Criminal Minds: Sense Memory

After that last wretched episode, and after the lengthy string of mediocre episodes preceding it, Criminal Minds is on double-super-duper-extreme probation with me. It was pretty much a coin toss as to whether I even watched last night’s episode, and I really had no intention of recapping it.

Glad I bothered. Best episode of the season, by a comfortable margin. The show made up a little of the respect it’s lost from me over the past few months. It’s still on very thin ice, but this was a sure-footed move in the direction of solid ground.

Let’s get to the Prentiss stuff first, because it’s the most interesting: Prentiss comes home to her DC-area apartment (she’s no longer living in that fabulous two-story condo we saw in the third season) and leafs through the contents of a large envelope in her safe -- several passports, redacted records, photos -- all of which hint at a past history as a secret agent (it also seems to hint that her nationality is… Belgian. Go figure). Sure, that sort of comes out of nowhere, but it’s not a bad fit with what we know of Prentiss: her globe-trotting childhood, her fluency in multiple languages, her super-cool competence. We also discover that Prentiss has an adorable black kitty named Sergio, and hey, already we’re in a much better place than we’ve been for most of this season. We’re focusing on the team members! We’re learning stuff about them! They’re not just standing around robotically spouting exposition to move the plot along!

When Prentiss discovers that one of her windows is open, she grows alarmed. She whips out her gun, barricades her door, pulls up a chair, and sits in the dark facing the doorway all night long.

After all this excitement, she arrives late the next morning to the BAU briefing about their new case. In Los Angeles, the corpses of three abducted women have been found: all naked, all drowned, and all wrapped in plastic. The women were each held for a day before being dumped on dry land in public places around the city. Methanol was found in their lungs; a square of skin was removed from their feet. On their snazzy little jet en route to Los Angeles, Reid yammers on at hilariously tedious length about the various uses for methanol, and by this point, I’m almost sobbing in relief that all these great characters are once again being allowed to show a little of their personalities.

Hotch and Rossi head to the morgue to examine the most recent victim, who also has traces of chloroform in her nasal passages. Since there was no chemical burn from the chloroform around her nostrils or mouth, they figure the unsub aerosolized it to knock her unconscious. Due to the completely random, city-wide nature of the abduction and dump sites, the team theorizes the unsub is a taxi driver. Which turns out to be exactly right: the unsub (Brad William Henke) has been picking up women around town in his gypsy cab and knocking them out by flooding the backseat with aerosolized chloroform.

(If the unsub is given a name, I missed it. He’s largely an anonymous presence in this episode -- we don’t find out what drives him, or what childhood trauma warped him into a murderer -- and that’s fine with me. After the nauseating, adoring tongue-bath given to the despicable pair of unsubs in the previous episode, the emotional distance this week is most welcome.)

It’s something of an odd choice to set this in Los Angeles, since, as this episode takes pains to point out, you can’t hail a taxi on the street here, like you could in, say, New York or Chicago -- you have to call a cab company to schedule a pickup, or wait at a designated taxi stop, like at an airport or a hotel. They get around this problem by making the unsub an unlicensed cabbie who drives around searching for prospective fares, which is fair enough. Still, the string of female passengers who hop randomly into the unsub’s backseat throughout this episode seems a little improbable. In Los Angeles, it’s just not the way things are usually done.

From the patch of skin missing from each victim’s foot, Reid suspects the unsub might have a scientific background: He’s keeping the skin as a sample.

After another body is found, Rossi and Hotch head out to the latest dump site. Hey, is that Runyon Canyon? Awesome. It’s my favorite local hiking spot, mostly because it’s heavily populated by: a) adorable dogs, and b) adorable celebrities. A friend of mine ran into Criminal Minds’ Matthew Gray Gubler hiking there. Just saying.

Meanwhile, Morgan holds a press conference to ask the public for help finding the unsub. I like how, in J.J.’s absence, the team now seems to be dividing up press-conference duties. It certainly makes more sense than just foisting them off on poor Garcia, who was spectacularly ill-suited to the task.

Reid and Garcia try to track down the unsub through his purchases of equipment and large amounts of methanol and chloroform. Prentiss and Morgan talk to a woman who saw the press conference, who was kicked out of the unsub’s cab because he grew irrationally upset at the way she smelled. From this, Reid figures out that the unsub has hyperosmia -- a super-charged ability to smell. As soaking objects in methanol will draw out the natural oils in them, Reid finally puts it together what the unsub is doing with the abducted women: He’s making perfume out of their natural body scent.

Oh, ew.

Also? Not an original idea. Still, it’s pretty effectively done. More to the point, the strength of any given Criminal Minds can rarely be judged by the originality of the plot (in many ways, it’s a spectacularly derivative show), but rather by how well the characters are handled. Character-wise, this episode is fairly strong.

We see some footage of the unsub inhaling from a little vial of his homemade woman-oil and smiling as he imagines wheat fields and clean laundry drying on a clothesline. Sir, maybe you should invest in some good laundry detergent, or maybe pick up a good clean-smelling perfume -- I’d recommend Demeter Laundromat -- and knock it off with this whole murdering-women-for-their-spring-fresh-scent nonsense?

Prentiss and Morgan borrow a random cab and brainstorm possible ways the unsub is incapacitating his victims. While they’re alone, Morgan tries to grill Prentiss about why she’s been acting jumpy lately, but she asks him, nicely, to drop the subject.

Meanwhile, the team learns of the abduction of another woman, Anisa Gold (Stacey Oristano), who is currently in the clutches of the unsub. He keeps sniffing her and showing her the scented candles he’s made from the bodily oils of the other murdered women, which, understandably, is enough to send her into hysterics. Just as he’s preparing to submerge her in the vat of methanol, the BAU roars up and surrounds his house -- Garcia managed to track down his address from the deliveries of methanol and supplies.

He takes off in his cab. While Reid and Prentiss rescue Anisa, Hotch and Rossi and Morgan head after the unsub. A too-long car chase through the streets of Los Angeles then ensues (there is no such thing as an interesting car chase), which ends abruptly when the unsub crashes his taxi and kills himself.

When Prentiss returns to her apartment, she finds a gift-boxed single iris left outside her door, which unsettles her. After turning down a last-minute request from Reid to go see a special five-hour screening of Solaris in the original Russian (heh), she sniffs the flower and has an odd flashback: She’s puttering around in the iris garden on the grounds of a mansion somewhere in Europe, sporting a cool wavy hairstyle and speaking in French to a vaguely sinister middle-aged man, when a dark sedan pulls up, and she’s apprehended by men in suits and dark shades. As they bustle her into the car, she tells them she wants to speak to Sean -- presumably Sean McAllister, the man who gave her the ominous warning about the mysterious Ian Doyle’s escape from prison last episode.

Back in the present, Prentiss grabs the envelope filled with the passports and papers out of her safe, scoops Sergio under one arm, and flees from her apartment.

I have no idea what any of this means, but it’s definitely intriguing, no?

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