Absentia episode 1, “Comeback” has a lot to unpack. If you haven’t seen it yet and don’t want to be spoiled, stop! Bookmark this page for after you’ve viewed the episode. That’s your spoiler warning – continue at your own risk!
Absentia Episode 1 – In the Beginning: Through A Glass, Darkly
The opening for Absentia episode 1 will haunt you for a long time. It literally and figuratively starts with a life-filled technicolored dream that falls into a dark and deadly nightmare reality. Those that saw the trailer knew that we would see FBI Special Agent Emily Byrne (Stana Katic) fighting for her life in a giant water tank. We also had seen the bright, color-saturated home movies of Emily with her dog, young son, and her husband, Special Agent Nick Durand (Patrick Heusinger). Nevertheless, seeing these things didn’t prepare one for the emotional punch in how they are used and edited together.
If you look over Katic’s career, she’s always been the kind of actress that relishes a physically challenging role. There are also several interviews where she talks about liking to do her own stunts. (This is a thing that directors probably love and that producers likely are terrified by!) As such, it’s not surprising that for the tank scene she’s really the one in the tank. It’s what her willingness to do this kind of thing brings to the role that I want to highlight.
Because there’s no moment of bait-and-switch there’s no subtle break in the illusion. Watching her panic, fight for life and then, facing her own imminent death, try to accept it and take that one last breath…it’s stunning work.
Setting The Stage For Emily’s Comeback – Meet the Players
The Villain – Probably
When Conrad Harlow (Richard Brake) is convicted of Emily’s murder, the man’s attitude isn’t rageful. Instead it’s coolly superior. Did you see the look Harlow gives the guard while putting his arms out to be handcuffed? It’s a near smile of almost pity for the fools around him. Brake, who was born in Wales, has built an impressive career of playing dark and/or mysterious men. He’s doing a great job as Harlow.
If a viewer came into watching Absentia episode 1 knowing absolutely nothing about it, there’s enough early on to suggest she’s actually dead. However, since we know she’s not, Harlow becomes more enigmatic. We can tell that he’s a part of what’s happened to Emily. How though, remains to be seen!
Family and Friends
Harlow’s sentencing gives us an introduction to Emily’s father (Paul Freeman). He is clearly grief-stricken. Her brother Jack (Neil Jackson) is comforting him and seems relieved. Nick is there as well. At his side is Special Agent Adam Radford (Ralph Ineson) whom we’ll later learn heads up the Boston office.
Six years later, a body is found in the river that has the serial killer’s signature – the eyelids have come up. The story structure and visuals briefly plays with the idea that it could be Emily. Of course, we know it’s not.
This is when we meet Detective Tommy Gibbs (Angel Bonanni). He is disturbed by the decaying male corpse having that signature. He tells the medical examiner that it must be a copycat killer, but the seeds of doubt about Harlow have been planted.
We’re then introduced to Emily’s son Flynn (Patrick McAuley). The baby we’d seen Emily and Nick playing with in the lake is now an excellent swimmer on a team. He and his stepmother Alice (Cara Theobold) are clearly bonded and he is secure and happy with his parents.
Right after the swim meet scene, the episode cuts to what’s said to be a yearly visit to Emily’s grave. It establishes where things stand emotionally for everyone. Nick, despite the happy new life with Alice still has grief about Emily – which she’s aware of. His boss Adam seems to be there more out of respect and duty. Flynn doesn’t like having to visit the grave. He tells Alice, “you’re my mom.”
What’s striking here is that neither Emily’s father nor her brother were there to visit Emily’s grave. It suggests that either life had moved on for them or that perhaps there’s a rift with them and Nick. By the end of Absentia episode 1 it’s obvious that Jack has some kind of guilt about something – and it’s not just about his drinking days. I’m suspicious about him, and also somewhat about Adam.
That night Nick gets a call from Harlow. He tells him that Emily’s alive and that this is Nick’s “second chance.” Nick has 60 minutes to find her and save her life!
Nick tears out the house without explaining anything to Alice – who’s totally freaked out. The fact that he reacts so strongly and without question shows us the depth of emotion he still has about Emily. He did though call into FBI headquarters to fill them in and ask for backup.
What Works & What We’ll Let Slide
There’s a standard law enforcement storming into a unknown situation scene as Nick and his men approach the cabin where Harlow said Emily’s supposed to be. It’s empty, but then Nick figures out there’s something beneath the floor. They rip up the floorboards and find Emily in the tank! After some frantic moments, including thinking there’s a bomb about to go off (it’s a timer unlocking the tank) Emily is rescued!
Because the pacing on the rescue is so dramatic and intense you’re carried along in the emotions. Nevertheless, Emily’s rescue brings up a ton of questions. First of all, Emily is conscious when they find her. While the shots of her desperate and terrified face underwater are chilling it also means she had to have just been put into the tank. It only takes a fews minutes to lose consciousness.
There’s something else to ponder as well. The way Emily’s positioned isn’t just dramatic. It suggests that she may have seen her captor leave. Remember, in the opening she sees the person who turns on the water. Will that memory come back? Hmmm….
Being that she’s been missing for six years, the way she’s found also makes changes the perception of what we just witnessed in the opening. Was this the first time this particular torture had happened to her or was it done routinely? It’s a question because if she was watching her captor leave what was she expecting – for him to come back? It’s impossible to guess about what’s gone on!
Also, back at FBI headquarters we learn that there were “hallucinogens and nutrients in the water.” What the heck is that about? The hallucinogens make sense – Emily has no sense of how long she’s been gone – but nutrients? That won’t help you breathe….
Hopefully these questions get answered in future episodes and aren’t just there to add a veneer of mystery.
The After Effects of Her “Comeback” – Pros and Cons
I’ll start with the few things that bugged me first – just to get them out of the way. Who tipped off the press that they’d found Emily? Once she was admitted to the hospital it makes sense that they’d find out. They were there when she was first being brought in. It was an FBI operation, not a police one, so it’s not like they were monitoring police reports. Everyone likes to show how bloodthirsty and insensitive the presscore can be, but that felt like overkill.
The pacing on Emily’s return to society is fast. Adam starts talking about Emily’s “debrief and assimilation” process hours after she’s been found and taken to the hospital. It’s done for the expediency of the story, so it’s forgivable. Nevertheless, it still hits as unbelievable that they’d let her jump back into working as quickly as they do.
Finding Emily’s skin under the dead guy’s nails is supposed to set up suspicion that she’s the serial killer? That’s one heck of a leap!
Katic and others have at times described Absentia as a “Nordic-styled” thriller. One of the hallmarks of those is that exploring the psychology of people is as important as the solving the crime. Absentia episode 1 has that side of things down!
Stana Katic makes this intriguingly written women one you’re immediately rooting for. Emily’s reactions to events are believable, compelling, and revealing. For one, we know that whatever hell she was put through didn’t break her spirit. Each time she came out of consciousness it was fighting to defend herself. After six years of torture that’s not a given. Stockholm syndrome, where the victim bonds with the torturer and doesn’t try to escape, is a real thing. Katic absolutely sells us on the fact that Emily had been terrorized, but continued fighting for her life.
Then there are all these scenes where time and again Emily is faced with what she’s lost. Even though the promos and interviews told us that the story would be about that, watching it is still gut-wrenching to see her reactions. Whether it’s waking up not knowing where she is and lashing out, or realizing that her son doesn’t consider her to be his mother, you’re pulled into Emily’s emotions.
The Emotional Triangle of Alice, Nick, and Emily
That Alice’s world has just been turned upside down is well-played by Cara Theobold. She can’t hate Emily, because how can you hate someone who’s survived being tortured for 6 years? At the same time her underlying panic about possibly losing Nick and Flynn is felt in every conversation she has with Nick. We feel badly for her – even though we’re hoping Emily and Nick get their life together back.
Nick’s guilt about moving on also comes across well. That he’s never really gotten over the loss of Emily is something that adds to that. It’s telling when Jack says Nick had to move on, “for Flynn.” Did he just go out to find a woman who’d be a good mother for his son even though he was still grieving?
The way they used the flowers to tie into one of Emily’s old cases was a good twist! I’m definitely intrigued about how that case ties into what happened to Emily!
The Wrap Up Final Musing on Absentia Episode 1
Overall I enjoyed the this first episode of Absentia. The sense that nothing is as it seems is palpable. While the idea that Emily is the serial killer doesn’t seem likely, I’ve no clue where it’s leading to either.
I also like the look of Absentia. One thing that stood out for me while watching was that the brightness of Emily’s memories are not duplicated anywhere – not even at Flynn’s swim meet. As happy as things seem to be, there’s a dullness to the colors that creates a pall over everything. It’s a subtle and appropriate visual metaphor.
At the same time, I kind of wish they’d made up some fictitious U.S. city. This place doesn’t look like Boston. File it under the things to let slide. This will not be the first show that’s said it’s supposed to be a certain place but looks nothing like it.
Furthermore, the mood of the place fits the show. It has a unique feel to it, even though some of the law enforcement things are somewhat generic. That’s not a complaint. It’s impossible to not have that sense when you’re dealing with anything that has procedural elements. What makes any kind of procedural work is if you care about the people that are involved – and Absentia definitely succeeds with that.
Did you enjoy Absentia episode 1? Who are you suspicious of after viewing it? Let me know in the comments – just based on this first episode, please. No spoilers!