Intake -| Review Score – 3.5/5
Alan Learns to Meditate -| Review Score – 3.5/5
Issues -| Review Score – 4.5/5
Company -| Review Score – 5/5
Pastitsio -| Review Score – 4.5/5
Charlie -| Review Score – 5/5
Kaddish -| Review Score – 4/5
Ezra -| Review Score – 5/5
Auschwitz -| Review Score – 4/5
The Cantor’s Husband -| Review Score – 4/5
The Jewish backgrounds of creators Joel Fields and Joe Weisberg are the heart of their psychological thriller The Patient, generating palpable tension between differing beliefs and family ties; and between surviving and living a meaningful life.
In this FX/Hulu limited series, Steve Carell stars as Dr. Alan Strauss, a Jewish therapist reeling from his wife Beth’s (Laura Niemi) cancer-caused death. Alienated from his son Ezra (Andrew Leeds), who departed from Alan and Beth’s Reform faith to take up Orthodox Judaism, Alan already feels desperately alone when he’s taken captive.
Sam Fortner (Domhnall Gleeson) is one of Alan’s patients–and he may be his last. When Sam kidnaps Alan so the therapist can cure his urge to kill, Alan finds himself in an unusual fight for survival. He’ll have to help his troubled captor–or perhaps die trying.
Sam traps Alan in a basement, and it’s a friendlier space than one might think (although the room, for Alan, evokes images of a Holocaust gas chamber). In reality, however, it’s an open area, with soft lighting emanating from large doors and lamps. Books and games on the shelves denote a space once beloved by Sam’s mother Candace (Linda Emond), now commandeered for Sam’s own purposes.
It’s a quaint living area, not too dissimilar from Alan’s own office, where he once treated Sam under a different name. A coffee table in between them, a tissue box, tall windows. The difference is in Alan: in his defeated posture, which was in his own office so relaxed. And that chain around his leg–the single jarring presence in this basement, signifying all at once Sam’s delusion, Candace’s stolen life, and Alan’s sheer hopelessness.
It’s impossible for Alan not to think of the Jewish people who have suffered before him. There’s a slow-burning reveal of Alan’s imprisonment as a metaphor for the Holocaust, uncovered through Alan’s dreams and anxieties, as well internal conversations with his dead therapist Charlie (David Alan Grier). Much of the suspenseful nature of this series is more artful and compelling than the question of whether Sam will kill Alan.
It’s in the tense journey, rather, of Alan’s self-discovery. Can the therapist tap into his Jewish identity à la Victor Frankl, and find a fight within himself not only to survive, but to live? And can he do the seemingly impossible–that is, to reconcile with his son and connect with his own aggressor?
Both Fields and Weisberg were raised in Reform Judaism. It’s one of the reasons the integration of Jewish history and themes feels so natural to this psychological thriller. But that integration reaches much farther than Alan’s memories of temple. They draw parallels between Sam’s violent tendencies and the power the Nazis’ exerted during the Holocaust. And through Alan’s and Ezra’s relationship, they highlight tension between Reform and Orthodox Judaism.
It’s a difficult line the series walks, between humanizing and glorifying a serial killer. In a conversation with Salon, Fields responded to his own question about whether it was okay to humanize a Nazi. “And to me, the answer is, well, yes. The Nazis were human. And woe to all of us if . . . we think that we’re somehow a different species.”
Sam’s nuanced characterization reminds me of the evil of the everyday, but also the malleability of that evil. It evokes the antisemitism lurking in our neighbors and coworkers–as well as the potential to for them to seek help and even change.
But in all of this focus on Sam and his complexities, the show deftly avoids a message about pandering to one’s oppressor. The Patient is full of rage and desperation rather than quiet submission. The majority of its attention is on Alan: on his relationship with Sam, yes; but more so on how his captivity gives him a fresh perspective on his own life and faith.
The Patient maintains palpable tension between Alan’s feelings towards his own son. Some of this fizzles out in the end, as Fields and Weisberg are actually unwilling to wrestle with the tangible differences in Ezra’s Orthodox beliefs versus Alan’s Reform faith–and instead try to push a heartwarming message about family over belief system (which would be valid if it weren’t pushed as an all-encompassing fix-all–no matter how harmful one’s views).
Still, this falls into the series’ overarching meaning regarding humanization and progress. The Patient, in a nutshell, is about therapy. And therapy is all about developing the good in ourselves over our more destructive tendencies. Even if some themes remain underdeveloped and the show’s extreme optimism at times hard to swallow, Fields and Weisberg create a thrillingly hopeful drama on that kind of betterment.
Verdict - 8/10