Criminal Minds 419: House on Fire

This episode begins with an attempt at cleverness - some young people are going to see a screening of The Blob at a local theatre. It's clever because in that film a number of townspeople are killed when the blob attacks a packed theatre - and now people are going to be killed at a screening of The Blob! Get it? Yeah, maybe clever was the wrong word.

A psycho locks the doors and then burns the place down, killing all 19 people inside. Turns out it's a small town with a population of just 2000 people, meaning that 1% of the city's population died in a single murder, which is the kind of thing that would cripple a community. By comparison, %.03 of New York City's population was killed in the 9/11 attacks, and we all remember how well people dealt with that.

Then the show kind of throws all believability out the window by announcing that this wasn't the first attack. Nope, a dozen people were killed in a similar community center arson event just two days earlier. So that's 1.5% of the population in just three days. How on earth were people gathering in public when a murderer was trying to kill people in public places in that town? Also, they knew it was arson because there had been a series of nuisance crimes in the weeks leading up to the fatal fires. How was it, exactly that just two days after a crime in which .5% of the entire city's population was killed (and the killer wasn't caught), that everyone felt comfortable going to the movie theater? And why did the police allow anyone to gather in public given the situation?

Of course, this has never been a show that had a great grasp on how people actually behave. Which is kind of ironic, given the, you know, premise.

Hey, before we move on to the show proper, let me just take a moment to comment on just how bad this show is at dealing with continuing storylines. I know that it's a fairly contained show, and they can't be expected to be fantastic at keeping things going from episode to episode, or even acknowledge that the episode happened once the credits roll. Every now and then I think it's a good idea to pause and reflect at just how outlandish the things that happen on this show have become, and how absurd it is that no one mentions them just one week later.

Just last episode the most notorious at-large serial killer in American history murdered a bus full of people, and a cop, and then escaped from police custody. Yet somehow the world's best profiling team isn't working on catching him. Why? Because it happened last episode, and is therefore unimportant Everyone in America knows what this guy looks like - he should be the most wanted man in the world, and everyone should be talking about it. But no one does. God, this is a terrible show sometimes.

Alright, back to the terrible episode at hand. Statistically arsonists are men, and they have Garcia look into people who showed up at the fire suspiciously quickly. They also look into the background of the victims, hoping that someone (or some people) were specifically targeted. In something of a tactless maneuver, they continually refer to looking into the townspeople's backgrounds, hoping to kind a clue to the killer's motives and identities, as a 'Witch Hunt'. Which is a little insensitive, given how many people were just burned to death in that town.

Offering to help with the search? Police Chief Michael Rooker!


Seriously, though, he doesn't have much information to offer. The team talks to some of the locals, including a doctor (Sam Anderson!). It seems everyone in town lost someone in the fires - Greg warns him that they shouldn't be gathered all in one place, since the killer will undoubtedly go for even more people. Which is great advice, but wouldn't it have been more useful 24 hours ago?

Also providing that advice? Every single person in the world's common sense.

The team examines the crime scene and talks to some of the locals, including the local fire chief and an EMT. They don't have many ideas, but Joe suggests that if there's anyone they suspect even slightly, he needs to know about it. Especially anyone involved in anything so shocking that people have tried desperately to forget it ever happened. Because most small towns have dark secrets like that, don't they? North Mammon, for example, had that scandal about the guy who was good at football, but then he was injured and people stopped paying attention to him, so he started killing people!

While digging into a possible connection to some fires in a town some three hundred miles away, the team also allows the local church to hold a mass funeral service, hoping the killer will be there to gloat. Rather unfortunately there's a fire across town while it's happening.

The team is confused - how could he have avoided the temptation to watch the grief he caused? Well, again, I'm no profiler, but it seems to me that the kind of person who needs to watch the grief he caused loves murder for murder's sake - but in every other scene this episode you've been trying to figure out how had a specific motive for these killings. If that's the case, what would he care about the aftermath?

This time he burned down a bar, killing five people inside. The change in MO? Now he's chaining the doors shut (which I'd just assumed earlier), rather than just setting a different fire at each exit. Well, if nothing else, now we know that while he just hoped people would die in the first two fires, this time he needed to make sure the people inside were killed. In an hilarious attempt to make the team seem relevant, this happens-

So you just repeated back what he said, and claimed it was unusual insight! Prentiss award!

A far more vital clue appears in the form of the EMT from the earlier scene, who runs up in tears - her fiancee was the bar owner, and he was killed in the blaze! So obviously he was the target - although I can't fault the team for not realizing this, since they don't know that no one connected to the crime other than Tina has lines.

Garcia focuses on the background of the latest five victims (finding out about the dark secrets of the rest has driven her to the edge of madness!), while the team offers their profile. The guy lives in town, but feels like an outsider, blah, blah, blah. They waste ninety seconds getting around to what we learned two scenes ago, it's about the victims in the bar. Of which, it turns out, one is clinging barely to life-

They question her about anyone suspicious at the scene. She saw someone angry and nervous, but runs out of energy before she can give them a description or name! Based on the fact that he didn't know the layout of the bar (he moved from seat to seat, shifting about nervously), they figure he must have been out of town for quite a few years, since the bar was only six years old, while the movie theater had been there since the 40s. Except they don't know that he didn't wander around the movie theater, figuring out the exits before setting it on fire, since they don't have any witnesses to that crime. They're only assuming he knew the layout of the movie theater and rec center but didn't know the bar layout because... um... right, they've read to the end of the script. I forgot.

Isn't it a little odd that even though they now believe the bar victims are the most important no one's bothered to ask Michael Rooker if there are scandalous town secrets connected to any of those victims? They're just having Garcia go through their public records - even though Joe specifically said they should be worried about the kinds of things that don't get reported.

The search into the bar owner's background turns up some interesting information about his wife - namely that she has a brother who's disappeared from the grid, and that their parents were killed in a fire when they were children. So this 'Tommy' must be the killer. But how to find him? Garcia (the only one who does any real work, let me remind you), phones his old schools and discovers that he was emotionally unstable. Also, the two children were far too close, given that their parents were dead and they were alone together in a small town-

Yeah, I would have gossiped about something like that, too. Garcia gets all uppity with the sheriff after he claims that the town had good reason to pick on the unbelievably creepy Tommy. She announces that he was thrown out of school and beaten up by adults when he was 14 because they didn't trust his intentions with his sister. I'm sure this could be a chicken/egg situation, but let's try not to overlook the fact that this guy murdered 40 people - the argument could be made that the town was right about him all along.

They go to discuss the situation with the EMT, but are unable to find a stretch of street that looks to be believably either in Indiana or a town of just 2000 people.

Come on, location scouts! You can do better than this!

When they get to the house the EMT is nowhere to be found - she's been kidnapped by her brother! Garcia is able to track him to the town three hundred miles away where all the fires were, but other than confirming a connection, that's not especially useful. They ask Sam Anderson if he knows a place the two of them might have gone, but he doesn't have a clue. Meanwhile Tommy is busy confessing to the EMT, who doesn't take it well. EMT's mementos of her brother prove to be the vital clue: they went to a dance together as children, and when people saw them as a couple it led to the freak-outs and beating!

The team rushes over to the community center where the dance was held (wait - a community center and a rec center? I thought this was a small town?) and rescue the EMT. Sadly, Tommy isn't burned alive while being captured.


Except for a scene where Garcia terms digging through people's unpleasant life stories an unworthy use of hers, or anyone else's, time.

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

There was an element of figuring out what was important to Tommy and the EMT in tracking down where he would take her, so that counts a little.

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

They looked for who might have had a motive to kill each of the victims. They found someone with a history of mental imbalance and a background with fires. That's just policework.

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

3/10 - Crazy mixed messages this week. The whole theme of the episode was 'witch hunts', and the team fell just short of announcing the town deserved what it got - but there's a problem with that reasoning. The town was acting under the belief that Tommy was an emotionally unstable freak who was in love with his sister. The truth, on the other hand, was that Tommy was an emotionally unstable freak who was in love with his sister.

I'm not saying that they should have gone all the way with it back in the 90s, but had those townspeople just successfully beaten him to death rather than stopping halfway, 40 lives could have been saved.

So really, who's the bad guy here?


Perpetual Beginner said...

I think the relevant CM PSA here is that there are more constructive ways to deal with emotionally unstable kids than deeming them freaks and beating the crap out of them. In my experience, getting beaten up rarely does anything good to one's stability - or general hostility levels. So perhaps if back then the adults could have acted like actual grown-ups, they could have avoided turning a traumatized kid into a cold-blooded killer?

Vardulon said...

Oh, you're right about that one - I just thought the witch hunt message got a little lost, so I went a little absurd with it.

Anonymous said...

i'd say vardulon deserves a little creative license - a little leeway to make his point. and garcia definitely needs a raise! seriously, that girl is doing ALL the work. the rest of the team should be embarrassed.

Perpetual Beginner said...

I get that it's deliberately overboard, anon. It's just a topic I'm a little triggery on. I got to watch my eldest deemed a freak at the ripe age of six by his teachers at school (basically for being smarter and more widely traveled than most of them (very small, isolated town)). In about six months, they managed to drop his reading by a grade level, give him an ulcer, and convince him there was something fundamentally wrong with him. So we beat tracks as fast as we could find work elsewhere. Weirdly enough, a larger town, and a new school, and a couple of years of patient teachers repaired most of the damage, and he's now a high-school student in honor's classes across the board.

Nobody's going to be setting our real life little town on fire, but I might not cross the street to piss on them if they were. The idea that the proper way to deal with people who are "off", for whatever reason, is to beat them into line needs to die an unmourned death, the sooner the better.

Anonymous said...

perp: i am truly sorry for your troubles. people can be so cruel sometimes. i'm glad, though, that you were able to overcome. well done. your eldest is fortunate to have such a loving and committed parent to guide him through the difficulties of childhood.

thanks so much for taking the time to reply with your poignant story. all the best in the future!


Maaian said...

I thought it was a nice episode actually even though that Prentiss momment was glaringly obsurd

Anonymous said...

At least this dying burn victim looked a little more realistically burned than the last one - though wasn't it Mandy's turn?! (Yes, I had noticed he's gone, but there's Rossi). How did Hotch draw the short straw again? And why was he so much less upset this time?

Anonymous said...

Two things:
9/11 and the fire can't really be compared. What fueled 9/11's calamity was that it was an act of war on the entire country and that it shattered the illusion of security. Not just how many people died. It's not impossible that after the first fire, people still wouldn't think twice about gathering in public.

The second point's already been said but it's worth repeating; had they not beat the boy senseless, chances are he wouldn't have so much rage that he kills 30+ people.

Esh said...

I’m not sure that line deserved Prentiss award. Because the team figures that this fire mattered to the unsub boy the fireman didn’t think that way and that’s what Derek meant