WARNING: This recap contains spoilers for the first episode of Absentia.
Stana Katic is back.
Her new series Absentia dropped on Amazon Prime Video Friday and I am OBSESSED.
From the very first scenes, this show does not hold anything back.
The first episode “Comeback” opens with a smiling, happy Emily Byrne (Katic) with her husband Nick Durand (Patrick Heusinger), their young son Flynn and their puppy playing in the snow, no voices, just muted music, then cuts to Byrne being beaten and left in a tank filling with water in a basement. As the tank fills, it cuts to a memory of her, Nick and Flynn playing in the ocean before the opening titles. You already know from the get-go this show is going to be intense and you better strap in.
We cut to a courtroom scene where Byrne’s suspected killer is sentenced, and her husband Nick and Emily’s brother Jack and father Warren are there. Nick follows the US Marshals and confronts suspected serial killer Conrad Harlow (Richard Brake), the one convicted of killing Emily, and demands to know where she is, so I’m left to assume they never found a body (remember, we know that Emily’s not dead, but the characters don’t). Because of that, I’m not sure if Nick was hoping she was still alive, but his anguish and grief is on full display as a US Marshal and a fellow agent hold him back from following Harlow.
We cut to six years later and a row team is training on the lake, which seems like an odd cut until you see the body float by them. It’s recovered by the Boston Police Department, which is how we are introduced to Tommy (Angel Bonanni), a BPD homicide detective. The body is taken to a morgue where the ME (Nathan Wiley) reveals that someone surgically removed the victim’s eyelids (which was supposedly Harlow’s trademark). They spare no expense with the body, which is super gross. They trade theories about whether Harlow was wrongfully convicted or if they were dealing with a copycat killer. Either way, I could have done without the final image of the decomposing waterlogged corpse, but it is in keeping so far with the show’s grittier, less network-cleansed feel.
The morgue becomes a swim meet, where we are reintroduced to an older Flynn Durand (Patrick McAuley), Emily’s son, who is there with a blonde woman encouraging him. Nick reappears and the blonde woman is revealed to be Alice Durand (Cara Theobold), Nick’s new wife and Flynn’s stepmother. I felt a little pang of jealousy on behalf of Emily as Nick and Alice share a kiss when Flynn wins his meet, but you have to keep in mind that to everyone at this point, Emily’s been dead for six years, and Nick, Alice and Flynn do admittedly make an adorable little family.
The next scene is one that drives home how long Emily’s been gone as the Durands and Emily’s former boss Adam Radford (Ralph Ineson) visit Emily’s grave, presumably on the anniversary of her disappearance. Theobold, through her body language and facial expressions, makes it clear that Alice still feels uncomfortable and like an outsider when it comes to anything to do with Emily, even despite Flynn telling her “You’re my mom.” It’s unclear at this point how long Nick and Alice have been together or how long she has raised Flynn, but you feel for Alice in this scene, like she will always be an outsider in their family no matter what.
The plot kicks into high gear with a phone call to Nick in the middle of the night, supposedly from Harlow, telling him that Emily is alive and where to find her. Nick reacts on instinct, leaving his house and his family to go and rescue Emily, despite repeated attempts and pleas from Alice. One thing that really grabs me about this series is their use of music to heighten the action or the emotions in the scene. This scene features a very heavy, percussive action-movie-style musical sequence that drives the action forward the closer they get the cabin and to Emily. It ebbs and flows with the scene and matches well.
Once inside the cabin, they find Emily in the tank underneath the floorboards, still alive. There’s a rush to try and get her out, but they discover that the lock is on a timed release (curious, remember that for later). The paramedics try to treat her in the ambulance, but she fights back, causing them to sedate her until they can get her to the hospital and run tests. Once they reach the hospital, they’re mobbed by reporters as the news of Emily’s reappearance has been leaked to the press. Doctors whisk Emily away for tests, leaving Nick alone in a hallway, the first moment he’s had to try and process everything since receiving the phone call from Harlow. So…instead of doing that…he decides to call Alice, who is sitting huddled in on herself in the shower with the news playing in the background, the shock and fear clear on her face.
Jack Byrne (Neil Jackson) appears again, waiting with Nick for news of Emily. Alice calls Nick back after ignoring his calls, trying to keep her voice steady. I felt a sharp pain for Alice when she tells Nick “I love you” at the end of the call, and all he says is “I know.” You could tell by her tone she was looking for some sort of reassurance amid the chaos and he didn’t deliver. Also, this episode makes you really dislike the media just a little bit because after both Alice and Nick decide not to tell Flynn about Emily, Nick wanting to be there when they do, Flynn opens his front door to a lawn full of camera crews and reporters asking him how he feels to know his mom’s still alive. Because that’s how you want to find out monumental, life-changing news. With cameras and microphones shoved in your face.
Jack and Nick share a moment in the hospital while waiting, Nick expressing guilt at not continuing to look for Emily and Jack at least on the surface absolving him because of Flynn. Dr. Fletcher (Marianne Stanicheva) brings them pseudo-hospital-drama-news (No we don’t know what happened, still running tests) and gives that doctorly “She needs to rest.” The only bit of news we learn here is that Emily keeps experiencing spasms in her throat linked to drowning. As Dr. Fletcher doesn’t really appear again in the episode, that scene feels a little unnecessary other than to push Nick to expend his nervous energy elsewhere.
Nick heads back to work where his colleagues are now working on Emily’s case, trying to follow any leads they can to her abductor, including looking into Emily’s past cases. Nick remains steadfast in his belief that Harlow had something to do with her disappearance, and you feel his dismay at the idea that Harlow will be let out of prison (remember, he was convicted of Emily’s murder, but she’s not dead). He continues to push that Harlow was the one who called him, despite Adam insisting there was no evidence to support it.
Finally we get to Emily, who is waking up from a nightmare that does not skimp on the horror. Katic’s performance, the disorienting cinematography and the sharp score work beautifully in sync to make the audience feel Emily’s panic as she reacts violently to a black shape coming towards her, which turns out to be a journalist who snuck into her room. She is subdued by orderlies and the journalist is taken from the room with a bleeding shoulder, presumably from Emily’s attack.
Nick comes charging in and we are introduced to psychologist/psychiatrist/therapist (they don’t label him) Dr. Daniel Vega (Bruno Bichir) who has taken Emily on as his patient. Nick finally gets to reunite with a somewhat-conscious Emily, who asks to see pictures of her son, despite Dr. Vega’s protests. I love Emily’s dad Warren (Paul Freeman) and her brother Jack in this scene. We’ve been so focused on Nick through this whole process of Emily’s return that there hasn’t been much focus on her father or brother up until this point, but both Freeman and Jackson make the most of what little time and focus they have in this scene. Jack’s (crossed arms, closed off expression, and then slipping out the door at the first opportunity) and Warren’s (open, expressive face, gently touching Emily at every possible moment, his eyes never leaving hers) body language say so much about how the two feel about Emily’s reappearance.
Nick and Emily are finally left alone to talk, and Emily finds out that she’s been gone for six years. Your heart breaks for her when she notices Nick’s new wedding band, schooling her face into a blank expression to hold back tears. I love watching Katic’s facial expressions. She’s always been so good at conveying so much without any words at all.
Nick has a small breakdown before going to confront Harlow in his cell. Harlow as a character doubles down on the creepy and flippant, not caring at all about helping Nick. You can tell by his tone that he knows more than he’s telling, but he feels no impetus to tell Nick a thing. This scene doesn’t give us much new information in terms of the mystery at hand, but it does reinforce the fact that Nick still loves Emily as he launches himself across the table at Harlow.
The next scene keeps the camera mostly focused on Emily, putting her emotions and fear on display as she relays what little she remembers of her captor and insists on going home.
Now we find ourselves in the middle of the episode, and an emotional high point for the episode: Emily seeing her son for the first time in six years and seeing the life that Nick built without her. I was in tears with Emily both times she broke down: once when she saw and held Flynn, and the other when she cried in Nick’s arms, believing that her son hated her because he told her that Emily had upset his mother (Alice). All Emily wanted since she woke up was to see her son, but he doesn’t remember her or know her. Alice also shows her blossoming distrust of Emily as she watches Nick comfort her before she leaves to go stay with Jack. We’re only 20-30 minutes into this show and I can already tell that facial expressions are going to be key. We get to learn a little more about Jack in the next scene, learning that he has lost his medical license, is selling medical supplies to make money and is a recovering alcoholic. He opens his home to his sister, trying to make her feel comfortable while not knowing how to act around her, and gives her the bouquet of flowers left on his doorstep for her (remember the flowers).
We then switch between interview tape of Emily and Dr. Vega talking about her disappearance, Emily trying to remember what happened to her, and Nick watching the tapes in the FBI office. They reach a break in the case when Emily starts listing off flowers, which Nick realizes correspond to the names of girls connected with known sex-trafficker Robert Samarov, who was one of Emily’s earlier cases. A ME comes in to reveal they have DNA evidence from the body from earlier (the really gross one), which sends Nick to bargain with Tommy at the BPD. The snark between Nick and Tommy is great in this scene, showing Tommy’s bitterness at having his case taken away by the feds.
Nick drops the bomb on Emily about Samarov, and mentions the flower names she talked about in the interview, which, you guessed it, correspond to the flowers in the bouquet she got. Nick calls it in for evidence, and the two of them team up to investigate Samarov further. They go to a seedy strip club to meet up with a former informant, and they speak in Russian to each other at this part (if you want to know what they’re saying, make sure to have English subtitles on at this point). Also, fun fact: Katic is fluent in several languages (Russian is not actually one of them, but Serbian is).
The next scene has a distinct “in the principal’s office” feel as Adam “disciplines” Nick for working the case with Emily. Against his, and probably most people’s, better judgment, Adam does approve Emily to tag along when the FBI goes to arrest Samarov, which turns out to not be such a good idea when she beats the crap out of one of Samarov’s men trying to get information. Like with the journalist, the violence shocks the people around her, suggesting that this is a marked difference from the Emily of six years ago, of which we have only seen home movies. I’d be interested to see more of past-Emily to highlight and expand on this change more.
The episode ends with the bombshell that Samarov is actually the body in the morgue (still gross), and the DNA under the fingernails is actually Emily’s (say what now?), leaving you speechless and already queuing up the next episode.
I’m so glad Amazon choose to release all ten episodes at once. I can’t imagine watching a show like this week by week.