by Billie Doux
I think I was hooked by this show in the opening scene. Daniel is off to the side waiting for his turn. He closes his eyes as a prisoner is being stripped and searched, giving him semi-privacy in the only way he can. And then Daniel is startled, outright thrown, when it's his turn and the guard treats Daniel himself like a person. We don't need to be told that Daniel is unaccustomed to being treated like a person. Aden Young, who plays Daniel, does that beautifully with just his expression.
Aden Young continues to show us just what Daniel is feeling during the rest of this pilot episode. Daniel is clearly in shock, unable to process what is going on around him. He really made me think about how unreal and overwhelming an experience like this would be. He acted as if any moment he would be yanked back to Death Row, so I kept expecting it to happen. Daniel told the reporters with disarming honesty that he had spent his time in prison religiously adhering to a routine that did not allow for optimism, and for that reason, he just wasn't prepared for freedom. Makes sense.
Daniel's first reaction to his family greeting him outside the prison door was like a deer in the headlights. He felt like he had always been in prison (as in the title of the episode, 'Always There') and that suddenly he was back in high school, and everything was too bright. The photography showed that overwhelming brightness, the sensory overload, in the uncomfortable close-ups of the faces of his family, the colorful food, the sun coming through the trees while they were driving, that gorgeous shot of Daniel and his sister Amantha standing in a field at dawn. I especially liked the scene of Daniel sitting in the bathtub, touching his own face like he was checking to make sure he was really there.
The prison flashbacks were striking, too. The walls were so white and appliances so colorless that it felt cold and futuristic, deliberately inhuman. I loved the way he and his friend Kerwin talked about their informal 'book club' as if it were the most important thing on earth. I'm a constant reader and can absolutely imagine that if I were in prison, books would mean the world to me, too.
But Daniel and Kerwin didn't just talk about books. Kerwin admitted to Daniel that he was guilty of his crime, which was killing a three-year-old girl, and talked about throwing in the towel and no longer continuing to fight for an appeal. He also talked about a book that was about free blacks in the old South owning slaves. Some obvious symbolism there.
Daniel isn't the only one who will have to adjust. His mother Janet made a nice dinner, like having her son come home from prison after twenty years was a normal situation with behavioral conventions. Nobody knew what to say, except maybe Amantha. She kept calling the cops and prosecutors and reporters obscenities, and kept calling Daniel "honey" and "sweetie". Half-brother Jared, too young to have ever lived with Daniel, wanted to give Daniel his room back. It was just so sweet that Jared brought Daniel that TV and DVD player, and sat down to watch a movie with him. Dazed and Confused, appropriately, since Daniel was both.
But stepbrother Teddy was the opposite. Teddy acknowledged in his introductory scene that he knew he had replaced Daniel in the family, and expressed the belief that Daniel must have done the crime since he was imprisoned for it. Teddy had never even bothered to go visit Daniel or in any way get to know him; they hadn't even met before Daniel's release. Teddy's wife Tawney realized (correctly) that Daniel was seeing things strangely, and Teddy later told his father that he'd had a big fight with Tawney. Was the fight about Daniel? And what does Ted Senior think about all this?
Amantha teased Daniel that he was a target (when referring to the box store), and she was right. We don't even know if Daniel actually killed Hanna, although I strongly doubt that he did. But it's almost unimportant. I don't even feel much like discussing the cops and the prosecutor and the actual crime, like they should just go away unaddressed. And that's mostly because I don't even want to consider the possibility that Daniel could go back to prison.
But at any rate, State Senator Foulkes and Sheriff Daggett believe strongly that Daniel killed sixteen-year-old Hanna Dean, and yet Foulkes said that "mistakes were made", and he and retired cop CJ were talking about protecting the girl's "reputation". Daniel was found by CJ next to Hanna's body, holding her hand and talking gibberish. Amantha said they forced a confession out of Daniel. Did they?
Which takes us to Trey and George meeting in the trees by the river, another oddly beautiful scene. George asked Trey if he killed Hanna, and Trey said no. Trey asked George the same thing, and George said no. George said a couple of interesting things here: "We were just kids. It wasn't real, you know?" and "What is the truth?" When Trey left, George shot himself in the head. Why would George kill himself if he didn't kill Hanna? Guilt over Daniel spending twenty years in prison for something George knew he didn't do?
Bits and pieces:
-- The power behind this series is Ray McKinnon (Deadwood, Sons of Anarchy). The role of Daniel was originally written for Walton Goggins, who turned it down. I love Walton Goggins, but I can't see anyone other than Aden Young in this role now. I wasn't sure I was "getting" him at first, so if you're new to this series, give Young a little time to grow on you. I think he will.
-- The family cars that drove Daniel home from prison were red, white and blue. Probably not intended, or maybe it was, since this show can't help being an indictment of the American prison system.
-- The photography of the sun-dappled Daniel isolated in the passenger seat of the car was also beautiful. It looked like he was floating. I liked the way Amantha kept driving Daniel around the small town of Paulie, even though he was sleeping.
-- Amantha strongly dislikes her stepbrother Teddy Junior. So do I. Janet told Teddy Junior to call her 'Janet' instead of 'Mom', so I bet Teddy finds a way to call Janet "Mom" in front of Daniel sometime soon.
-- We saw a flashback to an obviously terrified Kerwin entering his Death Row cell for the first time, while Daniel was meditating a bit loudly next door.
-- Since I've seen the first three seasons already, I'll mention that I've noticed repeated water imagery, symbolic baptism, perhaps. Here, we saw Daniel sitting in the bathtub twice in a state of contemplation, as well as that George/Trey death scene by the river.
-- Will Daniel work at the tire store? It's his family's business, not Ted Senior's, as Ted acknowledged. If that business has been supporting two families, shouldn't Daniel be entitled to some of that money? How could Teddy Junior pout like that and say he wanted to confront Daniel about not scaring away their customers?
-- Daniel was scheduled to die five times. What did that do to him, getting so close to execution five freaking times? What did it do to his family?
Teddy: "I hate to say it, but we all thought he'd be dead by now, anyway."
I think Teddy didn't hate to say it but was disappointed that Daniel was still alive and complicating Teddy's life.
Daniel: "I will seriously need to reconsider my world view."
Daniel: (to reporter) "There's a lot to process right now. I'll probably be happier later… Perhaps I'll be angrier later, as I will be happier."
Amantha: (driving through town) "Is this, like, weird?"
Daniel: "It's not unweird."
Daniel: "We call it 'lethal injection humor'. More humane, but not as funny."
Kerwin: "You want me to read a book called Of Human Bondage?"
Daniel: "It's not that kind of bondage."
Kerwin: "I would hope so. Hey, will I be glad when you get past your dead white man writing about lily white Europe stage."
Daniel: "I am on a kind of a jag."
Kerwin: "What's whack is, I still want to live. Every day. What's that about?"
Daniel: "Vitamin A deficiency."
Daniel: "I don't think I wanna become computer literate. Mobile phone literate neither." I can imagine the internet would be completely alien after twenty years in a box.
Senator Foulkes: "This is as messed up as a pile of hangers."
'Always There' is an exceptional pilot. It's even better when you go back and watch it a second time after you know the characters better. Four out of four piles of hangers,
Billie Doux is the founder of Doux Reviews and has been reviewing her favorite shows for quite some time. More Billie Doux.