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A lengthy interrogation tries to make Clarice look smarter than it is

Rebecca Breeds as Clarice Starling
Rebecca Breeds as Clarice Starling
Photo: Brooke Palmer/CBS
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At this point, Clarice is starting to feel like the friend that always makes it a point to reference the Ivy League school they attended, or who continually interjects little asides about how smart they are, without realizing it only serves to underscore the glaring fact that they’re, well… not. The show just can’t resist trying to emphasize its own cleverness, by having characters continually mention how smart they think someone is being, only to undercut it with another reveal that the heroes were outsmarted by the antagonist—but then it has Starling realize that fact, at which point we spend further time being assured how smart she is, despite evidence to the contrary. If the show worked half as hard at letting subtext remain just that—subtext—as it does striving for unearned depth, maybe it wouldn’t feel so much like Clarice is hanging a lampshade on everything it does. But until such time, here we are, being told that Clarice’s assessment that the killer “doesn’t trust” the F.B.I. is some profound insight.

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“Are You Alright?” returns to the larger narrative taking shape over this season: the murder of three women who were whistleblowers involved in some sort of drug trial. Since it looks like Clarice has decided to firmly embrace the “no serial killer” element of the story, that means we have to rely on new reveals and additional information about the case to push the plot forward. Unfortunately, almost none of that happens in this episode. When it begins, we know that Karl Wellig was hired by a person or persons unknown to kill the women (including the reporter gathering their stories, Rebecca Clarke-Sherman, now recovering in a therapeutic facility) and make it look like the work of an unhinged serial killer. At the end of the episode, we know the exact same amount of information—only now, Wellig is dead, Rebecca is in hiding, and the people behind this conspiracy have vanished again. True, it’s clear these villains have impressive resources (it’s no small task to disguise someone as a cop and send them into the interrogation area to poison a suspect, all while another tough pretends to be a lawyer and distracts the team), but that’s an awfully long walk to confirm what we already knew.

Bizarrely, this series seems to be operating under the delusion that viewers of a CBS procedural still need basic aspects of police work explained to them. Laying out the idea of “good cop/bad cop” is silly enough, but to then have the supporting players maintain a running commentary on what, exactly, Krendler and the others are doing with Wellig every time they walk into the interrogation room smacks of mistrust toward the audience, an excess of narrative hand-holding—with kid gloves on, to boot. It’s one thing to allow a bit of meta fun via the characters tossing off wisecracks about the nature of police work; it’s quite another to have Kal Penn patronizingly explain the way a standard-issue interrogation works, in real time, as they watch it through the two-way mirror. (Then again, at least the show is finally letting Penn talk, even if I couldn’t for the life of me tell you anything about this character. He may as well be the resurrected Dr. Kutner from House.)

Illustration for article titled A lengthy interrogation tries to make Clarice look smarter than it is
Photo: Brooke Palmer/CBS

Esquivel, by contrast, continues to be the secondary character that gets the most opportunity to reveal some personality. His sit-down with Wellig reveals that the former sniper is still relatively haunted by some of the things he did during his time in the military, and he remains steadfastly committed to supporting Clarice’s instincts, even when there’s not much to them. Agent Clarke does another round of old-guy jokes and inexplicable hostility toward the concept of psych profiles for murderers, and Krendler vacillates between the open contempt of Starling from episode one and the acceptance of her idiosyncrasies from the conclusion of last week’s cult-compound narrative. The basic dynamics of this group are being established, but it’s mighty slow going.

The Martin family members are both the most intriguing and most extraneous elements of the series—Katherine being the former, and Attorney General Ruth Martin the latter. Sure, maybe Congress is holding hearings about this new unit the AG has put together, but it’s so remotely connected to the story of our team that it feels like a distraction. (Plus, we already know they’re not shutting down the unit any time soon, which makes those scenes feel even less essential.) Katherine, however, is over-exercising, apparently unable to leave the house, and barely able to communicate with her mom. So far, the odd admixture of cynical smarts and traumatized insecurity is working, but like the rest of the supporting players (poor Ardelia, given so little to do as either a cold case researcher or a character), the show needs to start moving forward with its plans for Katherine or else it will soon feel like wheel-spinning.

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Illustration for article titled A lengthy interrogation tries to make Clarice look smarter than it is
Photo: Brooke Palmer/CBS

And it wouldn’t be Clarice without one final awkward conversation with Starling’s shrink. Bookending this episode is her (ostensible) last sessions with Shawn Doyle’s unnamed therapist, and they remain nothing so much as Exhibit A of why Clarice might need some more intensive help. Hallucinating a moth on her hand that eventually rips open to reveal a woman’s arm (and a scream for help coming from inside) isn’t really helping Starling’s case when it comes to firing this guy—her argument that he tried to gaslight her is a much better reason to seek a new shrink, not to mention Doyle has come across as a total creep during these sessions. I’ll be curious to see who they find as a replacement, since even Starling is now aware she needs help. “Maybe your perceptions aren’t as solid as you think,” he opines, and you know what? He’s right.

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Stray observations

  • Ardelia gets saddled with some groaners this week. “I don’t like this—this is dark and deep, Clarice.” And this in response to learning that Wellig didn’t bite his victims.
  • The therapist’s voice, echoing in Starling’s head when she slams the coffee mug into the glass wall where Krendler’s walking by: “If you have evasive thoughts, it can cause you to act impulsively.” Thanks, flashback to a line we literally heard 30 minutes ago.
  • Katherine can’t even take Precious outside for a potty break. She seems well.
  • Starling claims orange soda and ramen noodles belong to “the palate of an 8-year-old.” Do kids love plain ramen noodles? Is this a thing I was unaware of?
  • We get a lingering shot of Krendler looking at a family photo. His son is dead, I guess, which is the most we’ve gotten about his character in three episodes.
  • Alright, here’s an example of the kind of dumb shit Clarice pulls that bugs me: When she realizes that the bad guys dressed up as a cop to get to Wellig and kill him, she simultaneously intuits they might go after the reporter, Rebecca, as well, and Krendler tells her to get over there. But when she arrives, the facility employee walks to the room and together they knock on the door, before opening it up to discover she’s flown the coop. Are you seriously telling me Clarice didn’t think to call the staff ahead of time, as soon as she realized Rebecca’s life was in danger? The staff should’ve already been in that room when you arrived, Starling! Get it together, people. Things like that make it that much harder for us to believe she’s some brilliant agent.
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Alex McLevy is a writer and editor at The A.V. Club, and would kindly appreciate additional videos of robots failing to accomplish basic tasks.