Criminal Minds: Remembrance of Things Past

Hey, look! There’s a brand-new credit sequence with a slightly revamped version of the theme music, plus new footage where the cast members show off their kicky new hairstyles. I approve, apart from this business about how A.J. Cook is no longer a cast member. That part still sucks.

In Bristol, Virginia, a young woman named Jenny leaves a distraught message on her parents’ answering machine: “When you get this message, I’ll probably be dead.” Shortly thereafter, her corpse is found, along with that of another young woman, who made a similar phone call to her fiancé before being horrifically tortured and murdered as well. The MO is nearly identical to that of a serial killer known as The Butcher, who murdered twenty women from 1984 to 1993 before stopping. This was one of Rossi’s old cases, and he’s taking it verrrrry personally that he was never able to capture the culprit.

Oh. It’s a Rossi-heavy episode. This doesn’t bode well.

Don’t get me wrong: I adore Rossi. He’s smart, dry, and funny, and Joe Mantegna is so firmly in my good graces that he could spend an episode picking his nose and flicking boogers at his coworkers, and I’d still be in his corner. But to the best of my recollection, there hasn’t yet been a standout Rossi-focused episode. I’m not sure why. Maybe it’s just coincidence, or maybe it’s because he’s so low-key that he’s ended up receiving less lovingly detailed character development than his some of his glamorous drama-queen teammates (hi, Reid! Hi, Morgan!).

Due to key differences in the murders (the recent killings are messier, and the scripted message the victims were forced to deliver to their loved ones are slightly different), Hotch suspects the unsub is a copycat instead of the original Butcher. Rossi has a gut feeling the Butcher is directly involved, so Hotch gives him permission to pursue his theories on his own while the rest of the team generates a brand-new profile of the killer.

Two more young women -- blonde and pretty, just like all the previous victims -- are abducted, tortured, and murdered. Evidence suggests the involvement of two unsubs working as a team. The unsubs turn out to be the original Butcher (Hill Street Blues’ Daniel Travanti), now an Alzheimer’s-riddled old man, and his son, Colby (Josh Braatan), who keeps showing his dad slides of former crime scenes to rekindle his memories of past murders and restore his enthusiasm for murdering. Gosh, thanks, Colby.

I’m kind of blasting through the plot here, because I had a pretty comprehensively negative reaction to this episode, and I’d like to spend as little time dwelling on it as possible. None of our regular characters have any standout moments, and far too much time is spent focusing on the unsubs. Despite the relentlessly grim subject matter, Criminal Minds typically does a great job of keeping plots from being needlessly sensationalistic and exploitative. With this episode, though, the balance seems… off. The unsubs on this show are almost invariably highly unpleasant* and unsympathetic people, which is exactly how it should be (serial killers, you know), but the Butcher -- real name Lee Mullens -- and Colby are both so vile, and monopolize so much screen time, that the episode ends up being dour and joyless. They’re not interesting characters, and the plot itself isn’t unique or involving enough to compensate for the off-putting sadism of their actions. Look, if you’re going to show scenes of a terrified young woman stripped down to her bra and panties and strapped to a table, about to be sodomized with an electrical rod and stabbed to death, there needs to be a damn good point to it all, apart from trying to pander to a certain bottom-dwelling segment of the audience.

*Key exception to the “unpleasant unsubs” rule: the sweet-natured but homicidal high-class call girl in the fourth-season episode “Pleasure is My Business,” who, despite a nasty habit of killing her clients, seemed like she’d be a whole lot of fun to hang out with. I can see myself splitting a bottle of Prosecco with her while indulging in plenty of giggly speculation about how Hotch, despite his grim and straight-laced exterior, is probably secretly a tiger in the sack. Which brings me to my next point: Last night I watched Denys Arcand’s Love and Human Remains, a cheerfully tawdry 1993 Canadian independent film in which an endearingly slutty Thomas Gibson snorts lines and indulges in plenty of hot boy-on-boy action, all while sporting this totally fierce haircut with long center-parted bangs that would’ve made Kurt Cobain weep with jealousy. Let me tell you, coming right on the heels of all that awesomeness, Criminal Minds was bound to disappoint. I’m not saying this episode would have been improved if it’d dropped all this business with Lee and Colby and instead featured Hotch getting it on with a cute guy in the back room of a Montreal nightclub… oh, screw it. That’s exactly what I’m saying. I like sleaze, not sadism.

Anyway, let’s wrap this up: After too many young women are murdered, the BAU finally apprehends Lee and Colby and rescues their final victim, and Rossi gets some measure of satisfaction at last at having finally stopped the Butcher.

Well. That was… Yeah. Maybe next week’s episode will improve.


Patrick said…
It's funny, when I started reading the review I immediately guessed it was the son of the original killer, because they were similar but a bit bloodier. I think I'd be a good tv detective - I'd be, 'Listen, I've seen this thing loads of times on television and in movies - it's clearly the son of the original murderer, probably trying to impress him, so let's get searching!'

I'd be like Monk, the Mentalist et all, but my skill would be using the repetitive and predictable plots of tv to solve each crime!
Morgan Richter said…
"Yes, I know he confessed to the murder AND his DNA was found at the crime scene, but I've watched a whole lot of television, so I'm guessing he's trying to protect his son, who has very similar DNA and who's probably the real murderer."

"Oh, yeah -- that guy who claims to be the only surviving victim of that serial killer? He's totally the murderer. Faked his injuries. Trust me on this. You see this plot a lot on TV."

Yeah. I'd be an awesome TV detective.

A few years back, Dan Liebke and I were tossing around ideas for a potential series about a shoe detective -- someone who only needs to glance at the wear patterns on the soles of someone's shoes to instantly provide a detailed analysis of their personality and determine how likely he or she is to commit a crime (for example, I wear down the outside edge of my heels on my running shoes first, which means I severely underpronate, i.e. my feet don't rotate when I run, which is probably because I'm a very contained, tightly-controlled person. Now you know!). For reasons that I no longer can recall, Dan and I felt strongly that Magic Johnson should star as our shoe detective. Anyway, I think the show about the TV detective could air immediately following the shoe detective series.
Patrick said…
My detective would have no issues - THAT would be his issue. He is not tortured about something, his wife was not murdered, he is not socially awkward.
Morgan Richter said…
In a similar vein, I'm going to create a TV show about a bunch of strangely well-adjusted cops. They don't have spouses who worry about their dangerous jobs and long hours, they don't have drinking problems or gambling debts, they don't have fathers who were legendary police officers that they can never live up to, they don't have brothers in prison, they're not being blackmailed, they can't be bribed, they don't ask each other to look the other way while they plant evidence or beat up suspects. They all became cops because, hey, it seemed like a pretty cool career choice.

It will be the most daring and iconoclastic show on television.

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