The sick dread of inevitability hangs over “Needle,” the penultimate episode of the season, because we already know in broad strokes what’s going to happen. Alex’s entire odyssey with Walter, where she’s trying for her girlfriend’s sake to knock him off the Geist scent, is going to fail. She will wind up in a paddleless rowboat in the middle of a lake, not knowing who she is, and having only a fake ID and a cocktail napkin in her possession. And following these breadcrumbs, yadda yadda yadda, she’ll end up stumbling into Geist headquarters in search of additional clues about her identity and run into Audrey, the girlfriend she didn’t know she had.
We don’t know yet what happens after that point. The structure of the season has broken down thusly: The first two episodes are Alex as “Jackie,” the woman who wakes up in the middle of a lake with no memory and eventually finds her way back to Audrey at Geist headquarters. The four episodes after that, including “Needle,” have accounted for how Alex got herself in that predicament as well as all the relevant business happening at Geist between Audrey, Leonard, and Francine. And so we only have one episode—a relatively supersized 37-minute finale—to sort out one massive clusterfuck in the making. More on that in a bit.
But “Needle” is a simple and satisfying thriller-in-miniature, playing off the tense back-and-forth between Alex and Walter at Skins in the previous episode. When we left off, Alex was on a late-night shopping trip for what turned out to be two items: a melon and syringes. (Sidenote: Imagining what customers might do with late-night 12-items-or-less purchases must be absolutely fascinating for supermarket cashiers.) I was wrong about the melon being a serum receptacle like the liquor in The Irishman, though. Alex is just using it to practice the swift stabbing motion that will drive the needle into Walter’s arm. She knows that the jig is up, and now “crisis management” has shifted to a desperate, improvised Phase II.
The first thing that stands out about “Needle” is the size difference between Stephan James and Janelle Monáe. It doesn’t come across much when they’re sitting near the holding cell or on bar stools at Skins, but now that suspicions are high and actions are inevitable, the move Alex is trying to pull with the syringe seems impossible. She would have to stab upwards, testing the reflexes of a trained soldier who’s much bigger and stronger than she is, and on high alert to boot. We find out late in the episode that Alex indeed has no chance against him, but until that point, the physical disparities between the two actors feeds into the tense conversation Alex and Walter have with each other.
Alex’s plan is to strike out to Walter’s cabin in the woods, offer a carefully worded apology for the way the evening ended, get invited inside, and then stab him with the syringe when his guard is down. But he isn’t there. He’s waiting for her at her hotel room, offering his own fake apology about the night before and proposing that he join her on a morning fishing trip before they head out of town. The back-and-forth that follows — first on the long drive to the lake, then in the forest leading down from the main road — is an interrogation that Alex cannot survive. He knows that she’s lying. She knows that he knows that she’s lying. And so it becomes this semi-sadistic charade where he’s going to keep asking questions until she finally cracks.
There’s not that much to unpack psychologically in “Needle,” but it does pick at a couple of important scabs involving Alex. The one thing she doesn’t lie to Walter about is her relationship to Audrey, which has lasted for five years without them tying the knot. The sticking point is their philosophical difference over a child, but Walter has the insight that maybe the problem is her, not the kid. This is obviously born to some degree over his grim assessment of her moral character, but it also gives her genuine pause. That feeds into a moment of candor right before she tries to stab him. She wants him to know that he was right about Geist and that the company was nervous about him asking questions about it. This confession is her one stab at redemption before her attempted stab with the syringe, and it makes her more sympathetic than she’s been in the past. There’s at least some part of her that feels sorry for Walter and guilty for having to betray him further.
But for now, we’re all caught up time-wise. The serum gets injected into Alex’s arm, she runs out onto the rowboat to get away from Walter, and she makes one distressed call to Audrey before blacking out, informing her that she “fucked up” and that “he knows.” So we can safely assume that Walter is hot on Alex’s tail in the finale, even though she has no memory of him or Audrey or the shitstorm that’s about to rain on everyone’s heads. Add to that the divisions within Geist itself, with Francine and Audrey pushing for new consumer applications and Leonard wanting to raze his own berry field, and a busy finale awaits.
• Alex practicing what she’s going to say before knocking on Walter’s cabin door, calibrating the words until they’re exactly right, underlines how good she is at conjuring the dark art of crisis management. In a way, that’s part of her undoing: The words can feel too practiced, too canned, without the imperfections of authentic human speech.
• That said, Alex mentioning “the sand” as one of the things she didn’t like about serving overseas is a pretty half-assed response to Walter’s question about the pluses and minuses of deployment.
• Stephan James is really an extraordinary actor. If Beale Street Could Talk is probably his best showcase to date, but this season and last, Walter has been such a powerful moral center for the show. He’s toggled between vulnerability and strength so adeptly in these last two episodes.
• Snipers measure in yards, not meters. Alex will not make that mistake again — or at least she wouldn’t if she didn’t completely lose her memory.