There are oodles of horror stories that turn on a sadistic captor attempting to extract something out of a prisoner. Those types of narratives often manifest as cat-and-mouse games in which the captive is placed at a distinct disadvantage because they don’t know the rules of the game. The Patient differs from many of these in that Alan Strauss has been taken (I will find you, Sam) exactly because he knows how the game of therapy is played. And he needs to call upon all of his expertise in order to survive.
In many ways, the series has begun to take on some familiar tones from Stephen King’s Misery. In that story, a deranged woman kidnaps her favorite romance novelist and forces him to rewrite the ending of his most recent novel. The novelist utilizes all of his writing skills to increase his chances of survival, but he must learn to navigate the dense and thorny psychology of his captor as he spends day after day confined to a claustrophobic space.
In Misery, the novelist eventually escapes. I’m not so sure about Alan’s chances with Sam, though.
The entirety of this installment takes place in Sam’s basement, further establishing the tone of a two-hander that, at times, almost falls into the rhythm of a stage play. As Alan reluctantly agrees to engage in Sam’s experiment, he’s relying on muscle memory and instinct to carry him through. In the premiere episode, Alan tells a client he has been a therapist for a long time, and while he’s doing the best he can here, it feels as if he’s just going through the motions. It’s understandable, really. The man is in complete shock.
As Alan acclimates to his environment, he has a lot of downtime to spend with his own thoughts. He experiences two distinct flashes of memory that involve his late wife. First, he recalls a time when they meditated together. In the memory, she gently chides him for being too “in his head,” but Alan protests that everything happens in his head. The two have a sweet back-and-forth establishing that their relationship was still playful and close even as they approached old age.
The second memory is a bit thornier. Perhaps triggered by the plastic fork Sam has given him with breakfast, Alan recalls a time when his son, Ezra, and his wife came over for a visit. A cakelike loaf is sitting on a paper plate, and Alan’s wife is attempting to cut it with a plastic knife. I don’t know a ton about Jewish traditions, but the situation with the disposable dinnerware suggests that Ezra and his wife practice a strict form of Orthodox Judaism. When Ezra’s wife mentions a “real knife,” we can see fireworks go off in Alan’s wife’s eyes. She’s mad. Big mad. Later, she smashes the loaf against the wall, and Alan makes a joke about eating it. He tries to calm his wife by saying that Ezra is just going through a rebellious stage and that all kids do it.
It feels as though Alan probably has some of his own demons to exorcise, but he doesn’t really have time to work on himself because his focus is on Sam. Alan initially refuses to be Sam’s therapy pet, and Sam’s response is to haul out a banker’s box chock-full of stuff he has stolen from his victims. While we don’t get to see exactly how many items are in there, the way Sam carries it and sifts through it suggests the box contains evidence of dozens of lives he has stolen. Sam wants to impress upon Alan that he’s not lying, but obviously Alan believes him. Who else would kidnap and imprison their therapist if not a serial killer?
Sam doesn’t seem to have a ton of remorse for what he has done, but he knows he wants to stop doing it. As Alan continues to protest engaging in therapy, Sam tosses a veiled threat his way: “If you’re not going to be a part of the process, then where is that going to leave us?” It becomes clear that Alan has no choice. With an exhausted sigh, he heaves himself off the bed and drags his chair to the coffee table. An excited, almost childish smile flits over Sam’s face as he realizes he’s getting what he wants.
Alan’s first attempt to gain some sort of authority over the situation is to employ a contracting technique. He asks Sam to agree not to harm anyone — including Alan himself — unless they’ve talked about it first. As a therapeutic tool, contracts and contracting can have mixed results, but within the confines of the basement, it’s all Alan has. He can maintain an aura of control by getting Sam to agree to a certain set of rules before they start. Sam promises to try, which is the best Alan will get, so they begin.
Later that night, Sam returns with a giant Dunkin’ Donuts cup in hand. Do serial killers run on Dunkin’ like Ben Affleck runs on Dunkin’? Maybe, because Sam seems especially talkative. He shares with Alan that he has been particularly obsessed with this one guy for months on end, but he doesn’t want to act on the impulse to kill him.
In 12-step groups, the first step is admitting you have a problem; the same goes for therapy. Even though Sam admits to harboring deeply violent sociopathic tendencies, he also admits that his compulsion to kill is causing him problems. He’s distressed by the feeling it gives him, and he seems to realize it’s wrong. In fact, he started seeing Alan right around the time he became obsessed with this guy.
This is a step in the right direction, but while Sam seems to want to engage in therapy, he’s pushing back against the process. When Alan compares him to other clients with uncontrollable compulsions, Sam refuses to believe his problems could be the same as anyone else’s. Every time Alan tries to reassure Sam that the roots of his problems are fueled by deeply human impulses, Sam shakes it off.
So Alan shifts tactics. Instead, he starts to sympathize with Sam’s predicament, reflecting back to him with kindness and understanding. This, unfortunately, doesn’t seem to work either.
For all his efforts, Alan is rewarded with a nighttime lullaby of Sam pissing out an endless stream of stale Dunkin’ coffee in the bathroom on the other side of the wall. It’s an insulting capper to a nightmare day.
However, the next morning brings some possible hope. Throughout his captivity, Alan has been hearing shuffling noises from upstairs. After Sam leaves for work, Alan begins to yell. At first, he thinks it may be another captive, and he asks if the person is okay. The man’s a people pleaser! But then we get a glimpse of a fireplace poker wobbling down the stairs. This person is most certainly not a captive. Who could it be?
That’s our time for today, but I’ll see you at our next session.
• As someone who for a very long time ran intensive therapeutic groups focusing on people struggling with addiction, I couldn’t help but think about what a support group for serial killers might look like. Sam keeps rejecting the idea that anyone else could ever relate to his problems, and one of the cornerstones of group therapy is providing a safe space for people who have similar issues so they can support and uplift one another in their healing process. In some alternate fictional universe, Sam is sitting on a rickety folding chair nursing his giant cup o’ Dunkin’ and listening to Joe Goldberg and Dexter Morgan try to process their complex feelings about killing. 11/10 would watch.
• Speaking of killing, Sam’s compulsion to kill seems to stem from resentment, anger, and embarrassment when someone treats him as lesser than. Sure, we’ve all wanted to smack a bitch when some rando has talked down to us, but we don’t kill. Maybe we think about it? But we don’t act on it.
• The object of Sam’s obsession works at a restaurant that serves moussaka-filled gyoza. I Googled it because this particular Greek-Japanese fusion experiment sounded delicious, but I don’t see that it exists anywhere. Can someone get David Chang on this, stat?