Criminal Minds 102: Compulsion

The episode opens with a quick resolve of the ‘Footpath Killer’ storyline from the previous week. After being identified by Mandy Patinkin, the Killer forces the profiler at gunpoint into the back of the gas station where he works. Things are looking bad for Mandy until he’s able to talk the killer down by explaining that he understands why the killer does the things he does. What’s the kicker? He offers to tell the killer something no one has ever been able to tell him: Why he stutters.

The episode then cuts to the present, where Mandy is talking to other agents about catching the killer, so that the writers can make Mandy seem like a miracle worker for managing to sense the murderer’s identity. We’re treated to a pretentious quote to help drive the point home:

The Scene: An FBI Office
The Players: Mandy Patinkin, a Slow Agent

Mandy Patinkin: There are certain clues at a crime scene which, by their very nature, do not lend themselves to being collected or examined. How does one collect love, rage, hatred, fear? These are things we’re trained look for.

Slow Agent: So anyone else woulda just seen a guy who stutters, but you saw the footpath killer.

That’s right. Anyone else would have just scene a stuttering guy. Who works and lives in the area of the killings. And has a job that ensures that he would come into contact with all of the victims. And has the unbelievably creepy habit of taking polaroid pictures of the people who come into his store to buy gasoline.

But it’s just Patinkin who would have seen the killer.

The scene ends with a bit of a ‘screw you’ to the audience, when one of Mandy Patinkin’s team members asks the big question “Why did the killer stutter?” Patinkin responds “You tell me.” Just for the record, if they don’t reveal this information by the end of the episode, it will be an incredibly huge cheat.

We’re quckly introduced to the subject of this week’s actual crime, which concerns a serial arsonist operating on a college campus. They quickly run through the established facts about arsonists: they’re generally white men in their 20s, committing the crime for sexual or power purposes. In this way, they’re exactly like serial killers, except they target buildings, rather than people.

The team flies off to the campus, where they start their investigations, while carefully to seem inconspicuous. Patinkin explains that arsonists thrive on attention, so they don’t want everyone to know there are FBI agents stomping around, which would only serve to make the arsonist feel more important. Quickly there’s another death, as a professor is burned in his office when he’s srupid enough to stand in a pool of strong-smelling accellerant and turn on a lightbulb that happens to be filled with gunpowder. Since the teacher knew there was a serial arsonist at work on campus, the fact that he voluntarily walks into a pool of gasoline establishes him as being too stupid to live.

This new death gives the team an important clue – since the two murders were committed in closed rooms and the victims died privately, they can’t possibly be the work of a serial arsonist, since arsonists get their pleasure from watching things (or people) burn. There’s only one conclusion: they’re dealing with a serial killer who coincidentally happens to use arson as their weapon! Just as this revelation has been made, a student turns up, announcing that the team of assistants in the science department feel that they’ve figured out the crimes are being comitted. Greg and the young one go to talk to the students, and learn absolutely no new information.

Luckily the episode’s theme has been ‘think outside the box’, which empowers the young one to consider possible motives for setting fires beyond “Wanting to see things burn”. He quickly discovers that a confluence of the number ‘3’ can be found hovering around each of the victims. They lived in aparment 33 and had a three letter name, for example. Any time a person has had three threes identifying them somehow, they’re a target.

Now the scene with the science students becomes more relevant, as the team remembers that one of them, a co-ed, kept repeating things three times and spinning her ring in groups of three. A search of the co-ed’s apartment reveals a whole lot of bombs, so they have an official suspect, and the hunt is on! It turns out that the third floor of the science building is under construction, and the three other students happen to get into an elevator at the same time. The episode doesn’t make clear what the third three was, nor what might have happened if one of the students had happened to take the stairs.

Making things even better for the arsonist, once she’s stopped the elevator, the people trapped inside the elevator don’t make any real attempt to escape or defend themselves. Even though the arsonist is crouched well within arms reach, they just lie back, cowering, rather than simply grab her, drag her into the elevator, and team up to beat her into submission. There’s a happy ending, though, as Greg shows up in time to non-fatally shoot the arsonist before she can light anyone else aflame.

On the way back to base, the episode finally decides to reveal the truth behind the whole ‘stuttering’ thing. It turns out that Patinkin was lying earlier, and he really didn’t know why the ‘Footpath Killer’ stuttered. He just used that promise to taunt the killer until he angrily shook his shotgun, giving Patinkin a chance to disarm him and beat him up. Interestingly, during this sequence, the killer threatens Patinkin by pumping his shotgun, and nothing flies out. This has to be embarassing for Patinkin, since he prides himself on being able to judge people, and was essentially held at gunpoint and led into an isolated area by a man with an unloaded weapon.

So, what does this establish about Patinkin? That he’s the kind of person who’ll lie about himself in order to impress those he has authority over. I wonder, will his character’s central lack of self-esteem become an important element in the series, or was this just some unintentionally unflattering writing?

So, now for the important questions:

1 - Was profiling in any way helpful in solving the crime?

A little. Their understanding of pyschology allowed the team to peg the killer’s motive as OCD coupled with religious mania. She felt that god was commanding her to test anyone with a confluence of threes around her, because when she was younger she survived a fire at her home, which was numbered 333. Of course, whether or not someone had identified the pathology as obsessive compulsive disorder, the 3 fixation was there for anyone to notice. Any skilled investigator could have noticed those numbers, and the OCD diagnosis was in no way useful in identifying the killer.

2 - If so, was the profiling plausible, or was it more magical and out of left field in the way it helped?

The psychology wasn’t awful this time around, although the powers of observation that provided the evidence leading to the conclusions was a little on the supernatural side of things. Watching the videotape of the first murder (which was presumably made with a handheld commercial model), the young doctor is able to zoom in on a locked doorknob and see it half-turn three times. He’s able to judge from this information that the killer is an obsessive-compulsive fixated on the number 3. It’s not the worst leap in the world, but it’s still a pretty big one.

3 - Could the crime have been solved just as easily using conventional police methods given the known facts of the case?

Oh yes. The first rule in any major crime is that a person who comes forward to offer help on the case should be the first suspect, since criminals will often insinuate themselves into the investiagion – partially to keep tabs, partially to mislead, and a little because the danger of doing so thrills them. Yet, when five students go out of their way to offer their help on the case, the team doesn’t so much as perform the most cursory glance into them. Had they bothered to do so, the team would have discovered that one of the students had barely survived a house fire and come from an extremely religious household, they would have had a prime suspect the second her name was typed into Lexis.

So, on a scale of 1 (Dirty Harry) to 10 (Tony Hill), How Useful Was Profiling in Solving the Crime?

1/10. Their initial profile is complete wrong, and an utter waste of time. Even when they made their revised serial killer/OCD profile, it’s only because the killer came forward that the team managed to catch her. While their observation of OCD certainly helped them make a connection, their focus on psychology actually distracted them from doing the most basic of policework that would have allowed them to solve the crime far sooner, preventing the killer from endangering anyone else.


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OJ Simpson said...

this is a fine dismantling of a foolish episode.

Anonymous said...

hilarious review!

SeeHear said...

Insightful analysis; I would add this: Pumping the shotgun chambered the shell. The chamber had been empty (not the weapon's magazine), but Patinkin's character had no way of knowing that. Besides, it takes less than a second to chamber a round and squeeze the trigger.

Anonymous said...

How about iq boy not seeing checkmate in one!