In The Silence of the Lambs, close-ups told the story. Clarice Starling was surrounded by men — good ones, bad ones, cannibalistic ones — who would be shown staring straight into the camera when speaking to her. Clarice herself? Usually shot at a greater distance than her male interlocutors, whose faces dominated the entire frame. Her eyes? Just so slightly off-camera, so as not to pierce the audience too directly — that is, as directly as Hannibal Lecter & Co. could do. The only time Clarice’s eyes directly meet our own in the audience is when she’s speaking to her peer — and fellow woman — Ardelia Mapp. And during the hunted-in-the-dark climax, of course, she can’t see anyone at all.
At times, this episode of Clarice trots out this tried-and-true technique. During the therapy sessions that bookend it, Clarice’s therapist (Shawn Doyle) stares straight into the camera, his face filling up the screen. Clarice, by contrast, is made to look smaller, more guarded, less confident. Given how small her therapist makes her feel, how unable to confront her own demons, the technique makes sense. And because of this, her final decision to end therapy with this man (who has leaked some details of their sessions to the brass) and find someone better suited to the job of plumbing the depths of her mind feels genuinely liberating, like we’re finally free from his pitiless gaze.
For the rest of the episode, however, it’s Clarice in command, with another man under the spotlight. That would be Wellig (Kris Holden-Ried), the suspected serial killer — or hired gun — who killed three women and attempted to murder a fourth in the pilot episode. Clarice is attempting to unravel the conspiracy behind the assassinations — even after her superior, Paul Krendler, shot down the theory in the press, and his superior, Attorney General Martin, needs his team to bag a serial killer to prove the value of the project.
For a while, it goes nowhere. Wellig, a trained Marine sniper with an oh-so-charming SS tattoo — it stands for “scout sniper,” but it’s hard to imagine someone getting it tattooed on their arm without thinking “Are we the baddies?” — is a tough customer. He sees right through the good-cop-bad-cop routine as employed by Krendler and Clarice’s teammate Esquivel (Lucca De Oliveira), himself an ex-military sniper. (“I’m Army, so I’m actually a good shot,” he quips.) Since Wellig dumped the bodies of his victims in a river, he’s equally confident that there will be no DNA match to incriminate him. And the reporter he attempted to kill before Clarice apprehended him is so terrified that she eventually flees the hospital where she’s recuperating, taking her ability to connect the dead women to a pharmaceutical trial with her. (Her files still exist, of course, and the FBI could simply retrace her investigation; hopefully the show won’t overlook this.)
For her part, Clarice attempts to appeal to the better angels of Wellig’s nature. The frantic stab wounds, the bite marks — she knows he was ordered to make his murders look like the work of a serial killer rather than a hit man. And thanks to her friend Ardelia (Devyn A. Tyler), she even gets her hands on the exact make and model of the dental equipment used to make the bite marks in the first place. A guy like Wellig lives, and kills, by a code; Clarice knows that if she presses on the serial-killer angle, Wellig will wind up defending himself as a different class of killer. It’s smart work on the part of a woman who’s under an intense spotlight and dealing with the distrust of her superiors.
What neither Wellig nor the VICAP team counted on were additional assassins, deployed to take him out before he can talk. One is a mustachioed lawyer whom Wellig very much did not ask for, having waived his right to an attorney. The other is a fake Baltimore cop, who provides Wellig with a poisoned can of root beer. Wellig dies of the poison just moments before he was poised to give up the number through which he contacted his mysterious paymaster, and Clarice & Co. are back to square one.
The episode ends on a note of personal and professional satisfaction. Krendler gives Clarice credit where it is due for figuring out the conspiracy angle before anyone else did. Clarice fires her confrontational therapist, intrusive thoughts of death’s-head moths be damned. And Attorney General Martin, who spends much of the episode sparring with a congressional oversight committee, gives in and takes her daughter Catherine’s dog Precious, inherited from Buffalo Bill himself, for a walk. It’s not exactly bonding with her deeply damaged daughter, but it’s a start.
And it’s a decent episode, all told, and for all its faults. I’m not sure if the conspiracy story line has legs, or if it’s the kind of story fans of The Silence of the Lambs Cinematic Universe are interested in seeing; if this show doesn’t serve up a new serial killer with a cool nickname and a horrifying M.O. by the end of the season, I’ll eat a census taker’s liver with some fava beans and a nice Chianti. I’m also not wild about recasting Martin and Krendler as Clarice’s surrogate work-mother and work-father.
But that close-up device from Clarice’s therapy sessions, and her surreal visions of those moths, point to a potentially more visually imaginative show than what we’ve seen so far. Clarice’s ability to bulldoze institutional obstacles with her powers of observation is another positive trait for the show. I think that’s the real tension underlying Clarice: Can a show on CBS, a network replete with Good Police catching the bad guys, ever be as interesting as the hugely and deservedly acclaimed film on which it’s based? That a “yes” is even possible at this point has to be counted as a victory. And like Clarice and the VICAP team, you take your W’s when you can.