Absentia episode 1 review: Stana Katic series off to a thrilling start

Absentia season 1

The premiere of Stana Katic’s new thriller Absentia is here, and do you expect that premiere twist coming? (Warning: SPOILERS AHEAD from the Canadian premiere.)

There is a great deal to get into with this first episode, but perhaps the biggest news was that Emily Byrne, the long-missing woman played by Katic, may be a killer just as much as she was a victim. Before she was found, another body washed up on shore belonging to Robert, one of the subjects of an early case of hers with the FBI. However, it wasn’t clear until the very end that he was named the identity of the deceased; at that point, the bureau already clocked many resources looking for him, thinking that is was his DNA under the victim’s fingernails.

Unfortunately, it instead was Emily’s DNA located under the nails, and the mystery at the center of the show is on another level. Is Emily a brainwashed vessel of the serial killer Conrad Harlow, or was this another elaborate machination of a larger plan? You will likely ask yourself that for many weeks on end now, but we do want to get into some other elements of what was a very heartbreaking premiere for many of these characters.

At the center of all of this was Emily, played fantastically by Katic in this first episode. She’s not a killer in her mind; instead, she is a broken woman, trying to piece together what happened in six years of missing time. What she does know is that the life that she once knew is gone. Her husband Nick Durand has married someone new in Alice, her son Flynn thinks of her as a stranger, and her brother Jack lost his medical license after falling into addiction after her death. The one constant seems to be her old dog, who is able to look at her as though no time has passed. (Aren’t dogs wonderful in that way?)

You can also easily detail some of Alice’s own suffering, given that she is clearly doing her best to be supportive of the fact that her husband’s late wife is suddenly back from the dead and she doesn’t know just what to believe. She was as kind as she could be to Emily while showing her loyalties and where her heart truly lies. Provided that she’s not involved (there is no evidence that is for now), she’s an innocent bystander in all of the chaos and it’s likely going to get worse for her long before it’s better.

Then, there’s Nick trying to straddle both lines, whether it be intently trying to figure out how Emily was locked in that cabin drowning how to keep things at home together. Patrick Heusinger is not someone we knew a whole lot about as a performer before this premiere, but he was a revelation in bringing intensity to the table while also some emotional fervor and vulnerability. The scene of him crying after visiting Emily in the hospital was worth a few tears on its own.

The verdict

Through one episode, Absentia does a stellar job of giving you answers to some questions, but also raising a million more. How did Conrad make that call to Nick, and was it even him? Was Emily trained to be a killer, and what happens if Conrad gets out of prison? All of these are compelling and interesting, as is the family dynamic awaiting Emily now that she is a stranger in this strange new-yet-old land.

As for the one thing we’d change, it’s probably the predictable cop / federal agent disdain that is such a crime TV trope. This show is better asking questions and delivering mysteries than it is diving into a tired TV trend like local cops fighting with the feds.

Overall, Absentia is off to a tremendous start in that it’s gripping, intelligent, and very well-acted from start to finish. The premiere took its time ensuring that the entire cast was well-represented so we’re not just invested in one story. That may pay dividends down the road.

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