“Charlie” provides tension, some backstory, and a brilliantly unexpected moment of humor in probably the season’s best episode yet.
I hadn’t noticed or properly considered this before, but Alan has taken being kidnapped by a serial killer quite well. It hasn’t been entirely smooth sailing, obviously, but for the most part, he has held it together – and even given some useful advice. If I didn’t know any better, I’d say he and Sam were making some progress.
But I do know better, which is precisely why I noticed how well Alan was previously coping – because, after witnessing Sam strangle Elias to death in Episode 5, Alan is really struggling to hold it all together in “Charlie”.
The episode’s called that, by the way, because it introduces Alan’s old therapist and mentor, the titular Charlie (David Alan Grier), whom Alan communicates with in stress-induced visions as he tries to work through his new reality. With Elias dead, and Alan’s therapy obviously not managing to stem Sam’s impulses, Alan is becoming surplus to requirements. And what happens then?
The neat gimmick of this episode is that, while Sam busies himself digging a grave for Elias, Alan essentially therapizes himself. He and “Charlie” – really just a composite of memories and professional experience, since the real man is dead – work through the current predicament and how to potentially find a solution. Alan realizes he’s disassociated. He realizes that Candace’s complicity in Sam’s crimes and culpability in his abuse are integral factors that he must address within an alarmingly truncated timeframe, and he recognizes that unless he tries to build some empathy into Sam, he’s never getting out of there alive.
Domhnall Gleeson really sells the hell out of the lack of empathy thing. His deadpan expression whenever Alan raises the possibility that everything he’s doing might be a bit mad had me rolling, even though it really isn’t supposed to be funny at all. But Sam also seems to genuinely respect Alan’s opinion, which is just as well, since if the sessions don’t amount to some actual progress then the only option Alan has is to stove Sam’s head in with that ceramic jug – the thing he has been imagining doing since he got there but that he has continually talked himself out of.
But what’s smart about “Charlie” is that it reveals Alan is up to something a bit more daring. Under the guise of an empathy-building exercise, he talks Sam into dumping Elias’s body where someone will find it, as with his other victims, and also forces him to look at Elias’s corpse and consider him a real person rather than simply someone who annoyed him. At the first opportunity, Alan scribbles out a note, scrunches it up, and forces it down Elias’s throat while Sam takes a p**s break. This is a phenomenally tense sequence and almost my favorite part of the entire episode, coming in a close second behind a totally unexpected comedic beat when Alan is explaining Jewish grieving rituals and Sam earnestly asks if he should recite the Kaddish – Carell’s horrified face should win some kind of award.
With Alan’s vague note out in the wild, there’s a chance of salvation on the horizon – but only if he can keep Sam occupied for a little longer.
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