The Basement on ‘The Patient’ Traps Steve Carell and Domhnall Gleeson in a Lonely Place
In Joel Fields and Joseph Weisberg’s 10-part FX series “The Patient,” serial killer Sam Fortner (Domhnall Gleeson) kidnaps therapist Dr. Alan Strauss (Steve Carell) in a bid to curb his homicidal impulses. Chained to the floor of Sam’s basement, Alan is constantly guessing how (and how far) to push his captor toward healing and how to further the chances of his escape, working from the very limited information that Sam offers during their “sessions” and the guesswork he irons out through an imagined dialogue with his own (dead) therapist, Charlie (David Alan Greer).
The show puts its audience in the nearly same position as Alan in terms of this guesswork; a sense of limited perspective is bound up in “The Patient.” Fields and Weisberg play any easy explanation for Sam’s behavior close to the vest, letting the dialogue between Carell and Gleeson (and, just as crucially, the silent pauses in between) inch tensely towards articulating those truths. By being so narratively frugal, the show forces Alan and us to strain to pick up any piece of context that might save his life. A slight spasm across Sam’s face, his ill-fitting clothes, and the basement carpet’s particular shade of green are equally fraught with potential meaning. The basement itself becomes an expression of the past unhappiness shared by Sam and his mother, Candace (Linda Emond), an unnervingly nondescript but unmistakably lonely place that could swallow up Alan, too.
In order to build a key set whose design is imbued with so much pathos, the show’s production team needed more than a dark and spooky subterranean spot. The space would have to say more about Sam and Candace than they themselves could.
“We always work kind of backwards,” set decorator Lisa Son told IndieWire. “We take the character’s current age, and then we take it back. So if Candace is 60 years old, how old was she when she bought the house? And what did that house look like? That’s when all the set dressing comes to life, once we figure out what year or what decade it was when they started really utilizing and moving into this space.”
For Son, this meant putting herself and her team very much in Candace’s shoes. “This basement started off as her safe space because she didn’t have control over what was going on outside,” she said. “So it was a place where she could take care of what we define as self-care right now. Physically, mentally, and emotionally. So physically she had the home workout videotapes, you know, ‘Buns of Steel’ and Jane Fonda and stuff like that. Mentally she had self-help books. And then emotionally she things that she enjoyed to do: sewing, knitting, needle pointing, even the artwork on her walls was a chance for her to kind of self-express.”
But these instances of self-expression are hard to spot by design. When it comes down to it, Sam and Candace can’t impose much of a sense of personality on the basement, the bulk of which is just plain wood panels and exposed brick. That failure to turn their house into a home suggests a loneliness and a pain in their lives, an eloquence that would elude, say, a flashback to Sam’s violent father. Because the set gives us very little to work off, the pieces that are present are all the more revealing. “Everything on that set has a reason for existing there,” Son said. “It was super important for us to make sure that there was texture [from the period items in the basement] and that layer of being used — nothing brand new — in that space.”
Despite himself, there are also little pieces of Sam scattered like clues throughout the basement set. “We have board games and mental toys — the Rubik’s Cubes or those chain link toys, where you have to try to figure out how to unhook them. [Sam] had books in there as well. We had old school books that you would have in high school and middle school,” Son said. But crucially, there’s very little evidence in the basement (or anywhere else, for that matter) of who Sam is now as adult — beyond the tools of the trade he eventually brings into the basement. The hollowness and sadness of the space reflects how Sam isn’t able to move past the ways in which he’s broken, and production designer Patricio Farrell and Son purposefully arranged the basement so that any context that might help Alan feels just a little distant, just a little beyond him.
“It’s Alan’s space where Sam has control over the space,” Son said. “[The production team] took somebody who is similar to Alan’s height and made sure that when he extended the chain fully, when he extended his body fully, there was a radius of space that needed to be clear. Which is so [disconcerting] because everything was just out of reach. Once that radius of space was defined, I knew where my boundaries were. Like, this entertainment unit needs to be pushed just two more inches. This shelf needs to be pushed all the way back.”
This sense of straining for things just out of reach is the dramatic tension of “The Patient” — both the kidnapping and the therapy, itself a mental straining for self-knowledge that often feels just an inch or two out of the way. Because there’s so little to see, every inch of the set matters, and because there’s so much empty space built into it, there’s so much room to dread how Sam’s violence might creep in. “The basement itself was a supporting character,” Son said. “We got to get into the mind frame of Candace and then shift over to Sam and then shift over to Alan and how is this space gonna feel for him, and then also shift over to the audience. We want this space to be friendly and welcoming, but also to kind of feel like a torture chamber for these guys as well.”
[Editor’s note: David Bridson, the art director of “The Patient,” is married to IndieWire editor-in-chief Dana Harris-Bridson.]
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