Better Late Than Never: The Patient
Since this is a review involving shameful secrets, I’ll start with one of my own: I never liked The Office. I tried multiple times to get into the version that millions loved at the time and more seem to do so now, but the entire tone of it was always off-putting, awkward, and unfunny. I don’t know why I found the quasi-documentary tone so off-putting here whereas I loved it with Parks and Recreation, but it was just part of many flaws I could never get my head around.
And I need to make this clear: I had no problems with any single actor ever connected with the cast. From John Krasinski to Mindy Kaling, from Ed Helms to Elle Kemper, there isn’t a single performer on that series that I didn’t love in literally every other project they did. And that is especially true with Steve Carell, who I need to make clear loved in every project he did before, after, and while he was starring on The Office. From his breakout role on The Daily Show (his bits with Stephen Colbert are among the greatest moment in comedy history) to his incredible movies such as The Forty-Year Old Virgin and Date Night, to his later dramatic work in Foxcatcher and The Big Short, Carell has always struck me as the greatest of performers. Hell, even when he won the Golden Globe for his work on The Office over Zach Braff, I didn’t mind because his speech was utterly perfect.
But for all that, old prejudices die hard. So when I saw in September that Carell was going to be doing a limited series in partnership with FX on Hulu — a series that from the teasers could in no way be mistaken for a comedy — I decided, yeah, I’m not going near this. No matter how well reviewed by the media, I wasn’t going to take a look at The Patient until and unless the Golden Globes and the Critics Choice started showing it some love in the next few weeks. Then last Wednesday, I had just finished up with Reservation Dogs. I decided just to scan Hulu to see whether my next project would be The Bear or Season 2 of Only Murders in the Building, both likely award contenders. I saw the ad for The Patient and saw the first episode was 21 minutes long. What the hell, I thought.
Then you see the opening sequence. Carell wakes up on a mattress. He gets up, and he clearly sees things that aren’t familiar. He starts walking to the stairs, and he notices that he’s chained to the bed. He extends as far as he can in one direction and he sees there’s a toothbrush and a water glass. He goes to a different direction, and there’s a bucket. Increasingly panicked, he begins to shout for help… and then the camera pulls to a wide shout and we see how isolated he is.
I don’t think I’ve seen an opening sequence this riveting possibly since the first few minutes of Better Call Saul nearly eight years ago, which like The Patient starts in medias re before flashing back. This was before I learned that the creators of this series were Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields, the two geniuses who created The Americans with little question the best series of the 2010s. I knew that I was going to be watching this series to completion not only because, unlike nearly every other Limited series, The Patient’s episodes are brief — most are in the 25 to 30 minute range — but because from the beginning, the creators lure us in and don’t let us go.
I’ve only seen the first two episodes, so I will tread lightly for those who are still thinking over whether they want to get involved. Carell is Dr. Alan Strauss, a psychotherapist who we very quickly learn is still mourning the loss of his wife. On his answering machine in the opening sequence, he receives a message from a young man named Gene, telling him he’s read his book and thinks he really needs therapy. The next scene shows Gene in his office, wearing a cap and dark glasses. We see him talking with Dr. Strauss about how he thinks his dad messed him up. There are several other sequences showing Dr. Strauss with other patients intercut with Gene. In the last flashback, Dr. Strauss confides that he is frustrated with how therapy is going, mainly because he thinks Gene isn’t confiding in him. He gently pushes that Gene should tell the truth.
We see a couple of scenes of Alan going through his closets at home, visiting his son at a shop with a guitar and its clear that things are awkward between them. Then that night, Alan hears a noise coming from outside. He checks to see that someone has tied something to his car, and then he is knocked unconscious.
The next morning ‘Gene’ comes into the house and Alan tries to reason with him. Gene tells him, perfectly calmly, that he agrees with him that traditional therapy wasn’t working and that he thinks this is the only course forward. Then he tells him Gene isn’t his real name: it’s Sam. And that’s not the only thing he’s lying about. The compulsion that has driven him to therapy is that he is a serial killer. He wants to stop, and he thinks this process is the only way that will work for him.
Sam is ‘the John Doe killer’, a man who the media has characterized for taking the identifications of everybody who he has killed. Alan manages to maintain the professional calm that he must and finally tries to get a promise that if he has a compulsion to kill he will not do so before talking to him. Sam promises to try. He then relates a story that he works as a food inspector, and tells him about ‘Restaurant Guy’, someone who he believes didn’t take him seriously and is the first person he has actually been connected to that he wants to kill. That was four months ago, around the time he first came to Dr. Strauss. Alan tries to suggest paper and pen and Sam becomes cold and distant before driving off. Then Alan, who has heard noises on the floor above him, yells hello. The second episode ends with a figure with a poker coming down the stairs.
It is perhaps a cliché to use this phrase, but I’ve never seen Carell doing anything remotely like this before. The Patient uses flashbacks to show us Alan’s life before this and we get to see the human side to him, and we know that he is using every tool in the therapist’s trade craft to try and save himself. This is a man who knows better than almost anyone about the human psyche and he knows that if he manages to step wrong at any time, his life will be forfeit. And he also knows that he has to restrain the utter terror that he is feeling if he as any chance of surviving.
Essentially, this series is a two-man show and the actor playing Sam is just as spot on. Domhnall Gleason. With connections to the Harry Potter and Star Wars franchises (as well a series I utterly loathed called Run) the role that perhaps most prepared Gleason for this was the exceptional sci-fi pic Ex Machina. Essentially a three person show, he played Caleb the winner of a lottery contest held by the company founder (Oscar Isaac) who called him to test an AI (Alicia Vikander). Much of the film was conversations between Isaac and Gleason, and Gleason and Vikander, in which Caleb learns just how mad the scientist behind this idea is and finds himself falling in love with the AI. We spend most of the movie thinking Caleb is the good guy in the story, where we eventually learn that he’s not that good and for all his machinations, just being used as a pawn. I have a feeling Gleason took a fair amount of his lessons for that role and used them as Sam, someone who has the ability to be perceived as normal in the real world but who is aware of demons and who believes they can be controlled — even though his idea of therapy is just as depraved as everything else in his life.
I have heard things by now about the final episodes of The Patient that I imagine many of you have. Some people believe there are metaphors being used that should not be, and the ending is somehow too much of a downer even for a series that starts out this dark. I’m not sure yet whether my overall opinion of the series will change immensely the further I get into it. But considering how much I still mourn the fact that In Treatment wasn’t renewed for another season, and that this series basically seems to be a saga that you genuinely think the writers of that show might have worked their way up to over a couple of more seasons, then I know one way or another I’ll be sticking with it until the very last session. And I will regret when our time with Alan and Sam is up.
My score: 4.25 stars.