NBC’s The Player is down to its last draw, but it still plays a tremendously winning hand. In “Tell,” while there’s still so much story that may not unfold, the series gives us several key moments that we’ve been waiting all season for – and opens up a whole new world of potential that shows just how criminal the show’s premature exit is. If it has to go out early, this is exactly the way to do it.
Alex is on the clock, chasing down a target in a high-speed motorcycle chase the wrong way through traffic. With just seconds to go before the bet expires, his patience runs out and he just shoots the guy in the back, then plants two more in his knees. “Nicely played, Alex,” Mr. Johnson says, adding that it’s three wins for our player in a row and wondering if he’s starting to enjoy himself.
In reality, Alex is just stringing him along, having a secret meeting with Cassandra in a parking garage to discuss Johnson’s involvement with Ginny’s disappearance. She wants him to keep up appearances until they actually have something, pointing out that he’s not the only person whose life has been upended. “What’d they do to you, Cassandra?” Alex asks her, but she doesn’t answer.
Instead, she goes with him to a storage facility in Summerlin, which is where the key he found is associated with. It belongs to a storage unit that contains all of Ginny’s miscellaneous belongings that she stashed after she and Alex broke up. That includes all the letters he wrote her, which just make him get emotional again, and an envelope with his name on it. It’s not a Christmas card, that’s for sure.
Alex takes it back to his apartment, and is debating opening it when he gets yet another uninvited guest. But this time it’s not a person; it’s a ringing cell phone, with a mysterious caller on the other end claiming to be “a friend.” This new buddy has also dropped off a copy of a textbook on the history of the U.S. Marshals Service, with a clue hidden inside. Alex does his ‘what the hell am I into again?’ face.
Meanwhile, Nolan is telling Cal that she’s identified the “mystery woman” they’ve been searching for, and that what they do next could help save Alex’s life. That’s how she convinces him to go along with her plan to capture Cassandra, not knowing that Johnson is listening in on their whole conversation.
What he doesn’t know is that Alex is showing Cassandra the book and the marked reference to former Marshal Jack Fuller (Jeff Fahey, Justified), who used to be part of the WITSEC program. Alex needs to find Fuller, so Cassandra suggests forcing a new bet so that the game can be used to do just that – and see how Johnson reacts. “Everyone has a tell, Alex,” she says, “even the pit boss.”
The next morning, Johnson finds out that Alex has requested a new bet and Cassandra has arranged one. He’s intrigued by the choice of target, and points out that since ADA pulls information from many government databases including that of the Marshals, Fuller probably already knows that Alex will be looking for him. He doesn’t call off the bet, but does tell his player that he’s likely only got a couple of hours.
After Johnson leaves, Cassandra retorts that her computer doesn’t leave footprints – someone told Fuller, namely the someone placing a phone call behind them.
But they can’t worry about that now. They have to play the game, which means looking at Fuller’s last few clients to find him. The computer tells them that all of Fuller’s last few fake identities came from the same small town of Deep River, Utah – which happens to be home of a federal processing center where the government is digitizing records. “Someone on the inside is adding a few extra names and nobody’s noticing,” says Alex, who decides to notice.
He walks his way right into the Deep River facility file room and starts squeezing the lone employee there, who thinks it’d be a good idea to attack our hero despite being vastly overmatched. After Alex beats up him and two security guards, he shoves him into his chair and lays down the law. That gets him Fuller’s new alias, Eric Cameron. While he calls the Las Vegas Police Department and uses Cal’s badge number to flag said alias, Cassandra warns him that Johnson is leaving the Occam.
However, when she goes out to follow her boss’s trail, she gets jumped from behind and thrown into a van that brings her to Agent Nolan. Apparently, the FBI has a budget for giant black kidnapping vans and hidden interrogation rooms. While Nolan has her cronies roughly search Cassandra and drug her so that she’s temporarily blinded, Cal questions the legality of what they’re about to do. That’s because Cal is not a massive tool.
Johnson is out having a meal with one of the council members who oversees the game (hey, that’s David Clennon from The Agency). It’s not a social call; he has to inform the council that his connection to Fuller will result in a forfeit of this bet. The nameless guy points out that this is just the latest in a series of issues with Johnson’s House. “Samuel Letts was a wise man,” he says. “Why he protected you, I don’t know.” Despite that, he agrees to let the bet proceed.
Let’s go back to Cassandra, who has to deal with Nolan’s usual heavy-handed way of doing things. The other woman saunters into the room and has to give a whole spiel before she gets to any point. Cassandra uses this time to mention that she knows who Nolan is and knows that Cal is there somewhere, too. He gets a phone call telling him that Eric Cameron is at McCarran Airport, which raises an eyebrow because he never asked that question.
That would be Alex, who catches up to Fuller when the other man is held up at airport security. This allows our hero time to take the gun we know he always carries and plant it in the other man’s bag, before calmly stalking him through the terminal. However, he doesn’t get to question Fuller because he finds that his own face is plastered all over the terminal. Detained by the airport police, Alex can’t do anything but watch as Fuller boards his plane, on which Johnson is waiting.
Phone call over, Cal joins Nolan in interrogating Cassandra, asking him about her connection to the past four players, including Justin Foucault. He believes it’s a romantic thing – that she’s got a type and she kills these men when she’s done with them. Nolan thinks she has someone else do the dirty work, and rattles off a whole list of cities around the world where wire transfers happened corresponding to the dates of 26 crimes of various types.
“I think these cities are the center of an international crime syndicate,” she deduces, and believes that Cassandra is what she refers to as “middle management.” Cassandra is unimpressed, and suggests that Nolan may be being manipulated. She also tells Cal to check her marching orders with his contact Agent Forrester, warning that they’re both out of their depth. This prompts Cal to confront Nolan, because he was indeed misled as to the scope of Nolan’s investigation and calls bullshit. As they’re arguing, Cassandra has overpowered her guards.
Not about to go back into that room, Nolan decides to tell her about a triple homicide that took place in London in 1990, where the only survivor was the six-year-old daughter, found hiding under the bed. “You’ve mistaken me for someone else,” says Cassandra, but Nolan continues on, informing her that there was a person of interest in that case that sounds a whole lot like Mr. Johnson. This has an effect on our heroine, who leaves glaring while Cal still has no idea what the hell just happened here.
This has given Alex time to get sprung from airport jail, just in time to get a phone call from Cal. His best friend wants a word about not only Cassandra, but the illegal use of his badge number. “It’s gonna get you killed,” he warns, and Alex tells him point blank to “walk away…You need to listen to me. They will come after you.” Cue the mystery SUV that’s suddenly on Cal’s trail, and when Alex hears gunshots he races to get to his friend’s side. But will he get there fast enough?
Cal’s car chase turns into a shootout, in which he’s outnumbered and overpowered. Thank goodness for shotguns in the trunk. But while he’s able to take down multiple attackers (and note that Fuller is in this convoy), he takes a pretty big hit just moments before Alex gets there. Now having something to really be pissed off about, Alex unloads before throwing his best friend into the Challenger and using Cassandra’s computer skills to get them to the hospital in record time.
Cue the scene where he has to watch Cal being rushed off into surgery, but still having time to tell him that they interrogated Cassandra. Putting the pieces of the day together, Alex is reaching a boiling point. “Johnson did this,” he snaps at Cassandra, who doesn’t have anything to say as she continues to examine the picture of her family before someone killed the rest of them.
It’s time for the scene we’ve been waiting for all season. “I think it’s time I threw you through that window,” Alex seethes at Johnson, and it is well and truly on. As they exchange blows, Alex blames Johnson for trying to kill Cal and lying to him about Ginny, but the other man refuses to give. All that Alex gets is a bruised kidney – and then Cassandra stops the brawl by showing up with a gun aimed at both of them.
“There is a bigger threat out there. Bigger than the gamblers, bigger than The House,” Johnson insists to his colleagues, denying any involvement in Cal’s shooting and asking for their help in stopping his enemies. But Alex tells him that he’s on his own – and as he walks by Cassandra, he adds that so is she.
He goes to the hospital to check on Cal, who’s alive but looking a lot worse for wear, and has a speech of his own he needs to give. He’s mad as hell and he’s not going to take it anymore. “Today I crossed a line I never thought I would. I’m pretty sure I broke the law. I damn well know I broke my own moral code,” he reveals. “I did it for you – my friend. I thought your life was in danger, so I did what I thought I had to do.”
And for that, he’s in a hospital bed. “You and me, we’re done,” he tells Alex, who looks as rocked by that as anything he’s been through over the last eight-and-two-thirds-episodes.
“You didn’t tell me she was a sadistic bitch,” Cassandra tells Johnson as they share a drink, discussing the interrogation and what they’re going to do next. She doesn’t tell him that Nolan mentioned the murder of her family or that she implied he might have been involved. Instead, she points out that if he does want Alex’s help, “you’re going to have to give him something more than cracked ribs.”
Cue Johnson bringing Fuller right into Alex’s apartment. Alex stops icing his face long enough to ask Fuller where Ginny is, repeatedly and in a painful way, including discharging his pistol right next to the other man’s ear. Tinnitus says hello. “I have zero capacity to absorb any more lies,” Alex insists, threatening Fuller with something “slow and very ugly.”
Fuller breaks, insisting that Ginny hired him and he’s the one that stashed her at the Zephyr Cove cabin before a group of men she knew – and was terrified of – showed up and sent her running. Alex is going to need a few minutes to process this latest revelation, so he kicks both Fuller and Johnson out of his place and goes back to the drawing board. Namely, the storage locker, in which he gets drunk, opens the envelope – which is Ginny’s psuedo-goodbye letter – and finds a secret door behind which is enough firepower for a small country. Yes, because doctors always store guns and a rocket launcher in with their medical supplies.
Therein lies the incredible frustration about “Tell.” As the cliffhanger ending to an episode – which would have been the episode right before the midseason finale – it’s absolutely brilliant. As the ending to the entire series, it comes off as completely random and offering no real closure for the fans. It’s a really terrible side effect of the business aspect of television. The show gets to its best point yet – and that’s where it gets cut off.
Having said that, you can’t penalize the episode or the show for how the chips fell. You have to evaluate the installment on its own merits, and this is the best episode of the entire season. It’s here that the writers pay off the various clues and story angles that they have built over the eight ones that came before, and they do so in an almost seamless fashion, while also then opening a new door (literally) to the whole next set of questions for the audience to consider. You really, desperately want to know where the story’s going to go next.
Johnson tells Alex what everyone else has known for a couple of weeks now: The House is under attack. We still don’t know entirely why and by whom, though it’s hinted in this episode that Agent Nolan is one of the people they’ve got in their pocket (which is not a huge surprise given how entirely amoral she is). Whoever these people are, they’re big-time enough that Johnson needs Cassandra’s and Alex’s help; we’ve well established in earlier episodes that this is a man who handles his own business, so if he’s gathering support then that says a lot about the battle that would’ve been in front of us.
Viewers then have to ask ourselves what these people would gain from the situation. Are they just targeting Johnson, and their plan is to overthrow the Pit Boss and install another one and move on with their game? Or you can’t entirely rule out something bigger, like are they trying to seize the admittedly vast resources of The House for themselves, or even dismantle the organization? Are we looking at a potential state of anarchy?
That then goes back to Johnson’s point in the pilot – that the game serves a purpose in providing a release for some truly dangerous individuals. Despite its being morally questionable, maybe he’s right and its existence is necessary. There’s your ethical and ideological debate for the second half of the season, which is really one of the best parts of The Player as a whole. Beyond the fistfights and car chases, there’s a whole discussion about how this game works and what it represents.
Johnson has to get Alex back on his side, and so makes the gesture of literally delivering Jack Fuller to his doorstep. But here’s a thought that ties into some of what’s been posited before: Why does he need Alex Kane? Has he just realized over the course of the show – and our hero’s rapidly improving track record – that this guy really is that good and can make a difference in the (for lack of a better phrase) civil war? Or has he known this was coming all along, and this whole thing has been a play to get Alex for precisely this purpose? You can’t discount either option yet, which is what makes the show so fascinating.
After all, Johnson doesn’t seem like the kind of man who would depend on someone else to save him. It’s strategically unwise to put your entire fate in the hands of another person, particularly when you don’t know if that other person is even on your side in the first place. But here’s why you can’t discount that he’s been playing the long game: there’s too much going on for it to be entirely random.
The person currently employed as The Dealer just happens to have a past with Alex’s ex-wife? The ex-wife’s death is faked in an entire huge production that Johnson had at least something to do with? There’s clues left behind all over the place once she disappears for Alex to find? All of this speaks to effort, and planning, and those things take time. If Johnson wasn’t planning on using Alex for his own purposes, at a minimum he wanted him as the next Player.
And honestly, that makes sense given how we’ve seen Alex perform. He’s perfect for the game – he’s a local boy, is used to playing outside the lines and definitely delivers results. Perhaps the game has a sort of scouting system, similar to professional sports, and tagged him for a closer look. But he’s already climbing the ranks of the greatest in his profession, so who wouldn’t want him if they could get him?
But beyond the business of The House, there’s once again a tremendous amount of character development going on here. The biggest is with Cassandra, whose tragic past gets spilled by Agent Nolan. Remember what Cassandra told Johnson a few episodes ago: she didn’t entirely choose to be The Dealer. It’s easy to paint the picture then of Johnson recruiting her, and beyond that what might have motivated her to go into the British military. Just like Kurt Weller was motivated to become an FBI agent because of his childhood tragedy on Blindspot, perhaps the loss of her family made Cassandra want to protect and serve herself – and then she acquired the skill set that put her on Johnson’s radar.
But what would he have over her to make the job involuntary? Did she do something in her past that he got her out of? It’s certainly not enough just to have done something wrong – Alex apparently killed a bunch of terrorists and that was never used as leverage to get him on the books. So she owes him something, and whatever he did can’t be too underhanded because she’s been able to work with him and be loyal to him for years now.
It takes a very loyal and very courageous person to put herself through that interrogation on purpose. From Cassandra’s comments in the fourth act, we know that Johnson knew what was going to happen and tipped her off (presumably having overheard Nolan’s plan when he was watching her talk to Cal). That’s a tough scene, but it becomes tougher when you realize Cassandra signed up for it. She was willing to put herself through that just to find out what Nolan knew and who she was working for. That’s a long way to go for some information, and she even got a bonus clue out of it.
One must take Nolan’s assertion that Johnson was a person of interest in Cassandra’s family’s murder with a grain of salt. Nolan is known for lying; in this episode alone Cal realizes she’s been deceiving him the whole time. If she’s trying to turn the members of The House against each other – which as Johnson points out is exactly what’s happened by the end of “Tell” – the easiest way to do it is to insinuate that Johnson might have been involved. The bigger question is how did Nolan learn about that history in the first place? And it can only be because she’s getting her information from somewhere good, like the people who are coming for The House.
(On that note, there’s no better example of the double standard that exists for law enforcement in TV than the juxtaposition between The Player and Blindspot. On the latter, where the FBI is the focus, the agents are a hard-working group of people led by Weller, who has a very strict code of morals. On this show, where it’s not the focus, the FBI is represented by a ruthless woman who shamelessly breaks its own rules in the name of the greater good. That’s a big difference.)
This episode is also the breaking point for the friendship between Alex and Cal. That bond has been on a downward slide from the pilot because of one key issue: Alex’s inability, or as Cal perceives it his unwillingness, to tell his best friend the complete truth. Alex won’t tell him, at first because it’s a rule of the game and then moreso because he realizes it can only hurt Cal if he does. But Cal also isn’t wrong when he says that’s a choice Alex is making. He could, theoretically, break that unwritten rule and confess everything; it’s not like someone is standing behind him with a gun to his head.
Frankly, Cal’s just out of options. All he knows is that there is something much bigger than either of them going on and it just nearly got him killed. And it’s not just about him; if you didn’t notice it before, he’s wearing a wedding ring. He’s at least married, if he doesn’t have kids. He’s got other people to think about beyond Alex Kane. He’s at that point where he has to protect himself, because he’s certainly not making any headway trying to look out for everyone else. All he’s been able to do is get involved with an FBI agent who might be a bit of a sociopath, and then get shot (although at least the show let him actually defend himself like a competent police officer, instead of totally relying on Alex to save him).
Cal’s the least used of the four main characters, for the obvious reason that he’s not privy to 75 percent of what happens in any given episode. But despite that, he’s written remarkably well. He responds to the situation exactly as a normal person would. There’s only so many times you can ask questions and not get answers before you get angry. He’s been as good a friend as he can be – cutting Alex some slack when he’s the initial suspect in Ginny’s murder, looking the other way a number of times when Alex shouldn’t have done whatever he just did, and taking on a very off-books investigation solely to protect his BFF – and all he can see is that he’s not getting anything in return. Other friendships have gone south for a lot less. It’s hard enough these days to find somebody who will help you move, let alone risk their life and career for you.
One would think that, given his present situation, Cal might realize there’s some truth to Alex having tried to warn him off asking questions. Alex has been saying he can’t talk; now Cal’s gotten someone to talk and wound up shot. He might start to think Alex has a point. But at the same time, even if Cal is cutting Alex off, he’s likely not out. It’s not in his worldview. He now knows there’s something bad going on, and when he sees that, he stops it. That’s what he does; that’s why he’s got a badge. He might not be doing Alex any favors, but he’s not going to sit on his hands and let bad people get away with bad things.
The problem for Alex is that he’s just lost his support system. He’s now alienated not only the best friend that he has, but the one person he can truly confide in who is not part of the game. He now no longer has anything outside of this to lean on, and that can’t be underestimated. We’ve seen all season how this game can consume people’s lives (just take one look back at Justin Foucault), and now Alex no longer has that outside relationship to hold onto. He doesn’t even know if he can trust the other two people around him, so there’s literally no one left in his life that is above suspicion. The man is an island.
In fact, they’re all kind of an island. Johnson lost the person he was closest to in Samuel Letts. Cassandra lost the person she was closest to in her boyfriend Nick. Now with Alex having lost Cal in addition to having already lost Ginny, none of them have anyone else but each other. Which might be manageable – if any of them trusted each other.
What The Player did that was terribly smart was set all of its main characters off on their own individual journeys separate from the overarching mythology of the show. This meant every character has been fleshed out and has their own parts of the story to bring to the table. No one exists just to support someone else or fill a plot function. Each person is valued and that in turn makes the audience care about each of them and makes it that much harder for us to make judgments or simplify things. There aren’t bad guys and good guys, people we can root against or write off, or scenes that aren’t important. Everything has merit.
If there’s one misstep the show made in characterization, it was in Rose Nolan. The FBI agent is as one-dimensional a villain as they come; she’s over-confident, ruthless and with this air of superiority that makes her difficult to watch (though part of that may be in the performance; KaDee Strickland, who was much better in Private Practice, comes off as if she’s trying to imitate Tricia Helfer – in fact, Helfer would’ve been a great get for this role). Obviously, Nolan is an antagonist and we’re supposed to dislike her, but that perception is much more one-sided than it is for any of the other characters on this show.
What becomes apparent in watching her is that she’s meant to serve as a sort of opposite number for Mr. Johnson. The two of them share the same attitude toward their situation, the same ego, and it makes all their interactions – even that super-uncomfortable psuedo-date – make sense. She’s the closest thing the audience has to a face of the enemy.
Here’s the problem: she’s no Mr. Johnson. Johnson is not a great person; he’s killed people and betrayed people and who knows what else is lurking in his backstory. But he’s also been shaded to have more than one set of qualities. We’ve seen that he had at least one person he cared about. He’s done things that have been good – like saving Alex and his niece from The Norseman – even if we don’t know if he had pure intentions while doing them. We understand that while he is no saint, he’s not an entirely bad guy. But we’ve seen nothing of the sort from Nolan. There’s nothing to judge her by other than the fact that she’s coming in, raining on the parade and blowing up all the floats.
That would’ve been something to address in later episodes, as would a number of things that are brought up in “Tell.” At least the episode offers payoff, or at least pays toward, a number of key issues. If we’re not going to get a proper ending, the most satisfying thing the show could’ve given us was that fight between Alex and Mr. Johnson. That’s the scene we’ve all been waiting for and it was absolutely as awesome as we were expecting it to be. Kudos have to be given to Philip Winchester, Wesley Snipes and everyone on the crew involved in delivering such a big scene in the best possible way.
(That might have been an interesting end to the series, if the show had ended a few years from now: Alex defeats Mr. Johnson, finally throws him through that window, and just walks away without a word. Ah, missed opportunities.)
We should appreciate this, because any other show would’ve made us wait for that moment until at least the end of the season, but The Player‘s writers have always shown an inherent respect for both their characters and the viewers. Besides, it would have been asinine if the show hadn’t given us this scene now. If you know someone has tried to have your best friend killed, you should want to hurt them for it. Alex wasn’t going to bide his time on that count.
More eyebrow-arching is the next clue in the ongoing Ginny mystery. Fuller tells Alex that his ex-wife hired him to make her disappear, so that now removes doubt about her complicity here; she planned at least part of this, and it’s sounding like she did it to avoid these mysterious people she’s so afraid of. Here’s a thought: what if they’re the same people who are coming after The House? It’s highly unlikely there are two separate groups of mysterious, powerful people out there – and then it would make Johnson being involved a little more plausible, because they’d have a common enemy.
Even so, one wonders why she’s got several guns and a rocket launcher in that storage locker. That’s someone who is preparing for war, and it’s not just her war. If you’re trying to defend yourself, you buy one gun. If you’ve got multiple guns, the implication is that you’re arming multiple people (and note that there were empty spots in some of those cases). And those all had to come from somewhere. You don’t just show up to Big 5 and ask what aisle the rocket launchers are on.
So allow us to posit a theory: What if this entire situation is really all her fault? What if Alex’s only fault in all this was that he married the wrong woman? The things he doesn’t know about his ex-wife go back to before he met her (her friendship with Cassandra), and her mother told him that she’s a liar. She could have easily been running from something just as much as he was, and it wouldn’t be implausible if she tried to settle down and play “normal” with him, but all of this caught up with her. She would not be the first character to have her past bite back, and that would even make her relationship with Alex make more sense, because they’d both have had demons in the closet.
Alas, we’ll never know. The Player should serve as a cautionary tale for networks when it comes to television with a serialized element. The writers of the show did everything that they should have and then some as far as setting up the ongoing storylines and making sure that the audience was paid off. We do leave this episode with some significant answers, which is a big thing to say considering that as far as the creative team knew, they were still in the middle of the season.
But when a network makes the decision to shave an episode order like this, it obviously has an impact on the finished product. It’s impossible for it not to. The writers can’t short-plan; they have to make sure that they have enough story for the full order, otherwise we end up with either no plot or over-stretched plot. Yet that leaves a series vulnerable to looking incomplete if it doesn’t complete the run. It’s really a lose-lose situation. (Having to watch commercials for The Player‘s replacement during its finale doesn’t help either.)
One more episode and this show might have come to a much more satisfying conclusion or at least made an even bigger bang; this one proves that huge stuff was just around the corner. So what’s the solution? There really isn’t one unless art and business can make a compromise. If TV networks could commit to airing all of a show’s initial run when they order the series, audiences would get the full experience, but that would mean a network would be conceding so many weeks of potentially low ratings in a time slot.
In the case of The Player, the numbers were certainly decent enough that it should’ve warranted consideration – on par with what most successful cable series get, so it had life left in it. Beyond that, its storyline was definitely peaking with this episode, so stopping it here is an odd choice. But at least it got nine episodes; if NBC had cut it off immediately, we would’ve missed four more installments that continued to get better every week. It’s pros and cons all around.
There was so much more to be uncovered here, not just in terms of the mythology but the character development and the interplay between the actors and the things that the crew was putting together. You can see in this episode how The Player was hitting its stride, which is natural once a show has been in production for a while and the creative team settles in and learns how to work together. Television shows need a certain amount of time to truly develop. Even though this one was great from the pilot, everything gets better.
But lamenting its loss will only take us so far. The most important thing that fans can do now is look back on the last nine episodes and make sure that we appreciate The Player for what it was, which was a pulse-pounding, brain-twisting, often heart-breaking adventure that raised the bar on what we should expect from television. We should extend our thanks to the cast, writers, directors, crew and everyone involved that made these nine episodes possible, because what they did was no small undertaking. For roughly two months, they were positively brilliant. And we, as TV fans, are better for it.
For more on The Player, check out our exclusive interview with Philip Winchester, and stay tuned tomorrow for our interview with Charity Wakefield about her character’s major revelation.