American Gothic e13: To Hell and Back

Redemption does not come easy

Another out-of-order episode (should have appeared after ‘Strong Arm of the Law’) which, to an orderly mind like mine is decidedly niggling, ‘To Hell and Back’ provides some much needed attention for Dr Matt Crower.

After playing such a substantial role in the opening three-parter, Dr Matt has drifted very much into the background, playing a minimal role, not exact;y assisted by Jake Weber’s laid-back, lo-energy performance. I have the advantage of knowing what’s coming, and not too far ahead, and over the past several weeks I’ve been aware of the growing reasons for it.

What this episode is about, plot-wise, is a determined effort by Sheriff Lucas Buck to get rid of both an obstacle in his pursuit of custody of Caleb and a thorn in his side generally. Even before the series began, Buck and Doctor Matt have been antagonists: the Doc is a Yankee, a Northerner in the South (though only Lucas seems to make this distinction), an educated man (who Buck sarcastically nicknames ‘Harvard’) and, most importantly, the outsider who hasn’t grown up in Buck’s system of control and refuses to be absorbed in it.

But the Sheriff’s whole powerbase is built upon weakness – in the episode where Merly came back, she called him a spoiler and said that that was where his strength came from – and Dr Matt comes with a built-in weakness. He is a former alcoholic who, three years ago, killed his wife and daughter through driving drunk.

Matt’s life is one of sorrow, regret, self-loathing and emptiness. He works because he has nothing else to do, he works because it is his penance for what he has done. But underneath everything and behind everything is the loss for which he is responsible, and the ache for the impossible dream of being able to change it all.

In one of the most callous acts he’s done so far, Buck primes the pump by recreating Dr Matt’s story. A woman at a Hospital Fund-Raising Social talks to Dr Matt about her embarrassing drunk of a husband and says she’ll drive him home. Next thing, the car has crashed, she’s in critical. Matt stays with her, confessing to himself he has nowhere to go. He begins to have visions: that she is his wife, Lily, that a wheelchair-bound little girl is his daughter Claire. The episode cleverly does not involve himself in how these are happening: we assume Lucas’s supernatural influence but the truth is that stress, fatigue and guilt are all capable of inducing such a situation.

The woman, Doreen, flat-lines and dies. The husband, Chester, banged-up and bloody, but intact and still drunk, is charged with vehicular manslaughter. He protests that Lucas told him to drive, told him he was the Man, he was alright. A purely unrelated death by car crash, to get to Matt’s demons.

The pressure Lucas applies also involves Selena. Matt’s in a bar, listening to the blues, drinking… club soda. She tries to get under his skin, ease him into sharing her drink, but he hands it back. But that only leads to a nighttime confrontation with Lucas Buck: a straight offer, accompanied by a bottle of vodka: Matt can go back, change things, and gain what he most wants, Oblivion. And Lucas gets Matt, who he claims he’s starting to like, out of his hair. Matt takes the tiniest sip.

And is back in the car, sober, with Lily and Claire. He has his chance. He’s sober, he can change things. But you can never change things, or if you do, you cannot change their course. Again, the episode is marvelously subtle through deliberate ambiguity. Matt may not be drunk but he’s confused. He has no memories. Whether the unfamiliarity of things is down to an alcoholic black-out then, or because he is genuinely changing things, or because his pain has obliterated the other pains of the time, again we have to imagine.

But Lily is leaving him. They’re driving to her mother’s. She thinks he’s drunk – Lucas’s vodka bottle is in his pocket. She won’t and can’t believe he’ll change, she hopes he can for his sake, but she stopped loving him a long time ago. Even if he saves their lives his marriage is gone. She throws him out of the car, drives off alone. And crashes.

So: did Matt change anything, only for the universe to reassert itself and produce the same end by a different means? Or is this what happened all along, and the truth has now forced its way into his head? We’ll never know.

Buck thinks he’s won, that Matt is destroyed and will leave, voiding his contract renewal at the Hospital. But Matt arrives, late and disheveled, but sober. Lucas has reneged on the promise of Oblivion: he changed his mind. Matt is now determined to get Buck. We also learn, as if in passing, that he pleaded nolo contendre (no contest) to his charge of Vehicular Manslaughter (it’s a kind of non-guilty guilty plea, not available in English Law). It would be justified in a case where Matt was innocent of killing his family, but morally responsible.

I’ve not mentioned Caleb thus far,though he is part of this episode. After a cameo at the Social, Caleb is spun off into a low-key B story where, spurred on by Boone and little Rose, he gets curiously fearful of next door neighbour, the aged Mr Emmett, who he suspects of burying dead bodies in his ‘punkin patch’.

The truth, once Caleb takes his ever-more mature and serious attitude to responsibility, is almost trivial. Emmett’s dog, Omar, has died, and it is he for whom Emmett has dug a grave at night, big enough that he not be cooped up, and he over whom he roared his grief in the night.

Then the episode takes a massive, uncharacteristic and utterly effective veer into gross sentimentality. Merly appears to Caleb, with an old, heavy, panting black and white dog at her side, who runs over to and lies down beside Emmett, though he is oblivious to it. It’s completely gratuitous, but as an antidote to the individual hell we’ve been watching, it’s definitely tear-jerking.

And it’s a set-up to its companion. In his dream/vision/re-enactment, Matt was given a love-letter from his daughter Claire, which she tucked into his jacket pocket. Now, having survived the ordeal, in a manner that echoes the ending of A Matter of Life and Death, that letter is in his pocket. It’s a gift in itself, a gift of love and faith. Matt finds himself in front of the wheelchair girl again, still sullen, hurt, miserable. He drops to his haunches, squats in front of her, and smiles, broadly, confidently. She looks at him, and slowly breaks out into a smile of her own.

Poor Doctor Matt. An episode like this was surely meant to be, should have been, a renewal of the character, a kick-start into a more pro-active role, deserved of a character placed third in the cast list. But we’ve already seen that it didn’t. Soon, we’ll see what happened next.



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