The Irrational Season 1 Episode 1 Recap

By Jonathon Wilson
Published: October 3, 2023
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The Irrational Season 1 Episode 1 Recap


The Irrational coolly introduces us to a new primetime procedural protagonist who seems tailor-made for the genre. NBC surely has a hit here.

Rarely will you ever come across a premise and a protagonist as finely suited to a procedural as in NBC’s The Irrational, a clever-clogs mystery thriller about a psychology professor whose expertise in human behavior gives him a unique window into our worst decisions and his own tortured past. Episode 1 introduces us to Alec Mercer like a stage magician unveiling both halves of the assistant he just pretended to saw in half.

The pieces just fit. Mercer’s own expository voiceover explains not only his own special skills but also the show’s very nature – they’re one and the same anyway. People, when pressed, are irrational. They behave in idiotic and dangerous ways that are, to the right expert, entirely predictable.

The Irrational Season 1 Episode 1 Recap

So, in a cold open hostage situation, Mercer bamboozles a gunman without a care in the world. It doesn’t matter that he’s making promises on behalf of the FBI, whom he’s consulting for, or that he’s running the risk of antagonizing a man with an infant in his arms. Mercer knows what’s going to happen. As he explains to Marisa – an FBI agent who happens to be his ex-wife – when she questions him about the tactic, it had a high, almost guaranteed probability of success.

How did Alec Mercer get burned?

When he’s not promising helicopters to unhinged hostage-taking gunmen, Mercer is a teacher. And, yes, he’s an unconventional one. His Intro to Applied Psychology is also a useful backstory for the audience. Mercer is badly burned across most of his body, including half of his face. His convalescence gave him time to ruminate on bad decisions and how they might be predicted and avoided. Like The Joker in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, Mercer lies whenever anyone asks how the burns happened.

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But Mercer isn’t an enigmatic anarchist – he lies because he can’t quite remember the exact circumstances of the church bombing that left him disfigured and killed 13 other pious attendees. This is a major source of consternation for him since his being fuzzy on the details meant that the bomber didn’t get the life sentence he deserved. On the contrary, he’s coming up for parole.

The Irrational is a procedural, but this is the sliver of continuity that is clearly going to thread through each episode – Mercer’s efforts to recall his past and unravel the no-doubt mysterious circumstances that led him down the path he’s on now. More on this later.

The case of the week

For now, though, there’s a case of the week to solve. Dylan, the son of a senator, seems to have shot his girlfriend Jasmine to death. He has even confessed. But Mercer thinks he’s not being truthful, although not necessarily lying either – the kind of conclusion that only the protagonist of a primetime procedural would arrive at.

Mercer is right, of course, but the fun of the episode is about him proving it. Both Jasmine and Dylan, an ex-Marine, were in recovery from alcoholism, and a five-year sobriety chip proves a crucial clue. There’s a bit of lip service paid to the difficulty of veterans returning to civilian life, the likelihood of the male being perceived as guilty in any instance of domestic violence, and the manipulability of those in programs like Alcoholics Anonymous, especially around people in sometimes unearned positions of trust.

Like a sponsor! As it turns out, Dylan’s AA sponsor is the guilty party – which is easy to figure out, since he’s the only person at the AA meeting who has been sober long enough to earn the five-year chip found at the scene – and killed Jasmine because she was threatening to expose him for being a sex pest.

The sponsor manipulated Dylan into believing he committed the crime, hence the confession.

Without the psychological component, this is a profoundly uninteresting whodunit given that the first clue leads directly to the only obvious suspect. However, The Irrational knows to put the focus in the right places. It’s less interested in the A-B plotting and more in the rationalization of Mercer’s approach – why he believed Dylan to be innocent in the first place, and what elements of the sponsor’s cover story tipped him off.

This builds to Mercer being temporarily kidnapped at gunpoint, which is mostly just an excuse for more of his shtick. This show, more than most procedurals, really relies on you buying into this character.

The Irrational Season 1 Episode 1 Ending Explained

With the case of the week solved, The Irrational’s pilot ends by adding a little more mystery to the overarching plot of Mercer’s backstory.

He and Marisa attend the parole hearing of the bomber, Wes Banning, who detonated the church that Mercer was attending all those years ago. He gives a contrite speech about his guilt, his rehabilitation, and his suitability for freedom – until he spots someone in the hallway who terrifies him so much that he immediately U-turns and claims he’s a danger to everyone.

Neither Mercer nor Marisa see who is in the hallway, but the implication is clear. Whoever it was terrified Banning so much that he’d rather be back in prison than face his wrath. That means Banning wasn’t working alone in the first place, but at the behest of someone much more dangerous than he is.

Someone who remains free.

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