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Quantico drops the (second) bomb in its wobbly midseason finale

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“Inside” is an especially unique episode of Quantico in that, for once, the flashback story feels more engaging than the present-day story. That says something profound about how the show has executed the present-day story, which has the added urgency of not one, but two ticking clocks. There’s the figurative ticking clock—Alex’s narrowing window of opportunity to prove her innocence before she’s placed in custody—not to mention the literal ticking clock counting down to the detonation of a second bomb. Nothing should ever feel more urgent than that, especially since the rest of Quantico is made up of odd, vestigial plotlines and lukewarm romances. And yet “Inside” makes a better case for Quantico as a terrorism-adjacent romantic drama than as a tightly-plotted thriller.

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The show’s balance has tipped in the opposite direction because as the flashback story is untangled, it gets easier to follow and invest in. Meanwhile, as the present-day story continues to roll out endless twists and misdirects, it only gets more convoluted and harder to care about. Quantico felt like it was beginning to come together around “Go,” when the former NATs had all been accounted for, making it appear that the show was acquitting its main characters one at a time. Suggesting the characters’ innocence doesn’t mean the show can’t later reveal one of them as the culprit, but ideally, it should function as a breather while the audience looks at the investigation and potential suspects with new eyes. But creator Joshua Safran, who wrote “Inside,” doesn’t want to give the audience a breather. Everyone is a suspect, and instead of trying to lull viewers into a false sense of complacency, the show is crammed full of overt reminders that no one’s name has been fully cleared.

But Quantico isn’t content to give its suspects means, it has to also feint at giving them motive. What makes Quantico so goofy is that Alex’s former classmates aren’t just suspects because they had the proximity to and knowledge of Alex to successfully frame her. They are suspects because they are all deeply shady people with bizarre secrets, and it would be reasonable to treat them as persons of interest even if they’d never set foot in the FBI training center. Simon remains the show’s most intriguing and compelling character mostly because of Tate Ellington’s shell-shocked performance, but between his time in Gaza and that ridiculous nonsense about making a decoy bomb to galvanize the anti-terrorism community, there’s simply no way in hell he would get anywhere near a security clearance. And it isn’t just Simon. It’s also Elias, who this week reveals he was blackmailed into kidnapping Simon and framing him because the real culprit had knowledge of his shady dealings as a trial attorney. It’s also Caleb, who despite his pedigree and relationship to the agency’s deputy director, was just barely prevented from carrying out a domestic terrorist attack as a teenager. Not unlike Charlie, Miranda’s presumably radicalized son, who gets to hang out at FBI training drills despite almost carrying out a school shooting.

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Quantico doesn’t have to be an elegant show, but does it have to be quite this blunt? If the idea is that someone started framing Alex the moment she enrolled in Quantico, and the suspect is among the people she attended training with, what’s the benefit of all these sketchy biographical details? The pilot efficiently established that Grand Central was an inside job, so the fact that there’s a traitor in Alex’s midst can be taken for granted. And yet the show continues to bludgeon the audience with shocking revelations that are mostly shocking in that all of these people were presumably screened in some fashion before joining the NAT ranks. Beyond the fact that this approach requires a superhuman suspension of disbelief, it just makes the story confusing as hell. I’m not sure I fundamentally understand what happened in the hotel room with Simon or why Elias saw colluding with a terrorist as a better option than facing potential disbarment. I still can’t wrap my brain around the fact that Quantico seems intent on keeping its central mystery under wraps until somewhere near the end of its 22-episode order. Honestly, who has the energy for this?

If Quantico could be saved, Marcia Cross and Eliza Coupe would be the women for the job, but their respective debuts in “Inside” don’t land as hard as I was hoping they would. Cross comes aboard as Claire Haas, a promising Democratic presidential hopeful and Caleb’s mom. Coupe plays Hannah Weiland, an agent Alex meets at the Haas’ annual New Year’s Eve blowout and has instant gal-pal chemistry with. Later, Alex discovers that Hannah is Ryan’s ex-wife, the woman Alex heard in the background after calling Ryan just to hear his voice. Cross and Coupe are both phenomenal actresses, and I was quite looking forward to an appearance from Cross, who is perfectly cast as a genteel yet tough female politician. But neither of them can break free of the writing, which folds them into the show’s lame romances. Claire is mostly around to ratchet up the tension in the Caleb-Shelby-Clayton love triangle, while Hannah’s job is to inject more conflict in Ryan and Alex’s room-temperature love affair. Both characters get choice moments, with Claire clarifying that she hates Shelby because of her conduct with Caleb, not Clayton, and Hannah informing Alex that she broke Ryan’s heart and owes it to him to keep her distance. But it was hard to shake the feeling that neither actress was utilized effectively.

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Even though the romantic storylines aren’t particularly convincing, the flashback stuff still managed to be more compelling because it’s simply easier to parse than the overcomplicated present-day investigation. Quantico is a show that would never have to do a Christmas episode if it didn’t want to, but in doing so, it becomes sort of charming in spite of itself. Nimah’s conversation with Miranda works, as do a lot of the scenes that feature nothing more than the NATs acting silly and getting wasted. I should probably care more about the explosion at the FBI command center, but there are too many moving parts to focus on any of them.

Stray observations

  • This marks the end of weekly coverage for Quantico. I’ll likely pop back in for the season finale, but I’m not making any promises.
  • I finally caught up with How To Get Away With Murder, which does something very similar to what Quantico is trying to do, but with much, much, much greater success. It’s every bit as elaborately plotted, and maintains two timelines at once to facilitate a whodunnit, but it’s never baffling in the way Quantico is.
  • Charlie’s back, but not exactly safely.
  • My money’s still on Brandon as the Grand Central bomber.
  • If Quantico gets a second season, which is more likely than not if the current ratings hold, I’ll be curious to see if the writers elect to hold onto the flashback-flashforward structure even with the characters no longer in training. Then again, Ryan proved you can drop in and out of classes at will, so maybe everybody will still be at Quantico.
  • Miranda, when Nimah wants to swipe some of her coffee: “Go ahead, just leave me enough to spike my whiskey with.”
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