This week’s episode of Clarice presents us with a meal and a mystery. From where I’m sitting, both are equally compelling. The first episode of the show that has felt like an organic extension of previous plotlines rather than the introduction or continuation of a procedural-style case of the week, “How Does It Feel to Be So Beautiful” seems to find Clarice finding its footing. I’m hoping it continues down this path indefinitely.
Let’s start with the mystery component. After nearly being killed in the coma ward by rogue doctor Marilyn Felker and her mysterious male associate, Clarice is having trouble recalling the night’s events — or, for that matter, separating them in her mind from what happened to her in the basement of Buffalo Bill, who appears to her in a vision of moths flying en masse out of his open mouth. If only she could recall the face of the man who assaulted her in that medical facility, she could, perhaps, crack the case wide open, but not even the DNA evidence found in her fingernails from when she scratched the man’s hand provides anything conclusive.
Or so it seems. Acting on a hunch, Clarice’s friend Ardelia digs through a hazmat dumpster and retrieves the sample, then has it run through the lab again under a dummy name. This time the results definitively point to the existence of Clarice’s mystery assailant, though his identity is still unknown. What this means in practice is that someone with access and clout actively tampered with the test results, a phenomenon that has plagued the ViCAP team on and off all season long. Someone in the FBI or the Justice Department does not want Clarice and her team to get to the bottom of the whistleblower killings that have been the spine of the series since the premiere.
Ardelia and Clarice’s ViCAP teammates Clark, Esquivel, and Tripaathi agree to keep this information to themselves, not even revealing it to their boss, Paul Krendler, until they have something more solid to go on … and with that, the odds that one of them is the culprit go up substantially. Could it be Clark, the genial, short-sleeved-dress-shirt-wearing veteran of the group, who seems too nice and nebbishy to be true? Could it be Tripaathi, whose experience of losing a wife to cancer has given him a healthy loathing of the medical-industrial complex, but which also might have led him to either deep medical debt or a desire to see experimental treatments clear the kind of clinical-trial hurdles the victims were attempting to expose? Could it be Krendler himself, whose appearance as a far more benign figure here than he is in Thomas Harris’s original novels might be a mere smokescreen? It’s anybody’s game, people!
Except Clarice’s. She’s been placed on administrative leave after her traumatic experience at Felker’s hands, and being Clarice, she’s champing at the bit to head back to the field. The quickest route, it seems, would be through Attorney General Ruth Martin, who’s capable of pulling rank on Krendler or anyone else who wants Starling sidelined. The quid pro quo? Clarice has to come over for dinner with Ruth and her deeply damaged daughter Catherine, whom Clarice rescued from the basement of Buffalo Bill, but who really has never emerged from the darkness.
The dinner itself is a disaster on a sensory level alone. Catherine’s dog Precious (inherited from the late Bill himself), fresh from pissing on the carpet and drapes, barks piercingly from her kennel. Silverware scrapes across the plates. Ruth repeatedly declares that Bea has made a wonderful meal, in a fruitless attempt to shame Catherine into eating it. Eventually Catherine, who has an eating disorder thanks to her experience with Bill (who targeted overweight women), demands her “regular plate” — a tub of yogurt and a plastic spoon. Even then, the sound of popping off the lid, peeling back the protective foil, and dipping the spoon into the gooey yogurt is enough to set anyone’s teeth on edge.
In a way, the sonic assault of the dinner scene is communicating the dissonance under the surface. Before too long, Ruth is berating Catherine for being “in love with the worst thing that ever happened to her,” forcing everyone to live with the “smell” of it (a pointed reference to Precious’s bathroom habits). She unfavorably compares Catherine’s handling of her trauma to Clarice’s, forcing Clarice to point out that of the two of them, only one was a trained FBI agent with a gun.
Catherine retaliates by essentially reading her mother to filth. She says that of all the things in their house, the one thing that truly belongs to her is her story, and her mother used it to advance her career. When Ruth says they all wish the kidnapping had never happened to her, Catherine spits back, “If it had never happened, Mom, you’d still be the junior senator from Tennessee.” “I’m very glad your father is not alive to see this,” Ruth retorts, the kind of statement designed to end conversations in a maximally hurtful manner. Clarice is forced to sit through it all. (After her experience with the Felker twins, I suppose it’s not the worst family event she’s been through that week.)
But Catherine’s gimlet eye for human weakness winds up trained on Clarice, too. She insists, despite Clarice’s protestations, that Starling sat and cried after killing Bill, long enough for Precious to urinate three times down in that well, before actually calling for backup and help. Moreover, Catherine clearly heard Bill’s last words to Clarice — “How does it feel to be so beautiful?” — a phrase that has echoed in Starling’s mind but which she doesn’t actually remember Bill saying. (This is a clever workaround for the fact that this darkly evocative line was present in the book version of The Silence of the Lambs but not the film; since Clarice is the focal character in the movie, it stands to reason that it wouldn’t show us things that she herself doesn’t remember.)
Yet some good comes of this last confrontation. Clarice returns to Dr. Li (Grace Lynn Kung), a hypnotherapist who’s been trying to help her remember the face of the man who brained her with a telephone receiver while she was in the clutches of Nurse Felker in the previous episode. And sure enough, processing her repressed memories of Bill’s basement enables her to see her attacker’s face clearly for the first time. Unfortunately for Clarice, she doesn’t recognize him. Unfortunately for everyone, he turns out to be none other than Krendler’s new divorce attorney, Joe Hudlin (Raoul Bhaneja), himself a divorcé whose experience losing his kids in a breakup led him to volunteer to keep Krendler’s alcoholic wife (who gets so fucked up on a combo of booze and sleeping pills that their son can’t even wake her up) from gaining custody. At least that’s his cover story; surely he’s intervening mostly to keep Krendler and his team under close watch.
Which is what I’ll be keeping Clarice under, if future episodes prove as multifarious and strong as this one. The visuals are there: Perhaps Bill vomiting forth hundreds of death’s-head moths wouldn’t rank in the top 50 weirdest things Hannibal showed us, but amid the relative realism of Clarice, it’s a powerful image. The sound element is there too, from the grating noises of the dinner scene to some memorable stingers in the score created by Fargo composer Jeff Russo.
And character moments large and small make an impact. My favorite is when Clarice makes sure to get the name of the Martins’ servant, since to Clarice she’s an actual person, not some part of the invisible machinery that enhances the lives of the rich and powerful. (Her name is Bea and she’s played by Elizabeth Saunders, if you were wondering.) Even the evil divorce lawyer Joe gets a brief character-building moment, when we see him drinking scotch and pouring Cool Ranch Doritos directly from the bag into his mouth while watching TV — powerful, powerful Divorced Guy energy radiating from his every pore. (Don’t worry, I’m a divorcé myself, we recognize our own.) If Clarice isn’t The Silence of the Lambs or Hannibal yet, well, that’s okay. What it is at the moment is good, and that’s good enough.