In this week’s episode of The Player, Alex Kane finally gets the breakthrough regarding his ex-wife Ginny’s disappearance that he’s been hoping for, but he may soon wish he’d never found it. Meanwhile, Mr. Johnson reminds us all what the rules of The House are as he handles a situation that proves the dynamics of this dangerous game are a lot more complicated than we thought.
First off, Johnson has a social life. At least, he’s pretending to, doing some underground gambling and intentionally losing so that he can be brought back to the office and beat the crap out of everyone in his immediate radius. That’s all to get the attention of Han, who tells him that the Chinese government has ordered a hit on a random kid who planted a computer virus. Sounds like a case for Alex Kane, doesn’t it?
Someone would have to wake him up first, because he’s passed out on his couch after another night reminiscing about his ex-wife. But as he’s going through Ginny’s old photos, he notices that the dates on the files don’t match up with the events in question. While he stares at that, we’ve found the random kid: his name is Solomon (Nik Dodani), and he’s a hacker who’d rather be poking around in code than going to a party. When his computer backfires, he ditches it in a dumpster.
“I’m not sure what to think about you,” Alex tells Mr. Johnson, reminiscing about how he got shot six days ago before Cassandra introduces the new bet: stop the Chinese from shooting Solomon, who’s been involved in many things that he shouldn’t have been involved in. His latest task was putting a virus in the Pentagon network for the Chinese, who now want to bump him off to cover their tracks. “You want me to keep him safe?” Alex says incredulously, as he’s tasked with getting the little smartass to the Indian consulate.
His first stop is, naturally, Solomon’s dorm room where he finds one of the Chinese thugs already there and wanting to fight. Several of his friends are on the way, too. After knocking out the first guy, Alex has no choice but to jump out a second-story window to avoid the others, and that’s going to hurt for a few minutes. He eventually finds Solomon is a campus garage, takes the tire iron off him, and gives him a dressing-down for “playing games with people’s lives.” Huh, that’s probably not just intended for the kid…
Cassandra’s lost her signal just as Alex can overhear a helicopter above the garage. “It’s not just the Chinese who are after you,” he says needlessly as SWAT and CIA join the party. He toys with the idea of giving Solomon to the feds, but that would mean losing the bet, so try again. The back-up plan is to commandeer Solomon’s car slash engineering project, drive it through the garage door, and start a car chase. Alex Kane’s in a car chase; must be Thursday.
The next morning, Mr. Johnson takes a ride to have a meeting with an old associate (that’s Strike Back badass Will Yun Lee). He believes his friend had something to do with the Triad marching orders. “You broke with House rules,” he says. “When you bet on a game that you hold a personal stake in…” He’s cancelled the other man’s $3 million bet and is giving him a strict warning to play by the rules or else. “The House may not always belong to you, Mr. Johnson,” is the reply. Johnson leaves and asks Cassandra to get to the truth of the matter.
She’ll get to that once she’s done helping Alex and Solomon get out of where they’re holed up. First, she wants a word with the hacker, who refers to Alex as “Captain America” (so fitting) and claims the virus was already present when he got there. Solomon says whoever’s running the Pentagon’s security team is behind on their security patches, including the one related to the missile guidance system. When he tried to fix the problem, that’s when his laptop exploded. Alex reiterates his desire to turn Solomon in, but the hacker claims he didn’t intentionally get involved with Russian arms dealers. He just thought they wanted to be friends. Of course they did.
After they’ve hotwired another car (and Solomon has tried to hit on Cassandra), it’s sniper time. The Chinese have caught up and Alex is going to need more bullets or possibly a bigger gun. He has neither, so they just have to make a run for it, and then attempt to catch the Metro train that leaves just seconds ahead of them. While they’re waiting for the next one, Alex asks Solomon if there might be a pattern to why the dates on some of Ginny’s photos are wrong, but doesn’t have time to get an answer as more thugs – and the feds – have arrived.
This three-way standoff involves a lot of shooting, a lot of bystanders screaming, and a golden opportunity for Alex to surrender Solomon to the US government. This time, it’s not for his personal disagreement; he goes through with it because he trusts Agent Jones (Ramon De Ocampo) when he says he can protect the hacker. Ordering Solomon to stay with the guy, Alex literally jumps in front of an oncoming train to make it into the service tunnel, and survives by the skin of his teeth.
He’s going to need a minute to catch his breath, so here’s Solomon in a black SUV with Jones and his fellow NSA agents, who ask for his help in finding the real hackers – seemingly corroborating the story the kid told Alex. Unfortunately, Jones is the only guy in the car who isn’t working for somebody else, and gets shot two seconds later. The NSA agents are bringing Solomon to the Triad, which prompts an annoyed phone call from Johnson to Alex, who suggests he’s “maybe going to go to the spa” rather than play out the next 64 minutes.
But because he’s a fundamentally good guy, he puts off the seaweed wrap, acquires a poor dude’s motorcycle at a stoplight and follows the SUV to a high-rise where there’s a helicopter on the roof. Another exchange of bullets takes place up there, with Alex quipping, “I’ve been told I’m not very strategic.”
He shoots a few Triad thugs, then pistol-whips the last one, and rescues Solomon – who now has an appointment with the non-corrupt NSA, where he’s presented with a deal direct from the White House while Cassandra sits beside him assuring him everything will be fine. He doesn’t realize who she is until after the paperwork’s done, and she’s warning him to be careful in future.
Alex is waiting with his well-deserved coffee in the hallway, and extracts a promise that Solomon won’t break into any more government servers unless he’s asked to. As a thank-you, the hacker has put together an algorithm for Alex’s photo problem, and revealed that it was hiding an active phone number with a 702 area code…as in Las Vegas. He gives the number to Alex.
Oh, and Mr. Johnson isn’t done yet. He’s going to put certain people in their place for not listening to him previously. As his colleague makes reference to days they spent in Hong Kong, Johnson talks about honor – implying a lack thereof – and the two get down to business. What follows is a truly badass fight between two people who can seriously beat the rest of us into the ground, which ends as it should, with Johnson putting down his friend turned enemy.
Back at The House, Cassandra continues to review footage from the night of Ginny’s death and discovers video that shows the body was switched, which comes as a surprise to her. “Oh my God, Ginny,” she says to herself, just before Alex dials the new phone number and listens to it ring.
On the other end? His ex-wife, who says, “I knew you’d find me.” She tells him that she’s okay, but she doesn’t know where she is, who took her, or what they want. That’s so incredibly vague that you can tell she’s stringing him on a little bit. “Don’t try and find me,” she adds. “They’ll kill you if you do.”
Once she ends the call, she’s not happy. “I have done everything that you have asked. When does it end? When can I go home?” she asks of her unseen kidnappers, just as Alex calls the number back to find that it’s been disconnected. The look on his face could literally kill, so you know this show just took it to a whole other other level.
So where do we even begin with this episode? There is once again so much going on here that the plot and possible implications of said plot are bursting at the seams. Firstly, let’s hear it for the fact that The Player got us to the moment we all knew was coming in episode five, rather than dragging it out until episode thirteen. NBC audiences are well aware of what an unresolved mystery with Daisy Betts in it looks like (remember the cliffhanger ending of Persons Unknown), so it’s a relief not to go down that road again. As soon as that fake-corpse reveal was made at the end of the pilot, the audience should’ve known eventually Ginny was going to be located alive.
But naturally, that’s not even the half of it. Finding her honestly raises a huge concern about how much she’s complicit in the situation at hand. The show has spent four and a half episodes giving us scenes of her being sweet and reminding us how much Alex loves her, and then when we finally meet her again, she’s cagey at best. She’ll talk to Alex, but her saying she knows nothing about her abduction is so obviously not true, and her dialogue throws the entire mythology of the show so far into question.
We’ve been assuming that it’s Ginny who’s been leaving these clues to her whereabouts for Alex, but her saying she’s “done everything that you have asked” implies that whoever is holding her has either ordered her to do so or has planted those hints for her. So why do they want Alex to find out that Ginny is alive and only add fuel to his fire? How do they benefit from waving the red flag in front of the bull, so to speak? That’s the million-dollar question.
There’s basically two ways that you can take that statement. If you want to stick with the existing theory that Ginny was taken by The House, the only apparent reason at this point to keep Alex searching for her is to get him in deeper with the organization; after all, Alex is currently looking to Mr. Johnson for help with her disappearance and also suspects that he may be involved, so as long as that investigation still exists, our hero can’t cut bait with The House or take any outright action against them. Yet it’s probably not good for day-to-day business if they make him this angry, so it seems a little off that they’d make him this angry and not just continue to drop tiny clues.
So after this episode, here’s a new theory: Johnson’s now ex-associate warned him during their fight that people are coming for him, so we now know there’s a faction somewhere within the game that’s not happy with him. What if Ginny was taken by those people? They could have wanted Alex inside the game, too, to later use him for their own purpose. They could use Ginny to get Alex to assist them in any potential action against Johnson or The House; he’s said he’ll do anything for her, and he’s been vocal since day one about wanting to see the organization taken down. Besides, if the threat of killing him is serious, that only benefits an outside group – The House wouldn’t want Alex dead, because they’d need to find a new Player.
Either way, the people responsible have to know that they’ve only just motivated Alex to keep coming after them. Knowing Alex as they do (enough to target his ex-wife), they should be aware that having Ginny tell him “Don’t try and find me” will have the opposite effect. No character in TV history has ever heeded a sentence like that, and Alex Kane is the absolute last character who would.
And she’s not off the hook either. How far was she asked to play along? That could go all the way back to insisting on that meeting with Alex at the start of the pilot. Everything we’ve ever heard her say on this show could be one huge setup. It seems like she genuinely still has feelings for him, since in the pilot Cal makes reference to the couple’s inability to sign the divorce papers, but that doesn’t mean that these people haven’t been putting the squeeze to her for a while now. If you think about it, her return was pretty convenient.
What we know now for sure is that if The House is behind Ginny’s abduction, Cassandra had nothing to do with it. Her shock at seeing the body switch is genuine. That, in turn, opens up the hole that was first probed into during last week’s episode: that Johnson and Cassandra are not always on the same page and they can do things behind each other’s backs. If Johnson does turn out to be the man responsible, Cassandra will have something to say about it – but beyond that, that opens up all sorts of story possibilities for future episodes. Those two could spend the rest of the season double-crossing each other if they wanted.
So instead of Alex against The House, which is what we believed in the pilot, what we’re presented with is Alex against The House against some probable third party, within which there could be conflicts between Johnson and Cassandra. What was a straight line is now an entire web, and none of these pieces have to work together at any point. As an audience member, the story can literally go in any direction, and that sense of unpredictability is what makes The Player remarkable. It’s that rare show which is an absolute wild card.
Let’s get to the case of the week. Admittedly, the whole teenage hacker who got himself in trouble thing has been done before (and as Alex makes reference to, you’d think these kids would find something more constructive to do). Where “House Rules” separates itself from being the run of the mill procedural – and hat tip is due to episode writer Jim Campolongo, who demonstrated the same skill on USA’s White Collar – is that it uses that common idea to say something uncommon.
Namely, Alex gets to have a moral objection. When it’s believed that Solomon released the computer virus, he makes very clear that the kid should be turned over to the authorities and face consequences for his actions, which is absolutely true. The episode gives him those convictions and allows him to stick with them until they’re proven wrong, which is a breath of fresh air compared to most shows where there might be one scene addressing that before Alex conveniently forgot his problem and moved on. One of the key components of Alex’s character is his moral fiber, which while not perfect, is pretty darn near close and the writers have done an excellent job of maintaining that with him all season long.
This marks the first episode of The Player where Alex isn’t on the same page with the person he’s rescuing. We saw in “L.A. Takedown” how he had a problem with the father of his target, but otherwise he’s either been protecting a friend or an innocent bystander. So as we discussed earlier this season, where’s the line between ethics and game rules? If his next assignment is somebody who really doesn’t deserve it, how will Alex react and how will The House react to his reaction? Or while Cassandra tells him that losing Solomon is losing the bet, if Agent Jones had legitimately been able to protect the kid, is it more important to do well by the target or the gamblers?
Not to mention, we’re starting to raise the issue of how much punishment one man can take. At least this episode is running in near-real time, as reference is made to the events of “The Big Blind” happening six days earlier, when the episode aired seven days earlier. “House Rules” even still has Alex recovering from his incurred gunshot wound, instead of using TV continuity to skip over it. Then this week, he’s jumping out of windows and in front of trains, and has a noticeable limp at moments. Is there such a thing as giving the Player a break so that he can recover? You’d hope there would be, because the gamblers don’t benefit from having an injured man out in the field, and as badass as Alex Kane is he’s not a superhero.
Again, though, that’s a deviation from the norm and a springboard for more curiosity into how the game operates. Another show could’ve just said this episode takes place several weeks later when Alex had healed from being shot, or not even mentioned it at all and had him be fine. Series do that all the time and no one would have questioned it. The Player made a creative choice to treat Alex like a human being and not an action-hero caricature, and preserve the integrity of the story. It works, too, because Philip Winchester knows how to play that card. The third season of Strike Back‘s major subplot involved Michael Stonebridge dealing with a disability and how it affected his job. Alex’s injury is minor by comparison to Stonebridge’s brush with death, but it’s the same principle and it’s still just as compelling.
Furthermore, it’s one more piece of the enigmatic House guidebook. We know that being the Player is a fatal occupation; most likely, you end up face down in the desert like Alex’s predecessor Justin Foucault. The only Player that we can confirm as being anything other than dead is Mr. Johnson himself, who is a former Player turned Pit Boss. So does The House ever concern itself with the well-being of the Player, whether it’s evaluating his/her fitness for duty or potentially putting a stop on the action out of their best interest? Or do they just let the Player run themselves into the ground and when they expire, so be it, let’s move on to the next one? What if somebody gets the flu? Heck, professional athletes hurt themselves taking out the trash. It’s all another variable that we have to think about as we wonder how this organization functions and how this game is really played.
Another is the dynamic between The House and its gamblers. “House Rules” is the first episode to examine that and the first where we’re able to put a face to one of the people who bet on crime every week. Naturally, the gamblers have strict rules to abide by just as the Player does, and when those rules are broken there are consequences, just as Alex has already found out. Rule number one is obviously not betting on your own action. You can’t even do that in conventional gambling. But the relationship between The House and its clientele is likely a thorny one, as it must be when you’re dealing with rich and powerful individuals like the Chinese gangs. You’d think that they peacefully co-exist because the relationship is mutually beneficial.
But what if it’s ever not? People go crazy losing money on bets all the time. What if one of the gamblers takes issue with how a bet is played out? Or just gets drunk one night and throws a temper tantrum because he keeps losing and now he can’t afford that mega yacht? We’ve seen Johnson willing and able to hand out discipline, but how far does that go? Was he required to kill his former friend or did he just do that because that was what he deemed appropriate? There’s obviously banning people from the game, but if you do that, how do you not know those people aren’t going to become liabilities by either interfering in future bets or exposing the existence of the game?
It’ll be interesting to see if Johnson’s actions in this episode have any effect in the future. Whether or not his murder is permissible under his role as Pit Boss, it will have to be explained to the other gamblers who should notice that one of them is missing. It wouldn’t be a surprise at all if Johnson makes the man an example. But would that then just give another piece of ammunition to this unknown quantity of people who don’t like him? Ah, the constant unfolding of The Player‘s beautifully complex – and occasionally brutal – narrative.
While we’re discussing that aspect of the episode, we have to give a shoutout to Will Yun Lee, who adds his class and awesomeness to The Player as he did with Strike Back. He’s a talented actor and a tremendous martial artist, and watching him match wits (and blows) with the equally capable Wesley Snipes was a TV fan’s delight. The only disappointment was that he didn’t get a single scene with Philip Winchester so that they could have a rematch after Stonebridge shot his character on Strike Back, but it’s fantastic to see him here and great that The Player is actively bringing in talent that legitimately has the right set of chops for this specific show.
The pure entertainment value of the series continues to hold steady every week. In this episode, we’ve got two great hand-to-hand fights between Alex and Chinese henchmen, two different and exciting shootouts, and Alex Kane jumping in front of a speeding train, for crying out loud. This is stuff that you don’t see every day (unless maybe you’re Alex), but it’s also things that are generally plausible. The train situation might have been cutting it close, but so far this season there’s been only one instance where the action setpiece doesn’t seem like it would actually happen in the moment. And that goes back to what kind of show you want to make.
The folks behind The Player aren’t trying to tell some sort of superhero action story (even with the presence of a former Marvel Comics superhero in the cast and the Captain America joke). They’re telling an action story, but it’s one that’s grounded in reality and wrapped in what really is one of the most complex and intriguing mythologies ever to be laid out on television. Like this episode, the show has a fundamentally simple premise and has grown that into a series that exceeds expectations. Whether it’s bullets, brains or broken hearts, there’s not one aspect of great television you won’t find on The Player – and by playing the cards it did in “House Rules,” the show is challenging itself to pay off its own big bet.
The Player airs Thursdays at 10 p.m. ET/PT on NBC.