Criminal Minds 1021: Mr. Scratch

The episode opens on a dark and stormy night, as a man in one of the Quantico interrogation cells - wait, why would an FBI training facility have interrogation cells? How is this the first time I'm noticing how weird that is? Anyhow, the guy is claiming that he's innocent of whatever he's been accused of. Greg enters to talk to Mr. Merrin, as he's named, and confirms that he's been read his rights.

Greg confirms that the guy knows where he is, and he does, but he doesn't know why. Is this a case of multiple personalities? They don't go to that well very often, so this could be refreshing! Greg asks him to tell the story of what happened two nights ago, and he does!

We're into a flashback immediately, where Merrin's wife tells him to check downstairs because she heard a noise. He did, and remembered smelling burning sage and seeing a demon crawl out of a closet! How is this not the Halloween episode?

One demon runs upstairs to murder his wife, while another dragged him away when he tried to save her! Greg is obviously not persuaded by this story of a murderous shadow monster. By the time he got upstairs his wife had been slashed to death! He claims he passed out, and when he woke up, the cops had him under arrest! Greg explains that this isn't the truth - he just stabbed his wife to death with a kitchen knife!

He's got scratches on his chest from where she tried to stop him and everything - the neighbours heard the screams and called the cops, who found him with the knife still in his hand. This is pretty open and shut, but he seems genuinely confused by it!

Things get crazy a moment later, when Greg pulls out a file - two other people claim to have been attacked by a shadow monster! One stabbed his mother, the other her boyfriend! Is this drugging, mass hysteria, or an amazing plan three people cooked up to get away with murder!

Greg's theory? There's a killer out there who can trigger psychotic breaks in people! But is that even possible? Hopefully we'll find out after the credits!

Before we get into the episode, shout-out to the production this time. The attempt to have a moody opening to the episode caused me to realize that it basically never rains in the world of Criminal Minds, because it doesn't rain in LA where the show is shot, and the producers are always trying to put in as little effort/money as possible, so renting a rain machine is almost always out of the question. It's a nice touch towards building mood, which the show does far too little of.

Actually, is this Matt Gubler? I'll be on the lookout for music choices and horror icons!

In the briefing scene, the team attempts to figure out how people in different states could have committed the same crime without any connection to one another. Continuing the 'this should have been a Halloween episode' theme, one of the murders was committed in Derry, Maine, which, of course, is the fictional town from Steven King stories!

They come to the conclusion that this must have been drugs, ones that the police have never seen before, and don't know how to find in tests! Given the violent hallucinations, though, it seems like whatever the drug cocktail was used, it would absolutely have featured a known hallucinogen which could be search for - especially since, at least in one case, they caught the guy in mid-delusion, while he was still feeling the effects of the drugs.

Reid points out the elephant in the room - that people hallucinate based on their own environment and subconscious - there's no way that three different people would react with the exact same delusion and take the same exact actions, no matter how powerful the drugs were. But what if someone was there, guiding them through the hallucination? We've had no sign of that, though, so I should just drop it as a theory.

Greg's theory? The victims all had a similar pre-existing mental condition that predisposes them to fantasize about shadow beasts and stab their loved ones, and the killer is just drugging them to let it out. Of course, even if that made sense, which it doesn't, how would the killer have found out about it?

Derek and JJ go to talk to the next victim, who's named Karras. If you're wondering why I'm pointing this out, it's because Merrin and Karras were the name of the two priests in the movie 'The Exorcist', which hits my 'Halloween Episode' marker one more time.

The victim remembers coming home and drinking a beer, then smelling some 'burning sage', which the first guy noticed when he went downstairs. Presumably this is the smell that the chemical the killer uses gives off, but I have two comments to offer. 1: The smell is 'burning sage' because sage is burned to cleanse houses of evil spirits. 2: How do both of these guys know what burning sage smells like? Seems like a weird thing to be able to identify immediately off of the top of your head. Like, if I smelled cinnamon burning, I'd be able to identify that right away. But literally any other spice? Nope. Maybe, at a stretch, I could smell burning garlic, but sage, oregano, cloves, mace - who immediately knows what those smell like when they're burned?

The guy remembers the shadow beast raping him and tying him to a table, but there's no evidence of that! So why did his mind create those elements, but the other victims didn't? Was there someone guiding the trip, or not? Merrin wants to talk to the other victims to try and figure out what's happened to them, but that's obviously a no-go.

Greg and Love go to see the next victim - will she be named MacNeil? Or whatever the cop's name was, perhaps? She's completely uncommunicative, though, so not a lot of help just yet. Garcia collects Greg, and tells him that all three victims were adopted in 1985, but she doesn't know from where yet, due to insufficient file digitization. Presumably all of them were molested and tortured by the same person back in the day, which has caused this very specific nightmare to stick in their heads?

Searching the latest victim's house, they find the tube that the killer used to pump drugs into the house, forcing the victim to hallucinate and murder. They specifically say that the drug mixture contained scopolamine, which stays in the body for over four hours - since the guy was caught while killing his wife, it probably should have turned up in his blood tests. Still no word on how the killer convinced the victims that their loved ones were shadow monsters - we're told that these are drugs that make people incredibly suggestible, but you'd still have to, you know, suggest it. Which flies in the face of the characters' suggestion that there was no one else inside the house.

Even though, you know, Merrin specifically said he only went downstairs because the wife thought she heard someone moving around down there. And that was before the incident that they now believe was him being drugged.

The team has a conversation about how all of the different kids who were adopted from distant states could possibly have memories of the same primal fear from early childhood! Of course, there's no reason for the team to be assuming that the 'shadow monster with long talons' is, in fact, a primal fear from early childhood. This is just an assumption they're making based on absolutely no facts in order to move the plot forward. Also, if they were all from completely different states and had no connections in the foster care system, is there any significance to all of them being the same age and having been adopted the same year? That seems like too much of a coincidence to be possible.

Could they have all been read the same book? Seen the same movie? Did the killer find them through an online support group of kids who were traumatized by seeing Nosferatu at a young age? Because there's a shadow scene where he has long, claw-like fingers, you see.

They ask each person to draw the shadow monster, but we only see one of them - it has long arms and big purple eyes. Presumably we'll get the reveal that they're all similar later.

Then we cut to a random person's house, where we do a horror-movie creep up on a sleeping man, only for it to turn out to be his son, who's worried about a Boogeyman in his bedroom! The guy puts his son to bed, then goes to the kitchen and gets drugged and attacked by the shadow creature!

JJ and Joe arrive at the scene, where the guy has - mercifully - killed himself rather than kill his own kid, as the killer probably suggested. I guess this is a less powerful version of the scopolamine that the boat killer was using all of those years ago, because wasn't he able to get family members to kill each other? Or am I remembering that wrong?

Anyhoo, Joe wins himself a Prentiss Award for this line:
"So quickly"? What do you mean? Do you think that this killer's MO is to murder a person, then go online and try to find another person who fits their criteria? Isn't it far more likely that this killer has a list of potential victims ready to go, and is just checking them off? This killer could have been working on this plan for years, and given how complicated everything about it is, isn't that the most likely solution?

Seriously, though, why on earth would Joe think that this guy is only just now finding victims?

Also, I'm not super-sure why the team is here on the scene. They put in a line about Garcia finding people with 'closed adoptions' in 1985 and it leading to him, but I checked the records, and there were like 20 thousand of those that year across the country. The idea that they'd immediately connect a suicide to that huge a list is something of a stretch. I hate to say it, but if this guy had killed his son, I'd understand why the team was here, but without it, this likely would have fallen under their radar.

Unless, of course, they'd found a deeper connection between the kids that Garcia could have zeroed in on, but they haven't.

Greg interviews the widow, who doesn't know about the shadow monsters, but tells him that her husband cheated on her all the time, and when she forced him into therapy, he came back with various wild stories about being molested as a child. Greg's surprised - recovered memories? Those are the least trustworthy kind!

So I guess a therapist treated all of these people, drugged them to make them suggestible, and then told them all about the shadow monster, so he could come back later and trigger the fear? That seems like a weird thing to do, but I don't see a better explanation yet.

Oh, and for the record, this character was named 'Bill Kinderman', and when I went to look it up, yeah, that was the cop's name in The Exorcist. So I guess the unnamed lady victim was probably Regan or Chris MacNeil, after all?

The team decides that the kids must have all been involved in a 'Satanic Panic' false persecution of someone from a foster home, and now the guy wants revenge on them! Oh, and they think that the early hypnosis that the cops would have used on the kids to get (or implant) details of the crimes into the kids has left them more susceptible to suggestion now. Their only hope? That Christine MacNeil - yes, that is her name, they finally reveal - might know where she was kept in a foster home?

Wait, there was a foster home that had 4 different 3 or 4-year-olds in it? Is that normal? That doesn't sound normal. 3-Year-Olds are a lot of work.

Greg has a plan - he thinks that the act of telling a false story causes it to 'harden into facts' inside the memory, and since Chris hasn't talked to anyone yet, maybe he can trick her into telling the truth? Except she has told her story already - you only knew to bring her to Quantico because she told the cops about the shadow monster attack. If she hadn't, you wouldn't have made the connection that allowed you to grab her.

Greg burns some sage in the hopes of reminding her of the killer's approach, and it works! She starts talking as a four-year-old who's scared of 'him', and thinks that home is 'scary'. As she freaks out, the lights in the room start flickering - then we move to Garcia, and find that the whole building is flickering! She rushes to the office to tell everyone to unplug everything - is this a power surge of some kind? Are they not protected from that? Or is it someone hacking the FBI, which wouldn't affect the lights at all!

Oh, and Chris scratches her face open, because she's that freaked out. She calls the killer 'Mr. Scratch'.

It seems that both the main power and backup generators were blown - and we have no idea how just yet! The team wants to track down this 'Mr. Scratch' character, but how can they do that without computers? By calling another FBI office that still has theirs? You know all of the files aren't actually held on Garcia's computer, right?

Then Garcia runs in with more information - the power outage was, in fact, caused by a hacker, who broke in to find a name inside the witness relocation database! So yeah, it's another hacker so good that they can't possibly exist. The team thinks that if they know who the next victim is, they'll figure out who the killer is, because he'd have only saved them 'for last' if the act of killing them would have immediately pointed to the culprit.

Okay, couple things - first off, how do you know this is the 'last' target? There could be twenty names on this kill list. Secondly, even if this is the last target, isn't it likely that he saved the kill for last because it would be the hardest target to get to? Like, if you’d started by hacking the FBI, that means the cops are going to be all over you, and it becomes way harder to track down the other victims.

Reid looks at the hacker's code for three seconds, and immediately realizes that there's only one place that the killer could have learned to hack that well - Harvard's best math course! All of the people who take it immediately go to work for the NSA, that's how good they are!

Yes, I know that this is stupid, but let's just let them have it and move on.

Greg calls a buddy at the NSA, and asks him who the craziest and most talented person they didn't hire was, and he hands over a note with the killer's name on it. That was convenient!

Oh, and the name, Peter Lewis, is disappointingly unconnected to The Exorcist. Maybe one of the sequels?

The killer's parents ran a group home, and one of the people who worked on the investigation into them was Regan (finally!), who literally wrote the book on recovered memories! So yeah, this is an episode built around the principle that you should never believe children when they say they were molested! Thanks, Criminal Minds!

Anyhoo, the guy's father was killed in prison while awaiting trial, and now he wants revenge on all of the kids from the group home! And on the doctor, who's apparently in witness protection, even though she was never involved in a major prosecution? Do they give full witness protection identity-change services to people just because they're being threatened over a book they wrote? That seems like a stretch.

Greg goes to the house alone for reasons I can't understand - like, I get that you were meeting your NSA buddy alone, but once you know you're chasing a killer, maybe get some cops to back you up on the way?

Also, how convenient is it for the killer that he was already in Georgetown when he hacked the FBI? Like, this woman could have been anywhere in the world, but in an amazing coincidence, it turned out that she was within easy driving distance of the location he was hacking from!

So the killer gets the doctor to stab herself, then drugs Greg! We get a scene of the killer trying to brainwash Greg, but Greg turns the tables on him, saying that he knows that Peter also testified against his father, and this is all based around his guilt! Um... is this really a reveal? Of course the guy was forced to testify against his father. It's not a slip-up, it's an obvious fact about the case.

The team shows up, and we get a scene of them all being murdered, but it's obviously a fantasy in Greg's head created by the drugs, so let's move on... to the killer trying to get Greg to attack them at the front door, by telling him that whoever walks through the door first is actually the killer!

Greg shoots at the killer, though, because he's stronger than the drugs! The killer still thinks he won, though, because he made Greg go through the trauma of thinking his team was killed in front of him! But then Greg goes out to look at the killer, and the killer taps his head, so we're left with the suggestion that the killer planted some kind of trigger in Greg's mind, which will only come up again later!

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

Nope! Literally nothing they did or said was in any way useful until the killer hacked the FBI, and then the NSA just told them his name, which allowed them to figure out his next target.

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

There's no way that the adoption records wouldn't have been searchable, which would have led to the killer so much faster than the show presents.

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

1/10 - I'm tempted to give the episode a 0, though, because of its truly toxic message about why you shouldn't believe children who say they're abused. Here's the thing about the backlash against 'recovered memories' and the 'Satanic Panic'.

The problem with the investigations wasn't the completely innocent people were having their lives ruined, it's that the people doing the investigating were unwilling to see the truth of the situation - that lots of children are getting molested, all the time. By teachers, by parents, by priest, by cops, by authority figures all over the place, and yes, by other kids.

All of the implanted memories were an attempt to provide a safe context for the adults to deal with this fact - that a giant satanic conspiracy was victimizing children, and that they were heroes fighting against it. So they pushed kids into helping them LARP, ruining those kids' lives, and setting back the work of child advocates for decades.

There was abuse, though. The regular, banal child molestation that happens to far more people than most are willing to admit. And this episode is doing its level best to pretend that it was all just a fantasy, and that kids can never be trusted.

You're awful, Criminal Minds. Especially because the killer was definitely molested by his dad. I mean, this guy is so damaged that he's blaming people who were 3 years old at the time for things the police made them say? Yeah, that kind of crazed violent psychopathy doesn't happen by accident. While the Satan stuff might have been a lie, they were right to put that guy's dad in jail.

If only they'd have gotten his abused son the treatment he needed!

Oh, and I checked- this was a Matt Gubler episode! I was on the fence because while it had more visual flair than a normal episode, there wasn't anything visually startling, and although there was plenty of horror movie stuff, it lacked interesting music or horror icon casting, which we normally see in Gubler's efforts.

It did, however, star Bodhi Elfman, who is presumably Jenna Elfman's brother or husband, and likely a friend of Greg's!


Anonymous said...

So let me get this straight. You understand that these children were pressured into making false accusations against this guy, but you still think that the message is "Don't believe children". You also jump to the ridiculous assumption that Peter's father actually did molest him, based on the fact that Peter is a violent psychopath that wants revenge on 3 year olds. However, psychopaths are born that way, and I have a feeling that his violent ways are more based around decades of built up anger. And people aren't always rational when it comes to the death of a loved on. Wanting revenge on the people that caused the death of your father, regardless of how old they were when it happened, isn't too far fetched.

The Hidden Object Guru said...

Just FYI - Psycopaths are only 'born that way' in incredibly rare instances. You may want to do a little research on the subject if this field interests you!

Anonymous said...

This is super old but I came across this blog while watching CM. I was thinking the same thing. While I find the blogger's commentary entertaining, one of their biggest complaints about CM is how they jump to conclusions. And yet, what a leap! CM is saying "don't believe children!" Um? How in hades did they come up with that? Wow.

Beverly said...

I'm re-watching all 15 seasons of the show. And I'm on this one now. As soon as the episode started, with the camera outside the interrogation room, spookily raining and thundering, I was immediately like, "Matthew Gray Gubler directed this one." It's funny how recognizable all of his episodes are. You can usually tell within like the first 30 seconds, lol.

Beverly said...

Oh, it won't let me edit my first comment, so to add on, I agree with the others about it being a stretch to say CM says don't believe any kids. This is just what CM does, the thing that you expect to be the reason ends up having a twist. It's also a jump to conclude that Mr. Scratch was definitely molested by his father.

Though I disagree with Hidden Object Guru because psychopathy is actually commonly due to being born that way, if not always the case. I have done reading on it, and it's a lack of gray matter in the brain. Obviously, stressors exacerbate the situation from person to person. Not all psychopaths are murderers, etc. But you can't "fix" psychopathy (which is now lumped in with sociopathy under anti-social personality disorder). With behavioral disorders, you can try to mold your brain to react differently since it's malleable. But lack of gray matter can't be fixed, so if you don't feel emotion/empathy, that's just that. People can be trained to respond appropriately though, even if they aren't fully capable of understanding. Like they can be trained given the right incentives.

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MetalHippie said...

Generally your observations are incredibly on point but as all the other comments have pointed out, psychopaths ARE generally born with at the very least with a predisposition for it. And also the the message was def not "don't believe kids" It was merely an explanation of the Satanic Panic. And the Satanic Panic was 1000 percent not an excuse to make the fact of prolific child molestion have a more psychologically satisfying reason other than satanic cults did it. If you read on the Satanic Panic you will see that A LOT LOT LOT of the people that were claiming ritual abuse were never even molested at all, it was a mass hysteria. But still love your writing style and salient observations.