Good news, Fannibals: Tonight’s episode of Clarice gets a little gross! All right, so it’s only a little gross. But still! Hearing surgical devices cut and pry open the corpse of Wellig, the poisoned hitman from the previous episode; watching the blood pool on the mortician’s table; seeing Wellig’s dead head whip back and forth inanimately as the coroner does his work — it’s not the YBA-style serial-killer installation art of Bryan Fuller’s Hannibal, but it’s something.
It’s also a promise of gruesomeness to come that the rest of the episode pointedly opts not to deliver. This is a straightforward hour of television focused on how Clarice Starling’s VICAP team responds to an internal investigation of Wellig’s death on their watch (seriously, the phrase “on our watch” or “on your watch” has got to come up a half-dozen times) while also attempting to sneak in a further investigation into the identity of his assassins and the conspiracy that ties them together. It’s a bit bland, even, at least until its gonzo ending. (More on that later.)
Much of the fallout from Wellig’s death in VICAP custody (he was killed by a fake Baltimore cop while the team was distracted by an equally fake defense attorney) comes down to an old grudge between team leader Paul Krendler and his Quantico classmate Special Agent Tony Herman (David Hewlett). According to Clarice’s teammate Esquivel, Herman is “white-boy mafia” — no fan, as a rule, of people like Esquivel and Tripathi and Starling taking up space in this white man’s game.
This angle runs parallel to an arc involving Clarice’s old roommate — and, as Clarice can’t quite bring herself to say, her only friend — Agent Ardelia Mapp. As a Black woman, Ardelia is all too familiar with the multiple layers of glass ceiling holding her back. When Herman taps her to help investigate VICAP, she has no illusions about her new boss, who throws her into the mix mostly to rattle Starling. But she also chafes at Clarice’s overfamiliarity, which threatens to compromise the investigation. The opportunities that have fallen into Clarice’s lap time and again have failed to materialize for her friend, who’s mostly on desk duty. Can’t Clarice see that?
Not really, no — her eyes are always on the next prize, the way only someone with a serious and uninterrogated hero complex can be. With help from Tripathi, Clarice finds the name of a doctor, Marilyn Felker, who was involved in the clinical trial that ties together all of Wellig’s victims. Felker’s in the wind, but Clarice manages to uncover that her medical license was revoked in at least one state and that she has a sister, Luanne (Natalie Brown), who’s also in the medical profession, caring for comatose patients while her sister tried to be a “pioneer.”
But something doesn’t sit right with Clarice about the ease with which the team finds incriminating evidence in Felker’s home. Sure enough, the ticket to Rio she bought was never used. It’s a frame-up. And when Clarice returns to Luanne’s medical facility, she finds none other than Marilyn, eyes staring blankly from her hospital bed. She’s attempting to communicate with the woman when sister Luanne gets the drop on her, jabbing her in the neck with a syringe and ending the episode on a cliffhanger. Oh, Clarice. Will you never learn?
If there’s a pleasant surprise to be found in Clarice, it’s the unexpectedly complicated relationship between the title character and her boss-cum-rival, Krendler. In this episode, Clarice vents, both rightly and righteously, about constantly being told to trust this or that person, Krendler included, when her own instincts proved right regarding both Buffalo Bill and the conspiratorial nature of the river killings while others’ proved wrong.
But elsewhere in the episode, Tripathi argues that Krendler’s priority is to protect his agents; unlike Clarice’s old (and unnamed — damn those rights issues!) boss, Jack Crawford, Krendler never would have tossed her at “the cannibal” as a trainee. This instinct is what leads Krendler to illegally doctor the FBI visitor logs to make it look as if he, rather than Esquivel, signed in Wellig’s assassins. And when someone doctors the coroner’s report to make it look as if Wellig died of natural causes, thus clearing VICAP of any mistakes or misconduct and bringing an end to Herman’s investigation, Krendler’s a natural suspect, though it doesn’t seem like he did the job in this case.
And as the unfortunate incident with Luanne and her big needle indicates, Krendler might even have been right to reprimand Clarice for rushing into Bill’s basement of horrors without first calling for backup, convinced as she was that only she could stop him from killing again and only if she acted right away. If you’ve ever watched Ridley Scott’s Hannibal or read the Thomas Harris book it’s based on, you know how unpleasant that version of Krendler — the one who gets his brain eaten by Lecter while he’s still alive — could get. This Krendler seems like a very different animal.
Still, as Clarice is waylaid by yet another killer whom only she seems able to detect and stop, it’s hard to ignore the show’s liabilities as a narrative. The Silence of the Lambs works because Clarice investigates only one case and has only one brush with death. In Clarice, she’s already had three near-death experiences in four episodes total. This is standard cop-show shit, for sure, but don’t you want your Silence spinoff to be more than standard cop-show shit? If, multiple times a season, Starling’s going to come within a hair’s breadth of being killed before the killer gets thwarted, its painstaking realism will become a liability right quick. Hannibal could get away with Will Graham & Co. bagging killer after killer because it was pointedly disinterested in realism from the start. Clarice has no such ambition and no such luxury.