Criminal Minds: Devil's Night

It’s the Halloween episode, and it’s a doozy. Let’s get to it:

At the Hotchner household, a refreshingly chipper Hotch and his toddler son Jack (Cade Owens) get hopped up on pumpkin-shaped sugar cookies and squabble adorably about Halloween costumes. Jack doesn’t want to wear his usual old Spider-Man™ duds, and I can’t say I blame him; the kid’s grown at least a foot since the last time we saw him, and it seems highly unlikely that last year’s costume is still going to fit.

Back at Quantico, Reid bores the snot out of the rest of the team with arcane Halloween trivia. Everyone’s in an upbeat mood, until Hotch swoops in, having reverted back to his usual angel-of-death persona, and smashes all their fun holiday plans to bits: There’s been a series of grisly murders in Detroit, and the BAU must investigate.

For the past two years, the unsub has struck during Detroit’s annual Devil’s Night festivities, a citywide Mardi Gras-esque celebration that takes place over the three nights before Halloween. The unsub kidnaps one apparently random victim each night of the festival, chains them up in an abandoned building, douses them with gasoline, and burns them alive. He murdered his seventh and most recent victim the previous night, which was the first night of the festivities. Hence, Detroit is gearing up for two more victims.

The team coordinates with Lieutenant Al Garner (Ghostbusters’ Ernie Hudson) of Detroit’s fire department, who informs them that the entire city is on high alert because of the killings. Prentiss and Rossi interview the widow of the most recent victim. She remembers seeing a young man with half his face obliterated by horrible burns approaching her husband during the festival, right before his abduction. The team theorizes that the unsub is seeking revenge for whatever horrific accident caused his disfiguration, which suggests that his victims might not be random after all. Is this an homage to Phantom of the Opera, or an homage to Gotham City D.A. Harvey Dent? Either works for me.

Meanwhile, the unsub abducts his next victim, a general contractor named Chris Edwards (Ken Olandt). As soon as the team gets news of the abduction, Garcia combs through lists of subcontractors who were recently laid off by Edwards, and swiftly identifies the unsub as one Kaman Scott (Leonard Roberts, best known as D.L. on the fun first season of Heroes, back before Heroes became an impenetrable vortex of awfulness). Kaman had an extensive criminal record in his youth, but he cleaned up his act several years ago, before becoming tragically disfigured in an auto accident. The driver who caused the accident later became his first victim.

After warbling a few bars of “Music of the Night,” Kaman douses Edwards with gasoline and sets him on fire. The fire is spotted almost immediately by a hyper-vigilant public, so Kaman is forced to flee into the night, running through the mean streets of downtown… Los Angeles? Aw, man. I don’t want to give the Criminal Minds cinematographers and/or location scouts a hard time, because they usually do a bang-up job of disguising L.A. to look like their location of the week, but that iconic downtown skyline really doesn’t look much like Detroit.

Prentiss and Morgan search Kaman’s lair and find a few photos of a young woman. Based solely on these photos, they draw a whole bunch of wild conclusions about her -- that she’s Kaman’s former girlfriend, that he cleaned up his act and gave up his criminal ways when he started dating her, that she abandoned him after his accident and thus served as the trigger for his murderous attacks, that she’s his next target -- all of which turn out to be 100% spot on. They send the photos to Garcia, who identifies the building the young woman is posing in front of as a local diner called Jay-Mo’s. Suspecting Kaman will be headed there next (because… they found some photos of an unidentified woman that were taken there? This is why I could never be an FBI profiler -- all the wild leaps in logic would give me whiplash), the team converges on the diner.

Sure enough, Kaman runs straight to Jay-Mo’s. He confronts the proprietor, James Morris (Carl Lumbly), who is the father of Tracy, the young woman in the photographs. Kaman orders Morris to tell him where he can find Tracy; Morris refuses, so Kaman beats him to a pulp, throws gasoline around the diner, sets it on fire, and leaves him to burn.

Hotch and Lt. Garner arrive on the scene first. Even though the diner is wholly consumed in flames at this point, Hotch saunters into the inferno and carries Morris out to safety. The diner explodes into a fireball that sends them both flying, but Hotch (somehow) emerges totally unscathed. Morris is a little crispy around the edges, but he manages to urge Hotch to keep Tracy safe from Kaman before being hauled off in an ambulance.

Kaman next breaks into a house owned by Tracy’s aunt and uncle. He douses them with gasoline and threatens to burn them to death unless they stop hiding Tracy from him. Again with the gasoline, Kaman? As far as unsubs go, he’s a bit of a one-trick pony. Tracy finally shows herself. She begs him not to kill her family and apologizes for abandoning him while he was in a coma after his accident. Unmoved, Kaman whips out a blowtorch and threatens to ignite the gasoline.

SWAT has the house surrounded, but can’t safely move in because it’s such a volatile (literally!) situation. Hotch, who is on a roll with the impromptu heroics this episode, slinks into the house and confronts Kaman on his own. He mentions that Tracy has a young son with Kaman, whom she’s never told Kaman about, even though she and Kaman were apparently very much in love prior to Kaman’s accident (after which she was so repulsed by him that her family has spent the past several years hiding her from him? Tracy is a bit of an enigma). Tracy trots the kid out to meet his father, and there’s a huge schmaltzy scene where the kid strokes his dad’s mangled face while Kaman stares adoringly at his son, then Kaman extinguishes the blowtorch and surrenders to Hotch without incident.

Denouement: Back at Casa Hotchner, little Jack finally settles on a Halloween costume: Commenting that Spider-Man™ isn’t a real hero, he’s decided to dress up in a little dark suit and tie and go as Hotch. I was popping antacid last night while watching this for reasons having nothing to do with this episode, but scenes like this did little to ease my nausea. For the record, I think dressing like Hotch is a pretty awesome idea for a last-minute costume -- just break out your darkest suit and your crispest white shirt and affix a permanent scowl on your face, and you’re all set -- but all I could think about is how poor little Jack is going to get snickered out of kindergarten for dressing up as his dad for Halloween.

Terrible episode. Slapdash, improbable, and unrealistic. Sheer melodramatic crap. I loved it anyway.

Comments

Nomi Lubin said…
"Terrible episode. Slapdash, improbable, and unrealistic. Sheer melodramatic crap. I loved it anyway."

Haha! I'm watching Criminal Minds for the first time. This is the episode I just watched. I cut them a lot of slack -- competing with the 10-13 ep seasons of the cable and premium networks' highly crafted serialized niche shows, while CBS has to bang out 22, 23 episodes and catch the bad guy in 40 minutes. I really like the characters and the acting...and I imagine the writers frustrated by the many pressures and limitations put on them. They cannot show violence in the exotic way the non-broadcast networks or the even freer premium channels can. What they seem to do instead is show as much as they can within whatever the network limitations are.

I wish they wouldn't. It doesn't make it a better show. They could convey the horror better by showing less. What we love is our guys caring, figuring out the sick bad guys, finding them with ridiculous leaps of magical insight and all.

But maybe I'm wrong. Maybe they keep their ratings up by showing so much of the actual torture? I don't know. I just know that every episode, even the best ones, I think "yeah, I get why Mandy Patinkin had to quit."

But this episode? Good God, showing two people burning alive? No. No justification for that. Boo.

And then closing with not one but two super syrupy scenes with kids, as though they were trying to make up for the burned-alive gratuitousness? Ick.

I'm attached to the characters; I will probably keep watching. But this was a disappointment.
Morgan Richter said…
Totally agree with you, Nomi. I haven't watched Criminal Minds since... whichever season this was (seaon six?), for exactly the reasons you mention. I wish the writers and producers would have had enough faith in the characters to let them be what drives viewers to watch the show, instead of constantly trying to be as grotesque as they could get away with. As you said, it doesn't make it a better show. This was the season where all our main characters were increasingly backburnered to make more time to showcase the sadistic/gory/gimmicky deeds of the villains, and I just lost all patience with the show.

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