Named one of the best dramas of the season while simultaneously chided for its serial storyline, CBS' "Hostages" promises a show packed with suspenseful cliffhangers and a slow unveiling of the facts. Even the first scene acts as a nerve-wracking introduction to the series. We zoom in on what would appear to be a cookie cutter upper middle class suburban home, but something's off. It's dark. Too dark. Inside the house, Dr. Ellen Sanders (Toni Collette) and her family anxiously watch a football game. Too anxiously. Five black-clad figures in balaclavas surround them, toting guns aimed directly at the family. The hostages.
The episode only gets increasingly more dramatic and suspenseful from here -- fitting, as it is, in fact, a drama/suspense/thriller -- so here's a breakdown of the episodes most dramatic moments:
Twelve hours earlier: Ellen sets the stage.
Ellen speaks at a press conference carefully detailing the president's condition, a non-malignant mass in his left lung, explaining her choice of procedure. In a predictable moment of foreshadowing, one reporter asks, "How does it feel to be responsible for the life of the President of the United States?" "His life is no more important than any of my patients," Sanders replies. "That is to say, it's the most important thing in the world."
Emerging from the backdrop crowd of politicians, President Paul Kincade (James Naughton) assures the public of Dr. Sanders' capabilities and rides off with in a motorcade with Chief Of Staff Quentin Creasy (Jeremy Bobb), who babbles about the positive effect this procedure could have on plans for health care reform, not to mention augment his number of female supporters. "Glad you care about my health so much," the president retorts.
Special Agent Duncan Carlisle shoots an innocent hostage.
This is our first introduction to Duncan Carlisle (Dylan McDermott). While Ellen Sanders delivers her debriefing on the health of the president, Duncan attends to a hostage situation in S.E. Washington, D.C. resulting from what appears to be an armed bank robbery. Sporting balaclavas, the intruders hold thirteen civilians hostage in an attempt to make it out alive. But clearly, they've never met Duncan Carlisle, who immediately orders a sniper to shoot one of the burglars dead. He demands the remaining burglar release 12 of the hostages, before exiting with the final hostage. The masked burglar complies with his demands, but as he exits the building wielding his hostage as a sort of shield, Duncan shoots the hostage dead. But upon removing the balaclava, we see that this man is not the criminal at all, but rather a hostage disguised as the burglar. The man he shot was actually the captor. How did he know he was being tricked? According to Duncan, his shoes didn't match his suit. Simple as that. What if he had been wrong? "I wasn't," Duncan justifies.
We meet the bald man.
On a standard day at the hospital, Ellen Sanders approaches her office as a bald man dressed as a repairman appears to be leaving. Ellen's face drops, clearly uneasy. But after doing a double-take, she enters her office to call her husband, Brian (Tate Donovan) to let him know she's coming home early to make dinner. Mid-phone call Ellen notices a photo missing from a picture frame. While on the phone, we see Brian's reaction as one of his coworkers shows him a slip of paper with the words "Hausman walked deal dead." Although he's outwardly upset by the news, he refrains from mentioning it to Ellen.
Jake's mysterious sum of money.
That evening after coaching Jake's lacrosse team, Brian comes across a large sum of cash in one of the lockers and demands a confession from the team. His son Jake Sanders (Mateus Ward) and his friend Kevin fess up claiming the cash is a combination of beer money and funds for fake IDs. But once Brian leaves the room, Kevin questions Jake's lie. "Well it beats the truth," says Jake.
We soon learn the truth: Jake owes $1200 to a guy named Nico in exchange for a massive amount of weed - now Jake has neither. Unfortunately, Nico chose tonight to demand his payment. Not the best timing.
The entire takeover of the house...
Duncan and his fellow conspirators (possibly fellow agents) camp out in a van equipped with multiple screens for surveillance footage, outside the Sanders' residence. Monitoring every corner of the house, they wait for Ellen and her family to return home before making any moves.
Eventually, Brian, Jake, and Morgan (Quinn Shepard) return home. Everyone is in place. "Let's do it," Duncan orders. But there's an issue. After crying in her room, Morgan storms out of the house. Undeterred, Duncan decides to follow through as planned, but instructs the female agent Maria Gonzales (Sandrine Holt) to follow the girl, who leads her to the local baseball field where she meets her boyfriend, Boyd. Meanwhile, Maria assembles her gun, ready to kidnap Morgan at the first chance. The couple get into an argument over the seriousness of their relationship, causing Morgan to walk home alone. The female agent is ready for her. With the whole family in place, the agents are free to commence their invasion.
...Especially when the dog gets "taken care of"
And not in the friendly sense of the word. As the kidnappers approach the house, the dog (appropriately named Barkly -- or a similar spelling) starts barking, as dogs are want to do. Kramer Delaney (Rhys Coiro) says, "I've got the dog". Next thing we know, Jake walks out of the house to find his dog motionless on the ground, seemingly dead.
Brian receives a mysterious text.
This is just the beginning of what is to come. While Ellen dries off in the shower, Brian enters the bathroom startling her. At that moment, he receives a text from someone named JC. "Can you talk?" Nervous, he claims the text alert was just a timer for the pasta, but we know better.
At this moment, the kidnappers commence their home invasion unnoticed, jumping through windows and ninja-rolling under the garage door. From the bedroom, Brian calls for Ellen. She exits the bathroom to find a masked invader holding a gun to her husband's head. And we're back where the episode began.
Duncan lays out a murderous ultimatum
"Do you love your family, Ellen?" Duncan asks, before ordering her to kill the president during tomorrow's surgery. After all this suspense, we've finally made it to the reasoning behind the infiltration, and foundation of the series: a quest to kill the president. If she refuses, Duncan promises to murder her family.
The bald man appears, yet again.
Duncan forces the family to continue with dinner as usual. Unfortunately, someone trips the silent alarm provoking a violently icy glare from Duncan and a phone call from neighborhood security. With Duncan aiming a gun at her head, Ellen tells security everything is fine, but to her dismay, protocol requires a patrol car to stop by her home, regardless.
A man approaches. As he reaches the door, he removes his hat - it's the bald man from the hospital. Possibly smirking, he hands a visibly distressed Ellen a piece of paper before radioing security, "There's been a mistake. Everything's fine." Who is this man? If he is a part of the major plan, Duncan is not letting on.
Duncan knows everything.
The paper is the missing photo from her office. Appearing from the shadows, Duncan expounds, "That photo was your holiday 2 years ago. You call your mother every Thursday, the same day Jake has Taekwondo. Brian hates chocolate and Morgan's favorite color is red." Things are just not getting better for poor Ellen. After unleashing this heap of information, Duncan reminds her that he will not give her another warning.
Brian leads a double-life.
Duncan orders his crew to separate the family members. After receiving a blow to the head for punching one of the kidnappers, Brian ends up face-to-face with Duncan. Handing him an ice pack, Duncan claims the blow to the head was unnecessary, but Brian needs to cooperate. Already Brian has had more unexplained figgity moments than even Duncan or Ellen, and Duncan sees right through his lies. "Stop playing games," he says. "We both know you're not the successful businessman ... not the loving husband." To prove his omnipotence, Duncan reveals a series of incriminating photos proving Brian's infidelity. Armed with the truth, Brian has no choice but to urge Ellen to cooperate.
However, during this one-on-one time with the captors, Jake asks Kramer why they killed his dog. Apparently Kramer has a soft spot. He leads Jake to Barkly, who suddenly wakes up. He wasn't dead after all!
Duncan Carlisle's backstory.
Interspersed with clips teasing bits of Duncan's history, the episode hints at an eventual motive revelation. We see a forlorn Duncan enter a hospital room belonging to his unconscious wife post-chemo session. At her bedside, he vows to make things return to how they used to be. A severely terse promise.
Eventually, he sends his daughter to live with her grandfather, who briefly questions his motive. "Are you sure you want to do this?" he asks. His affirmative response confirms an increasing number of individuals involved in this scheme. Just how deep does this conspiracy run?
The First Lady worries about the President's health.
Alright, this might not be vital to the plot (unlike the faux dog death, of course), but the First Lady continually worries about the outcome of the surgery, even going so far as reminding the president that it's not too late to change his mind. In the strong-husband fashion, he assures her that Dr. Sanders is the best surgeon in the hospital, and what's more, it's just a routine surgery. Her concern and his reassurance humanize the pair to the point where sympathizing with the kidnappers no longer seems like the default, especially especially without knowing their motivation.
The Vice President is involved?!
What appears to be a routine call to check up on his daughter turns into a massive opening of the conspiracy floodgate. Duncan ambiguously asks, "How's our friend doing?" His fathers face seems to drop slightly as he hands the phone to the man sitting across from him: Quentin, the United States Chief Of Staff. As the gravity of the situation begins to set in for Ellen, Duncan reassures the VP that she will come through.
Duncan gives Ellen a toxic tube of lipstick.
Handing Ellen a threateningly tiny vial of liquid with the power to kill the President in only 5 minutes, Duncan instructs her to follow regular procedures after his system fails. Nothing will save him once the serum enters his bloodstream. He neatly disguises the vial as a tube of lipstick. In a brief moment of vocalized rebellion, Ellen asks Duncan why he's doing all this. Avoiding the question, he responds, "Don't think of it as killing the president, think of it as saving your family."
Morgan is pregnant.
Apparently, that's the reason she was crying in her room and marched off to meet her boyfriend late at night. Morgan -- the sole keeper of her own secret -- becomes sick in the morning, so naturally Duncan guards the door to the bathroom while she unleashes the sickness. Upon hearing sobs coming from the bathroom, he barges in to find her holding a positive pregnancy test. This ruckus does not escape Ellen, who immediately runs over with the assumption her daughter needs her help. In a moment of what appears to be solidarity, Duncan grabs the pregnancy test to cover Morgan's tracks. Is he getting too invested already?
Ellen pulls out a vial we haven't seen yet.
After exiting the house to a mournfully emotional goodbye, Ellen heads to the hospital, past a sea of blinding press photographers, and straight into the President's room. While exchanging pleasantries, Ellen pulls a vial out of her pocket, but not the one given to her by Duncan. She replaces an identical vial by the President's bed, and quickly leaves the scene.
Back at the house, the kidnappers and family members watch the news only to learn that President Kincaid will no longer undergo surgery today. The evidence indicates he was given a dose of blood thinner noticed by none other than Ellen Sanders. Asked how she feels about the postponement, Ellen stares into the camera and out of the TV directly at Duncan, declaring, "I don't give up that easily."
What do you think? Will Ellen eventually cave under pressure? Can the series withstand more than one season with such a time-sensitive premise? Leave your thoughts in the comments.
"Hostages" airs on Mondays at 10 p.m. ET on CBS.