Almost Human: “Straw Man” (Episode 1.13)

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Almost Human: “Straw Man” (Episode 1.13)

Last week, I began recapping NBC’s Hannibal, which, for my money, stands as the finest drama currently on network TV. There was a fear on my part, however, that viewing such a masterclass in filmmaking and writing each week would unfairly bias me against the other shows that I recap. After all, once you’ve been given a beautiful, delectable gourmet meal, whatever you eat directly afterwards, no matter how delicious, will inevitably pale in comparison.

Luckily, Almost Human really stepped up its game this week. And as it should, considering that this marks the end of the show’s initial 13-episode-order and its official first season finale. Pressure is on to finish strong, and “Straw Man” does just that, highlighting all the elements that make the show enjoyable—from its inventive, sci-fi crime cases to its emotional heart-to-hearts between the two leads to the bits of levity slipped in between the cracks. (Dorian singing Lionel Richie definitely signals a series highlight.)

The episode begins with Kennex and Dorian investigating the case of a young, destitute girl who appears to have undergone a brutal (and unorthodox) killing. Not only has her body been sliced open and the organs removed, but also the cadaver has been filled with straw. This marks the MO of a notorious serial murderer called The Straw Man, a killer that Kennex’s late police father helped put away years ago. Believing the perpetrator to be a copycat, Kennex and Dorian head over to the prison to interrogate Michael Costa, the paranoid schizophrenic who Kennex senior pinned the crime on. Here, not only does Costa proclaim his innocence—he experienced several “black outs” that prevented him from giving a solid alibi—but he also claims that Kennex’s father believed his story and was in the process of trying to prove the man’s innocence when he was killed.

The show certainly wastes no time in affirming the validity of Costa’s claim. Indeed, the true Straw Man turns out to be a seemingly innocuous, wheelchair-bound man named Glenn. Using the wheelchair as a front (he doesn’t really need one), Glenn takes advantage of desperate vagabonds looking for a warm place to stay. He offers them a place to sleep and, once they are alone, proceeds to disable and abduct them. It turns out, far from directly murdering people, Glenn uses a 3AD printer-like technology to make an exact copy of the bodies, which he fills with straw. That way, police will believe that all of the abductees have been killed and, thus, will stop looking for them. Meanwhile, Glenn tests various kinds of robotics on his victims, hoping that it will eventually lead to a way to cure the degenerative disease that’s slowly killing his body.

Continuing the trend of memorable villain roles, Glenn might not win any awards for being the most emotionally complex antagonists (his true motivations are not revealed until a massive info dump in the last five minutes), but the actor’s ability to subtly switch from disarming nice guy to ruthless killer is a chilling sight to behold.

Diving into the case that led to his father’s death brings up some understandably complex issues for Kennex. This is only further complicated by the fact that, shortly before his death, Kennex senior was accused of being a corrupt cop, having illegally sold robotic parts on the black market. After the past two weeks explored the more lighter, wisecrack-prone elements of the Kennex character, this week features a swift return to the brooding, no-one-knows-what-it’s-like-to-be-the-sad-man of the pilot episode and the most recent “Perception.” Unlike “Perception,” however, this episode does not quite hit the nail on the head in regards to the character’s emotional turmoil. The lone exception is one scene where Kennex tells Dorian a story about how his father turned down a cut of drug dealer money from his corrupt police unit and how this act of integrity made Kennex want to become a policeman. Urban does what he can with the scene, but it feels like a speech we’ve heard in countless other stories of this sort. Nonetheless, the father angle provides a nice underlying personal layer to the case, since catching the Straw Man represents not only a chance for Kennex to finish his father’s work but also to repair the man’s tarnished legacy.

The other (lighter) emotional beat of the episode concerns Dorian’s departmental evaluation, which will determine whether or not he will get to stay on as a policeman(bot?). Whereas Kennex’s storyline serves to illustrate and expand the character’s mythology, the Dorian story serves to highlight the Kennex-Dorian relationship we’ve seen grow and develop over the past twelve episodes. There’s even a delightful moment early on in the episode in the patrol car where Kennex and Dorian end up recounting events from previous episodes, including Dorian re-programing the maintenance bot from “Arrhythmia” and the infamous testicle-scanning moment from “Skin.” This all leads to the season’s final scene, which finds the pair enjoying an impromptu dinner at an Asian restaurant stand. Here, Dorian gives Kennex the gift of a new and improved bionic leg as thanks for his testimony, which helped clinch the decision to reinstate Dorian. Particularly, he cites Kennex’s statement that it’s because of his partnership with Dorian that he’s stayed on the force. Kennex, naturally, denies making such a sentimental claim, especially when he sees Dorian tearing up. “I was made to feel, John,” Dorian says, effectively summarizing his character throughout the first season.

The two then receive an emergency call and are forced to abandon dinner. Just before the fade to black, Kennex runs back to the stand to claim Dorian’s leg present. Were the show not to get picked up for a second season and this proved to be the final image of the show, it’s a nice one to leave the audience with. Then again, this is also most likely due to the fact that I care so little for much of the show’s overarching plotline, including the Insyndicate material and Kennex’s romantic tension with Stahl.

Going back to Hannibal, it’s easy enough to imagine—in the shadowy, desaturated world of that show—how the concept of The Straw Man killer would have made for the kind of gloriously gory case that Hannibal does so well. Yet, rather than wonder how that show could have done it better, I came away from this finale really admiring the creativity of the writing staff in coming up with offbeat, yet surprisingly grounded cases to augment the show’s futuristic world. “Straw Man” might not be the best episode of TV this year, but it’s certainly indicative of how far Almost Human has come and how much more it could potentially offer. While the occasional episode here and there has been a bit of a chore to get through, this last batch of episodes has me throwing my vote squarely in the “Fox, please renew” category.

Mark Rozeman is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow him on Twitter.