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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Clarice stages a showdown between Buffalo Bill's mother and his final victim

Clarice Starling races to stop Catherine Martin in one of the series' better installments

Rebecca Breeds in Clarice
Rebecca Breeds in Clarice
Photo: Brooke Palmer/CBS

Credit where credit’s due: There was some excitement in this installment of Clarice. Threats! Intimidation! Bloodletting! Bingo! Before the title sequence even rolls, we get the tension-building scene of Catherine sitting across from Lila, a.k.a. the mother of Buffalo Bill, followed by Clarice pulling in Ardelia to help her look over the evidence from Bill’s basement, which of course immediately triggers traumatic imagery in the mind of our perpetually flashback-prone hero. And then Catherine confronts Lila on the older woman’s doorstep, the latter slips off, and like that, the daughter of the Attorney General is suddenly wondering if she just murdered somebody. Now, that’s how you start an episode of Clarice.

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“Motherless Child” doesn’t hold up terribly well in hindsight, but in the moment, it delivers the sort of lurid thrills that have too often been unevenly supplied this season. Credit episode director Christopher J. Byrne, whose sure-footed work demonstrates how hazy the line can sometimes be between effective and over-the-top. There’s nothing about the jarring close-up of an ice cube tray being pried apart, or the slow-motion unrolling of a long-boxed-up dress, that isn’t of a piece with similar moments from past episodes, but it all simply works better here, creating a mood of unease and menace. The entirety of the action consists of Catherine Martin confronting and taking prisoner the mother of the man who kidnapped and almost killed her (and Clarice’s eventual peaceful resolution of the situation), but it doesn’t feel drawn-out or clunky. It merely proceeds in efficiently blustery fashion, until the denouement finds Clarice turning Catherine over to the police, and then visiting her shrink, where the FBI agent recovers one more slice of her childhood memories about the tragedy that befell her father. How nice of her to time that flashback to the end of the episode.

Clarice Starling just refuses to learn or grow in even the slightest way, doesn’t she? The situation begins with Ardelia—as usual, the closest the show has to a voice of reason—telling her friend not to go and do the same stupid shit she always does, which is plunge forward without backup or a plan into a potentially deadly scenario. So, naturally Clarice goes and does exactly that, albeit this time with the blessing of Ruth Martin, while Krendler looks on in exasperation. By the time her therapist is calling out how she again fell into the same pattern of unnecessary risk-taking masquerading as wannabe heroism, Clarice is stumbling into new memories of “the best night of my life,” the night her father took her on a treat-laden adventure. These visions reinforce what we’ve been suspecting all along—that some really bad shit went down, and young Clarice saw it all—and serve as a distraction from the daffiness inherent in the details of the standoff with Catherine. It’s the show’s equivalent of the magician’s prestige: Any time Clarice needs to pull attention away from the implausibility of its plotting or uneven characterization of the people onscreen, we get more of Clarice’s flashbacks.

Illustration for article titled Clarice stages a showdown between Buffalo Bill's mother and his final victim
Photo: Brooke Palmer/CBS

Honestly, Catherine Martin has been so inconsistently developed, the seesawing emotional eruptions she exhibits during her confrontation with Lila don’t actually feel as inexplicable as they might have, were she a more fully-rounded character. As a result, the split-second pivot Catherine executes, based on the fact that Lila has the same bottle of lotion that her son employed in his crimes, is only somewhat messy, still close to “both our moms are named Martha?” in its deus ex silliness, but reasonable in the face of the many other heel-turns this character has displayed. Some of her moments still feel more like writerly conceits than actions grounded in believability (Catherine introducing Clarice with a “this is the bitch who killed your son” is an especially glaring “Huh?”), yet overall it was just interesting to watch these three women, all of whom had their lives torn apart by Buffalo Bill, interact.

The scenes with Murray, Esquivel, and Julia in the basement of the bureau were noticeably bland in comparison, and not just because of the awkward attempt at bonding between Murray and Julia. Highlighting how Julia is so used to having to shoulder the burden of others’ ignorance was a good touch, and Jen Richards again nicely plays the combination of exhaustion and irritation at having to always be the objectified topic of curiosity. When it’s revealed that Murray just wanted to know if she used hair dye, because it was close to the shade used by his missing sibling, it plays more like a sad trombone beat than an affecting twist of expectations. And while it’s nice to have Julia slowly come around to helping the team (does anyone seriously think she’s going to turn down Esquivel’s request for one final attempt to assist in their case?), it’s quite a pivot from “I can’t say anything or else the NDAs I signed will rain destruction on my head” to “anything you need, just ask.” If we had spent a bit more time with the character, it might have landed more effectively, but as is, this was a little rushed.

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Illustration for article titled Clarice stages a showdown between Buffalo Bill's mother and his final victim
Photo: Brooke Palmer/CBS

The pieces are slowly starting to come together, even if they’re often little more than confirmations of what we already were led to believe. Yes, Hudlin stood to make millions from the drug trials, giving him a clear motive for engaging in shady dealings. Yes, the ViCAP team almost has proof that the pharmaceutical company went ahead with production of its drug knowing full well there were reasons to shelve it. And yes, there’s still no sign whatsoever of Kal Penn’s Tripathi, because Clarice continues to be a bit of a mess. Still, the season has accumulated enough narrative weight that some forward momentum feels inevitable; even if Catherine Martin is imprisoned for the rest of the season (which seems unlikely), the show can stop mucking about with the character’s start-stop applicability, and focus on diving into the final act of its case against the season’s Big Bad, Joe Hudlin and his nefarious employer, Lockyear. With one dangling plot thread resolved, hopefully the show can build a head of garishly entertaining steam going into the final three episodes.

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Stray observations

  • I don’t know about you, but I was 100% on Lila’s side during every moment of that confrontation with Catherine. Like, yeah, he’s been gone since he was two years old! What the hell is your problem? Catherine’s “I need to blame someone” mindset may be understandable, but it’s awfully misplaced.
  • Similarly, I get that Esquivel is only trying to reassure Julia that she’s doing the right thing, because Alastor Pharmaceuticals was already corrupt when she arrived, but telling her “your house was always on fire” comes across pretty cold. “Sorry you thought you could have a decent life, miss, but not a chance.”
  • Catherine’s not the only member of the Martin family to feel inadequately sketched out. Ruth Martin’s transformations between calculating monster and caring mom have never been particularly nuanced, but as a result, the whole I’m-haunted-by-the-deaths-of-the-cops-Lecter-killed shtick doesn’t ring true in the slightest.
  • Julia asks Clarice why she spends her life tracking the worst men in the world. “Can’t dance.”
  • Clarice again practices bad police work by not handcuffing Catherine the second she drops the gun, and instead… hugging her.
  • How do you think they’re going to comment on Tripathi’s return next week? I’m hoping for something along the lines of, “Boy, traffic was a nightmare for the past three weeks!”
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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.