Review: Motive’s ‘Undertow’, or is it, UnderTrope?
By Catherine Cabanela
If you’ve ever gotten caught in an undertow, you know what a disorienting and frightening experience it can be. You’re lucky if you resurface unscathed – and it’s probably your face that takes the biggest hit. This week’s Motive, aptly entitled ‘Undertow,’ delivers the same disorientation and injury as a surprise walk across the bottom of the ocean with your face.
Following in the footsteps of other successful prime time homicide procedurals such as CSI, Bones, NCIS, Law & Order, Castle, and The Closer, Motive’s ‘Undertow’ employs Hitchcock’s ‘Strangers On A Train’ trope of strangers swapping murders in an attempt to dupe authorities tasked with building cases on motive. However, ‘Undertow’s’ difficult-to-follow timeline is distracting and two key issues beg believability.
Written by Daegan Fryklind who wrote Motive’s ‘Out of the Past’ episode and directed by Canada’s Iceland-born award-winning filmmaker, Sturla Gunnerson, who also directed Motive’s ‘Public Enemy’ (this reviewer’s personal favorite episode thus far), ‘Undertow’ possesses the requisite Hitchcockian ominous undertone imbued cinematographically by the use of light and color. Also consistent with the trope is the harrowing tension between the killer who has already killed and the morally-conflicted counterpart who has yet to.
Charles Stanwyck (John Pyper-Ferguson) is a building contractor desirous of mortal retribution upon his irresponsible brother-in-law who caused the death of Charles’ six-year-old son. Stanwyck kills Taylor Hollis (Alex Arsenault of Caprica), a post-graduate and recently-reformed Ritalin street dealer who is scheming to run away with Sunny Rand (Neelam Khabra: Primeval: New World) despite the impending arrival of her fiancé through an arranged marriage.
Vijay Rand (Raoul Bhaneja of The Sentinel) is Sunny’s traditional South Asian father and the owner of GM Restaurant specializing in East Indian Cuisine who is counting on the profitable marriage of his daughter to fund the extensive restaurant renovation he’s hired Stanwyck to do.
The deal: Stanwyck kills Hollis for Rand; Rand kills the hapless brother-in-law for Stanwyck. It falls apart not only because Rand is reluctant and morally conflicted, but because Stanwick and Rand are not strangers and, therefore, their murderous marriage is easily uncovered.
The rapid timeline switches confusingly between three months ago (when Stanwyck’s son was killed), a month ago (when Hollis stopped dealing drugs and possibly when Stanwyck and his wife go shopping for paint for the deceased boy’s room), several nights ago (when Stanwyck saw Sunny and Hollis making plans to run away), an indeterminate time when the murder pact was sealed), the night Stanwyck killed Hollis and present day when Flynn and Vega are investigating the crime. Oy vey, my head hurts! For a while, it’s unclear whether Hollis, the victim, was somehow Stanwyck’s son—but then why would he kill him and then be devastated? This leaves the befuddled viewer scratching her head quizzically.
The death notification of his six-year-old son to Stanwyck at work begs believability in its delivery. Stanwyck receives a seemingly innocuous phone call after which he falls apart. While the melt down is believable, why wasn’t Stanwyck called to the hospital then compassionately informed and supported by wife and the appropriate professionals? Maybe they do things differently in Vancouver, but I doubt it. Maybe there wasn’t screen time to spare—but this could have been handled more appropriately, in this reviewer’s opinion.
The second issue begging believability is how Stanwyck, a man with absolutely no criminal history, a perfect credit rating, a beautiful wife, and a successful business—if the high quality of his home and furnishings are an indication—how does a man like that go from successful and thriving to murderous in three months? Yes, his son died, was killed tragically. Devastated are they who lose a spouse, but that space in a person’s life can be refilled somewhat, eventually. But the loss of a child, especially a young one, inflicts a mortal wound upon a parent, one that bleeds without restraint or respite.
“You’re a parent, so you get it,” Stanwyck says to Flynn at the very end of the episode.
“Yes, I am. But, no I don’t get it,” she replies. Why? Because there are people who believe in the system and those who don’t. Flynn believes in the system. Perhaps Stanwyck didn’t. Perhaps it didn’t matter what he believed. All he could see was his pain. And with that pain, he pulled Vijay Rand to the bottom of the ocean to his own demise as well.
We learn nothing new about our main and recurring characters in this episode except that Lucas is kowtowing to his wife once again by doing a support cleanse: “no meat, wheat dairy” while totally nailing the sweater look better than Fred Rogers ever did. Perhaps it’s the streamlined zipper that adds just a touch of swagger.
Also appearing in this episode were a lot of lesser-known names you may not recognize due to the one-off nature of many of their small screen bit appearances with the exception of John Pyper-Ferguson (Deception, Alphas, Caprica) and Michael Adamthwaite whose face you may never have seen but whose voice you may recognize as Jay in Ninjago: Masters of Spinjitzu) plus both Justin Hammer and Titanium man in Iron Man: Armored Adventures. In an ironic twist, Adam Thwaite’s character in ‘Udertow’ is Milo Kranc, a drug lord! Get it?
Anyone following Motive’s debut season on the alphabet network is familiar with how well they have done so far. Created by Daniel Cerone of Mentalist, Dexter, and Charmed fame—and predominantly fleshed-out by writer/developer James Thorpe, Motive has maintained the third or higher rating for the attentions of the 18-49 demographic of the 9PM time slot against such programming successes as CBS’ Person of Interest and Big Brother and NBC’s The Office and The Winner Is.. So, they must be doing something right, right?
Described on May 24th as “the most watched series debut” and on May 31st as “Thursday’s #1 new show” by Zap2it’s TV by the Numbers and earning as much as 6.1 million viewers, we can assume Motive will continue to entertain us, and hopefully into season two next Spring. Let’s just hope the network doesn’t base their decision upon the ‘Undertow.’
In next week’s episode, we need more Flynn and Vega. It’s time to get to know them better! Tune in for Motive’s “Framed” Tune in THURSDAY, August 8th (9:00-10:01 p.m., ET) on ABC.