Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Clarice goes to dinner with the memory of Buffalo Bill

Rebecca Breeds as Clarice Starling in Clarice
Rebecca Breeds as Clarice Starling in Clarice
Photo: Brooke Palmer/ABC

We’ve got a face and a name to go with our mysterious middleman, now. After an unknown gentleman visited Clarice during her time as a prisoner of Dr. Felker last week, our protagonist decides to use hypnosis to get herself mentally back in the events as they unfolded, and with a little help, she can see the man who was apparently responsible for Felker and the clinical trials (or at least the guy the people in charge send to deal with problems like this). Clarice may not recognize him, but we do: He’s the new divorce lawyer for Paul Krendler, her boss. Suddenly, it’s very clear why this lawyer is so eager to take Krendler as a client; he has a vested interest in far more than just the VIPAC leader’s crumbling marriage.

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Is it too much to ask to simply want this series to be a little smarter? It’s not just that Clarice consistently makes bad decisions while the show paints her as this cunning and brilliant mind; it’s that Clarice still doesn’t seem to understand that it’s not half as smart as it thinks it is, and expects us to be impressed with its substandard level of plotting and characterization. It looks good, and it mostly hits all the expected beats of a procedural that’s been leavened generously with a serialized element drawn straight from the Silence Of The Lambs source material, but shows like that need a baseline consistency of either playing to the top of their intelligence, or not treating its characters like rarefied intellects when there’s no evidence to suggest they are. Nobody’s expecting this thing to be Hannibal, but it should be clever enough to execute basic CBS procedural elements without continually pulling the viewer out of the story by trying to insist that it’s something which it very clearly is not—namely, smart.

To wit: Clarice says to Ruth Martin that she was appointed to the VICAP team because it helped Martin personally, which, no shit; even the Senator who was publicly grilling Ruth in the second episode pointed that out. But here, Ruth cocks an impressed eye at Clarice and says, “You’re pretty savvy for a country girl.” This is the kind of clunky nonsense that Clarice tries to pull off every week, and all it ever does is highlight just how untrue it feels when someone’s impressed by the character’s baseline competency. When Krendler’s asked about his wife, he says with cool understatement, “She’s not her best self, presently.” He could just as well be talking about Clarice. If she’s not even self-aware enough to notice that putting on two different shoes should be a tire fire of a warning sign that she’s not even fit to run errands, let alone go back to work, it’s awfully hard to get on board with the idea that she’s capable of much else.

Illustration for article titled Clarice goes to dinner with the memory of Buffalo Bill
Photo: Brooke Palmer/CBS

Plotwise, this episode is simple as can be. Clarice tries to do an end run around her being benched for two weeks by Krendler after her imprisonment and torture by Felker last episode (seriously, Clarice, get a clue), by going to Ruth Martin, who pressures her into a dinner with daughter Catherine in exchange for potential reinstatement. It goes terribly, with Clarice seeing how damaged Catherine really is from her ordeal, and making some connections with the FBI agent’s own inability to really process what happened, as well. The specter of Buffalo Bill becomes the invisible fourth presence at the dinner table, even though only two of them can really recognize that. The other big highlight was how poorly Ruth has handled her daughter’s situation—honestly, this episode really rewrites the Attorney General to be a careerist monster who has always sacrificed her daughter’s well-being on the alter of her personal advancement. (There’s a few mild attempts to balance the scales by letting Ruth express her own sadness and frustration at Catherine’s behavior, but it’s pretty clear how the show views her.) In the end, Clarice decides no reinstatement is worth being used as a tool to try and manipulate a traumatized woman. If anything, she ends the episode worse off than she began it, the Attorney General no longer any sort of ally.

Meanwhile, Ardelia goes and does some illegal stuff of her own. (Quite the flexible moral compass, there, given how hard she came down on Clarice two episodes ago for trying to flout the rules. Again, this show alters personalities based on plot, instead of the other way around.) Suspicious of the lack of DNA evidence, she hauls the sample out of the trash and runs the test herself (sure, that’s a thing), which is how she learns someone fabricated the results of Clarice’s initial test. Whoever messed with the hired killer’s autopsy has apparently done the same to prevent proof that Clarice was telling the truth; Murray and the team decide to keep it under wraps until they know more, which is one of the only smart moves someone makes this episode. Congratulations, Murray, you’re the MVP this week, even if by default.

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Illustration for article titled Clarice goes to dinner with the memory of Buffalo Bill
Photo: Brooke Palmer/CBS

Really, what “How Does It Feel To Be So Beautiful” does is spend a lot of time trying to deliver character studies of its largely one-dimensional supporting cast. Kal Penn finally gets to talk for more than a line or two, delivering a lengthy monologue about the tragedy of his wife’s slow demise that’s genuinely affecting. Less potent but still effective is Krendler’s trip home to make sure his wife isn’t dead, a scene that gets a lot of mileage from just showing how freaked out his teenage son is by the weight of responsibility to his younger sister, given his mom’s life-and-death scare. And Catherine gets more nuance as well, funneling her resentment at her mother and fear stemming from her trauma (her failed attempt to leave the apartment conveys that all too well) creating a more complicated picture of this woman who doesn’t feel at home anywhere.

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Despite its weaknesses, this felt like a tentative step in the right direction for Clarice. It still struggles with consistency, and there was a lot of rushed introductions (having Krendler meet his divorce lawyer only to reveal him as the bad guy twenty minutes later is some whip-pan turnaround), but at least the whole thing was baseline engaging, cutting to the chase while still leaving time for some character development. With a little luck, the series will continue to learn from its early mistakes, even if it hasn’t even realized what some of those errors are, yet.

Stray observations

  • Seriously, at this point, Clarice needs an intervention. The two different shoes thing? We are past the point of a two-week pause; unless she gets better at hiding what a disaster she is, psychologically speaking, the show’s going to have to really confront her trauma, or at least start showing how it weakens her ability to do her job in a meaningful way, as opposed to just tossing in some flashbacks here and there.
  • Clarice noticing Precious peeing on the floor in the dining room was a nice little detail.
  • Catherine delivers the most cutting line to her mom, after Ruth says she just wished the Buffalo Bill kidnapping had never happened: “If it had never ever happened, mom? You’d still be the junior senator from Tennessee.” Burn.
  • Maybe I’m just hypnosis-ignorant, but I didn’t think people under hypnosis were able to continue having normal conversations in real time while they’re simultaneously reliving their memories? Regardless, it seemed odd.
  • I do like the idea that all this time, Clarice thought she handled the Bill situation coolly and professionally, never realizing she had crumbled emotionally and left Catherine thinking she might be dead. That ending finally starts to give heft and form to all the free-associative flashback stuff.
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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.