Alright, a show of hands, please: Who expected Clarice to kick off an episode by dropping the needle on C+C Music Factory’s “Gonna Make You Sweat (Everybody Dance Now)”? Nobody, huh? Oh wait, you in the back — ah, I see, just stretching. Never mind.
Anyway, yes, Clarice began tonight with one of the biggest and silliest hits of the ’90s, using it to soundtrack a coma ward. As sick jokes go, it’s a pretty good one. And as Clarice episodes go, this is a pretty good one, too. At times tense, at other times bizarre, and always anchored by Rebecca Breeds’s thoughtful and restrained portrayal of the title character, this is the best hour of Clarice yet.
It’s also one of the most unpleasant, if medical stuff freaks you out. The props department must have bought syringes by the truckload to accommodate the many attacks on Clarice by the deranged doctor Marilyn Felker. (At one point Clarice hallucinates being trapped in Buffalo Bill’s well, with its dirt floor littered with needles, so they probably did buy them in bulk.) Marilyn has been posing as her twin sister Luann, while the real deal lies in a nearby bed, able to see and hear but unable to move a muscle. As Clarice gradually uncovers during the conversations she has with Marilyn — in her few moments of lucidity between getting dosed with drugs — this is a reversal of the sisterly dynamic that existed in the women’s youth. Back then it was Marilyn who was paralyzed by a clinical drug trial that may or may not be related to the one people have been getting killed over all season long, while Luann took care of her.
Or not, as the case may be. Clarice susses out that young Marilyn was neglected by her parents and sister while she was paralyzed; paralyzing her sister in turn was a means of revenge as well as a way to hide her identity from investigators into the conspiracy. It’s not the best plan I’ve ever heard, since surely somebody would eventually notice that the coma ward was populated in part by identical twins. But it turns out that Marilyn/Luann has been stalling for time, waiting for her co-conspirator — whom Clarice only sees from behind, preventing her from identifying him — to spirit both her and her paralyzed sister out of the country.
Clarice spends part of the episode intubated and unable to talk. She spends another part of the episode getting repeatedly electrocuted by defibrillators in attempt to make her talk. (Not that she has any real intel to give up, to Marilyn’s frustration.) For much of the rest of it, she’s hallucinating scenes from her childhood (her late father, letters she wrote to him and then burned after his death, a beloved horse, the attempt to rescue a lamb from the slaughter that gave The Silence of the Lambs its title) or from Buffalo Bill’s basement (including his dying words, “What’s it like to be so beautiful?”, which were present in Thomas Harris’s original novel but not in Jonathan Demme’s classic adaptation). When she is able to get a word in, she attempts to warn Marilyn that the mysterious “they” behind the clinical-trial cover-up murders will eventually dump her, because “they always dump the girls.” She actually laughs after she delivers this dark truth, making it even more disturbing to hear.
Indeed, her conversations with the killer doctor — at times structured like the quid pro quo relationship Clarice had with He Who Is Not to Be Named — are full of chilling gold along those lines. When Marilyn starts running down the case histories of the other patients in the room in order to crow about taking care of them when they’ve been abandoned by their families, Clarice notices a blackly comedic detail about their names: “I’m sorry — did you alphabetize these people?” Indeed she did, not that it stops her from killing one of the patients in a further attempt to make Clarice talk. Later, after one of her hallucinations about the lambs, Clarice offers a theory of why Marilyn, who was neglected herself, has chosen this line of work: “Sometimes remembering old wounds can feel like a warm bath.” Childhood trauma, a demanding career with life-and-death stakes: Clarice and Marilyn actually have a lot in common. There’s an understanding there, at least when they’re not trying to kill each other. I’ve gotta say, portraying a maniacal doctor in the Hannibal Lecter Cinematic Universe is a pretty steep climb, but writer Tess Leibowitz makes every conversation count.
But there is one big difference between Clarice and Marilyn: Clarice has friends. (Only a truly lonely woman, Clarice points out, would keep chatting with an FBI agent she plans to execute.) With guidance from her old roommate Ardelia, who puts their recent fight aside to help find Clarice, the ViCAP team assembles and tracks Starling down at the hospital. By that point Clarice is on the verge of getting the hell out of there, thanks to a maneuver I’m pretty sure isn’t in any Bureau guidebooks: She injects Luann with a lethal dose of meds, forcing Marilyn to save her sister’s life rather than stop Clarice from escaping. Kind of sketchy, but it beats the planned alternative, which is Marilyn dumping her in the facility’s incinerator.
In the end, Ardelia and Krendler (who, in a surprisingly compelling side plot, is planning a divorce with his wife despite their persistent attraction to one another) get the jump on Marilyn. Krendler saves Luann while Ardelia tries to get Marilyn to drop her lethal needles; instead, she plunges them into her own neck, dying of outright suicide rather than suicide by cop.
Thus concludes this stage of the investigation into the so-called River Murders. I assume there will be hell to pay for Clarice, who once again went off investigating on her own and fell into the clutches of a killer without having told any of her colleagues where she was going or what she was doing. “Alone is safe for her,” Ardelia tells the ViCAP boys — safe in a psychological sense perhaps, but physically it’s a pretty damn dangerous state for someone in Clarice’s line of work, and two women are dead because of Clarice’s actions. It’s a conundrum: Her investigative instincts are brilliant, but her risky propensity for going solo threatens to undo much of the good she’s otherwise capable of doing. I’m glad the show crafted this compelling little horror story to emphasize this central conflict. Here’s hoping they keep on turning the screws until something snaps.