Kellerset’s The Patient tells the story of how a serial killer came about

Set decorator Lisa Son tells IndieWire how The Patient’s basement setting reveals her own story for the show’s killer, who seeks treatment.

In Joel Fields and Joseph Weisberg’s 10-episode FX series The Patient, serial killer Sam Fortner (Domhnall Gleeson) kidnaps therapist Dr. Alan Strauss (Steve Carell) to curb his murderous thirst. Chained to the floor of Sam’s basement, Alan constantly ponders how (and how far) to push his captor towards healing and how to increase the chances of his escape, based on the very limited information Sam gained during their ” Sessions’ and the suspicions he irons out through an imaginary dialogue with his own (dead) therapist, Charlie (David Alan Greer).

The show puts its audience in much the same position as Alan when it comes to this guesswork; a sense of narrow perspective is associated with The Patient. Fields and Weisberg play out every simple explanation for Sam’s behavior near the vest, allowing Carell and Gleeson’s dialogue (and, just as crucially, the silent pauses in between) to tensely articulate those truths. By being so sparse with narrative, the show forces Alan and us to strain to pick up every bit of context that might save his life. A slight twitch in Sam’s face, his ill-fitting clothes, and the particular shade of green of the basement carpet are all equally full of potential meaning. The basement itself becomes a reflection of the past misfortune shared by Sam and his mother, Candace (Linda Emond), an unnervingly unassuming but unmistakably lonely place that could engulf Alan, too.

To build a key set with a design steeped in so much pathos, the show’s production team needed more than a dark and spooky underground location. The room would have to say more about Sam and Candace than they could themselves.

“We’re always kind of working backwards,” set decorator Lisa Son told IndieWire. “We take the current age of the character and then take it back. So if Candace is 60 years old, how old was she when she bought the house? And what did this house look like? That’s when all the set attire comes to life once we figure out what year or decade they really started using and moving to that space.

“The patient”

Susanne Tenner/FX

For Son, this meant putting herself and her team in Candace’s shoes. “This basement was originally her safe place because she had no control over what was going on outside,” she said. “So it was a place where she could take care of what we’re currently defining as self-care. Physically, mentally and emotionally. So physically she had the home workout videos, you know, ‘Buns of Steel’ and Jane Fonda and stuff like that. In her mind she had self-help books. And then it gets emotional about things she enjoys doing: sewing, knitting, needlepoint, even the artwork on her walls was a chance for her to express herself.”

But these instances of self-expression are difficult to discern by design. When it comes down to it, Sam and Candace can’t impose much personality on the basement, most of it just plain wood paneling and exposed brick. That they failed to turn their house into a home suggests a loneliness and pain in their lives, an eloquence that would elude a flashback to Sam’s abusive father, for example. Since the set gives us very little to work through, the pieces present are all the more revealing. “Everything about this set has a reason for being there,” Son said. “It was very important for us to make sure that texture was there [from the period items in the basement] and that level of use – nothing brand new – in this space.”

That notwithstanding, there are also small pieces of Sam scattered throughout the basement set like clues. “We have board games and mental toys – the Rubik’s Cubes or those chain link toys that you have to try to figure out how to solve. [Sam] also had books in it. We had old textbooks 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) as to who Sam is now as an adult — other than the tools of the trade , which he finally takes to the basement. The hollowness and sadness of the space reflects Sam’s inability to move beyond the manner in which it is broken, and production designers Patricio Farrell and Son intentionally furnished the basement so that any context, who could help Alan feels just a little bit beyond him.


“The patient”

Susanne Tenner/FX

“It’s Alan’s room where Sam is in control of the room,” Son said. “[The production team] took someone similar in height to Alan and made sure that when he fully extended the chain, when he fully extended his body, there was a radius of space that had to be free. That’s so [disconcerting] because everything was out of reach. Once that radius of space was defined, I knew where my limits were. For example, this entertainment unit only needs to be pushed two inches further. This shelf needs to be pushed all the way to the back.”

This pursuit of things just out of reach is the dramatic tension of “The Patient” – both the kidnapping and the therapy, itself a mental effort at self-discovery that often feels just an inch or two off. Because there’s so little to see, every inch of the set counts, and because there’s so much empty space built into it, there’s so much room to worry about how Sam’s violence might creep in. “The basement himself was a supporting character,” Son said. “We have to get into the mind of Candace and then move on to Sam and then move on to Alan and how is that room going to feel to him and then Also pass to the audience. We want this space to be friendly and welcoming, but also feel like a torture chamber for these guys.”

[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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Lindsay Lowe

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