For a little while there, tonight’s A Gifted Man got legitimately awesome. I’m not talking about something like last week’s episode, where the show was good at what it did, but what it did wasn’t really for me. No, I’m talking about a legitimately compelling episode of dramatic television, with stakes, a point-of-view, moving moments, and an exciting idea at its core. If I’m going to watch a procedural, I want to watch a procedural like this one, where the episodic storylines slowly flesh out the world at the show’s center and contribute to making everything feel like, even if there’s a new story every week, at least the setting and characters are cohesive and interesting. Plus, then, you can take all of those stories and tie them together in a satisfying way at the end of the season. (The best show that did this in recent years was Terriers, where you barely noticed the fact that you were watching what was, essentially, a case-of-the-week show, so satisfying was the character serialization.)
This episode did that thing where something you didn’t think the show would pay off was paid off out of nowhere, and, as I said, it was awesome. Until it wasn’t, but we’ll get to that. A kid comes into Clinica Sanando with a bruised side. He says he got it skateboarding, but Dr. Kate thinks he’s lying, since the skateboard looks brand new. Is he lying to cover up the fact that one of his parents beat him? This is a television medical drama, so of course he is. (I have no idea how often this happens in real life—probably fairly often from what I’ve read over the years—but if a kid is bruised on a medical drama, he’s almost always suffering from abuse.) Anyway, the doctors at the clinic see his dad—played by the great John Benjamin Hickey—have an angry outburst, and put two and two together soon enough.
But what’s nice about this is that it jangles everything up. We know that whatever’s up with this guy is going to have something to do with his brain being out of whack—because we know what show we’re watching—but the show immediately lets us know that he has a tumor on his amygdala, something that’s caused his emotional reactions to go all screwy. And Michael says, “Hey, we should take that out, or you’ll die. And, bonus, once we do, your emotions will get back under control.” No, says the dad. He can’t do that. He needs to die because he’s been living with guilt for a few months now. He killed a woman, see, by hitting her with his car. A white woman with red hair, and the place he killed her sounds awfully like the place where Anna died…
On the face of it, bringing in the person who killed Anna is a stupid, desperation move, the sort of thing the show can only do once to do effectively. It seems purely coincidental, something that would never ever happen. But Gifted Man gets around it for one very good reason: It exists in a clockwork universe where there’s some sort of higher power tugging at everybody’s strings. It can give Michael a chance to give Anna’s killer a forgiveness he doesn’t deserve, and it can give Anna a chance to deal with her anger at being dead. The show has always been at its best when dealing with Michael and Anna’s relationship, and this episode digs deep to get at a story of how he’s still trying to process his feelings for her, for how their marriage crumbled and he let it. Here’s a whole episode designed to do just that, via the patient of the week structure. It stretches credulity a bit that Michael would be allowed to operate on someone suspected of killing his wife, but that’s the sort of suspension of disbelief I’m willing to go along with to watch a medical drama.
In its own way, this also gets at a couple of interesting ideas. The first is the central idea of every medical drama worth its salt: What is a human life worth? If this guy wants to die, can’t Michael just let him, particularly when he’s taken something so precious from Michael? And is it worth making him live just so he can face what he did to Anna? The second idea is almost one out of science fiction: What would you do if there was some other, darker self growing inside of you, one that you couldn’t control? The scenes where this man flies off the handle and does real damage to the things and people around him are legitimately terrifying, and hearing about how he used to be before the tumor makes him something of a tragic figure. (It’s here that I almost wished the show employed a more traditional procedural structure, perhaps one where we really got to see him as a kind and loving dad before seeing his anger overwhelm him.) These are both interesting things to consider, and the show does a fine job with playing out all of their various permutations.
That said, the episode utterly lets itself down in the end. We find out that Hickey didn’t kill Anna, as he takes one look at her photo and says, “Oh, that wasn’t her.” It’s a total wimp-out, on a show that suddenly seemed to be growing a spine, and even though everything leading up to it is legitimately good, legitimately the best thing this show has done yet, the cop-out is enough to take the episode down several grade points for me. I can see the argument that having Michael meet his wife’s killer is too coincidental (indeed, I made it above), but the show should have embraced that ambiguity sooner. What was a powerful episode of TV only became a hypothetical, and a good final scene between Michael and Anna (in which he tried to summon her using candles and, uh, the music of David Grey) wasn’t enough to make up for that cop-out.
So that makes this both a great episode of A Gifted Man and a supremely disappointing one. It proves the show’s capable of the kinds of raw emotion it evoked so well in the pilot—particularly where Michael and Anna are concerned—but it also finds a way to back out of doing anything too serious or lasting. I don’t have a problem with procedurals or patient-of-the-week shows. But it feels like a cheat to have a show promise to do so much, then jerk it all away at the end because it would mess with the status quo even in the slightest amount. There was no reason this episode couldn’t have reached an emotional catharsis and allowed the show to go on as it always had been next week. But in choosing the cop-out, the writers showed they don’t really want this to be anything more than it is in an incredibly disappointing way.
Grade for first 50 minutes: B+
Grade for final 10 minutes: D
- There’s also a lengthy subplot about Mamie Gummer, who’s suffering from her very own brain issues, and the only thing I have to say about it is that I’m not entirely sure why Gummer’s “thinking” face seems to involve having her mouth hanging open in incredulity.
- That said, I’d like to thank the show for taking me back to the winter of 2000, when we were all obsessed with the song “Babylon” (were we? I remember it being everywhere).
- I’m going to cover next week’s Thanksgiving-themed episode and Margo Martindale showcase, but I’m not sure if I’ll go with it beyond that. Tonight’s episode certainly proved beyond the shadow of a doubt that the show—while it may evolve into a semi-competent patient-of-the-week show, as it was last week—won’t be terribly interested in doing anything beyond that. Plus, I’d like having Friday nights off again.
(Since no one’s going to read these reviews anyway, I may as well start burying excerpts from my never-to-be-published Frank Fisticuffs novel at the bottom of the stray observations. I mean, why not?)
Downed powerlines fizzled as Frank stood at the edge of Drexler’s compound, now a ruddy red hole in the Oklahoma mud. They had done it. They had diverted the missiles. Pocatello was safe. Margaret was safe. The superweapon, however, had disappeared and with it Drexler.
“He’ll be back,” Byron said, shielding his eyes against the sun rising on the horizon.
“He has my son.” Frank tightened his fist, feeling every inch of his muscular arm tense with anger.
“He killed my Khemkaeng. My delicious strawberry.” Byron’s hand fell on his shoulder. “This may fall on deaf ears—hell, I know it will—but nothing can be done about your boy. You know he’ll be made one of Drexler’s goons. Maybe even a supersoldier.”
Frank shook his head, tears mixing with the hot clay at his feet, a gumbo of despair. “No. I would never wish that on Frank, Jr. Where’s his secret training base?”
“Go home to Margaret. Have other children. Forget you ever…”
He stood, hands around Byron’s neck, pushing him toward the crater in the red Earth. “The TRAINING BASE, LAWTON!”
“It’s run by Chim-Chim, the Reptile Man, and…”
“YOU THINK I DON’T KNOW THAT!”
“You’ll never get there, Frank! Go home to Margaret and…”
“WHERE?” He lifted Byron over the crater. A fall from this height would surely kill him. Byron’s legs scrabbled in the sky. “Want to join Khemkaeng?”
Byron nodded, almost joyful, as he reached into his pocket. “The base, Mr. Fisticuffs? The base… is on the moon.”
Byron pulled a switchblade out of his pocket—they must have missed it when sweeping his inventory. He drove it into Frank’s hand. Frank cried out in anguish, pain, betrayal.
He released, and Byron’s body plummeted, releasing clouds of red clay far below.
In the east, the sun was rising. Frank Fisticuffs strode toward it. He would need a rocket.
Frank Fisticuffs will return IN Moon Fury