Nov 21 2008 12:51am

Sometimes, the bad guys outsmart themselves

Being a review of Criminal Minds 4x08, “Masterpiece,” written by Edward Allen Bernero, directed by Paul Michael Glaser

I guess Starsky’s still a cop, after all these years...

We open with Rossi and Reid doing outreach to college students and answering awkward questions.

Reid intimidates everybody with his degrees (and hey, we finally found out what they are, exactly, ending three seasons of fannish speculation) and bombs horribly with an Existentialist lightbulb joke—which I actually found pretty funny. But then again, that might explain why it bombed horribly.

Rossi and Reid are then approached by a distinguished-looking individual (Jason Alexander, in a professorial wig—the CM tendency to cast against type may again be noted here) who informs them that he not only had killed seven women, there are five more people currently in danger who will be dead in ten hours if Rossi cannot find them in time.

Cue Mission:Impossible music...

To make a long story shorter, it turns out that the serial killer isn’t a serial killer at all, but rather an old enemy of Rossi’s bent on exacting a peculiar and horrible revenge, one that relies on Rossi’s well-known hubris to exact a particularly Homerian ironic justice—basically, the killer intends to use his profile of Rossi to decoy the rest of the team to their deaths. In the meantime, we’re treated to Rossi and the villain fencing intellectually, other team members occasionally engaging with the interrogation (there’s a nice bit with Prentiss as agent provocateur, which I believe is recycled from one of the bits that got cut from 3x01 when it had to be patchworked to make sense of Mandy Patinkin’s abrupt departure from the show), and Reid being Math Guy (complete with a slightly silly but overall amusing Da Vinci Code/Numb3rs homage), which we have not seen in some time.

There were a lot of individual moments to like in this episode—Garcia at her finest (including a brief visit from her cute dorky boy geek, Kevin), Todd learning the ropes of JJ’s impossible job, Hotch dealing with the private lives of his agents, Reid trying to find a way to answer a fresh-faced college student asking if he’s ever shot anyone—but I felt as if the overall narrative arc outclevered itself and fell down. As a writer, Bernero seems to have a weakness for plots revolving around convoluted whodunnits and too-clever bad guys, and (as with the “Fisher King” episodes in S1 and S2) this  particular story gets trapped in its narrative games and never really gets itself free.

To be clear, sometimes his willingness to experiment works very well indeed—for example, in the brilliant comic book vigilante deconstruction, “True Night.” But it’s usually a sign of broken structure if, at the end of the story, you need to stop the action for five or six minutes and exposit—and unfortunately, that’s exactly what happens here. In addition, while there are parallels drawn between the mysterious self-confessed serial killer and Rossi—most of them pointed out by the villain himself, though we do see both Hotch and Reid reacting with dismay to Rossi’s overweening ego—they’re not handled with the usual subtlety.

There’s also a bunch of conversation between Rossi and the villain regarding whether his crimes are genetically programmed, whether Rossi’s intellect is inferior to Reid’s, and other questions of heredity, all couched in terms intended to provoke. But none of it seems to lead anywhere: it’s provided, but not directed.

In other words, there seems to be some thematic confusion underway. Which is to say, I’m not sure if the argument we’re supposed to be engaging with and watching a little more hammering out of is a continuation of the nature vs. nurture, death penalty vs. incarceration argument we got in “Elephant’s Memory” and “Tabula Rasa” last year, some more exploration of Rossi’s hubris, or something else entirely. The parallel between the villain and Rossi is of course central to the episode: it’s so broadly drawn you can’t miss it, and perhaps the most chilling moment of the entire 43 minutes is when Rossi, having defeated his would-be destroyer, then deals with him not just with a justified lack of compassion, but frank emotional sadism.

It makes an eerie resonance with Hotch’s—and Reid’s—doubtful glances early on. The fact that Rossi goes on to confer credit on Reid for cracking the case, and also offer as the show’s closing epigraph a Martin Luther King Jr. quotation on the fruitlessness of vengeance adds to rather than resolving my confusion. Are we meant to draw from this that Rossi understands the hypocrisy of his own position? Are we meant to divine that Rossi is in control of his ego, rather than otherwise?

(I did enjoy the blatant moment of Numb3rs parody, but this was one time when the references to other episodes of Criminal Minds (Notably “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” “Sex Birth Death,” and “Lessons Learned”) seemed a little too much like repetition rather than continuity. And I felt as if the narrative did not, precisely, play fair with the viewer—which “Lessons Learned,” another episode in which we see the team manipulate and trick an antagonist into providing desperately needed information—does. The misdirect, in other words, is too close to an outright lie.)

I guess what I’m trying to say is, it feels muddy and heavy-handed, as if a bunch of thematic arguments were popped in a blender and the pieces just tossed willy nilly wherever they might land, without sufficient attention to how they might lead through the narrative.

Ambiguity is a lovely thing, but in this episode I’m left with too much ambiguity, and a villain who’s a little too unbelievably lifted from the pages of sensational fiction rather than feeling like a real, albeit monstrous and broken, person.

As previously mentioned, however, I loved a lot of the tidbits of character development. Although I find myself wondering when Hotch is going to remember that he’s Rossi’s boss now and stop deferring to him and asking his permission to do things. Because I find it jarring every time it happens: I have a hard time seeing Hotch as the sort of person who would be unable to establish authority over a report because that report is older and had previously engaged  Hotch in a mentoring relationship.

On the other hand, all quibbles aside, a mediocre episode of Criminal Minds is still pretty fine television. And the return of Spencer!Cam makes up for a lot.

Criminal Minds airs Wednesdays at 9 pm on CBS. Promotional image courtesy of CBS.

Tex Anne
1. TexAnne
About that wig: trauma hair much?

And it occurs to me that Mantegna's delivery was just a little too emphatic on the "Martin. Luther. King. Junior." Almost a nanny-nanny-boo-boo singsong, to go with his last smug look at the UNSUB.
2. Kimmie
I agree with the confusing narrative bit - the entire episode felt like a build-up to Rossi realising his problems with ego (getting upset because he's not as smart as Reid? Who is?!), and then at the end he not only wins, he's completely smug about it. Kind of went back on everything that came before. I wasn't really sure what the message was supposed to be...
Elizabeth Bear
3. matociquala
The show tends more towards thematic arguments than moral messages, but usually the thesis of the argument is more plainly set out, yes. This week's episode felt more like an undergrad English paper than the usual master's-level classroom debate.

And yeah, I get Rossi's insecurity--it's a major character trait, well-established. But I wanted to feel like it was going somewhere.

When I watched for the second time, I began to wonder if we're watching setup for the next arc in The Redemption Of David Rossi. Maybe that last unsettling sequence is the narrative equivalent of Reid palming the dilaudid bottles.

4. puzzlehouse
Am I the only one who noticed that Jason Alexander's wig gave him a decidedly Mark Twain-ish look? Deliberate tie in to the opening quote, or just me?
Elizabeth Bear
5. matociquala
puzzlehouse @4--interesting. That wig doesn't fit my mental image of Twain, who I think of as having shorter, curly hair. But you might be right.

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