Thursday, January 16, 2014

Criminal Minds Episode 9.12 “The Black Queen” Review



For years, Criminal Minds has teased us on Technical Analyst Penelope Garcia’s past, not so subtly mentioning that the world’s “hacker extraordinaire” struck a deal with the FBI allowing her to walk for her crimes if she would work for them. It was a novel concept for the FBI at the time, as ever since Behavioral Analysis Unit Chief Aaron “Hotch” Hotchner made Garcia an offer she couldn’t refuse, the FBI recycled the ploy to hire other great investigators, such as Neal Caffrey (White Collar), Raymond “Red” Reddington (The Blacklist) and Patrick Jane (The Mentalist).

It’s an unorthodox method for recruitment, but hey, if it works…

Anyhow, the opening scene hints at why Garcia was picked- Hotchner tells her that many of her online attacks were virtuous in nature, indicating that she had a sense for justice and would be a great fit in the FBI. Garcia, who acted in a cold demeanour meant to portray how she was different back then, defiantly told Hotchner that she’d “think about the offer”, and, upon seeing Derek Morgan, tried to get under his skin by nicknaming him, although Morgan is unmoved.

The scene then cuts to the present day (since we know that Garcia did, in fact, take up the job offer), where someone doing her best Karen Walker impression is leading a seminar in the FBI about appropriate language in the workplace, with highlighted phrases being the same very phrases that Morgan and Garcia use to banter with each other. Uh oh…did someone report our bashful duo? The nerve…

Garcia, as you can predict, is flustered by this turn of events, although Morgan appears rather unmoved. However, before our Karen impersonator can continue her verbal takedown of Garcia, Hotchner rather coldly interrupts her to whisk Garcia away to a case in San Jose, California that only she seems to know about. The Karen impersonator implores Garcia to stick around, but Garcia, only too happy to leave, knows that her job comes first, so Garcia rather meekly joins Hotchner in what our favourite geek assumes will be the longest elevator ride in her career.

Of course, by this point the savvy viewer will think that since the Karen impersonator’s slides seem too specific to Garcia that the person of interest in the team’s latest case was the one who really provided the information to the FBI, and, as we see in the episode, this seems to have been a deliberate choice.

After the usual war room discussion and the plane ride (the team sure sounded bored in flight) we meet Sam Russell (Erik Passoja), who was convicted of murdering prostitutes ten years ago and is again a person of interest when another pair of prostitutes had just been murdered. Russell contends that he had nothing to do with it and was coerced into a confession by the lead detective who played to Russell’s drug abuse by promising him better drugs. Armed with this information, the team confronts said detective about his interrogation method, forcing the detective to admit that he had actually coerced the confession. The detective refuses to help, though, threatening to call his union should he get into further problems.

The sequence wasn’t totally useless, as Russell reveals that Garcia’s old online collective, known as “Star Chamber” (an obvious take on “Anonymous”), has been active online in their attempts to clear his name. They’ve gone so far that they managed to hack into the San Jose Police Department’s system and steal the case file, forcing the team to profile the leader of Star Chamber- Shane Wyeth (Paolo Costanzo)- in order to win the file back.

It’s not an easy task, since Wyeth’s intentions for the case was to draw out Garcia so that he could manipulate her into rejoining his team- it’s why he passed the sexual harassment information on to the FBI in the first place. Garcia, already uncomfortable with the thought of being on the case (with Wyeth’s shenanigans causing her to doubt that her banter with Morgan is appropriate), seems to almost suffer a nervous breakdown at the thought of having to meet with Wyeth. Morgan, though, remained cool and collected throughout the ordeal, reassuring Garcia that Wyeth is merely playing a game and teaches Garcia how to recognize his manipulative tactics. This calms Garcia, who gains the confidence to readopt her old persona in a bid to infiltrate those pesky Stars.

Once she’s in there she sees Wyeth, which causes her to crack a little before she regains her composure. She then starts to playfully seduce Wyeth, leaning in to almost kiss him before being distracted at the last moment by Wyeth’s buddy, Ethan (Jesse Heiman). The portly, unkempt Ethan then receives a surprise when Garcia declares she’s going to kiss him, and reacts with as much glee as you would expect a nerdy computer hacker would get when he receives a kiss from a beautiful woman. After making Ethan’s, um, life, Garcia gets down to discussing business with Wyeth.

This is where Garcia really starts to crack, something that Morgan- listening outside in a truck to the wire implanted on Garcia’s dress- gets frustrated with, since there’s nothing he can do to help. Wyeth, ever the slimy one, confronts Garcia about all that “babygirl” stuff she does with Morgan, revealing, finally, that he planted the information with the Karen impersonator, and proceeds to denigrate her by chastising her for allowing Morgan to “infantalise” her. Garcia, doing her best to keep her cool, tells Wyeth that she’s not sleeping with Morgan although Wyeth- having already gotten inside Garcia’s head- is unfazed by this statement.

Later, back at the police station, you see how unhinged Garcia is by the case, as Morgan has to spend some time soothing Garcia and once again reassure her that Wyeth simply wants to get inside her head. Morgan also tells her that, as a narcissist, Wyeth will eventually overplay his hand by trying to get Garcia to do more work for him- Garcia realizes this is an opportunity for the team to gain valuable information, so she gets excited at the prospect. A few minutes later, we see Wyeth starting a chat with Garcia which eventually does lead to Wyeth overplaying his hand- so Garcia turns the tables on him and makes solving the case into a game- both the BAU and Wyeth will compete to see who can solve the case first, but in order to do that, the BAU needs the case file so that both can start on the same footing. Wyeth falls for the bait, handing over the case files immediately.

Meanwhile, the case gets a new victim when a blonde-haired prostitute is drugged and stabbed like the other victims were. The investigation in her death reveals that she called frequently to a burner cell phone and deactivated her numerous digital messaging accounts except for one account where she received E-Mails from the UnSub. This seemed to be a deliberate action by the UnSub to ensure that he wouldn’t get caught, however, armed with the case files from the previous victims, Jennifer “JJ” Jareau reveals that the person who sent those E-Mails was none other than Russell himself. The proof? Russell had, in his rosary, locks of hair that he took from his victims, evidence needed to prove that he had, in fact, committed the crimes in 2004.

That resolved the storyline of the old murders, but what about the new ones? The team had figured that Russell had a partner, and here the partner is revealed to be John Nichols, who is none other than Wyeth’s right hand man. Nichols, it’s revealed, used Wyeth to deflect the blame from Russell (and maybe perhaps think that Wyeth was the criminal all along) but the team wasn’t fooled, getting to the Stars’ headquarters just in time before Nichols could kill Wyeth by drugging him like he drugged the prostitutes. There are a few moments after Nichols’ arrest where Wyeth lays motionless, not reacting to the drug injections Dr. Spencer Reid gives him, but Garcia- who happened to come along- realizes that Wyeth was just playing a game and got him to wake up when Garcia taunted him by telling him that the BAU had won the competition.

The episode then ends with Garcia and Morgan getting into a SUV and driving back to the police station, but not before Garcia starts telling Morgan a story behind one of her nicknames. Proving that Wyeth was no longer affecting her and that, even though the rest of the FBI seems to think her banter with Morgan was weird, the playfulness she has with Morgan is consensual and fun, she tells Morgan that she’s going to tell him the story in the most sexually charged way that she can, eliciting an appreciative smile from Morgan.

The Good:

-Nice seeing Costanzo, who’s probably best known for being one of the “combatants” in Kraft Dinner’s commercials featuring two roommates feuding over the last bowl of KD. Costanzo also played the role of Wyeth perfectly, being incredibly smooth and easy going with just enough smugness for effect. Too often actors go over the top portraying narcissists, so it’s nice seeing a subdued performance.

-Passoja also did a commendable job as Russell, being very believable in first fooling the audience in believing he was innocent and later in crying once his guilt was revealed.

-Good on the show to create their own online collective instead of simply defaulting to Anonymous. While obviously done for legal reasons, the decision allowed for more creative freedom and is a refreshing change of pace from shows that invoke Anonymous because they’re too lazy to create their own “bad guys” (I’m looking at you The Good Wife)

-Morgan and Garcia were excellent in this episode, as their chemistry really shined. I know there are quite a few fans that are tired of their banter but I always found it playful and consensual, so I never had a problem with it- and this episode was the first in a long while where the two of them actually got to play off one another. Here’s hoping for more in the future.

The Bad:

-Seems to be a recurring element with this show, but why do they need so many characters? It only seemed like Morgan and Garcia really did any work in this episode, with the rest of the characters- notably Hotchner, Reid and JJ- getting token moments of work (moments that could have been condensed into, say, one or two characters). Rossi and Blake were almost totally irrelevant.

-While I like how the show finally addressed the “workplace appropriateness” of the Morgan-Garcia banter, I’m not sure I like how it was framed solely in the context of a case- something like this should have been organic, perhaps actually coming from “Bob from payroll”. I was fine with the resolution of the storyline being at the end of the episode- because I don’t think it’s a storyline that can go beyond more than one episode- but framing it the way the show did made it seem like the banter is irrelevant, when, likely, it wouldn’t be allowed so openly in most workplaces.

-Pacing was very slow, as it seemed like there was about 40 minutes of exposition and maybe three or four minutes of action. The case wasn’t that complicated- the writer, Breen Frazier, really should have gotten to the point.

-Perhaps he wasn’t available, but wouldn’t it have been nice if Kevin Lynch (Nicholas Brendon) had made an appearance? In an episode about hackers and Garcia’s love life, shouldn’t the former love of Garcia’s life have been involved in some way? If nothing else, a “love triangle scene” with Lynch, Morgan, Garcia and Wyeth would have been hilarious.

The Questions:

-Only one thing I was iffy about, and that’s how this episode handled Garcia’s past. This could also qualify as a criticism of the episode, since I didn’t think they revealed enough about Garcia’s hacker past, but I place it here because I realize there’s still an opportunity for the show to expand on it later. I liked learning about Garcia being “The Black Queen” and that she had virtuous motivations behind her attacks, but I would have loved to have known how she got involved with hacking in the first place. Sure, Wyeth was her mentor, but we don’t know if Wyeth was the one that introduced Garcia to this world in the first place. I also wonder, since Wyeth had a sympathetic side to him, could Wyeth eventually become a love interest for Garcia later on in the series?

The Verdict: B

It was more about the “sum of its parts” here than the episode as a whole. The Garcia/Morgan moments were gold, and seeing the hacker world was very interesting. However, too much of the team were ciphers, and the storytelling was incredibly laboured with too many twists and turns. Still, it was a good effort, a nice start to the New Year and makes me anticipate Episode 199 next week- meaning the landmark “200” is not that far away.

-DG

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