Criminal Minds 115: Unfinished Business

The episode opens, as many television shows do, with the dad from Unhappily Ever After giving a lecture about the serial killer he’s just written a book about. The killer, one ‘Keystone Killer’, mysteriously stopped killing 18 years earlier, and it’s a huge mystery why this might be. The author explains that a serial killer stopping suddenly is totally unheard of, unless of course you count Jack the Ripper, which most people do. Anyhoo, the author doesn’t buy these theories about him moving away (no similar crimes in other cities), being jailed, or dying. No, his book is written based on the theory that the guy wasn’t compelled to kill at all, he was just extra evil, and enjoyed killing, so he was able to stop whenever he wanted to. Which is kind of a silly idea, but let’s save that for later.

In addition to the killer’s penchant for binding, torturing, and killing his victims (hint hint), he also enjoyed sending letters to the police, where details of the crime would be hidden in word search puzzles. This is not at all a preposterously silly affectation for a fictional killer to have. I mean yeah, Zodiac had his puzzles, but this is as bad as sending a rebus.

Anyhoo, Mandy is at the lecture, and after the crowd has cleared out a little he talks with the author about the great white whale of his career – the author is obsessed with catching KK to the point where he’s actually moved to Philadelphia in hopes of catching him! During their conversation a note is delivered – it’s from the killer! He was in the audience! In a neat bit of continuity, the killer is in fact in the single shot of the audience from the beginning of the scene.

The only questions is… which one is he?

Okay, it’s not that much of a surprise – he stopped for twenty years, meaning that it’s got to be a middle-aged white guy, and there aren’t that many of them in the scene. But please, try to look surprised when he shows up.

In his note the killer included a set of driver’s licenses. One from his last victim, and one from his newest. The new victim might have been hard to attach to KK’s M.O. – instead of elaborate knots he bound with plastic ties, and he suffocated her with a bag instead of his hands. Elliot drops a weirdly egregious mistake on the audience here, saying that it’s possible for a killer to change their M.O. because the Zodiac went from stabbing to shooting. Of course, since we’ve all now seen the movie, everyone knows that he went from shooting to stabbing, then back to shooting, something Elliot should have known. Zodiac also stopped killing for no reason, and never started up again, which makes their fake KK killer even less unique than they thought he was.

The team rushes to Philadelphia to investigate the crime – here’s the biggest twist. Up until now all of KK’s victims were in their 20s, and this one was 47! But what could that mean? This is one of the episodes where the investigators are really hindered by not knowing the title. There’s no evidence on the new body, but there is a word search on the desk! It announces that there’s going to be another murder in two days, leaving them just 48 hours to stop a killer!

Man, I should have put the page break there, shouldn’t I?

Now we get a scene of them working on the profile, while everyone puzzles why his victims have aged. One possible theory? That like Ted Bundy, he’s devolving into a frenzy! Somehow it doesn’t occur to anyone that he liked killing 20-something brunettes 20 years ago, and that his new victim was a 20-something brunette 20 years ago. Yup, the coincidence of that somehow eludes them. There’s also one of those lines that I always wonder how actors can say out loud, when they must know it’s a typo. Elliot describes how Bundy ‘lost complete control’ in his last murder. No, Elliot, he ‘completely lost control’ – losing complete control means that you’re somewhat less than completely controlled. Or as we call it here in the real world, ‘normal’. ‘Completely losing control’ is the state someone’s in when they brutally cut a 12-year-old to pieces for no reason at all.

But enough nit-picking. The team continues being useless, wondering why KK has suddenly switched to plastic ties and non-manual suffocation. Somehow the idea that it’s a physical thing never occurs to them. They’re distracted by the fact that a name shows up in the new word search, one ‘Scott Harbin’. The author dismisses him immediately based on interviews done years earlier, but the team is interested because he was in jail for the correct amount of time, and was recently paroled.

Somehow the fact that his name showed up in the killer’s letter doesn’t immediately clear him of suspicion. Because everyone’s ready to believe that the killer would just hand over his name. Hell, when Zodiac sent a letter that he claimed featured his name, and when they decoded it the message was ‘Yeah, as if I’d give you my name. Dumbass.’

The whole thing doesn’t turn out to be a complete waste of time, though, as the FBI is able to rescue a woman from Scott’s house. Of course, since KK doesn’t kidnap women, he’s an unrelated killer. Offering additional proof is the fact that the real killer dropped by the crime scene to leave another note, this one on the hood of their car.

The team is stunned that KK led them to another killer, but fundamentally annoyed that his capture means they’re back to square one with the whole ‘KK’ thing. Only they’re not. Somehow it doesn’t occur to anyone that in order for KK to know that Scott was also a serial killer, KK would have to know Scott Harbin. Yet the prospect of digging into Harbin’s background and associates before, during, and since his jail term doesn’t even come up in the conversation, which revolves around the possibility that KK has been injured, explaining the new M.O.

Well, at least they finally got there, right? Even if it is at the expense of investigating that much better clue just dropped in their laps.

I’m not saying that the ‘injury’ clue isn’t important, but it’s secondary – a much better tactic is to go through all of Harbin’s KAs and then figure out who was injured in ’88. It’s like the old analogy about looking for a lost white dog. You don’t start looking for a white thing, and then narrow it down by ‘dog’, you start looking for a dog, and then narrow it down by colour.

They put the profile out there for the press ‘white male, late-40s, military background, obsessive need for control leading to a job with some kind of authority in it’. A reporter responds that they’ve described ‘half the men in Philadelphia’, a statement that, even considering that it was intended as hyperbole, is so stupid I regret having heard it.

Then it’s time for some personal drama, with the author admitting that his obsession with profiling has driven away his family, leaving him cold and alone – terrifying picture of the future that awaits everyone on the team, or waste of time that could be better spent trying to find the killer? You be the judge!

Following the ‘why he’s crippled’ wastes even more of their time. We finally get a good reason for the author to be feeling guilty – he admits that he wrote the book in the hopes of drawing KK out of hiding, making him responsible for the murders! Then it’s time for things to get a little crazy, as they make the random guess that he was in a car accident – it seems that there were only five matching the terms of their profile, and one of the guys had worked installing security systems with Harbin! So he must be the guy!

You know, I hate to keep harping on this, but wouldn’t you have gotten there a lot faster by just either asking Harbin about creepy guys he knew, or going through his background?

Finally the episode gets a little creepy, as we learn that Walter, the Keystone Killer, has been hanging around with the women he’d planned to kill ever since his injury, so now that he’s getting around to murdering them they’re all too happy to open the front door when they see him. Going through Walter’s darkroom gives them a line on his newest victim, and they’re able to rush over to her house just in time to stop him from killing her, but not before some gratuitous ‘killer threatening a woman’ filler. Although there is a light moment in the scene, as Walter points the gun at his would-be victim there’s a metallic ‘click’ing meant to suggest that he’s pulling the hammer back on the gun, but then the gun quite clearly hasn’t been cocked in the next shot:

Not as egregious as the superfluous shotgun pumping that fiction often provides, but silly nonetheless. With the case solved they all head home, happy to have caught the Keystone Killer, but a little worried that they’ll all end up as sad and alone as the author. Except for Greg, who’s pretty well established with his wife and family. Which I can only interpret as setting up for a storyline later where his wife leaves him because he’s too obsessed with the job.

Oh, and in case you were wondering which one was the killer in the crowd from the beginning of the episode, it was this guy-

Did you guess right?

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

Not really. The episode attempted to portray their chase after his change in M.O. as a psychological investigation, but it was really more of a practical one. It doesn’t take a psychology major to figure out that a change in the established pattern of a crime being comitted would likely as anything else have a physical cause. Their biggest psychological insight, that he would be driving a new American car at the time of the accident didn’t even enter into their deliberations, because there were only five white men in their late 20s that had debilitating accidents at the time the killing stopped, anyhow.

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

Dear lord, yes. A professional police officer wouldn’t have ignored the giant clue that Arthur led them to a competing serial killer. A professional police officer would have interrogated Arthur until they knew the names of any creepy guy he’d ever worked with, and when he mentioned one that had been crippled in a car accident back in the 80s, they would have had their man. And much faster than through the method they used, I’m sure.

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

2/10 – No matter how hard I try, I can’t call their assumption about an injury psychology. It’s just common sense.

Criminal Minds Fact-Check!

This episode was quite obviously based on Dennis Rader, the BTK killer. There’s quite a few points of similarity, from the method of killing (the tying and the strangling and such), the weird hiatus from killing, the contact with the police, including sending along a word puzzle, and even working at ADT security so he could learn to stealthfully break in to people's houses.

The big change from the actual case was the whole ‘injury’ angle. Calling everything we know about serial killers into question, Rader seems to have stopped on his own – interestingly this happened right after he got a job in bylaw enforcement. It’s possible that since part of the motivation for his serial killings was born out of feelings of inadequacy and powerlessness (note the binding as a key part of the MO), when he was actually given some measure of power, even if it was just the power to give people tickets for failing to curb their dog or painting their doors the wrong colour, it may have actually served to sate the urges that drove him to murder.

Is this a suggestion that we should put dangerously alienated sociopaths in positions of power over other people in the hopes that it will keep them from killing? Obviously yes. But I’ll understand if you don’t want to agree with that point.

As to his capture, it couldn’t have been more different than the show. After so many years of not serial killing Rader eventually grew to miss the attention, so he decided that the best way to get into the press again would be to start writing letters to the cops and leaving creepy dolls for people to find, then finally escalate into killing someone, taunting the cops about their helplessness to prevent the crime, then gloating about it afterward. It seems that Dennis thought that he was involved in a deadly game of cat and mouse with the police, and the police thought that he was a crazy guy who needed to be locked away ASAP.

So when Bill sent a letter asking if it was possible to trace computer files on floppy disks (he wanted to send them a manifesto) the cops responded that it wasn’t. Of course, this was a lie, and he was under arrest just a little while later.

Supposedly he was deeply, personally hurt to discover that the cops had lied to him.

In addition to all this, BTK is most famous for being the serial killer who most resembles ‘Prison Break’-era Stacey Keach:

Or maybe it's just me who thinks this.


Anonymous said...

I'm not sure going into the other's killer's background would be as much as a lead as you think it would be. If Keystone Killer was smart, why would he just hand over the name of someone who could be tied to him? Sure, it's worth looking into, but it's not necessarily a given.

Anonymous said...

oh my god, I thought I was the only person who was furious about the phrase "lost complete control." They say it over and over again too in various episodes, although sometimes it's "lost total control." It makes me crazy.