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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Clarice amps up the momentum in an exciting but messy confrontation with a villain

Kal Penn finally returns, just in time for a confrontation with the season's big antagonists

Illustration for article titled Clarice amps up the momentum in an exciting but messy confrontation with a villain
Photo: Brooke Palmer/CBS

“Achilles Heel” feels like the television-episode equivalent of someone racing to get out the door: It tosses in a bunch of stuff into its bag, hustling all the while, thereby creating a sense of anxious exhilaration—only to finally take a breath, look down, and realize that half of what’s packed doesn’t really make sense. And if that metaphor’s a bit ill-conceived (answer: yes, it is), well, so is this installment of Clarice. But you know what? It’s having so much fun running around, throwing a bunch of wild ideas onscreen, that it doesn’t matter so much how wobbly any one aspect of it is. This was an entertaining episode, and after a season that largely felt like it didn’t know how to pull off such a thing, let’s all take the win.

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This is actually a continuation of the narrative momentum begun last week by “Motherless Child,” which similarly falls apart if you look at it in hindsight, but felt compelling while it was unfolding. This time, the team heads right into the lion’s den of Alastor Pharmaceuticals, thanks to a tip from new friend Julia Lawson about the impending merger that could make all the evidence they’re looking for disappear. So, the team hatches a plan to confront the man they suspect of being the season’s Big Bad—duplicitous lawyer Joe Hudlin—in an attempt to stall out the proceedings. But while there, Clarice gets an invite to the lush upstairs office of company founder and CEO Nils Hagen (Peter McRobbie), and she soon realizes ViCAP set its sights too low: The ruthless businessman (and father to Tyson Conway) checks all the boxes in Clarice’s profile of the real villain, and soon, our protagonists realize that the guy they’re after has far more resources than they could’ve imagined. Not only that, but the episode ends with a phone call from Hagen to AG Ruth Martin, telling her to drop the investigation or else see her daughter go to prison and her career go up in flames.

The most excitement here comes not from Clarice’s ponderous and overly written battle of wits with Hagen, but from the increasingly ludicrous efforts by Esquivel, Tripathi, and Clarke to help Julia get to safety. After being repeatedly told by every member of ViCAP to stand down and play it safe while they take care of the case, Julia pulls a Clarice and does the exact opposite, throwing herself into harm’s way in order to try and swipe the incriminating paperwork that proved Alastor knew all about its drug, the women being affected by it, and the horrific results. How many shows try to pull an act break whose tension revolves around whether or not the fax machine is going to keep working? So much of it was ridiculous; Julia knows how to pick locks? Sure, why not. But it had a daffily enjoyable pacing, culminating in that ludicrous standoff where Hudlin inserts himself between the respective people pointing guns at one another and gets them all to lower their weapons. At which point everyone walks away—you know, like feds usually do after they walk in on someone aiming a loaded pistol at an innocent woman’s head. This show, I swear to god.

Illustration for article titled Clarice amps up the momentum in an exciting but messy confrontation with a villain
Photo: Brooke Palmer/CBS

But while all the Julia machinations were unfolding, Clarice was in the belly of the beast, confronting the man who clearly seems to be the actual villain running the show. In a span of mere minutes, Hagen exudes megalomania, misogyny, insecurity, vanity, greed… basically, he’s a walking billboard for sociopathy. He’s the guy of guy who would probably score off the charts on Jon Ronson’s Psychopath Test. But unlike the purring appeal of a Hannibal Lecter, the overwritten dialogue placed in Hagen’s mouth sounds a bit like a bad stage play—and one that quickly infects Starling, as well. She rattles off some obscure Greek mythology like it’s just the way people usually talk, and when he asks her what she thinks of a giant abstract painting on his wall, Clarice responds, “Passion. Boldness.” This trip into a sophomore year of college Art Appreciation course slowly curdles into Clarice diagnosing Hagen’s obsession with power, and attendant fascination with his son—the flesh-and-blood one, not his company. McRobbie plays the guy with relish, obviously, and if he can embrace the twinge of camp lurking around the edges of the character, the show could really have something fun on its hands.

Meanwhile, in Serious Drama land, Ardelia Mapp is starting to encounter the fallout from her filing the lawsuit. Creepy boss Anthony Herman smiles and pays lip service to supporting her cause—something Ardelia and Agent Garrett quickly intuit is a front designed to slowly allow him to place the blame on the Black Coalition for not being “team players.” It’s a sinister gaslighting strategy all too familiar for people of color who push for equitable treatment and then get accused of being “difficult.” And Garrett gets a far more immediate punishment: a “promotion” that amounts to being banished to the middle of nowhere to serve as a glorified security guard. Watching the two of them support each other in the face of the coming struggle was heartening, and a nice moment of pragmatic inspiration on a show that usually cops out in favor of something hoarier.

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Illustration for article titled Clarice amps up the momentum in an exciting but messy confrontation with a villain
Photo: Brooke Palmer/CBS

We also get a phone call between Catherine and Ruth, maybe the first one we’ve ever seen them have that doesn’t end with one of them storming out of the room or insulting the other. Catherine is doing well in treatment, and finding succor in being around like-minded people dealing with trauma. So, naturally, the episode has to end with Catherine’s position being threatened and Ruth being forced to do something unethical to spare her daughter. (That’s what’s going to happen, right?) Still, it’s a nice moment, though not as nice as watching Tripathi threaten the little weasel Hudlin with a grand jury indictment.

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And to close things out, we get a new wrinkle in Clarice’s memories: It seems her dad was actually corrupt, and in bed with criminals, either via drugs, bribery, or some other as-yet unknown malfeasance. And while sure, this renders moot a lot of the hand-wringing over her memories from the rest of the season, at least it does something interesting with these endless flashbacks, and suggests we’re actually going to get some complications and depth to this character. That would be a nice change of pace.

Stray observations:

  • Even expecting some sort of half-assed waving away of his character’s disappearance, was legit not anticipating, “Boy, helping relatives move into a smaller house, huh?” as the excuse for Tripathi literally being gone for weeks.
  • Okay, I get that Julia was proud of herself for mailing the documents to her relative, but everyone smiling and laughing afterwards? PEOPLE ARE TRYING TO KILL YOU, JULIA.
  • Speaking of totally bizarre Julia moments, how about her response when Clarice apologizes to her for pulling her into this mess: “That’s the funny thing about the truth: Once you know it, you can’t un-know it.” What? Does anyone quote that? That’s not even a saying! This show.
  • I know I called that Tyson was the bad guy and his dad just trying to protect him, but I’m changing my story: Tyson is helping his dad do all this evil shit, in exchange for keeping the non-profit going. Tyson is clearly a psychopath-in-training.
  • Krendler finally shuts down Clarice’s idiotically self-absorbed preference for always going it alone: “It’s not. About. You.” Hear, hear.
  • Clarice standing up after her chat with Tyson: “Well, this has been helpful, thank you.” How? You asked one question; he spoke for twenty seconds. Sigh.
  • Esquivel knows the freezing point of nitrogen off the top of his head, because this show does not care about logical definition of its characters.
  • Honestly, calling out all these dumb little moments is just meant to highlight the fact that, despite what a mess this episode was, I still had fun.
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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.