I am confused as to whether this episode is supposed to be a modern retelling of the Prodigal Son parable or not. It sort of is, but it also deviates heavily from it. Certain prominent elements from the parable are certainly there. Both sons disregard their father’s authority. Jimmy Barclay leaves home and wastes all his savings and is quickly deserted by his friends when they find out he has no money left to spend on them. And yet, when he repents, his father has compassion on him, and hugs and forgives him. Similarly, the prodigal son leaves home with his money and squanders it all. He then repents and is welcomed home by his father, who puts his arms around him and brings him home.
On the other hand, there is a lot missing from the episode. If it was a faithful adaptation, it would have had Jimmy hit rock bottom. In the parable, the son is starving but is too proud to return home. And so, he is forced to feed pigs, which are unclean animals according to Jewish law, which would have defiled him. Meanwhile, Jimmy’s low point doesn’t seem that bad. After running out of cash he goes to Whit’s End, where everything seems to be free, and spends the rest of the day playing with the trains. I wouldn’t call Whit’s End a pig pen and I doubt Mr. Whittaker would have let Jimmy go hungry. Whit of course tells Jimmy the story of the Prodigal Son and I’m glad he relates it the forgiveness that comes from God when people repent from their sins and turn to him.
Another thing missing from the parable is the ending. Where was Donna Barclay? At the end of the Parable of the Prodigal Son, the elder son is filled with anger and jealousy and refuses to join in the celebration to welcome his brother home. He demands to know why this sinner is being celebrated and shown grace when he does not deserve it. But Donna, Jimmy’s older sibling, makes no appearance. Is this because it would not have made sense for the character of Donna to have had such an outburst? Maybe, but only because the focus is entirely on Jimmy. If Donna had a story arc, it could easily have worked. If we had heard from Donna at the beginning of the show and again in subsequent scenes in the episode, it would have made perfect sense for her to show up at the end. I think if this episode had been about both Donna and Jimmy, it would have been greatly improved.
Overall, this episode seems to be less of a full story than the original biblical parable. It focuses on a few main points from the parable and then moves on to do its own thing. And it suffers as a result. To me it felt like a slow episode, with scenes that moved along lazily and predictably. It could have been much more exciting to get two perspectives, that of the prodigal son and the faithful elder sibling. But it is still a good show. The scene where Jimmy reunites with his father is particularly moving. It pulls the episode up to 3 out of 5 stars.