Clarice still may not be the smartest kid on the block, in terms of plotting and characterization, but at least it’s taking steps towards shaking off the stink of its dismal early episodes and struggling towards something approaching acceptable. That may be damning with faint praise, but right now, faint praise is all this show is gonna get, so it should take a win where it can. Incorporating Ardelia into the team is the smartest move the series can make, in terms of no longer having to shoehorn in Clarice’s cold-case-working roommate in increasingly labored ways. By having the friends work side by side, it helps bring a tighter focus to the narrative, lets all the major characters interact in richer ways, and sheds a lot of the “meanwhile, over here” feel to Ardelia’s scenes. Plus, in the course of about 48 hours, she proves herself to be the most capable member of this team, and it’s not even close. Maybe Ardelia should be in charge?
Credit where credit’s due: “Ugly Truth” doesn’t waste any time drawing out the reveal of Joe Hudlin, divorce lawyer and villainous creep, as the one working with Lockyear to bury the murders of the whistleblowers and the man responsible for Felker’s imprisonment of Clarice two episodes ago. She literally just sees the magazine cover with Hudlin on it sitting on Krendler’s desk, and suddenly the whole team knows who’s responsible for what happened to her (her claims are immediately substantiated by Tripathi tailing Hudlin all day and seeing him enter Lockyear’s building). Unfortunately, the show still wants to play this “Clarice and Krendler don’t trust each other” game, despite smoothing it over time and again. It’s like a bad-story device it just can’t stop pulling out and playing with, no matter how little sense it makes. It results in what Roger Ebert called an Idiot Plot: a narrative that could be resolved immediately if these two characters would just talk to each other like grown-ups. Ardelia and Clarice are suspicious that Krendler is involved in her kidnapping? Come on, now. (And frankly, Clarice should be reprimanded for the way she spoke to her boss in front of everyone.)
Of course, Krendler then proceeds to fuel that fire by allowing himself to be blackmailed by Hudlin, dropping the investigation into the murders in exchange for the lawyer not destroying his career by getting him blamed for evidence tampering in the coroner’s report. Again, this all feels a bit too dim-witted, even for this team. You suspect your conveniently timed new divorce lawyer of participating in the torture and imprisonment of one of your agents, and your first move is to… go see him without so much as a recording device in your pocket? This is grade-school stuff, and comes close to beggaring belief. Maybe Krendler is just terrible at his job? Regardless, the whole team is understandably shocked by his announcement that they’re just letting it go, for no real reason (not having enough evidence is usually reason to go find more, not give up), so this will clearly throw a big wrench into the dynamics of the group. Or rather, it would on a smarter show; I’m guessing this will be shoved aside as needed in subsequent installments, in keeping with Clarice’s penchant for only remembering notable shifts in characterization when useful.
Speaking of shifts in characterization: Boy, that Tripathi sure turned into an acerbic, wise-cracking fellow! I can’t tell if this is just making up for doing nothing with him for so long or if it’s a mid-season revision of his personality, but he feels like a different character (a welcome change, in this case). Similarly, the case of the week—the kidnapped boy found dead in the wall of a basement, a second murder by the same killer—provokes a weird shift in Murray, as well. Apparently, everyone on this team has to have a tragic backstory, and Murray’s is the kidnapping of his sister when he was a child, something no one is supposed to know about. Sure, much better to leave a bunch of porn mags lying on top of your desk at all times without explanation, which is definitely not an HR nightmare waiting to happen. There are so many perfectly fine ideas this series introduces, only to play them out in the most ham-handed ways. The idea that no one is going to tell Murray you don’t get to transform into a total asshole just because a case you’re working on reminds you of a personal tragedy is the kind of thing that always makes Clarice feel like it’s playing to the bottom of its intelligence.
But I’ve been saving the best for last, so let’s talk about the things this episode does right—namely, Ardelia joining the team. (Well, maybe not how she joins the team; pretty sure Krendler doesn’t get to just invite her to join the gang without asking her real boss if that’d be, you know, cool.) Sure, there are case-specific reasons to have her along for the ride this time: She grew up in the neighborhood, has roots there, and clearly knows more about how to talk to this still-grieving family than Clarice. (Though it remains unclear just how well-known Clarice Starling is supposed to be. Sometimes, it seems like she’s an instantly recognizable face to just about anyone. Other times, she may as well be Random Investigator #3.) And once they get everyone to agree to the DNA testing, that’s pretty much the ballgame. Mary Beth tries to take the fall for her son/lover (gross), and once more, Ardelia proves to be better at this than her bestie. Hopefully, this is the series laying some basic groundwork to bring the FBI agent onto VICAP full-time. A few more cases like this, and she’ll be running the place.
And the episode still leaves time for Ardelia’s grandmother to bring an elaborate meal to the two women, and spend an evening having fun and getting drunk. All the character beats are still pretty blunt, but at least getting the history of Ardelia’s father makes a much better case for her ambivalence about joining the Black coalition. (It’s not subtle, but then, neither is pointing out the institutional lack of concern for the disappearance of Black children vis-a-vis white kids, and that was still very much worth inserting into this storyline.) And while it does seem weird that these two friends had never shared a frank discussion about their respective fathers before, at least it went a little further in filling in some backstory.
This was a semi-decent episode of Clarice, hampered by wildly inconsistent shifts in character that aren’t even properly justified in the script, let alone the larger framing of the series. (Murray keeps absolutely tearing Esquivel’s head off face-to-face without a second thought of being a decent human, but immediately apologizes to Tripathi over the phone? Sure, why not.) Again, there’s good stuff here, but it so often gets buried by clumsy plotting that momentum rarely builds. Still, this was a step in the right direction. It could all fall apart next week, but let’s enjoy the impression of progress.
- Seriously, the dead bodies here were Hannibal-level upsetting. Sometimes I forget that these CBS procedurals have zero compunction about depicting genuinely horrifying shit, like flies pouring out of a hole in the back of a murdered boy’s head.
- Murray: “Has anyone seen Starling?” Tripathi: “VICAP’s new motto; we should have jackets made.”
- Okay, maybe the total lack of Tripathi until the past episode or two was just a misuse of resources, and he’s not the Big Bad. And while I’m happy to see Kal Penn actually get to play a character again, it’s still so weird to me that he was basically set aside for so long in the beginning.
- Some real gratuitous slo-mo on display this episode.
- As soon as the woman who’s son was killed said, “May Beth has been a good friend to me,” I wrote down, “Mary Beth = either killer or guilty in some way.” Again, Clarice: Not Subtle.
- I did like that they showed how long friendships like Ardelia and Clarice’s allow you to joke about the dark shit: “Don’t give me the pity eyes; at least my dad’s still alive.”
- Why do neither Ardelia nor Clarice sleep under the covers? That’s bananas.
- Murray, pulling the stack of porn out of his drawer as soon as humanly possible. Seriously, HR needs to have a talk with him.