Television

Steve Carell’s Serial Killer Show Didn’t Need the Holocaust

The Patient was one of the most complex depictions of Jewishness in years—until it brought in Auschwitz.

A bearded man in a cardigan leans over a grimacing man in concentration camp uniform.
Steve Carell in The Patient. FX

If you are Jewish, or just follow some of us on Twitter, you have been met with the exhausting surge in antisemitism over the past few years. What used to be a dull murmur of hatred at the edges of the internet is finding more and more purchase in the mainstream. It is never a good sign when any conjugation of Jew trends. And it is happening with alarming frequency.

Created by The Americans’ Joel Fields and Joseph Weisberg, the FX miniseries The Patient is centered on Dr. Alan Strauss (Steve Carell), a Jewish psychotherapist kidnapped by patient and serial killer Sam Fortner (Domhnall Gleeson), who is seeking to curb his homicidal urges through one-on-one sessions from the “comfort” of his basement. Alan is a religious Reform Jew, and his faith and cultural identity are not superfluous character beats but deftly woven notes in the narrative. But in spite of Alan’s dire situation, the show bears a welcome distinction, one that’s uncommon in the world of popular culture: Antisemitism plays no part in his predicament. If anything, as Alan shares bits and pieces of his faith during and outside their sessions, Sam is downright reverential to his faith.

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Throughout his detainment, Alan’s growing anxiety about his plight bleeds into a vivid internal conversation that the viewer is party to. Some of these struggles manifest as dialogues with a character we learn to be his former therapist, Charlie (David Alan Grier). Others are memories of his family: his Orthodox Jewish son, Ezra, with whom Alan has a fraught relationship; his daughter, Shoshana; and his wife, Beth, a cantor at their synagogue who recently died of breast cancer. There are also, somewhat inexplicably, dark scenes of the suffering at Auschwitz—including the emaciated masses packed into crude wooden bunkers and active gas chambers.

Although the therapy sessions and memories are well-crafted building blocks of the story, the latter set of scenes seem dropped in purely for dramatic effect, as a way of underscoring the doctor’s suffering. The appointments with Charlie give us a window into what Alan is thinking in the moment, how he’s trying to preserve his sanity and plan his escape. The flashbacks to his family, especially his son, serve as an excellent framing device for his personal growth. But the scenes from the concentration camp feel disjointed from the larger story. These scenes show Alan relating his trauma to memories of those who were persecuted because of their faith, yet his being chained to the floor by a serial killer is not in any way related to his Judaism.

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The Holocaust first appears in The Patient as Alan is forced to dig a grave for a victim he watched Sam murder, powerless to intervene. Alan imagines himself walking through a row of Auschwitz bunks, with Jews in striped prisoner uniforms staring back at him. Watching this for the first time, I was both struck by the profound trauma represented and uncomfortable with the disjointed turn in the narrative. Five episodes into the series, and no groundwork for this shocking display had been laid. I gave the scene the benefit of the doubt, assuming something later would give it context with a deeper meaning. But the imagery only gets more aggressive—Alan has a nightmarish daydream in which he is locked in a gas chamber as it fills with Zyklon B and his desperate screams.

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The imagery is haunting and succeeds in communicating Alan’s waning grip on equilibrium. But the delivery of the episode’s emotional arc felt clumsy and hollow. The dramatic blow these scenes sought to deliver was unearned. As the Holocaust became further enmeshed in the story, the scenes’ lack of larger connection to his suffering lessened their impact.

In a recent interview, Weisberg discussed the use of this imagery, explaining, “It seemed obvious he would go there. We’re like, ‘We put a Jew in a basement and make him dig his own grave—he’s going to think about Auschwitz.’ ” Fields added, “The thing that Joe and I really talked actively about was the notion of a Jew—particularly of that generation, but I would scoop us into that generation, and maybe all Jews, really, post-Holocaust—if you’re kidnapped, chained to the floor by a guy who references your Judaism a couple times, no less, and forced to dig a grave, it’s hard to imagine you’re not going to be thinking about that legacy.”

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This reasoning is too facile for such a smart show. The writers give Alan no personal background or direct connection to the Holocaust. Sure, as an American Jew of a certain age, he could have a relationship with the Holocaust and would definitely have learned about it. But to link it so strongly and deeply in his psyche to his current trauma just because he’s a Jew is lazy. Why Auschwitz? Why gas chambers? It is an unfortunate mishandling of such powerful and evocative imagery.

If The Patient were looking to connect to the suffering of Jews during the Holocaust, there are much more direct historical parallels from which to draw. The writers could have used scenes of persecution, such as Jewish craftsmen or manual laborers working under the boot of Nazi captors in labor camps. These details would provide a better connection to Alan’s forced labor. Instead, The Patient chose crowded bunks and gas chambers. While these images may be the most readily identifiable in pop culture Holocaust education, they are almost superfluous to this story. Their inclusion here is a half-measure that hurts the larger narrative. If you remove the Holocaust in its entirety from the show, it would actually gain clarity.

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There will always be a continuously churning market for stories sourced from that dark era of human history. And that makes sense. These stories plumb the depths of the human condition in the most radical and challenging of circumstances, both the banality of evil and the enduring spirit of righteous goodwill. The growing culture of hatred—both implicit, in what builds after those with massive platforms, like Kanye West and Kyrie Irving, promote hate; and the explicit, in Holocaust denial and acts of violence, such as the Tree of Life Synagogue massacre—makes them all the more prescient and stirring.

But even faced with the disturbing threats to Jews today, it’s a mistake to leverage the Holocaust for mere emotional resonance. We have to be more vigilant in how we pass on this part of our history and refrain from using Holocaust stories as a metaphor for struggles that in fact have nothing to do with the persecution of Jews for their heritage. We have stories to tell that have depth and interest outside possible Holocaust-related ancestry.

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There are so many ways Fields and Weisberg beautifully showcase Judaism: Ezra’s community checking in on his search efforts, Beth’s joyful singing in worship with her children, the depth of commitment each family member has, in their own way, to their beliefs. In a show so infused with Judaism, it might feel inevitable that the Holocaust would emerge as a primary theme.

But when Holocaust references are not grounded in specifics and become generic add-ons, maybe they should be left on the cutting-room floor. It’s time to push past the reflex to invoke the Holocaust as a one-size-fits-all trauma lurking at the edges of every Jewish story. The history of our people is too important to be used as a garnish.

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