Last week, Clarice Starling uncovered a series of murders targeting whistleblowers. For now, at least, that case is off the docket. Instead, she and the rest of the FBI’s VICAP team are off to Tennessee, where local and federal law enforcement are in a tense standoff at a heavily armed militia compound. The confrontation, which began when an unknown member of the group opened fire on an ATF agent, threatens to become “another Waco”—something Attorney General Martin, a Tennessee native, wants to avoid at all costs. There’s dingy local color, there’s flashbacks to Clarice’s Appalachian childhood, and there’s a bunch of generic cop-show stuff that raises some uncomfortable questions about what, exactly, we’re doing here.
For starters, why is Clarice tagging along on this mission, considering the insubordinate way she went off-script and described the whistleblower killings as coordinated and targeted rather than the work of a serial killer last week? Her boss, Agent Krendler, has in fact already requested her transfer off the VICAP team as a result. “The only reason you’re here,” he says to her, “is I don’t trust you out of my sight.” That creaking sound you hear? That’s the writers strrrrrrrrrrretching to keep Clarice at the center of the action despite behavior that ought to sideline her. Not a good sign, this early in the series!
Be that as it may, Clarice winds up taking a leading role in the negotiations after she bumps into a young boy who’s snuck out of the compound. He alerts the leader of the group, a scruffy sweater-wearing fella named Novak (Tim Guinee), to Clarice’s presence; Novak then insists he will negotiate with no one but her. So much for Krendler keeping an eye on her.
So into the compound she goes, wearing a wire in her hair clip. She and Novak bond somewhat over their shared Appalachian upbringing—much is made about this being Clarice’s first return to the region where she grew up in many years. He anoints her dry hands with oil that I would have bet money was laced with drugs, a bet I would have lost. It seems to be going pretty well.
When Clarice excuses herself to the bathroom to pull herself together after he brings up painful memories of her brother—who apparently never made it out of their small town—Novak, who spies on her through a one-way mirror, opts to escalate the confrontation. An exchange of gunfire with the agents surrounding the compound ensues, and the local sheriff is brought in to complete the negotiations. A suspect is duly given up to law enforcement, though she’s only a patsy.
Meanwhile, Clarice takes advantage of the confusion to snoop around the compound. She runs into the boy again, and realizes he was the shooter; pulling the trigger was a cry for help. She also discovers a hidden passage through which Novak can spy on and record the doings of his militia members—specifically the women, whom he chains up and pimps out. The sheriff and many other local worthies are either on Novak’s payroll or johns for his sex trafficking ring.
Clarice being Clarice, she manages to get Novak to admit to all this on the wire. When he realizes what’s up, he nearly kills her, but Clarice drops down out of the way so her sniper teammate Esquivel can kill the militia leader before he can kill Clarice. Another bad guy busted for good.
Yet politics snatches defeat from the jaws of victory. Rather than throw the book at the crooked sheriff, Attorney General Martin makes a deal with him: He can spend the next few months firing dirty and abusive cops before resigning himself, or she can blow up his spot and ruin him right then and there. So his direct involvement in Novak’s sex-slavery operation goes more or less unpunished. “Welcome to the world, Clarice,” says Martin.
Groan, says I. Is this what Clarice is going to be? An idealistic agent, solving cases against the odds but butting heads with the personalities and politics of the system and the higher-ups who enforce it? Kind of a snooze, right?
More to the point, couldn’t you tell this story using any agent or cop? Appalachian roots aside, there’s nothing inherently Clarice-y about this kind of storytelling, other than whatever pathos you can mine from a character with whom we’re already familiar versus starting from scratch. Contrast this episode with any given episode of Hannibal: That show depended utterly on its iterations of Hannibal Lecter and the profiler Will Graham to tell the stories it wanted to tell. You couldn’t plop any random cop in Graham’s place, or any random killer in Hannibal’s. They were unique, and so were the stories told with them.
I’ll give this to the episode, at least: Novak was a less one-dimensional villain than he could have been. Oh sure, he winds up ranting and raving about how the sheriff is his “bitch” and gets himself popped while accosting Clarice—so far, so standard. But there’s genuine understanding when he talks to Clarice about Buffalo Bill, lamenting that he thought “somebody would care for him if he was different.” Similarly, when Clarice tells a story about a mean-spirited soda jerk from her youth and wonders “why he chose to be around kids” if he was so spiteful and abusive, Novak replies “Maybe that’s why he chose to be around kids.” Perhaps it’s because he’s a victimizer himself that he can provide such insights into other victimizers, but whatever the case, it’s sharp writing.
I just wish there were more of it. We’re still in the very early going of this show, and it may just be getting its sea legs under it before it takes off. Or it may have started as it means to go on, and all we’re getting is a killer-of-the-week show with some Silence of the Lambs typefaces slapped on top of it for the credits. Which is it? That’s a mystery not even Clarice could solve quite yet.