Recap: ‘Presumed Innocent’ Episode 1 Inverts The Thriller Genre

By Jonathon Wilson
Published: June 26, 2024
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Presumed Innocent Episode 1 Recap - Rusty Is Awful
Presumed Innocent | Image via Apple TV+

WARNING: THIS ARTICLE CONTAINS MAJOR SPOILERS

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Summary

Presumed Innocent turns the legal thriller inside-out by using details of the case to explore the true nature of a flawed, intriguingly atypical protagonist.

Legal thrillers are usually built around guilt, in one way or another, but it tends to be the accused whose true nature is mysterious. The lawyer in these shows and movies is an engine for the plot, a way to tease out the next big revelation or make a point about “the system” or whatever. Presumed Innocent on Apple TV+ bucks this trend right from Episode 1 by turning the case inside-out. Chicago’s chief deputy prosecutor, Rusty Sabich (Jake Gyllenhaal), is awful, and as the case progresses it becomes obvious that we’ve barely scratched the surface of quite how awful he is.

He might also be the murderer.

Why does Rusty take the case?

Rusty is the right-hand man of prosecuting attorney Raymond Horgan (Bill Camp), and demands control of the case when he discovers that his colleague, Carolyn Polhemus, has been horrifically hog-tied and murdered. Raymond gives him the case, which is generating enough media traction to threaten his position, and Raymond takes it enthusiastically. Initially, you can’t tell if it’s a moral imperative – this is someone he knew, after all – or an ego thing, especially since his rivals Nico Della Guardia, who is running for Raymond’s position in the upcoming election, and Tommy Molto, whom Rusty clearly can’t stand, are circling the corpse as well.

Eventually, we discover he had another reason – he was having an affair with Carolyn.

This comes later, and it’s probably not the cause of her murder, but it is an integral part of Rusty’s motivations for investigating it. As it turns out, Carolyn has been murdered in the same manner as another woman named Bunny Davis, whose case Rusty and Carolyn prosecuted together. A man named Liam Reynolds was convicted for that killing thanks to Carolyn’s closing argument at trial – which is the first time we see her alive – and he remains in prison, meaning that he was either wrongfully convicted or a copycat is on the loose.

Presumed Innocent Episode 1 respects its audience

One of the things I respect about Presumed Innocent Episode 1 is how it allows the audience to put the pieces together on their own. Anyone paying attention will notice quirks in Rusty’s behavior, clues in his recollections, and details about how people act around him that give away his relationship with Carolyn long before his wife, Barbara, raises it explicitly. Even earlier, when Barbara refused to attend Carolyn’s memorial while offering some general sympathy for Rusty, it was clear that something was amiss.

It becomes clear very quickly that Rusty is a man-child. He can’t manage his emotions at all. It was lust that led him to Carolyn. He tries to wield tokenistic power over Liam Reynolds by offering to negotiate a shorter sentence if he confesses to hiring someone to kill Carolyn (which he obviously didn’t do, despite being visibly happy about her death.) He goes nuts at Tommy in the office.

Rusty is awful

You’re not supposed to feel sorry for Rusty, I don’t think, but it’s safe to say I can see why he’s annoyed in some respects. Barbara is well within her rights to hate him, but she doesn’t. Instead, she quietly but furiously pities him, constantly looking at him with palpable judgment and bitterness, and you can see how that might get a bit trying (even though she’s right!).

Rusty also attends therapy with the most unprofessional therapist imaginable. She’s played by Lily Rabe and just batters Rusty with judgment and snarky comments constantly, which I’d be annoyed about as well, to be fair. I mean, he’s presumably paying her, and that’s not what he’s paying her for.

Carolyn was pregnant when she died — was Rusty the father?

But Presumed Innocent Episode 1 ends by completely nuking any burgeoning sympathy we might have had for Rusty by revealing that he’s even worse than we first imagined.

With Nico having won the election for chief prosecutor, Raymond is out of the job and out of the office, leaving Rusty at the mercy of Nico and Tommy, who take over the Carolyn case. And Tommy has some questions, almost all of which relate to Carolyn’s relationship with Rusty. Why are his fingerprints all over her apartment? How long was he intimate with her? Who knew?

You can feel the house of cards coming down around Rusty even before Tommy delivers the hammer blow. Carolyn was pregnant. Does Rusty know who the father is?

Yeah, I think he might.


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