Turns out you can go home again. At least that’s the message of “Family Is Freedom,” the semi-ironically titled season — and, apparently, series — finale of Clarice. In its final moments, set to a cover of John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads,” Clarice Starling takes advantage of two weeks’ mandatory R&R by driving her new car out to West Virginia to reunite with the (unseen) mother who gave her away so many years ago. By now, the scales have largely fallen from Clarice’s eyes, and her memories of a lionized father and uncaring mother have been tempered by reality: Her dad was mildly crooked, and her mom’s cries for him to get out were about getting out of the criminal racket he had gotten himself into, not out of the family home. It was, in fact, in the arms of Catherine Martin, the woman she rescued from serial killer Buffalo Bill in The Silence of the Lambs, that Clarice realized she needed to attempt the kind of rapprochement that Catherine and her own mother, Ruth, have since undergone. Is it the surprise phone call from a familiar voice purring, “Hello, Clarice,” that I had hoped would end the season, the result of some secret behind-the-scenes breakthrough? Emphatically not. But it fits, and it fits well.
Which isn’t to say everything goes smoothly getting us there. We pick up where the penultimate episode left off, with Tyson Conway, the son of evil pharmaceutical CEO Nils Hagen, orchestrating Clarice’s abduction by his father’s security goons. Before long, Clarice is whisked away to an animal-testing facility that Hagen uses as his own private rape camp where the young immigrant medical students Conway provides for him are forcibly impregnated and inevitably miscarry or produce stillborn babies, at which point he has them ground up in a rendering machine. (It turns out the entire Reprisol story line, in which Hagen ordered the murders of whistle-blower women who experienced similar birth defects during clinical trials, was a red herring; his own unviable fetuses are the result of a genetic deficiency, not the meds.)
Thanks to some quick thinking — and ethical shortcuts, about which more later — on the part of the ViCAP team and Clarice’s bestie, Ardelia, all the supporting characters show up to save the day. In the meantime, Clarice successfully persuades Conway that his own mother was one of Hagen’s victims, an escapee he had secretly murdered after tracking her and Conway down. The younger man shoots his father, sending him careening into a glass case full of his own pickled fetuses, before turning the gun on himself — something Clarice seems to accept as inevitable and perhaps even eggs on by refusing to paint a rosy picture of his future after everyone learns the truth about what he helped to do. Ardelia and the ViCAP team are luckier: Only Krendler gets shot, non-fatally at that, while the rest of the group leads the surviving victims to safety and indirectly prompts an ethics investigation into all the politicians who accepted campaign contributions from Hagen, Ruth Martin included.
But the trap into which Clarice the show falls, as opposed to the one that snares Clarice the character, is one of its own making. No one held a gun to the heads of creators and co-writers Jenny Lumet and Alex Kurtzman and forced them to include a story beat in which an ex–Special Forces sniper tortures valid and vital information out of a witness during a ticking-time-bomb scenario, a circumstance that remains wholly the province of Hollywood copaganda. The sniper in question, Esquivel, also gets to put his ethically dubious trade to good use by plugging Alastor’s chief security goon/hitman so Clarke and Tripathi can successfully rescue the hostages during their (warrantless) raid. Ah yes, we’ve learned so much after two decades of lionizing America’s reluctant badasses, haven’t we? To be fair, Esquivel rejects Clarke’s subsequent Don’t worry about it, you saved Clarice speech and writes up his own misconduct for his superiors, but a cop with a conscience is almost as fantastical a scenario as anything else the show has concocted.
To the extent that Clarice’s Feds are sort of grandfathered in for an ethical pass because of their roots in one of the greatest horror movies ever made, this is understandable, but it’s not the kind of stuff I would have leaned on so heavily in the end. Indeed, the show’s earlier inclusion of a trans woman character as a sort of carbon offset for how transphobes took the character of Buffalo Bill and ran with him, as well as its inclusion of the Black Coalition story line, in which Ardelia battles the Bureau’s endemic racism (she shit-talks J. Edgar Hoover in this very episode!), demonstrates its willingness to look at the source material’s weak spots with a gimlet eye — an eye I wish it had trained on these 24-esque good-man-with-a-gun plot points.
It’s also a bit hard to countenance the precise nature of Hagen’s reign of terror over his son’s immigrant medical students. The vibrant, appropriately vicious metaphor of a Big Pharma exec personally overseeing the murder of potentially dozens of women instead of simply, say, shoving Oxycontin down the nation’s throats? I can dig it. But the show’s depiction of the locus of his depredations — an animal-testing facility in which beautiful, frightened women are raped and impregnated until they can run into the protective arms of male law-enforcement officers — itself displays an ingrained sexism. It’s a bit like how Mad Max: Fury Road’s rape survivors all look like (and in at least one case were literally portrayed by) supermodels. Like, real forward-thinking there, maaan.
All that being said, I think Clarice’s heart was mostly in the right place — that place being the extraordinary lead performance of Rebecca Breeds as the title character. Her Clarice Starling is a rare thing indeed, a cop character with deep psychological wounds who never once uses them as an excuse to cut moral corners. If anything, they drive her to become more stringent, more empathetic, and more compelling as a protagonist. Whatever problems I had with the show’s denouement don’t outweigh my disappointment that we’re unlikely to see more of it.