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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

An awkward grappling with Silence Of The Lambs' real-world legacy anchors Clarice

Lucca De Oliveira and Rebecca Breeds in Clarice
Lucca De Oliveira and Rebecca Breeds in Clarice
Photo: Brooke Palmer/CBS

There’s a lot of narrative balls in the air in “Silence Is Purgatory,” the ninth episode of Clarice, but there’s one that stands out above the others, largely because it’s the first time the subject has been broached. Julia Lawson (Jen Richards), a senior accountant at Lockyear, comes to Clarice with some files that can potentially help the case (NDAs prevent her from saying anything aloud), and while there, she confronts Clarice Starling about the fallout from the Buffalo Bill case—specifically, how his being labeled as “transsexual” did immeasurable harm to members of the trans community like herself, and how Clarice never publicly spoke out against the conflation of serial killing and gender identity. This isn’t the first time the series has attempted to address real-world issues with mixed results. “You Can’t Rule Me,” the fourth episode, attempted to dive into the institutional racism and sexism at the FBI (an issue that pops up again here, with Ardelia Mapp’s lawsuit against the Bureau going forward), but stumbled under the weight of trying to tie it singularly to Ardelia’s situation. Similarly, this installment raises the issue of trans discrimination, but essentially does so in a void. It’s striking, and meaningful… and then the episode uses the theme of silence in the face of injustice to tell Esquivel he should be honest with his girlfriend. It’s not the smoothest application of life lessons, exactly.

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It’s commendable that Clarice is attempting to grapple with the legacy of the single most harmful thing to come out of Silence Of The Lambs, Jonathan Demme’s indelible adaptation of Thomas Harris’ book. Richards delivers Julia’s monologue with a combination of bone-weary exhaustion and paranoid fear; she’s talking to someone who could cost her everything—her career, her loved one’s desperately needed health insurance—but she also feels a deep sense of responsibility to tell Clarice what the FBI agent’s silence on the issue of Bill’s identity has done to harm the trans community, and her specifically. The script does an admirable job of not succumbing to pure present-ism (reading the events of 30 years ago through the prism of today’s culture; the language used is era-appropriate), even as it can’t help but wield Clarice as a stand-in for the movie, and everything it did to contribute, even unintentionally, to trans exploitation and discrimination.

The A.V. Club recently ran a thorough and insightful piece on the damage caused by the character of Jame Gumb, a.k.a. Buffalo Bill, the “worst example of representation with which the trans community has ever been burdened,” which provides some much-needed additional context. But the same context also shows why it’s not a perfect fit to simply make Clarice the stand-in for an entire culture of discrimination. Yes, the script goes out of its way to say it’s not her fault—even after previously setting things up to convey the impression that it is, for button-pushing drama—and focusing on the sin of omission, rather than active participation in oppression, is a nice way to highlight the “silence is complicity” argument at the heart of Julia’s speech. But thanks to the conflicting ways Clarice has been established in this universe, it’s unclear what her role could have been. Julia implies that Starling was on endless talk shows and magazine covers—yet neither the Lockyear accountant, nor her significant other, even recognized Clarice during their initial encounter. The ViCAP agent only gets noticed when it’s narratively convenient, and the rest of the time, she’s an anonymous FBI employee who went straight back into the Quantico basement at the end of the Bill case. It makes Julia’s accusation seem ambiguously targeted, which is solely the series’ fault for being so inconsistent with the history of its title character. Kudos to the show for addressing this, and for hopefully not just leaving it as some one-off speechifying: By having villain Joe Hudlin end the episode with a clear threat—dead-naming Julia as “Gordon”—it suggests Clarice is taking the responsibility of delving into this issue more seriously than it does a lot of its other material.

Illustration for article titled An awkward grappling with Silence Of The Lambs' real-world legacy anchors Clarice
Photo: Brooke Palmer/CBS

Which, given how busy the rest of the episode is, comes as a relief. We rush through several other stories this week, and none of them are poorly done—but none of them are exactly great, either. It’s serviceable storytelling, beginning with Catherine Martin’s first successful outing back into the world. After failing to leave her home for so long, the promise of seeing her ex-boyfriend helps her summon the courage to venture outside—once as a sort of dry run, then again to meet him at a restaurant. But no sooner has she forgiven him for disappearing on her following her rescue, than he makes clear this isn’t about getting back together, so much as he’s just seeking exculpation for his behavior. To her credit, Catherine immediately assesses his selfish needs, and spits them back in his face: “I knew who you were, and I accepted it,” she tells him of his weak, cowardly mentality. So he can look elsewhere for assurance that he’s some noble dude, because his new significant other shouldn’t expect anything more. “This is not a man you can count on,” Catherine hisses at him, and the judgment cuts deep. It’s enough to trigger a panic attack in her—but it also motivates her to finally launch her plan to seek out Buffalo Bill’s mother.

Less smooth is the aforementioned time Esquivel and Clarice spend discussing the former’s girlfriend. Esquivel is scared to tell her that he used to be a sniper in the military, for the somewhat-understandable yet also weird reason that she had to work with the victims of a school shooting in her old job. (This is Clarice, everyone requires a tragic backstory!) This seems a bit akin to worrying a vegan will break up with you because you used to sell leather shoes, but regardless, Clarice helps him see the light. Unfortunately, she does so via tying in the title concept—silence is purgatory—which, coming on the heels of Julia’s far more relevant use of the theme, feels cheap. Then again, so does suddenly making Murray out to be some guy who relishes in finding ways to blackmail his sources into cooperating, especially after his medical sales rep, Naomi, turns up dead following his threats to pressure her to give up more information on the drug Carolina was taking when she died. At least Krendler’s actions—breaking his sobriety as a way to earn Hudlin’s trust—feels smart and earned, as does Murray calling him out for looking for a way to have a drink.

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Illustration for article titled An awkward grappling with Silence Of The Lambs' real-world legacy anchors Clarice
Photo: Brooke Palmer/CBS

But the ongoing story of Ardelia and the Black coalition remains the most compelling subplot currently running, thanks to the combination of actual stakes and the decision to stop making Ardelia see-saw between smart and dumb. She’s just a sharp mind and nimble thinker this episode, full stop, which helps keep the movement on her lawsuit against the Bureau lively. The choice to make the lawsuit about Clarice is a bit convenient—and Clarice takes the news awfully well!—but in the larger picture of this show’s odd uses of character, it’s far from baffling. It remains to be seen how this will play out (I could easily see it going badly, both for viewers and for Clarice), but it’s at least soapy, engaging stuff.

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Now, for the latest in “Clarice isn’t exactly the insightful mastermind everyone keeps insisting she is”: Tyson Conway. The son of the CEO of the pharmaceutical company manufacturing Reprisol does his wounded-puppy act, and Clarice completely buys it. Is there anyone out there who doesn’t suspect Tyson is a bad guy in some way? My working theory is that dad is covering up for his son’s crimes somehow, but I’m open to any number of possibilities—unlike Clarice, it seems. Seriously, in the ongoing list of ways Starling demonstrates poor judgment, this might be the most obvious. I enjoy it in the same way it’s fun to yell “Don’t go upstairs, are you stupid?!” to characters in horror movies who make bad decisions. Show us your true colors, Tyson, it’ll be fun.

Stray observations

  • Ardelia, after Agent Garrett says he’s willing to fake a hernia to get out of work and make the lawyer’s meeting: “Can I watch? Sounds funny.”
  • Murray’s braggadocio about getting people to cooperate is so clumsy, here. “Find the thumbscrews… it’s an art they don’t teach you at Quantico.” Ah yes, threatening someone’s immigration status, truly an art form.
  • Esquivel with the on-the-nose dialogue of the week: “Does anyone know all of you?”
  • Raoul Bhaneja is doing great work as Joe Hudlin. He’s got the slick, menacing villain thing down pat.
  • I was extremely relieved that Ardelia didn’t hem and haw about the lawsuit, and instead just agreed to the plan and immediately told Clarice. Given this show’s track record characters making inexplicable decisions, I was really worried that one was going to be a mess. Maybe Clarice is finally smartening up? (I know, I say this every other week, only to be disappointed again. Still, hope springs eternal!)
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Alex McLevy is a writer and editor at The A.V. Club, and would kindly appreciate additional videos of robots failing to accomplish basic tasks.