Who is Clarice Starling? Over the course of Clarice’s first season, the show has repeatedly sought to answer that question, through an often seemingly endless parade of flashbacks, fractured memories, heart-to-heart conversations, and a series of dramatic, usually rash actions on the character’s part. And while her behavior tended to leave the distinct impression that this FBI agent is not very good at her job, the soul of Clarice Starling remains dispiritingly vague. She likes to do the right thing, unless it interferes with her me-me-me, go-it-alone mentality; we’re repeatedly (almost exhaustively) told what a brilliant, singular mind she has, yet we’ve seen almost no evidence of that brilliance on display, with other people usually complimenting her after she tosses out some insipid and unenlightening platitude about human psychology. And she’s shown a deep empathy and respect for others, yet will still run roughshod over sensitive situations.
Over the course of the season-long investigation, Starling has steadily combusted into a PTSD-suffering shell of a person, to the point where she had to quit the agency for her own sanity. It was the right move, but it also served as a reminder that she’s far too thinly sketched, both emotionally and narratively, for the audience to have much investment in her. That’s not just because she doesn’t know herself; it’s because the series hasn’t done a very good job of showing it, either.
Luckily, there’s way too much happening in “Family Is Freedom” (an ironic title if ever there was one) to worry too much about the fact that, after 13 episodes, we still don’t have a very good handle on our hero. Within the first couple of minutes, Tyson Conway has kidnapped Clarice and thrown her in a cell alongside the other women he’s taken from his creepy abduct-women-from-war-torn-countries-and-give-them-to-dad plan. (The fight at her apartment was a good one, full of ferocity and some genuinely inspired ass-kicking moves on Clarice’s part.) Her next-door cellmate, Raisa, explains that she was a med student, and all the women here are being impregnated by Nils Hagen, only to miscarry or deliver stillborn children thanks to the genetic disorders he’s passing on. Clarice hears all this, and then, in a truly impressive display of the last horse finally crossing the finish line, puts it together in her mind: “Tyson.” Yes, the guy who just kidnapped you and told you it was for a greater purpose is a villain, Clarice.
Honestly, the bad guys’ big plan unravels so quickly, it’s hard to believe they were able to keep it going for this long. After some hefty monologuing, Nils Hagen and his “I’m a villain!” oxygen machine hand Tyson a gun and tell him to kill Clarice—which, for someone who doesn’t seem like he’s ever done the dirty work himself, is a pretty big ask. All it takes is Clarice pointing out that Hagen is a total creep who knew about Tyson’s situation long before he ever helped out for the son to question the father; then, it’s just a short trip to the room of stillborn nightmares floating in jars where the endgame happens. By the time she’s scornfully taunting Tyson with “you’re basically another one of his jars,” Tyson does the sane thing and shoots his dad. (Hagen killing his own security guard in the middle of the guy trying to help them all escape probably made the choice a little easier, what with the whole “sealing-their-doom” aspect of it.)
All of this lurid bombast was fun! It’s the show attempting some degree of Grand Guignol-level theatricality, and even if it wasn’t totally successful (having to cut back and forth between this silliness and the ViCAP team doing the dour-faced action-movie dramatics was a bit tonally odd), it’s enjoyable to watch play out, the payoff for a long season of fitful narrative starts and stops. We got a definitive conclusion to the River Murders storyline, complete with a TV news broadcast informing us that Nils has been publicly exposed as the killer/rapist/creep he know him to be, and Alastor Pharmaceuticals’ cover-up of Reprisol’s dangers leaves the company officially screwed. But none of that is quite as “closing the book” final as the last scene between Clarice and Tyson, where he asks if it’ll ever be okay. “Serial rape, serial murder; that’s yours to carry, always. Can you live with that?” She may as well hold up a sign that reads, “Kill yourself.” And he does.
The rest of the crew gets a few moments to shine, as well. Esquivel finally unleashes that bottled-up rage he’s been talking about, smashing the hand of an evil Special Forces contact who all but says, “Luke, come to the dark side” when offering the FBI agent a job in private mercenary gigs. (The thing keeping Esquivel reason from signing up? “The constitution.” Again with Clarice calling out private military contractors as an evil, amoral industry!) And while Krendler’s understandably pissed that one of his guys’ actions might muck up the legality of their raid on Hagen’s animal research facility, they’ve got more than enough probable cause to forge on ahead and carry out the rescue mission. It’s a point that’s driven home when a Senator in the pocket of Hagen and Alastor comes to Ruth Martin’s office and threatens her, and her response is basically to give him the finger. The AG does not care for men in power trying to cow her.
And once that rescue mission’s underway, who should again rise to the top of the ranks in terms of impressive displays of badassery but Ardelia Mapp herself. At this point, she’s basically the Superwoman of the show: She’s brilliant, excels at her work, sees things no one else sees, dominates any case she’s involved in, manipulates fraught office politics… and now, we can add “ace sharpshooter and killer of bad guys” to the list. During the raid, she takes down a pair of henchman with an ease with which John Wick would approve. Of course, she does it by tanking her professional standing, via direct disobeying of her boss’ orders to stay out of ViCAP’s actions. Yes, she delivers a sick burn to Hermann when he places her on administrative leave (“you care about the institution… I care about people”), but it seems like it might throw a wrench in her lawsuit. Pity her associate who grit his teeth and accepted being relocated to the middle of nowhere; Ardelia doesn’t quite have his patience for hanging in there and playing the game while the lawsuit plays out.
Still, everyone seems like they’re in a pretty good place after the slow-motion freeing of the imprisoned women. (Okay, Krendler’s lying in the hospital after narrowly avoiding death by bullet, but even he looks in pretty good spirits when he gives Clarice her job back—pending a mandatory two-week leave of absence, of course.) Catherine watches her mother’s press conference about taking down the web of corruption left by Hagen and Alastor with a “get ‘em, mom” smile; Clarice realizes her mom’s sending her away as a child might have been for her own safety, and heads out to pay mom a visit; Clarke, against all logic, has been put in charge of ViCAP while Krendler’s away, and Esquivel decides to accept responsibility for his actions and try to work through his anger issues; in fact, the only one we still don’t know anything about, or see move on in any meaningful way, is poor old Tripathi. (Did Kal Penn lose a bet with the writer’s room? It’s rare to see a major cast member of a network show so consistently and overtly underutilized.)
As the conclusion to the season, this was about as successful an episode as I could’ve imagine the series ending on. That’s not entirely a compliment: Given how weak and uneven most of the previous episodes have been, I honestly just can’t picture the show being capable of anything much better than this. If Clarice is granted a second season, the show might want to consider going back to the drawing board on the way it tells stories. Rebecca Breeds, Michael Cudlitz, and the other actors have been doing fine work, but they’re given such messy character material, it’s a wonder we feel like we know these people at all. Using half-baked, unreliable flashbacks to deepen your lead’s internal persona hasn’t worked, and the “tell, don’t show” style of unveiling everyone’s identities has been a bust. It’s as though the creative team neared the season’s end and suddenly remembered, “Oh, right—this is supposed to be fun,” then got to work inventing Nils Hagen and his cartoonish villainy. Too little, too late; best wishes on a season two, but here’s hoping a sharp left turn occurs, creatively speaking.
Episode grade: B
Season grade: C
- Ardelia’s boss, Hermann, continues to be a caricature of an idiotic and racist FBI old boy: “You people don’t do yourselves any favors with stuff like this.”
- On that note, after a full season of making her the smartest one in the room, it rang a little odd that Ardelia would risk getting fired and ruining the entire lawsuit by working with ViCAP. I get it—she wants to help save her friend—but it was still surprising as written.
- Tyson is genuinely surprised that his father wants to kill Clarice. Dude, have you not been watching what’s been happening?
- Clarice walking into Hagen’s den and being horrified by the grotesque nature of the situation made for a good zinger to Tyson: “You’ve devoted yourself to this?!”
- Hagen’s story about his father making him choose which child would test out the faulty children’s gas mask was so delightfully bananas that I didn’t even mind how little sense it made.
- After an entire season of constantly reminding everyone that, yes, Esquivel was a sniper, he finally puts that skillset to use. Congratulations, Esquivel.
- Appropriate choice of closing music in a cover of “Take Me Home, Country Roads.” Clarice totally strikes me as a John Denver fan.
- That’s a wrap on season one of Clarice, all! Thanks for watching, reading, and commenting along with me; I know it wasn’t always fun (especially in those early episodes, oof), but it turns out the true special task force were the friends we made along the way.