In its two-part premiere, The Patient introduces a finely-calibrated hook given texture and seriousness by fine performances from both Steve Carell and Domnhall Gleeson.
This recap of The Patient episode 1, “The Intake”, and The Patient episode 2, “Alan Learns to Meditate”, contains spoilers.
There’s a lot to be said for a film or television show’s creative team. It’s easy to believe that certain people are simply geniuses, true artists, all these lofty terms and labels. It might be true, at least in some cases. But sometimes the idea undersells things. When you imagine the telling of a story as some sort of unknowable, innate ability, something gifted to only a select few, you strip away a lot of the craft and knowledge that is integral to good entertainment. It’s no accident that the team – writers Joel Fields and Joe Weisberg, and director Chris Long – behind The Americans have managed to construct such a dynamite premise with The Patient. These guys know what they’re doing.
There’s nothing genius about The Patient, and I mean that in the best way. It isn’t pretentious or arty; it’s an intriguing premise treated with complete seriousness and executed with a watchmaker’s precision. It takes two actors – there are more than two characters, but few that matter – in Steve Carell and Domhnall Gleeson and pits them against each other in a battle of wits. Every element is precisely engineered to wring as much tension as possible out of the setup. It’s mainstream TV aimed squarely at an audience who are used to it and think they know what’s coming. Maybe they do, maybe they don’t. Finding out is part of the appeal.
The Patient episode 1 & 2 recap
Anyway, here’s the gist: Alan Strauss (Carell) is a seemingly lonely and troubled but at least reasonably well-put-together therapist; Gene (Gleeson) is one of his clients, an enigmatic man who never removes his sunglasses and claims his father beat him often and arbitrarily over a prolonged period. Gene doesn’t take to the process. He doesn’t open up. And when Alan calls him out on it, that night he finds himself knocked unconscious. When he wakes up, it’s in Gene’s isolated woodland home, where he’s chained to the bed.
Gene’s real name, it turns out, is Sam, but he’s better known as the John Doe Killer, a serial murderer so-called because he stole the personal effects – wallets, watches, and so on – from his victims to make the crimes look like robberies so the police wouldn’t start a dedicated task force. Since it took a while to identify the victims, they became John Does, and he became the John Doe killer. He’s stuck with the moniker, which he doesn’t like. But the reason he has kidnapped Alan is that he doesn’t especially like being a serial killer either.
That’s the hook, then – a violent sociopath wants his therapist to cure him. But in the first two episodes, “Intake” and “Alan Learns to Meditate”, it becomes obvious that there’s more to the story, especially on Alan’s side. The usual tricks of the genre – flashbacks, dreams, and so on, and so forth – hint at a failed marriage and a potentially dead child and bursts of sudden violence.
The reason this works is twofold: One is that thanks to Carell’s understated performance, we buy into the idea that Alan truly believes he has no avenue for salvation other than to talk to this man. The other is that Gleeson’s killer seems sincere. He’s quirky but not too over-the-top, and his description of the feelings both pre-and-post-killing, the depth and severity of his compulsion, strikes a chord. Both characters finding their way into such proximity may seem improbable in that usual made-for-TV way, but you can buy into each of them individually.
It’s in this high-level view of the show – the first two episodes only run for about twenty minutes each, so we’re barely into the meat of the story yet – that you can appreciate how just-right everything is. Gleeson’s character is a foodie, and there’s a similar level of appreciation for individual ingredients and the process by which they’re all brought together in the show itself. It’s unique enough to be interesting but not so outlandish as to be silly; Carell is playing an everyman who never seems totally helpless, and Gleeson a monster who isn’t completely detached from his humanity. Where it’ll go next is really anyone’s guess. Wherever that is, I’m sure it’ll at least be good for a conversation.