Medium drops the ball in the most spectacular way possible.

The Inside was not a beloved television show. Already having one strike against it by being about profilers, it suffered from a lead actress whose ability to emote hovered somewhere between Tori Spelling and a block of wood shaped like Tori Spelling. The rest of the cast, including Adam Baldwin, Peter Coyote, and the hilarious sister from Wonderfalls all did a stellar job, and the scripts, while not significantly above par, were certainly better written than any of the more popular procedurals it was up against at the time. It might have done better had it not been aired in the middle of the summer with no promotion, but Fox hates quality television, so what are you doing to do?

Among all the regular crime solving antics of the series was a single stellar episode, a fantastic piece of drama, and likely the best serial-killer themed entertainment in a decade. Actually, it wasn’t even a stellar episode. It was a stellar half-episode. The second part got bogged down in the standard dull cat and mouse morass that thrillers too often fall into with the killer giving clues to the cops in order to prove how smart he is and blah blah blah…

But man, that first half hour where they establish the premise is some of the most fascinating television I’ve ever encountered. The profiling team come across a college janitor stripped, tied to a chair, and brutally stabbed to death in his apartment. It seems like an ordinary murder until they discover evidence all around the apartment that the janitor had been stalking coeds and taking pictures of them while they slept. He also had hundreds of crude sketches depicting the ways he planned to elaborately tie the coeds up and brutally stab them to death. It seems that someone had figured out what the janitor had been planning to do, and did it to him first.

The profliers are impressed, because they’ve come across a serial killer who does what they do, but does it before the would-be murderer has actually gotten around to killing anyone. A sort of “Prefiler”, if you will. All of this is covered before the opening credits. What makes the episode so special is that it doesn’t waste time with any mystery or hiding from the audience who the killer is. No, it just jumps right into things, introducing us to the Prefiler, played by Lost’s Michael Emerson in the role that made him a star. Well, in my eyes, anyhow. Here’s the clip, thanks to the magic of youtube:

I could just watch that thing all day, couldn’t you? You can watch the rest of the clips in the series if you want, but they’re very plotty and can’t live up to the promise of this scene.

It’s possible that The Inside’s biggest mistake was airing this episode at all, because Emerson is so much more charismatic than the rest of the cast and his character’s motivation and actions so much more interesting than the heroes’ that it’s impossible not to just wish that the show was about him instead. Honestly, if the show Dexter was about and starring someone this compelling it would be my favorite thing on television, as opposed to the tiresome, poorly-plotted thirteen hour mess I subject myself to every year in an act of bizarre masochism.

So, I’m sure you’re wondering, what does the Prefiler have to do with Monday’s episode of Medium? Well, obviously, the Monday episode was a rip-off of the Prefiler, of course!

First, some background: over the past three years Kurtwood Smith has guest-starred on Medium as a FBI (who could have guessed) profiler who has a sideline in tracking down and executing dangerous killers who escaped justice in one way or another. Uncommonly for the show, which normally avoids complexity at all costs, no firm moral judgments were made about his actions. Smith was always portrayed as a moral and honorable man whose beliefs were well thought out, reasoned, and internally consistent. He didn’t particularly like murder, but he thought it was a valuable tool to be used in the cause of justice and to prevent further tragedy. In his last appearance he was killed by one of his targets, and returned as a ghost who manipulated Allison into not catching his killer, because he knew that if the man remained free for another couple of days he would die in a car accident. In a telling scene at the end of that episode, Smith and Allison laid out their respective beliefs in an exchange wherein Allison assured Smith that because he was using bad methods he was a bad person, and there’s a very warm place that bad people like him go. Smith responded that he was doing something good, whatever the methods he used, and he sees no reason to stop doing so just because he’s dead. He left after expressing the hope that Allison would come around to seeing things from his point of view.

This particular episode opens with one of Allison’s dreams, this one is about a bald man shooting six people in a diner to death because his girlfriend, a waitress there, broke up with him. She springs from her bed and runs to the computer, desperate to discover where this mass murder happened. We can learn three things from the following sequence:

1: Google elected not to pay for product placement.
2: Someone at NBC said “Screw ‘em then! We won’t give ‘em free advertising!”
3: The person that NBC assigned to deprive Google of free advertising is not good at their job.

The “Certainly-Not-Google” search doesn’t turn anything up, but Allison doesn’t have time to be concerned because Kurtwood Smith appears in her kitchen, offering the name of a notorious serial killer along with the location of all the missing corpses his victims. He offers it as an olive branch in the hopes of repairing their relationship, so they can go on solving crimes together in the future. Allison is wary, but not a complete jerk about it, and accepts the information. Allison doesn’t pause to realize that since Smith isn’t in a hell of any kind, defying her predictions, it’s entirely possible that some higher power is actually okay with his actions and methods.

The next day the police drive out to the diner from Allison’s dream and discover that no one has been murdered there… yet. Or ever will, it seems, because the bald guy who was going to kill everyone wrote a suicide note and hanged himself the night before.

It’s completely clear where this is going, but Allison’s not very bright, so she won’t figure it out until her third dream, where everything is always spelled out in the most obvious way possible.

That night, in her first plot-related dream, Allison sees the truth of the ‘suicide’, and that a mysterious man in a hoodie forced baldy to kill himself at gunpoint. She’s upset by this, but doesn’t have any proof to offer the police – there’s absolutely no physical evidence to point to anything but suicide, other than her word. Allison, and this is important, demands that they do something, because her dreams are never wrong. Let me restate that, because it’s going to be important later: HER DREAMS ARE NEVER, EVER, WRONG. When she dreams about the past or present, it’s either 100 percent accurate, or displayed in a clever and stylized fashion while still referring to a completely true fact. When she dreams about the future, that future will absolutely 100 percent come true… unless she, the person who knows the future, does something to change it. If she does nothing, the future will always transpire exactly how she dreamed it – sometimes her actions even wind up causing the predetermined future to occur. These are the hard and fast rules that the show has operated under for every one of its nearly 100 episodes.

Being as she’s not especially bright, Allison doesn’t see any connection between her new set of dreams and the fact that Kurtwood Smith has mysteriously reappeared in her life. He shows up a second time, offering the name and address of a serial rapist. Now it’s time for her second dream, where Allison learns the killer’s identity, but doesn’t have everything laid out for her on a silver platter. This time she sees the face of the killer, a 16-year-old boy, as he’s forcing a woman to write a suicide note and inject herself with poison. The next day, as she’s creepily hanging out near a high school, looking for the killer, Smith shows up for a third time, offering her an update on the rapist’s current location.

Things get a lot clearer when we get to the all-important third dream that night, and Allison has the entire plot of the episode just handed to her. It seems that the kid is mildly psychic, and Smith has been coaching him on how to murder people and get away with it! The kid is obviously troubled, and not taking too well to Smith’s lesson of moral relativism. It seems that, as a ghost, he knew full well, just like Allison, that baldy was going to kill a whole lot of people at that diner. So he sent his assassin to kill the guy, saving those people’s lives.

Allison wakes up, the plot having been laid out for her, and picks up the phone to pass the writer’s message on to the police. Kurtwood is waiting in her living room, though, hoping to have a rational conversation about the whole ‘training a murderer’ thing. He explains to her that the boy has been trained well enough that they’ll never be able to prove anything. Moreover, he didn’t want to go to this extreme, but because she wouldn’t help him catch criminals with her law-enforcement connections, it was up to him to find someone to kill them for him.

Allison is having none of it, though, calling him a monster for employing a child as his murderer. Kurtwood explains that in addition to Baldy’s planned massacre, the suicide woman was a nurse who was going to start murdering patients, and wouldn’t be stopped until she’d killed sixteen people! Kurtwood offers a deal: let him continue preventing crimes, and he’ll give her information on solving other crimes. She flat-out refuses.

The next day, Allison goes to visit the kid, who doesn’t feel guilty at all about his crimes. He refuses to believe that saving 24 lives at the cost of two could possibly be wrong, and explains why he went along with Smith’s plan. Apparently Smith had first approached him, begging him to kill a man in Scottsdale before the man went nuts and murdered his family. The boy ignored him, and was shocked when the news reported on the massacre a few days later. Shamed because he could have saved those lives, he decided to go along with Smith’s plan, and doesn’t see why he should be punished for it. Allison doesn’t come up with a counterargument, saying only that it’s “vigilantism” and “wrong”. Rather than trying to offer some persuasive defence of her point of view that doesn’t originate from a place of ‘just because it’s wrong’, Allison shakes her head in disgust and leaves.

It’s time for one more dream though – it turns out the would-be killer nurse’s husband doesn’t take the news of her ‘suicide’ very well, and kills himself. It seems like the show is trying to say this death is entirely Smith and the Kid’s fault, but that’s not entirely true. If this guy is so emotionally fragile that his wife’s suicide causes him to immediately follow suit, then there’s a good chance that in two years when his wife went to jail for being a serial killer, he probably would have done himself in anyway. Putting that aside, though, doesn’t Allison herself shoulder some of the blame for this suicide? After all, with all the horror she’s seen in this job, she has to know that losing someone to suicide can be more traumatic to the immediate family than losing them to murder (for example, the third episode where David Cubitt is relieved to discover that his sister and her husband were murdered by a serial killer, and not in a murder/suicide). Keeping that in mind, with her “My dreams are never wrong” point of view, why didn’t she attempt to contact the nurse’s husband to tell her that his wife was likely murdered? Perhaps he’d seen something suspicious that night that didn’t seem important when it was a suicide, but might have been key evidence in a murder investigation? Allison isn’t completely responsible here, but she’s certainly been negligent in her investigation. Which, to be fair, is kind of her thing.

Time for a quick pause – at this point in the show, I was actually pretty impressed with the storytelling. They’ve brought up a really thorny issue without offering an easy answer. If you could prevent a massacre by killing the person responsible, is it worth it, even if they haven’t done anything wrong yet? Is saving sixteen lives worth the life of both the would-be killer and the innocent bystander? Allison is sure that it’s not, but I’d imagine that any of the people in the diner would have supported the compromise of pure morality if it meant, you know, not having to die that day.

In the midst of all these interesting moral issues tramples the story’s resolution, which, I’ve got to say, completely ruins everything that came before it. Just throws nearly forty minutes of decent plotting right out the window. Allison goes to her car to head home for the night, and finds the Kid waiting for her in the back seat, ready to plan her suicide. When they get there, Allison absolutely refuses to jump off the roof, telling the Kid if he wants her dead, he’ll have to shoot her. Why does this completely ruin the episode? It wouldn’t necessarily, and I’ll get to that in a minute, but for right now, the problem is that the Kid reveals that killing her is all Kurtwood’s plan.

This makes absolutely no sense. Not only has every interaction with Kurtwood up until this point demonstrated him to be a man with a strict moral code that doesn’t involve murdering innocent people, but more importantly, he has no motive for killing her. The Kid says something about how ‘their work can’t be jeopardized’, but Smith is smart enough to realize that Allison is absolutely no threat to that work. She can’t prove anything now, and as long as they’re careful they won’t be able to prove anything in the future. Earlier in the episode Smith announced that there’s no point in getting a warrant, because by the time the cops arrived at the Kid’s house, the gun would have been disposed of. The thing is, they wouldn’t even have to get rid of the gun! Yes, it’s illegal for him to have it, and that’s a minor crime, but he hasn’t shot anyone! Even if he has a gun like the one in Allison’s dream, that’s not proof of anything!

If anything, Allison’s suicide would only serve to screw up their plot and draw attention to the scheme. The genius of the ‘fake suicide’ is that the people they’ve been killing were about to start murdering other people – psychologically speaking, these are people at the end of their rope, so the suicides, while shocking, are not especially surprising. This is why Allison can’t get anyone to believe her story about a high school kid and a ghost teaming up to fake suicides. Allison, by comparison, hasn’t been depressed, or recently fired, and has plenty to live for – her suicide would look incredibly suspicious, and only serve to draw attention to the entire fake suicide scheme, and the teen who’s been identified at being in the centre of it.

Kurtwood Smith has absolutely no reason to kill Allison, and he’s both smart enough to know that, and has never been depicted as vindictive enough to kill her out of spite. So why would he do it? There’s only one reason I can imagine the writers would do this, and that’s because they’ve got to the end of the episode without actually making a strong point as to why Kurtwood Smith, the supposed villain of the episode, is a bad guy, or doing anything even slightly immoral. So, having utterly failed to make a strong case for why Allison is correct, the writers just have Kurtwood do something completely evil and out of character, revealing himself as a type of villain that the character just isn’t believable as being.

The confrontation gets shaky when the Kid isn’t able to pull the trigger, and his faith takes an even stronger beating when he hears about the nurse’s husband committing suicide. The kid’s moral code isn’t that well-developed, so he’s not able to just write off the additional death, and Allison takes advantage of this fact through some of the most faulty reasoning I’ve ever witnessed, along with shocking levels of intellectual dishonesty. Observe:

I know this doesn’t have the impact that it might to someone like me who’s seen every episode of the show, but suffice to say that in her little speech there she basically denied everything she believes, every piece of evidence about how her powers work, and every basic tenet of the world in which the show takes place.

Remember the rules I mentioned earlier? They have been hard and fast for the entire series. The future is never fluid unless acted upon by a person who has knowledge of it. Yes, Allison, your dreams do mess with you; not from inaccuracy, but because you’re not intelligent enough to interpret them, and always have to wait for the third dream to lay everything out for you in alphabetical order.

Apart from the way she doubts herself every week when she misunderstands the first and second dream, before the third dream sits her down and shows her how to pronounce the words one at a time, Allison has never, ever, questioned the accuracy of her past dreams or the inevitability (unless she acts on it) of the future dreams. Hell, it was way back in the series’ sixth episode that she was terrified that Reed Diamond absolutely could not be stopped from killing people in the future – she was worried that even if she tried to intervene the future was too set in stone to do anything about it. Also, there was the time Eric Stoltz played an evil psychic who had future visions of people who were going to be alone and in accidents so that he could show up and kill them. He knew that if he saw it in a future vision, it would certainly happen, so he could exploit it.

Really, pick any episode of the series that deals with a future prediction, and you’ll discover that the hard and fast rule is that unless the future predictor takes some action to change it, that future is utterly set in stone.

So either the worst-written the character of Allison has ever been, or the character is lying to try and talk her way out of getting shot. Let’s say the second is true – she’s doing an unbelievably terrible job of persuasion here. That’s seriously her argument about why he shouldn’t have killed Baldy? Because Baldy MIGHT not have decided to kill eight people? Because someone else might have come along and stopped him? Because the nurse might not have started killing people? Her entire argument here is based on the idea that suddenly message from the beyond have become fallible – which is the opposite message of every episode of the show up until now. More importantly, though, even if her messages weren’t that great, given that they’re being shuttled through her from the ghost world, wouldn’t Kurtwood Smith’s information be far more reliable, what with him actually being a ghost and all?

After being absent for the entire showdown, Smith shows up to try and convince the Kid to kill her. In what is, by a wide margin, the episode’s stupidest move so far, when asked if it’s possible that maybe they didn’t have to kill those people, Kurtwood responds “It’s highly unlikely.” I just about turned the episode off there, actually. So now, in addition to suddenly turning evil, Kurtwood is also a moron? If someone needs reassurance, you give it to them! Wholeheartedly and without qualification! You’re supposed to be an expert on psychology, for god’s sake!

If somebody asks you if you are a god, you say yes!

More importantly, I don’t know where this doubt is coming from. Kurtwood told the Kid that a guy was going to murder a family and kill himself unless the kid stopped him. The kid didn’t stop him, and the family died. Allison is offering vague maybes, Kurtwood has shown him cold hard facts. What more proof could the kid possibly need? Unable to decide whether to side with the suddenly-evil ghost or the obviously lying woman, Kid takes the easy way out and shoots himself in the head.

The episode wraps up on a sour note, with Allison crying in bed, while ghost Kid stands in the hallway, covered in blood, and suddenly-evil Smith leans against the wall nearby, guilty over having driven the Kid to suicide, and a little annoyed to have picked such a weakling as his helper.

So all the ambiguity went right out the window for an easy ending where Kurtwood is revealed as a villain, and his belief and methods are dismissed as the works of a madman. It didn’t have to be this way. You could have had a better ending that preserved Kurtwood’s character, the rooftop showdown, was far more intense, and wrapped up more neatly.

Let’s say that after Allison visited the Kid, it had spooked him, and he’d decided to himself, despite Kurtwood’s reassurances, that she was a threat. And he’d gone on his own to the office to kill Allison and make it look like a suicide. You’d strengthen the Kid’s character and show more organically that Kurtwood’s tutoring was fundamentally damaging his morality. Then you’d have a more powerful scene of Kurtwood trying to explain to the Kid that he doesn’t have to kill Allison, while all the time Allison is trying to remove his faith in Kurtwood’s teachings. That’s the kind of conflict that could lead to him committing suicide and getting basically the same ending, with one important twist:

Instead of just being a frustrated and evil ghost, watching the Kid first try to kill an innocent person and then kill himself could have deeply affected Kurtwood. It would have shown him that while he was able to compartmentalize his emotions and do what he felt was necessary, trying to turn the Kid, a lonely and impressionable teen, into something like him had been too much, and wound up destroying him. You’d have a wonderful opportunity to have Kurtwood be shocked by how far he had gone in his pursuit of justice, and even start to question his own methods. Switching the ending to something like that could have accomplished something the rest of the episode didn’t – provide a real argument against Smith’s point: that becoming the sole arbiter of justice is simply too much for a single person, and that someone who wanted to do good could easily be ruined by the pursuit.

You’ve got a message, and ending, and you leave the audience wondering about just how far people should be willing to go to save a life.

Instead, the episode left us with nothing but disappointment and missed opportunities.

1 comment:

Applebetty said...

Excellent review and retrospective. I could never stand this show but I never saw this episode, and I totally agree with your idea for how the ending should have gone.