Criminal Minds 621: The Stranger

Another Emily clip package this week. Still not sure why. Did they think we'd forget that Emily was 'dead'? At least this time they don't bother reminding us that she's still alive. Thank you for trusting the audience, Criminal Minds.

Okay, onto the episode - Derek, Garcia, Rachel and Reid are all leaving a movie theatre, talking about slasher films. There's an attempt at humour with Derek calling the killer in the movie an 'unsub' before Reid corrects him by saying that in movies, they're called 'villains'. I've watched a few hundred episodes of this show now, and I'm fairly sure Derek would never make that 'mistake'. He wasn't hatched from a pod. He's seen movies. And read books. And knows not to use their stupid exclusionist academic jargon when dealing with everyday life.

Then Reid says something so stupid as to be nearly unbelievable-

Yeah, the only people who think that women are the only victims in horror movies (or even that they generally get the worst of it) are people who haven't seen any.

The characters keep talking about slasher films, their dialogue narrating the travails of a coed who walks home to her apartment, and is then stabbed to death by a madman. Who manages to open a locked window, then climb across the desk in front of it without disturbing anything. Magical!

The next day when the team arrives at the office they discover Greg talking to Strauss, his boss. She wants to go into the field along with the team to make sure they're holding up, but Greg says that the grief assessments show definitively that they'll be fine. Of course, since he's not really impartial at all, I can understand her lacking confidence in them. Also, it's kind of a nice callback to when she did the ridealong after Mandy's departure.

Time of the briefing! There have been three victims in the past FIVE DAYS. What? Oh, and all of them were brunettes majoring in child development/education, and two even went to the same school. Which means that we're expected to believe that after two women demographically identical to the latest victim were killed in the past four days, that woman was totally comfortable staying in her apartment alone, and not being careful to lock doors and windows? Does the show not know how crazy this sounds?

There are some shots intercut of the killer deciding on his next victim, while Greg mentions that San Diego PD wants them there ASAP. Well, if that's the case, why didn't you present the facts on the plane? Morons.

After the credits we find them on the plane, debating whether the lack of sexual assault means that the killer might be impotent. Which is a fun mental exercise, but absolutely useless when it comes to finding him. Reid and Derek head to the crime scene, and wonder why the killer attacked her in her apartment rather than grabbing her in the dark alleys leading to her door. They ascribe a motive to it, wanting to take the feeling of safety associated with 'home' away from her. Or, you know, this clearly careful killer wanted to stab her somewhere that he wouldn't be seen by passers-by, who could also hear the screams and call the police.

When they get to the crime scene the team specifically name-checks the killer that all this is based on, Edmund Kemper (check out the FactCheck below), while suggesting that the lock on the window was 'jimmied'. Really? He was able to do that silently?

There's also a trip to the morgue where Greg and Joe make some incredibly unsupportable claims. The ME announces that the killer didn't have much medical knowledge, and the fact that he killed his second victim with a blow to the heart was probably just a lucky blow. The next victim had far more stab wounds, and died of massive blood loss since he didn't hit the heart. They figure this means he was specifically trying to keep her alive longer, since he enjoyed the suffering. Or, alternately, the killer viciously stabs these women until they stop moving - with the second one it happened quickly, since her heart was hit. The next took longer, since it wasn't. How can you possibly be certain anything more than that was going on?

Meanwhile the killer is flirting with his latest victim over SMS. Can the team get there in time to save her? Probably not, since we're just ten minutes into the episode.

Rachel interviews the victim's roommate, who says that her friend worked all manner of odd-jobs, and therefore could have attracted her killer's attention anywhere, and at any time! Not helpful, but at least Rachel's getting something to do!

The team then talks more about how the killer must be choosing to attack people in their homes because of an obsession with the psychological torture of violating a safe space. Never once is it suggested that maybe he's picking the most private place available to him, the one where he's least likely to be disturbed during the stabbing.

Okay, over to the latest victim, who's babysitting while chatting with her killer. There's a Scream-esque sequence where the guy has her take a picture of herself and then send it, but then it turns out he was secretly in the background of it! Spooky! Oh, and then he brutally stabs her in front of the baby she was watching over.

Arriving at the new crime scene, the team wonders why he attacked at the house she was babysitting at, when that doesn't fit their profile of his obsession with violating safe spaces. Um, could it be because your profile was nonsense, maybe? An interesting clue - the killer organized baby bottles in the room into neat rows! A twisted OCD freak, it would seem! Could he have fed the child? There's no evidence to support that, but the team goes ahead and guesses that he must have done this hypothetical thing because he identified with a vulnerable child. Although, again, they're coming up with a motivation to explain an action that they have no evidence he took. Oh, but Garcia finds the creepy photo, and notices that the killer kept tweeting as the victim for a couple of hours after the murder, so that's a lead!

The team offers the profile to the local cops, then has them put up posters warning local students about the murders. It also features the suggestion that the killer was recently spring from jail - since this is essentially a spree, rather than an escalation, there has to be a reason he wasn't killing before. Except for all those other times people have been killing lots of people in quick succession (with no prior history) without just getting out of jail. Not that these characters are capable of remembering their pasts. The cops ask how to prevent panic, but the team suggests that panic is inevitable. Not that you'd notice it from the college scene during the profile montage:

 In a single town, four young women have been brutally stabbed to death in the past six days. Yet life is chugging along, completely unaffected, even on the college campuses where these victims are being stalked. Does the show seriously not understand that the eyes of the entire country would be on San Diego right now? That every corner would have local, state, and federal cops searching for the slightest sign of wrongdoing? That any even slightly brunette woman would be terrified and hyper-vigiliant, perhaps even bleaching their hair en masse.

Garcia's on the case, though, to no great effect. The killer was tweeting from solely public terminals, using a dummy account. Greg then gets a call from Strauss, who asks why he hasn't had a grief assessment, since he'll obviously need one as well. Does she not know that the whole 'dead' thing is a fake? I assumed she did, and that's why she signed off on the idea of him assessing the group - as the one certainly stable member, he'd be capable of gauging their mental states. Apparently not, though, making her decision just baffling.

The next victim is - insanely - still at her babysitting job that night. The show tries to explain this away by having her be aware of her visual similarity to previous victims, but that only serves to highlight the insanity that she would ever be anywhere alone until the killer was caught. The parents get home, and offer her the opportunity to stay overnight, since she's due back at 8AM - she insanely says no, which leads to her being stabbed by the killer the moment the front door is opened. Also the husband gets stabbed, but not the wife.

Oh, and the team doesn't get there until the next morning. I guess a good night's sleep was more important than fresh evidence? They say the wife of the house was locked up all night because the handle was broken off the door, but she was in a nursery. Which must have a window, given the niceness of the house. When not open that window and scream for help until some arrived?

The killer stabbed the husband, held a knife to the victim's throat, locked the wife and kid in the nursery, and then stabbed the victim to death and posed the corpse. The whole thing must have taken at least ten minutes, yet the screams seemingly didn't draw any attention from nearby houses, or justify calling the police.

Finally the killer offers a clue that the team use to figure out the crime. The fact that all victims were babysitters suggests that his primary target is a former babysitter of his. The fact that the killer posed both victims so that they'd be looking at each other offers the suggestion of a romantic connection between that victim and his father. It's a bit of a stretch, but in the essence of time, we'll give it to them.

Then something weird happens - the team narrows the search, looking for children whose mothers died, followed by the father marrying the babysitter. How could they possibly come to that conclusion? Isn't a simple affair just as likely? Still, this jump to conclusion finds them a guy who was released from a mental institution just two weeks ago, after spending every second there since he was seventeen. So how did he get so good with computers and breaking into houses? Wifi didn't even exist when he was locked away for butchering animals and threatening people with knives.

Also, there was a guy released two weeks ago with a childhood history of butchering animals and threatening people with knives, and they weren't already looking into him? What is wrong with these people? How many psychopaths could have possibly been released within that short a window?

Anyhoo, the team rushes over to the killer's apartment, but he's not there. They explain that he found the victims by using his computer privileges in the asylum, which gets one point, but not the bit about practical house-breaking skills. Also, they don't even try to contact the stepmother until they find her picture taped to the wall of his apartment, being used as a dartboard. This is a reference to a particularly disgusting bit of the Kemper case, BTW. God, they're terrible at their jobs, sometimes.

Meanwhile, the killer is at the stepmother's house (dad died a few months ago), where he reveals that he blames her for his institutionlization. The team rushes over, and decides to turn on the sirens, despite the fact that doing so would most likely convince him to kill her. Amazingly, he doesn't kill her, and allows Greg and Rachel to enter and chat with him about his troubles.

They enter unarmed while Joe is sneaking around the back, then confuse the killer by sympathizing with him, and saying it's fine that he hates the whore that stole his mother. Then he admits to having been sexually obsessed with her since childhood. So, you know, ick. Just then Joe rushes in and shoots the killer dead. Happy ending!

Then Rachel offers a super-bad message to the stepmother, announcing that Greg was 'born bad' and that there's nothing anyone could have done to prevent this tragedy.

How can they let someone who knows so incredibly little about serial killers on the team? It makes no sense!


Except for Greg going to see Strauss, who says that Greg's doing a great job. She then reveals that she might have to leave her post for some time, and is suggesting that he take over for her temporarily! Twist! Is this going to be Greg's new arc, supervising the rest of the department, and perhaps dealing with interoffice politics? I'm psyched to find out!

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

Absolutely - although not as much as it could have been. Even after figuring that the killer would likely have recent been sprung from the psych ward, they don't bother actually looking into people like that. How many violent criminals with mental problems could have been let out in the weeks before the killings? A dozen? Two? Given that they almost certainly had unlimited resources in investigating this case, couldn't they have tracked down and talked to all of them in just a couple of hours? But no, they sat on a clue until they had something to cross-reference it against (elaborate body positioning), presumably because they hate legwork.

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

Probably not. After all, they didn't catch the real guy until he killed his real target - the same thing probably would have happened here. Of course, the real life killer didn't leave super-obviously clues for psychologists to crack, so the team wouldn't have been much use there, either.

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

3/10 - Better than most, but still not great.

Criminal Minds FactCHeck: Edmund Kemper

Way to go, Criminal Minds, you completely missed the most interesting part of the most interesting serial killer story ever. You wouldn't know it from watching this episode, but Edmund Kemper is unique among serial killers in that he's the only one who's ever been confirmed to be a very intelligent person (we can't say about Zodiac because we don't know), and the only serial killer ever to have demonstrated complete self-awareness.

How do we know this? Because unlike every other serial killer, he turned himself into the police.

Here's the short version of the story. From a very young age Ed was unusually big, and his mother viciously beat him, hoping to keep him under control. When he started developing a penchant for animal-killing he was sent to live with his grandparents, who he killed after an argument while still in his early teens. He was jailed until 18, then released to live with his mother and find what work he could.

Up until this point, he's pretty much the textbook serial killer - abused child, early violence, inappropriate sexual urges, it's all there. Even more textbook, when he starts killing he rapes and murders coeds, some of whom who go to the school where his mother is a secretary, all in an attempt to get proxy revenge on her. These crimes make him feel better for a while, but eventually the thrill wears off, so he figures that if he's ever going to get a handle on the anger that defines him, he's going to take it out on the source. Finally he kills his mother in a manner so disgusting that it should never be laid down in print (not that it's stopped a large number of people from doing so), and though it briefly makes him feel better, he realizes that the anger hasn't actually gone anywhere. Desperate to get rid of it, he decides to kill someone closer in type to his mother, so he calls one of her friends and has her come over. This subsequent murder is even less satisfying than killing coeds had become, so he gets into his car and drives off.

What does he do then? His mother is dead, so he can't help but be caught - that doesn't mean he has to go quietly. He could do what Bundy did when the cops drew close, and just kill as many women as he could as quickly as he could. There was still time. He didn't, though. Instead he called the police. Because he finally realized that no matter how many people he hurt, it wasn't ever going to fix what was wrong with him - so he could see no real purpose in continuing to kill women.

John "Mindhunter" Douglas, a man who encourages the death penalty in nearly every violent crime he encounters, admits to actually liking Kemper as a person - Kemper being the only one of the hundreds of killers that Douglas has interviewed who earned that distinction. In addition to being an open and friendly person, the key element that endeared Kemper to Douglas is the fact that he freely admits that he should never be let out of prison, since his fundamental drive to murder seems to be incurable.

Criminal Minds took the amazing case of the world's only self-aware serial killer and turned it into the most generic slasher movie imaginable, then buried it all under a whitewashed  and psychologically unsupportable 'bad seed' origin story.

Great work, guys.


Anonymous said...

love your reviews!!
you didn't point this out, so I'm gonna be grammar police lol but it bothers me that rachel says "whomever finds the body" during the initial briefing. how do people who write scripts for a living not know basic grammar?
whom is always followed by a pronoun (the woman whom he loved)
who is always followed by a verb (whoever finds the body!)

Anonymous said...

I'm watching CM on Netflix now, and reading your comments in 2020/2021 is really... interesting.

Both myself and you, would have previously thought people continuing to engage in behavior that is well-documented on the news as being dangerous, unnecessary, stupid is unbelievable. Now, however, we've seen that people going on with life as normal despite a pandemic or homocidal maniac is apparently fully in character with the human population at large.

Your glee for seeing culprits extra-judiciously murdered is a lot harder to deal with these days though