If your head is spinning after taking in the premiere of Prodigal Son, you are definitely not alone. There was a lot of information and action packed into that first hour of Fox's newest crime procedural-slash-family drama, and on top of that, there were some subtler moments that might bear some significance throughout the fall as the series threads together its character connections alongside the myriad murder investigations ahead.
Let's walk through everything that happened in Prodigal Son's intense opening episode, shall we?
The pilot begins with a glimpse back to 1998, as Dr. Martin Whitly (Michael Sheen) delivers some seriously twisted wisdom to his then-10-year-old son Martin, planting seeds of self-doubt that would continue to haunt him throughout his childhood and beyond. "You're my son, and I love you. I will always love you because we're the same," he says. That might be a warm and fuzzy father-to-son sentiment under most circumstances, but since Martin aka "The Surgeon" is being arrested for the cold-blooded murder of 23 people at the time, Whitly's words — and the eerie grin which accompanies them — are just plain chilling.
Moving ahead to 2019, we see some echoes of Martin's oddities in the way Malcolm (Tom Payne) behaves. He has adopted the surname Bright to escape his family's name of shame and works as an FBI profiler to stop serial killers in their tracks, but he may have a little too much empathy and understanding of these maniacs all the same. After waxing poetic about how cicadas are impressive for their ability to emulate a predator's sounds — metaphor much? — he blithely wanders away from the rest of the police unit as they close in on a predator's potential hideaway, a slaughterhouse. He is immediately attacked by the killer, and, while knocked out, remembers a childhood visit with his father wherein his dad refused to answer why he did what he did but offered to spend time with him to possibly figure it out. Once awake, Malcolm manages to talk the killer down by verbally rationalizing the guy's penchant for violence. He's almost successful at subduing the suspect, but then the police chief barrels in and blows the guy's brains out on the spot, incensing Malcolm to the point that he punches the officer and calls the self-proclaimed "hero" a murderer.
Malcolm's stunt forces the FBI to let him go — they've already had concerns about him potentially suffering from PTSD and narcissism and, ya know, being an apple that didn't fall far enough away from the tree, and this incident seals the deal. Malcolm lashes out at his now-former bosses, but only to clarify that his father isn't a psychopath, rather, a predatory sociopath, before turning in his firearm. He seems a little too offended at the mischaracterization, no?
This career setback takes Malcolm down memory lane once again as he revisits his last encounter with his dad. Then a college student at Harvard, he'd been visiting his dad's cell on a regular basis to "talk shop" (Martin's words), but he had to cease the meetings if he wanted a chance at Quantico. His father didn't like the idea of him joining the feds, but he really didn't want him to stop coming for their visits. As Martin starts repeating his famous words about how they're the same, Malcolm finds himself trapped in his father's cell along with him and realizes this is another one of his all-too-frequent nightmares. He wakes up in bed with bindings on his wrists to prove this is not an isolated subconscious journey he's just been on but something he regularly battles with.
Malcolm's sister Ainsley (Halston Sage) thinks the firing is a good thing for him. Malcolm needs to get out of the murder business and move on with his life. At the same time, though, her work as an investigative journalist immerses her in the world of the macabre as well, even if she tries to hide it from him. Although he's initially receptive to the idea of finding a new line of work, Malcolm isn't unemployed long enough for that to happen. He runs into an old friend named Gil (Lou Diamond Phillips), who wants to bring him on at the NYPD as a profiler for an ongoing murder case and promises not to tell the other officers about the dirty secret of his parentage.
Once on the crime scene in question, it doesn't take Malcolm long to rub his new colleagues the wrong way — JT (Frank Harts) is particularly unamused by Malcolm's stinging comments — but he's able to prove himself by pegging the killer for a copycat of The Surgeon. Gil privately admits that he knew the killer's MO matched Martin Whitly's, but he wanted Bright's eyes on the evidence to be certain. Bright notes that the killer is copying his father's infamous "Quartet" murder spree and, after a strange bit of flirtation with the medical examiner Edrisa (Keiko Agena) over their shared fascination with sutures and incision precision, Malcolm narrows the list of suspects down significantly. He determines that all of the women must have been into BDSM and hired the same don to satisfy their interests. Thus, we have a money-slash-paper trail.
This leads the detectives to the door of one Nico Stavros, who turns out to be a victim himself. The real killer escapes pursuit, but Nico needs an immediate rescue because he is strapped to a chair that has a bomb tick-tick-ticking. Rather than try and disable the device, Malcolm picks up an ax and disarms Nico, literally speaking. He, JT, and Nico all escape the building almost intact, and Malcolm is clearly experiencing some kind of high from the violence he's just committed, albeit justifiably.
After informing his mother Jessica (Bellamy Young) and Ainsley at dinner that their father's work is being emulated, his mom warns Malcolm not to go back to see Martin again. "He's a cancer," she insists. "He will destroy you. Take it from me." Even if he doesn't return in the physical sense, though, his brain takes him back to that cell anyway. The overtired Malcolm falls asleep at the precinct, remembering a moment in his youth when Martin taught him all about the nervous system before Malcolm stumbled upon one of his victims tied up in a trunk. This night terror leads him to accidentally attack Dani Powell (Aurora Perrineau). Still, Gil is concerned about Malcolm's self-control, especially after he decides to pay his father a visit and solve this case once and for all.
The titular prodigal son returns to find his dad in good health and humor and surrounded by fancy accommodations. Malcolm figures out that the mark must be one of Martin's old patients who lifted some pages from his hideous murder-anatomy diaries and uses his well-earned gift for reading people to size up his father as well. He insists Martin is going to tell him who the killer is because otherwise he might leave and never come back to this cell. Who's playing mind games on whom now? Martin dutifully points to the chart of Carter Burkhead, a wealthy developer whose wife cheated on him with Nico Stavros after he had a heart attack and was treated by Dr. Whitly. Dani approaches his wife Blair at a party, and she leads the officer upstairs to his office. There, they're both attacked by Carter, but luckily, Malcolm arrives quickly enough to steal Carter's paralytic agent and suggest he take both ladies' place on the victim's list.
With his body trembling and his eyes the size of saucers, Malcolm pleads for Carter to give him "The Surgeon's pain." He is the son of Malcolm Whitly, after all, and he deserves that sentence because he "betrayed" his father by working to catch killers like him. This might be a dramatized monologue meant to buy him time so that Gil and JT can arrive and catch Carter or it could be that he really believes what he's saying. It's hard to tell, but given the absolute exhilaration on his face after he chopped a guy's hand off earlier, he really might be ready to give into some darkness.
Gil's still firmly convinced that Malcolm Bright is one of the good guys and tells JT and Dani the real reason he brought the secret son of a serial killer onto their team. Twenty years ago, that man was a child who called the police on his own father and warned the responding officer — Gil, of course — that Martin was going to kill him if he didn't act first. Indeed, the tea Dr. Whitly was brewing for Gil was laced with ketamine, which proved to be his preferred agent for subduing his victims.
The episode ends with one last visit between Malcolm and Martin. Malcolm has determined that his father must have helped to orchestrate the copycat killings to rope him back into his life. Martin denies it, but he chummily offers to help him track down more killers if only he'll spend more time with him. Although Malcolm walks away with a cold salutation to "Dr. Whitly," Martin seems to know he has succeeded in roping his son back into his life and offers one more gnarly grin as he coos, "My boy."
Prodigal Son airs on Mondays at 9/8c on Fox.