“The idea of reincarnation is that we’ve all been here before,” explains psychologist Kate McGinn (Kelli Giddish). “And we’ve got memories of past lives.” She’s passing to and fro in the frame, her carefully-arranged-to-look-used bookshelves visible in the background. Her suit is soft brown, her hair soft blond, the backlight softly golden. She gazes earnestly at Amanda (Kate Norby), seated on a plush beige sofa with hair that is — remarkably — even softer, more golden, and more backlit. “Normally,” Kate continues, “Those memories stay in our deep subconscious and there’s not a problem, but sometimes, when our souls are in conflict, those memories come up to the surface. It can be very traumatic.”
If you watched the special premiere of Past Life on Tuesday, you might remember this scene, which ran under the new series’ opening credits. As Kate laid out her line of work, Amanda looked both hopeful and horrified. In a previous scene, you saw that Amanda’s adolescent son Noah (Cayden Boyle) was suffering the symptoms of “regression,” according to Kate: “Your heart races, your palms sweat, and no matter how hard you try, you can’t make it go away.” Now he was sitting in that golden office with his mom, hoodie up, eyes anxious. They were desperate, you understood. And Kate would help them.
Such is Kate’s lot. Inspired by M. J. Rose’s novel, The Reincarnationist, Past Life each week offers up an individual traumatized by someone else’s memories, rendered in harsh light flashes, loud noises, and harrowing point of view shots. In Noah’s case, these sequences hinted at his murder in the previous life, or more specifically, the murder of a little girl who had been kidnapped along with her younger sister. Noah was doubtful: “So you really believe all this crap, huh?” he asked. Kate nodded soberly, “Yes, but I don’t think it’s crap.”
Got that. But because she’s surrounded by true believers at the Manhattan institute where she works — including Dr. Malachi Talmadge (Richard Schiff), head of the institute, and Dr. Rishi Karna (Ravi Patel), the show’s requisite person of color — she also needs a skeptic. Enter her new hire/your point of entry, former NYC detective Price Whatley (Nicholas Bishop). A crack investigator and the show’s requisite skeptic (“I believe in facts and evidence”), Price learned right away that everyone working with Kate is a Because Price has suffered his own trauma — he blames himself for his wife’s death — he took to drinking and lost his regular job. Now he’s feeling grumpy and cynical, and still coming to work late and smelling “like a brewery,” as Kate chides him.
She forgives Price for this repeated infraction — at least in the first two episodes — because she wants a non-academic investigator. He goes along — in these two episodes — because she’s “so damn right all the time.” Yes, “It is a burden,” she smiled at the end of the pilot, as she and Price lay back on a golden-hued beach and the camera hovered overhead.
Apparently, it’s a more conventional — even stereotypical — burden than she knows. By the second episode, airing 11 February, Kate and Price are also bearing a too familiar white burden, when they catch a case involving a black man on death row. Wrongly accused, the significantly named Fred Lamm (Afemo Omilami) has only a few hours before his execution. Oh so fortunately, the regressant this time, Corrine (Betty Gilpin), is so severely afflicted (and severely self-medicating) that her minor-age sister Susan (Vanessa Marano) arrives at Kate’s office. Describing her rudimentary online research to Kate, Susan asks, “Do you really believe in all this stuff?”
Yes, yes, she really does. And again, in “Dead Man Talking,” she explains to Corrine, “The worst part is the pain [the memories] make you feel, not being able to control them.” The girl is predictably surprised: “How did you know that?” Again, Kate comes with the sober look: “Because this is what I do.”
Even as you’re hoping that she won’t have to conjure up variations on this explication theme every week, she does it a few more times in this episode alone. So, not only does Corrine have to be convinced (a process that takes just a few minutes), along with Lamm and a white lawyer and conspicuous country-club member, Fant (Bruce Altman), who has information on Lamm’s case, information on a murder that he’s withheld based on that old-favorite plot-twister, attorney-client privilege. The legal system would collapse, Fant protests, “if lawyers couldn’t be trusted with their clients’ secrets.”
Kate sees it differently, of course. To her, secrets are dredged up regularly as a function of karma, a concept she explains during a sauna session with Corrine. Here, in still more golden light, Corrine is supposed to “sweat out all the toxins” of her addiction, so she can return home to look after Susan (who calls in occasionally with news of authorities threatening to take her away, just to insure the emotional pressure on Corrine doesn’t let up, and neither does her predilection for depressants).
As Corrine and Kate sit in the steamy hotness, their faces damp and their towels close-fitting, Corrine wonders if she’s the murderer in her past life, or at best, a witness who did the wrong thing. “Isn’t the whole idea,” she asks, that now she has to pay for past transgressions? Oh no, Kate assures her, “The idea of karma is that we have the ability to reset the natural balance.” The resetting Kate enables may not be “natural,” but is surely righteous. And already, you’ve feel like you’ve been here before.