American Gothic e14: The Beast Within


Firstly, we’re now back on track with the running order, as the fourteen episodes now completed by this review are the first fourteen episodes (I hope). It’s been tortuous, folks.

And I have to congratulate creator Shaun Cassidy, who wrote this episode, for turning round my early scepticism about the quality, and the point, of ‘The Beast Within’, and creating a story whose tension was steadily ratcheted up, and whose relevance came into ever sharper focus the longer it went on. And for giving me my best laugh of American Gothic to date.

The episode began and ended in dreams, Caleb”s dram, a recurring nightmare that occupied the complete open. Caleb walks down a corridor lined with cells, at the end of which a half-seen figure, almost naked, is praying. Another, even less well-seen figure (but we know it’s Sheriff Lucas Buck) gives him a razor blade, which the prisoner uses to slice open his stomach.

The stranger is guest star Jeff Perry, giving a magnificent performance as a soldier, released/escaped from the psych ward, who sets things in motion by stealing a cheap Korean watch from an appliance store. The robbery is interrupted by Sheriff Buck and Deputy Healey, who gets a tremendous shock to realise the robber is his brother Artie. In the confusion, Artie gets a bullet in the ribs, takes Buck hostage and heads for the hospital to have it removed. This means an emergency operation by Doctor Matt, with additional hostages in the form of Gail and Caleb, there out of concern for Caleb’s recurring dreams.

So far, so cheap filler set-up. It’s a cliche melodrama involving an outsider, with no point of contact to the overarching story. The melodrama is only enhanced when Artie reveals that, in addition to the bullet, he has something else in his belly: a bomb that will detonate at 11.00pm, or if he loses consciousness and his blood pressure drops below 45. And he’s got to get back to his ward by 11.00, because all his friends there are equally in pain, and he’s going to end it for everyone.

Or for Buck, Matt, Caleb and Gail if something isn’t sorted out.

It’s none of it organically arising out of Trinity, out of Sheriff Buck’s unhealthy hold over the town, out of the complex pattern of the principal characters. But slowly the tension starts to take hold, slowly what is happening starts to put out tendrils of story that attach themselves to the theme, slowly we start to be drawn into why this is happening. And, as the increasingly desperate Ben Healey says out loud for us, as he nervously rackets about, trying to cope with the unfamiliar weight of responsibility for managing this crisis and the rather more familiar weight if trying to save his brother, why is Lucas letting this happen?

Yeah, why is Lucas letting this happen? Two answers are under our noses. Ben has been bemoaning the way his son is still influenced by his stepfather (now equipped with prosthetic hand) and thinking Ben is garbage. And Lucas tells Artie that he knows about the long ago hunting trip, two Healey boys, Ben, Artie and their Dad, and how Ben shot a duck but, by accident, Artie shot their Dad, killed him straight out. And Caleb’s lost his father too, and is rejecting Buck’s offer to step in and replace him. Look, Caleb, what effect it has to have no father for you.

And in the end, Ben has to be the hero, and is the hero, though his instinct is to reject that role, both out of modesty at being in the spotlight, and an awareness on one level or another that this is all one of the Sheriff’s manipulations. Because, with Matt’s hand bust, time running out and Lucas busying himself with a pipe-wrench to get Caleb and Gail out of handcuffs, Ben has to operate on his own brother, cut him open, stick his hands outside and yank out… a packet of cigarettes!

With a wire sticking out.

Ben drops the bomb down the garbage chute into an old bomb shelter (in a South Carolina town? Huh?) and saves the day. It makes for a story, it’ll impress his son and it gets him dinner cooked by Rita, the not-unattractive red-headed nurse.

And Caleb gets a lesson too.

And who got Artie out of the psych ward, and gave him the razor to cut himself open with? These questions are not answered, but Caleb dreams again, marching down the corridor, the cells empty, including Artie’s. Out steps Lucas Buck, to be accused by Caleb of setting everything up, which we know he has. Buck doesn’t admit it, all he says is it’s Caleb’s dream. But he extends his hand, calling Caleb to him, sure and powerful in the knowledge that Caleb will.

Then Caleb has a gun in his hand and shoots Buck in the heart. Gary Cole manages a look of complete shock and pain tha’s far from what he has to do in his role as Buck, before collapsing. Caleb grins at the gun. Buck was right: it’s his dream!

What a brilliant ending!

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