Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa

Being a review of Criminal Minds 04×15, “Zoe’s Reprise,” written by Oahn Ly, directed by Charles S. Carroll.

I’ll be honest. I expected to despise this episode.

I had heard spoilers and promos that indicated that it was going to play on my least favorite Hollywood serial killer trope of all time: the serial killer who faithfully copies the crimes of a random assortment of other, famous serial killers. So I was braced for the Inevitable Season Four Shark Jump (the BAU goes Hollywood).

I held out some hope, however, because I respect this writing team, and Oahn Ly is, in my opinion, one of its brightest lights. And they have managed to successfully deconstruct terrible Hollywood tropes before, including cheerful mockery of The Bodyguard (featuring the immortal line, “It’s just transference!”), Saw, and The Crow.

I should have had more faith.

In this episode, David  Rossi visits scenic Cleveland (it really is scenic Cleveland, too, in a particularly subtle joke about how the killer chooses his dump sites) on a book tour, where he encounters a Titian-haired amateur sleuth who tries to draw him into the investigation of a serial killer only she suspects. Alas, this being Criminal Minds, rather than the action-hero hookup you might anticipate… he blows her off, and she winds up dead in a backyard with his business card in her pocket.

He loses this one before the opening credits even roll, in other words, and spends the rest of the episode trying to make his error right.  And he can’t, of course, because this is the TV show that doesn’t believe in closure or redemption, just in doing the best you can, day after day. He doesn’t get forgiveness, his own, or anyone else’s. The world is just not that fair.

It’s not unheard of for a serial killer to change MOs—most famously, Zodiac. However, the stupidest of all serial killer tropes is the serial killer who copies famous serial killers. And yet, Criminal Minds gets away with it, in part because they didn’t do the horrid “exact duplication of the crime scene” thing, which would not only be extraordinarily difficult to pull off, but unlikely to fulfill the psychopathology of the offender.

Rather, this UNSUB is like an artist trying on different techniques until he finds his own voice, and they make a point of the fact that he’s young and groping towards an identity of his own. He knows he wants to kill. He just has to find what feels right for him. He’s finding himself, in other words, and once he does, he narrows his focus.

(I still think the victimology is a little too random, but I give them points for the handwave, and they did have to make it plausible for Rossi to blow off Nancy Drew the Titian-haired sleuth, for plot reasons.)

And Rossi had a Gideon moment, now that I think of it—his arrogance got somebody else killed.

Excellent guest stars in this episode. Bess Armstrong (as Zoe’s mother) and Johnny Lewis (as the UNSUB) were particularly sharp. The victim’s mom’s grief and anger and belated defense of her daughter against all comers were fabulous, and the UNSUB’s fascination with himself-as-serial-killer (and his incomprehension of normal folks) made a wonderful counterpoint to the central thematic argument of the episode: why is it that people are so interested in predators? (Personally, I think it’s a survival mechanism.)

Also, the UNSUB’s narcissism plays off Rossi’s narcissism and arrogance beautifully. As always, the monsters and the heroes are only a gentle step apart.

The thematic point about the fascination of monsters shows up in the first scene—between Rossi and his tour manager (and let’s hear it for a TV book tour that actually looks like a real, albeit higher-end, book tour!) and also in the last scene, between Rossi and JJ.

I love the JJ/Rossi conversation, and Rossi’s disingenuous lack of understanding as to why people find serial killers fascinating.

But of course he does understand, denials aside. After all, he’s the guy who wrote the book, and we just saw him sit down with an UNSUB to hear his tale. Gotta love a show that even manages to critique itself as serial killer porn while being serial killer porn.  (Which is a consistent theme with Rossi, I note—it’s showed up several times. His fans are generally pretty unsavory people.)

So, not a perfect episode. But all in all, really good, and sustaining the ethical complexity that’s the reason I keep tuning in to this show. And they lost in the cold open, which I think is a record, even for Criminal Minds.

Criminal Minds airs Wednesdays at 9 PM on CBS.


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