All along, Alcatraz has felt like two very different shows — you've got the horrifying, brutal and often creeptastic flashbacks to late-Eisenhower prison madness. And then you've got the cozy present-day police procedural, with lingering mysteries. Last night, the balance tipped sharply towards the creepy brutality — and the result was probably the most memorable episode of Alcatraz thus far.
Are you ready for a reverse-Clockwork Orange with crazy racism? Spoilers ahead...
In some ways, it's hard to believe that something as weird as "Clarence Montgomery" appeared on network television in this day and age — it felt like something that Fox might have let slide in the 1990s, but not so much now. It was really seriously wrong.
To sum up: Clarence Montgomery is an African American chef who was planning to run away with a white woman in 1958 — but she was murdered, and he was framed for it. Now he's on the Rock, where Warden James apparently wants to help rehabilitate him by letting him cook for the entire prison. After this leads to a huge race riot — one which the Warden seems to have anticipated, and to enjoy — the Warden has him dragged down to Dr. Beauregard and brainwashed (in the scene above) to become the psycho-killer he was falsely accused of being. The whole thing is a parable for the fact that, as Clarence puts it, you have to be "what the white people want you to be."
It's a really disturbing story on the surface — and it only gets more disturbing when you consider the implications. It's made obvious that Warden James wants there to be a race riot after Clarence cooks for the whole prison — or why else would he give that insane speech about the meaning of "parley," in which he foregrounds the fact that there are racial tensions at the prison? So it seems like the whole purpose of letting Clarence be head chef at Alcatraz is to prove that Clarence can't rise above his station after all — he's set up to fail. And then, and only then, we can brainwash him into being a killer.
(The alternative reading is that the Warden genuinely wants to redeem Clarence by giving him a future, and only after that fails does he decide to brainwash him instead. But the episode works pretty hard to disqualify that interpretation, especially in the actual "race riot" scene.)
The whole thing is intensely creepy, especially with the added significance it gives the Warden's weird lines like, "If we were in private you'd see my true intentions with this bone." Whuh?
I leave it to others to figure out whether any of this is true to race relations in the late Eisenhower era — like, would white prisoners really object to eating yummy ribs made by a black person? Wouldn't they be used to having black people cook for them, even in segregated establishments? I'm genuinely curious to know if there's any basis to this.
For once, the present-day procedural aspects of the story actually add a meaningful layer to the more interesting Alcatraz flashbacks — first of all, because of the genuine mystery about the 1958 crime having a different perpetrator than the present-day murder spree. And then, eventually, because our intrepid scooby gang manages to prove that Clarence was innocent in 1958, and even get the real perp from 50-odd years ago. This is a good use of the 2012-era crime-busting stuff, especially since our putative heroes prove Clarence's innocence right around the time it becomes a crucial issue in the flashback sequences.
(The real lingering question is, what happens to Emmett Little, the former Alcatraz prisoner and disabled Black Panther who shoots Clarence to save him from being taken by the cops. What can they charge him with? He killed someone who died 50 years ago and technically doesn't exist. Will this be swept under the rug? Is Emmett going to wind up in Emerson Hauser's secret prison where he can't tell anybody what he's seen? Or most likely, will we just never see Emmett again?)
Add another irony to the list — when Dr. Sangupta talks to Clarence, he attempts to bond with her over both being people of color trapped in a white-dominated system. But she rejects his arguments, just as she rejects his claims of innocence. And then her purportedly therapeutic "zaps 'n' movies" process is used to turn him into the killer he was falsely accused of being. Does this prove that he's right, and she's just another pawn in the hands of the white establishment?
It's hard not to think about the contrast between Jack Sylvane and Clarence Montgomery. The first ever episode of Alcatraz gave us a guy who didn't mean to be a killer — he'd robbed a post office and gone to federal prison, then he killed someone in the shower, in a homophobic mishap. But after a few years in Alcatraz, kept away from his wife until she married his brother, and stuck in the hole over and over again, Jack Sylvane emerges as a stone-cold killer who takes out E.B. Tiller (and forecloses all manner of interesting storylines we might otherwise have had.) So Jack Sylvane is sort of the textbook case for how Alcatraz, in its overwhelming cruelty, made people worse and turned them into truly hardened criminals.
It's interesting that Jack Sylvane's story leaves him with a modicum of agency — yes, he is fucked up by his time in Alcatraz, but he also decides that he wants to take revenge on E.B. Tiller and hunt down his brother. He has clear motivations, that he acts on.
Meanwhile, something similar happens to Clarence Montgomery, except that he has zero agency. He's a pure victim. He doesn't want to kill those white women after he's returned to the present day, and in fact he's barely conscious of doing it — it's depicted as a kind of episode, where he sees Dr. Beauregard's movies, and then the next thing he knows, he's got a dead woman. He has a compulsion to arrange them like the 1958 victim.
Clarence is basically just a puppet, which means that in a sense, he's had less character development as a result of his Alcatraz stint than Jack Sylvane — the only change he undergoes as a person comes from mind control.
In a nutshell, then Clarence's story proves the assertion that he makes over and over — that white people will make people of color into whatever they want, and there's no way to escape playing the role that's assigned to you.