Criminal Minds 303: Scared to Death

The episode opens with a murder – a woman is trapped in a trunk with a plastic window, while a man with glasses looks from overhead. He asks her if it’s worse than she imagined, and then shuts her in, places a few magazines atop the trunk to conceal it, and heads back to his desk to do a little reading while she suffocates to death.

So, based entirely on the title and the first minute, I’m guessing this episode is about a crazy man who pretends to be a psychologist specializing in helping people overcome their fears, and then kills his ‘patients’ in the specific way they’re afraid of, because it entertains him to do so. This first woman was claustrophobic, so he sealed her into a coffin to die!

That sounds about right, huh? I’m guessing we can pretty much check out for the remainder of this episode, since it’s all kind of right here in the opening. People turn up dead – he’s had a lot of victims because the MOs are so diverse, but the team finds a connection, blach blah blah, victim two gets burned to death because he’s afraid of fire, blah blach, Reid quotes Nietsche’s ‘What doesn’t kill you’ line, blah blah, final woman is saved from spiders and the killer is arrested without incident.

If it sounds like I’m way too skeptical about this plot, it’s because I am, due to an anecdote that has nothing at all to do with criminal minds, and I’ll share at the end of this review in lieu of a ‘factcheck’, because this obviously isn’t based on a true story.

Since my own personal stuff has nothing to do with the show, I’ll endeavour to keep it to myself while I write the review. Hey, here’s a fun game: Let’s guess what the other two fears are going to be covered in the episode with victim 2 and ‘one who gets rescued’!

My guesses? Fire for number 2 (sticking with my gut), but I’m switching the last victim to ‘heights’ because that gives us the chance to have a visually compelling climax where Derek has to edge out onto a girder to save someone who’s to terrified to move.

You know? Just once I’d like someone to be killed by their fear of public speaking. I don’t know how it would happen (other than, you know, audience is so disgusted with the job he's doing that they throw ninja stars), but damn if that wouldn’t be a hilarious thing to see, right?

Before we get to the opening credits there’s a little plot business to take care of. Mandy’s officially gone, and he took the photos with him. Pick up the slack, Garcia’s map! Now it’s time for them to track down a replacement for the team? Who will it be? I mean, I know it’s Joe Mantegna, I’ve seen commercials for later episodes (on mute – no spoilers please) – but who is he going to play, and how does he end up on the team?

Then we get the setup for the episode – how did they find out about this difficult-to-catch killer? Someone stumbled onto a mass grave. Oh. That’s disappointing. Even more disappointing? I’ve already lost the pool – one of the four bodies they found was burned alive, so they’re not going back to that well.

They do offer an explanation for why no one knew a serial killer was working – he had the victims sign pieces of paper that he then wrote letters to their families on, explaining that they were going to be going away and wouldn’t be talking to anyone for a while. Seems like a pretty simple trick, but it actually worked for ‘Slavemaster’ for a little while, so that’s got some real-life cred, anyhow.

Will the team be able to catch the killer after one more victim, and save the third? Let’s find out after the credits, together!

But if you don’t have a lot of time, the answer is yes.

Speaking of credits, check this out-

Boom! Thomas Gibson now has top billing! Way to go, guy!

Look, they didn’t do a new group shot, they just took out Mandy and pushed everyone else together! Smart play, CBS, saving those dollars any which way you can!

While on their way to check out the latest victim’s apartment Reid and Derek have a scary experience on a malfunctioning elevator. I’m not sure what the point of the interlude was. To show them experiencing the kind of fear the killer creates? Not a great way – he preys on people’s weaknesses, and everyone’s scared of malfunctioning elevators. When they get to the apartment the team intuits that she was claustrophobic because she didn’t take showers or use the elevator.

See how the interlude actually plays against this deduction? If it had been a good elevator, then it might seem weird that she always took the stairs, but avoiding a deathtrap is completely normal – especially when it was just four flights of stairs.

So they know she was afraid of enclosed spaces, and the team back at base spends a whole scene figuring out that all the victims were estranged from their families and new to the city. Since we’d already heard all that on the plane, this is an entirely wasted scene.

Then it’s time for some simplistic motivation from the killer!

When he was a child, his mother turned off the light at night even though he was afraid of the dark. So now he kills people with the things they’re afraid of.

“There,” said Allen Bernero, showrunner of Criminal Minds, to no one in particular, “that ought to shut up people who say our show isn’t psychologically accurate!” Then he lit a cigar with a thousand dollar bill and leaned back in his rhino-skin chair.

Making television. That’s the easy life, huh?

The killer then interviews his next client, who’s looking to cure his most severe fear through ‘behaviour therapy’. What does that mean? He takes the guy out to a lake and drowns him because he’s afraid of swimming!

Man, I couldn’t have been more wrong about the cause of death, could I?

The team spends a little more time trying to figure out how the killer finds his victims by asking a new-in-town FBI agent what people do when they first move to a new city. This isn’t the most useful avenue of investigation just yet. So they go to the public and release a statement about the killer’s MO, hoping that it will keep a victim from falling into his clutches! It doesn’t, but at least his latest victim is reported missing the day of his death, rather than weeks later.

Although, since his body turns op on shore the next morning-

It’s questionable just how much help that actually was. The local FBI guy wonders why the victim wasn’t buried like the rest, and Emily explains that he had to change his MO because they found his dump site. Which kind of makes sense, although it suggests that the killer saw no value in creating a new dump site. Which is why, exactly? Up until now he’s been meticulous, why should we believe that just because the cops found a few of his victims he’d stop wanting to cover up his crimes?

In a bizarre note, the agent points out that there wasn’t any sign of struggle with the previous victims, and wonders what’s changed this time. Um… no struggle? Weren't there marks on the box woman’s hands from her trying to break out of the coffin? And doesn’t one of the victims having been burned alive kind of preclude you from making broad pronouncements about the struggle (or lack thereof) he’d been involved with before his death?

Reid notices that all of the victims were afraid of something, and clues into the fact that they’re starring in a phobia-themed Sesevenen rip-off. But how will this help them find the killer? By finding flyers around that promise a cash payment for being involved in a fear study!

Which is a happy coincidence, because just now the final (rescuable) victim is being interviewed by the killer at his office! She’s afraid of being buried alive! Goddamn it! I am the worst at guessing, apparently. After setting up a second session later that day, the killer sets up a hole in the basement of his building, along with a few bags of dirt that he can use for the whole ‘burying alive’ thing.

Then we learn that the situation is far more dire than we could have imagined – when the team finds fliers dating back almost a year, they decide to search the dump site a little more broadly. They come up with 12 more corpses, bringing the victim total to 14!

Okay, let’s hold on a second. I know that the psychologist/killer screens his victims, looking for people who are new to the city, have fears, and aren’t close to their families – but what are the odds that not a single one of all 14 victims didn’t mention to any of the people that they see every day that they were going to try to get their fears cured? Not someone in class, in their building, even writing in a diary? Far too much of a stretch to be plausible.

Meanwhile Garcia has tracked down a website having to do with the fliers, and commenced the search for the identity of the person running it! And can they get there in time to save the latest victim, who’s been dropped down a concrete hole and is now have dirt thrown down onto them? Probably. I mean, he didn’t tie the victim up or anything, so couldn’t she just climb on top of the dirt as it was being dropped? It’s not like he’s got a backhoe or anything, he’s just emptying out plastic bags full of potting soil.

The team finally gets a name by cross-referencing actual psychiatrists (because of the complexity of the ruse) with people in their 40s (because he uses terms from the 80s), with people who’ve adopted children, because the fact that he didn’t rape victims means he’s impotent.

Wait, what? Can you rape someone who’s on fire? Or drowning in the middle of a river? This episode is like an object lesson for why it’s hard to attribute real-life psychological traits to cartoonishly over-the-top themed serial killers. You might as well profile the Joker.

Anyhoo, they get a name and head over to his house, looking for his latest victim, while the rest head to his office’s address – but it’s just a vacant lot? Where is the new office? It seems the wife’s family owns an entire building that isn’t being used! Except to kill people, of course.

Oh, and speaking of:

Jesus, lady! You’re already standing and it’s not quicksand! Just step up onto the dirt!

Where was I? Oh, right, the rescue. The team rushes to the building and searches the office – no sign of the killer. They eventually find him out on the fire escape, then pursue him to the roof. The killer jumps off rather than being caught, which Greg interprets as some kind of failure, even though he just saved the American taxpayer literally millions of dollars.

But what about the victim? They find his notes and discover that the victim was afraid of being buried alive, then quickly rush to the basement, just in time to save her! Like always.

Time for the character wrapup – Greg finally admits that he’s been more morose than usual because his wife left him, taking the baby. Poor Greg.

The countdown to his wife’s kidnapping, and Greg feeling guilty about it because he endangered her with his work, begins!

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

A little, actually. But not in a realistic manner. Their leap that the killer loved community was a pretty big one, and getting from there to (no rape=impotent=adoption) was a pretty big stretch.

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

They had the killer’s website, and supposedly the greatest computer genius in the government working for them. They couldn’t have tracked down the hosting and used that as a clue? Also, again, it's just not plausible that someone wouldn't have mentioned this guy to another person before mysteriously disappearing.

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

3/10 – The profiling was amazingly unscientific and kind of way too lucky in the way it helped. In a semi-related note, I don’t want to sound like I’m defending the rights of preposterous cinematic serial killers, but Garcia was able to just zip right into all of the killer’s personal and financial information without a moment’s hesitation. Doesn’t the FBI need a warrant for that sort of thing?

Checking over some financial records with no application to the case without a warrant? Oh, that’s fine. Kicking down a door to save a woman from a serial killer without a warrant? Whoa there, buddy – slow down a little. They’ve got this thing called the fourth amendment…

Being a Canadian, I have no idea if that’s actually the ‘unreasonable search and seizure’ amendment, despite watching way too many lawyer shows growing up.

Anyhoo, it’s time for the promised anecdote I mentioned earlier – a few years back I was part of a large online writers’ group, where we’d read each others’ scripts and offer helpful critiques. Or at least mock people behind their backs. When you’re reviewing a couple of unpublished scripts a week for over a year, you’re bound to see a little overlap in theme and premise, but there was one premise that I saw repeated exactly on three separate occasions – a serial killer murdering people according to their greatest fear.

One of them was just a crazy guy who stalked people, but the other two were actually set in therapy groups where one of the members or the therapist was using their knowledge of the patients’ fears to murder them in the most terrifying way possible.

The strangest part is that these various writers didn’t seem to be ripping each other off, either – other than the identical premise, they were vastly different scripts in character and plot execution. This just happens to be an idea that everyone has thought of at one time or another.

Which kind of makes it a bit much of a cliché to build a show around, doesn’t it?

The only possible interesting thing you could do with this premise is go the full 'What About Bob' route, with a would-be serial killer constantly trying to use people's fears to murder them, only to have the people wiggle their way out and be cured of their condition - the therapist becomes a national celebrity when all he wanted to do was kill a few people!

Is that hilarious, or is it just my mental problems making me think it is?


As you’ll recall, in the second episode of this season Penelope got science-y map from one of the more pointless sections of the federal budget!

Since this episode didn’t cut back to the map at all, we never saw it updated with this week’s case! So, from now on, I’m going to be adding green dots whenever the team solves a crime, and then, if we ever get a look at the map again, we’ll see if it matches up!

If not, then I’ll just be the guy who cares more about Criminal Minds’ continuity than the people who actually make the show!

First off, let’s take a look at my version of Penelope’s map.

You’ll note that it features considerably fewer dots than Penelope’s map. There’s a reason for that – despite the fact that she only got the map around the end of the first episode, there are already five dots on her map.

Assuming one dot per crime solved, and one crime solved per episode, there really ought to be two. One for Flagstaff, AZ (episode 301), and one for Milwaukee, WI (episode 302). We don’t know about the Flagstaff pin, because Penelope’s standing in front of that part of the map, which means we actually have four pins unaccounted for.

The leftmost one is in Los Angeles, and the one below Milwaukee is Chicago, the two eastern ones are New York City and Philadelphia. While all of those are cities that the team visited and solved crimes in, there seems to be no pattern to why and how they’ve been chosen for the map.

They visited New York in episode 117 (vigilante justice), Los Angeles is where they caught the perverse bank robber in 204. Chicago was where Derek was suspected of being a serial killer in 212, while Philadelphia was the home of the keystone killer back in 115.

Take a look at those cases – they range anywhere from 6-18 months in the past. While Keystone Killer and Derek’s ordeal are significant enough to the team’s history that they might warrant inclusion on the big board, the other two certainly weren’t their most notable hours.

So why the placement?

Anyhoo, on to my tracking map! This week the murder was in Portland, Oregon, so let’s just note it there-

I wonder how long it’ll be before I can compare my map to Penelope’s?


Anonymous said...

hi, i enjoy your commentary on the show criminal minds. the show is fun, but you point out many plot failings. one thing i'll add is when the show has female writers, such as this episode, the males are shown as weak and the females tend to be stonger. note the weirdness of the two men, one of whom is the badass of the show, panicking with the elevator buttons and trembling as they got out. there are many more examples to observe on other episodes. thanks for the great commentary!

Anonymous said...

I think your What About Bob idea would be hilarious. Also the only redeemable thing about that movie. I kept waiting for the victims to overcome their fears and rescue themselves...dirt girl could have just dug herself out, she wasn't even completely buried.

Anonymous said...

I think it's mentioned somewhere that the team actually solves crimes we never see, which accounts for the extra dots.

Example: in his goodbye letter to Reid, He says "our first case after Sarah's murder" instead of "this last case".
Since the entirety of the episode is about Gideon leaving, it's fair to assume that the team solved smaller cases after the one on the college campus, meaning extra dots

Anonymous said...

As someone who has a fear I can assure you 1) it's not that easy to conquer it even if my life was on the line because for one I'd be paralyzed 2) the last one was drugged so she's weak and disoriented...add the fear of caves plus the fact that she's being buried I don't think she'd think coherently to be able to climb up immediately.

Anonymous said...

I don't want to be "niet"picking, but the name is spelled NietZsche.

Cooper said...

I wish this post wasn't so old, I'd really like to ask someone, didn't anyone think her head was under dirt too long? From the time they see him on a fire escape (not the basement) to the time the go to his office, read the entry and go to the basement. I thought, at the very least they would have them do CPR, because over 5 minutes without air (and I don't think 5 minutes is realistic) and she is brain dead. Pushing it a bit for me.

Hanna said...

@Cooper: her head was facing down when they rescued her and she wasnt buried deep and with loose, dry dirt, so I guess there was still enough oxygen getting to her, i think she was passed out from the drugs and fear, not lack of oxygen.
The way the killer just poured dirt on her, I think there would have been a pocket of air under her face.

Nice to see someone else watching and reading in 2021.

Anonymous said...

Dear Script, Impotence and sterility are different things. Impotent men can have biological children.