraz duplicate buried in a bunker underground. Then he bashes him in the head for good measure and sends him off to his cell, because Hauser would like to emphasize for you that he’s kind of a dick.

The second episode begins with a new inmate, one Ernest Cobb, being marched through Alcatraz back in the 60s. He’s an interesting looking guy, like what you’d end up with if Rivers Cuomo and Giovanni Ribisi had a lovechild. (Who then became a sniper.) The warden compliments Mr. Cobb on his impressive body count, and asks him why he shot a guard in the leg to get transferred to Alcatraz. Cobb says he wants a private cell.
     In the present, Cobb is now dressed and carrying a darling little picnic basket. He has a sweet little picnic of sandwiches and lemonade, then whips out a scope and starts chanting about “47 slats in the picket fence” while he peers targets at a carnival across the way. Meanwhile, Dr. Soto is busy training his replacement at his comic book store, when Marsden comes in and asks for more information on her grandfather. But Cobb is busy assembling his sniper rifle at his happy picnic site, and then he shoots a man and two teenagers.
     Marsden and Soto arrive and discover that the police are searching a 750 yard radius for the sniper. Marsden identifies Soto as “a famous comic book writer,” which is fun, but he’s too busy freaking out about possible dead bodies to notice. Marsden is sympathetic but not particularly helpful. Hauser points out some dead crows, and Soto identifies the shooter as Ernest Cobb; apparently he learned to shoot by killing crows for farmers after he left the orphanage. Soto warns that Cobb will do three shootings in three days, then go underground. Eventually, they figure out Cobb favors a Winchester model 70, a weapon with a 500 yard range, so the SFPD is looking too far back. Marsden spots the little hill where Cobb had his picnic. A brief investigation turns up a single shell. Marsden and Soto are both careful to manhandle the bullet with their bare hands as much as possible, thus ruining any possibility of pulling prints off the shell and confirming their hypothesis that Cobb is the perp.

"It's so creepy a serial killer wouldn't live here, but I like it. Rents cheap."
Sloppy, detective.

We get a quick scene of a neat and meticulous Ernest Cobb being annoyed that his talkative neighbor wants to ramble on and on. They watch Jack throw his temper tantrum with his wife, which seems to give Cobb some ideas about solitary.
      Back in Bizarro-Alcatraz, Lucy is having an emotionless interrogation with Jack Sylvane. Sylvane claims he doesn’t know anything, and apparently the glowing table they’re seated at is some kind of lie detector, because a guy in glasses with lots of fancy computer graphics tells Hauser that Sylvane’s telling the truth. Marsden and Soto go through Cobb’s stuff and congratulate themselves on what a good job they’re doing; Soto tells us that Cobb spent more time in solitary than any other inmate. Marsden and Lucy go looking for the rifle, and Emerson tells Lucy, “You wanted children—go babysit.” Ha.
      In the gun shop, Soto is busy getting a “Second Amendment contact high,” while Marsden chats up an old associate, who remembers the gun. There’s no traceable information, so they view the security footage and spot that Cobb has an old-school hotel key. “Ah,” my husband said at this point, “it’s probably old and boutique.” Then we see Cobb sitting in his room. Old yes; boutique, no, unless it’s a boutique that specializes in a certain kind of rat-infested shabbiness. Cobb is busy playing with his gun. (That’s what she said.)
     Back in the 60s, we see Cobb brought before the warden while he’s dining all by himself. The warden has apparently received a polite and well written letter from Cobb requesting a transfer to the solitary block so he can take meals in private, but the warden denies his request saying that it’s a prison and not a hotel. Then he rubs salt in the wound by telling Cobb to go away so he can eat in private. That’s cold, warden.

So our intrepid heroes have apparently accessed the police hotel room key photo database, because they’ve located the hotel in record time. The manager recognizes Cobb and sends them up to the room. This is seriously a crappy hotel. I bet they rent rooms in 15 minute increments. Marsden goes in, and we can immediately tell that while this is a crappy hotel room, it’s not the same crappy hotel room that Cobb is sitting in. (For one, his appears to have all four walls intact, unlike the dive Marsden just broke into.) She starts searching the room, and we see Cobb lean out his window and start chanting about the 47 slats on the picket fence again. Lucy opens the drapes, and we see that Cobb has written “I CAN SEE YOU” and drawn a target on the glass. He shoots, and the bullet passes through his target and hits Lucy in the chest.
     Hauser turns up to find Lucy being rushed to County General—wait, no, sorry, St. Mary’s—and an extremely bloody Marsden complaining that Cobb played them like he knew they were coming. Marsden asks some practical questions, and Hauser is characteristically rude, abrupt, and cryptic.

This guy needs some Prozac. Or maybe a kitten.

So Lucy is in the hospital in a coma from which she may or may not wake up. All the characters are very distressed about this, but given that we haven’t seen Lucy display any kind of actual personality yet, I’m having a hard time mustering up an emotional reaction. Even my raging girl-crush on Parminder Nagra isn’t enough to pull me out of this fog of “meh.” But Hauser and Soto are distressed and the music has taken on a sad, minor key. Hauser hurries off to Bizarro-Alcatraz where he demands to know if Lucy was a target. Jack doesn’t know. (He doesn’t know much, that one.) Hauser makes some comment about Dr. Beauregard jogging Jack’s memory, but Dr. Beauregard is not going to be mentioned again for the rest of the episode, so just file that away in case it’s ever mentioned again.

Back at the Batcave, Marsden and Soto are looking for patterns in Cobb’s supposedly random killings, and all they can find is that a teenage girl was killed in each shooting. Marsden asks if Cobb had any teenage girls in his life; Soto explains that Cobb grew up in an orphanage and at 20 hunted down his birth mother, only to have the door slammed in his face. Marsden decides the obvious solution is to spend the night in Cobb’s cell with all his stuff to try to get in his head. Meanwhile, Soto finds a letter for Cobb that was never delivered. It turns out his birth mother also had a daughter a few years younger who had later tried to track him down because she wanted a big brother. So that explains the teenage girl issue—he’s bitter about the sister who his mom loved more than him.
Back in the 60s, Cobb violates roll call by sitting on his bed and refusing to stand by the door, a minor infraction but enough to get him the solitary cell he wanted.
     Marsden spends the whole night in Cobb’s cell and eventually figures out that he made himself a telescope out of a rolled up magazine, his glasses, and a magnifying glass. He could use it to watch the goings on in San Francisco. While they figure this out, Cobb is outside a grocery store, chanting “47… 47.” He shoots down some crows, then begins shooting bystanders. He hits a teenage girl and her mother starts screaming and tries to drag her behind a car.
     In the 60s, the Warden congratulates Cobb on getting what he wanted in such an elegant way. Then the warden gets his revenge by putting Cobb’s verbal diarrhea-inflicted neighbor in his cell with him. The neighbor is pleased and begins chatting nonstop about absolutely nothing, and Cobb goes berserk.
"Probably should have saved more money for bullets..."
In the Batcave, Soto bemoans that the mall shooting makes the third one and they’re too late; but Marsden theorizes that Lucy was a bonus and doesn’t really count. So they figure that he’ll go after the area he spent all his time staring at from his cell, and narrow the search down to a couple of buildings visible from his cell in the 60s. Hauser takes one building; Marsden takes the other. Marsden is the lucky one. She tries to talk Cobb down, telling him that his sister tried to contact him. Cobb shoots at her a few times, but she’s covered by the building and he only manages to damage the masonry. Hauser makes it up all those stairs and he isn’t even winded, and between the two of them, they wrestle Cobb to the ground. “Right handed?” Hauser asks. Then he shoots Cobb in the hand. “No more shooting.” Barbaric, but highly effective.

Marsden and Soto have a heartwarming moment, and it’s all warm fuzzies.

Hauser, meanwhile, first checks on Lucy, then drives Cobb out to Bizarro-Alcatraz, where Sylvane and Cobb look awfully surprised to see each other. Cobb has one last flashback to the past, where he’s in a straight jacket in the infirmary. The Warden tells him that he’s found a doctor who can actually help figure out what’s wrong with the guy’s head. And here she comes. The warden introduces her, and the camera pans around, and it’s…. LUCY?! Yep, Lucy, in a smart blue 1960s business suit and some of the best eyeliner I’ve ever seen. So, was Lucy one of the 63s? If so, since she’s been working with Hauser, she must have been one of the first ones back, so why would she help to catch the others? Or is she in with the people who took them in the first place? Or what? Oh the mystery. But that’s the end of the episode, and all we’re going to get for now.

Why are they looking at you. What did you do?

Whew! Overall, I’d say it’s a promising start to a series. There’s an interesting blend of mystery and the chase; we’ve got the possibilities for the best parts of a crime story, mixed with the most mind-bending elements of a show like Lost. Marsden and Soto seem to have good chemistry. My biggest complaint so far is that they didn’t bother to give Lucy any kind of personality before they dropped the big bombshell there, which seems like a wasted opportunity. My second biggest complaint is that Sam Neill’s overacting is going to get very old very fast… Take it down a notch Sam. So what did you think? Tell us in the comments, and come back next week for another exciting installment!

[Episodes available at hulu.com/alcatraz]


  1. I actually enjoy Sam Neill - he brings a certain gravitas to the events. Like him, like the other actors, but feel like the execution needs some work. It's got promise, but it's still too "Lost" for dummies with the case of the week and semi-stilted mythology. Check out our take here: http://wp.me/p1VQBq-kR

    Like your captions, btw!

  2. It's actually "Rivers" Cuomo....not River....

  3. Thanks for the heads up "Anon" - we fixed it.

    "Bitch", we tend to agree with your points and I for one see fox trying to give this one the "fringe" treatment of trying to keep it a float as long as possible. We checked out your site and liked it alot.

  4. What about his jacket and the stuff in one of it's pockets?