The most powerful tool in Clarice’s arsenal is right there in the title. At this midway point in the show’s debut season, Rebecca Breeds’s lead performance is holding up remarkably well. Never once when I’m watching her do I think, Oh, that’s a Jodie Foster impersonation; I think, Oh, that’s Clarice Starling, and move on. There was never any guarantee that this seamless process would take place, but Breeds brings the right combination of fragility and steel to the role, and her accent is impeccable (especially when you consider her Australian background). With so much riding on this central role, the show would have collapsed almost instantaneously had Breeds not brought so much to the table. She makes it seem seamless, and that’s no small feat.
The second-best thing Clarice has going for it, at least in this episode, is a willingness to buck expectations. This is less of a slam dunk than it looks, however. For example, I’m still not sure I’m sold on the decision to make Clarice and the ViCAP team’s big season-spanning case a conspiracy involving Big Pharma whistle-blowers and not a serial-killer investigation. Though I can understand why the show would want to put some distance between itself and its source material in The Silence of the Lambs, it still feels a bit weird to watch Clarice Starling chase corporate criminals, however murderous they are — like watching Batman go after tax evasion instead of psychotic clowns or whatever. Again, it’s a testament to Breeds’s skill that the story still feels recognizably Clarice-y at all.
But in this episode, zigging where a zag is called for serves the story well. Barely two minutes of screen time elapse between last week’s episode-ending revelation that Paul Krendler’s divorce attorney, Joe Hudlin, is the man who assaulted Clarice in the coma ward a few weeks back and this week’s episode-launching discovery of said secret identity by Clarice right there in Krendler’s office. When she spots Hudlin on the cover of a magazine on Krendler’s desk and IDs him as her assailant, then learns Krendler already knows the guy and has been working with him on his divorce case — well, that’s a few episodes’ worth of delays and stalling and red herrings wiped right off the map, most unexpectedly.
To which I say, good riddance! There’s something uniquely dispiriting about being in the position of knowing more than the characters in your crime-investigation show do about the crime they’re investigating; you half want to jump into the television and take over the job yourself. Clarice saying to hell with it and blowing up Hudlin’s spot almost immediately makes the evil-lawyer story line feel fresh and exciting, not like the show is just playing for time until it can “reveal” something we in the audience already know to be true.
And it doesn’t stop there. It’s not just that Clarice thinks Hudlin is guilty, leading Krendler to disagree on the grounds that it’s just preposterous to think his divorce lawyer has multiple dead bodies to his name — Hudlin straight-up incriminates himself to Krendler by the end of the episode, blackmailing him into calling off Clarice’s investigation into the so-called river murders for which he is responsible under the threat of releasing the damaging information on Krendler’s estranged wife (for whom he still cares and who at any rate remains the mother of his children) should he fail to play ball. And if he plays along, he’s certainly got a determined attorney in his corner for the custody case!
With that, Krendler starts acting sketchier. He dutifully quashes the whistle-blower investigation and gaslights Clarice with the idea that her positive ID of Hudlin as her attacker is the result of trauma and coming back to work too soon after the incident. Suddenly, he’s less of the stern but relatively straight-and-narrow character he’s been and more like … well, like the guy who gets his brain eaten in the Silence sequel Hannibal, in which he plays Clarice’s nemesis, not her semi-supportive supervisor. I’m curious to see how far Clarice will take this newly adversarial relationship and if Krendler will begin actively sabotaging Starling instead of merely contradicting her. (If so, he may have to undermine the whole team, since Tripaathi snaps dozens of photos showing Hudlin strolling into the offices of the pharmaceutical company responsible for the ill-fated clinical trials to begin with.)
The case-of-the-week is a pretty good one this outing, too. The ViCAP team are called in to investigate the murder of a missing boy, found positioned in a womblike alcove in a wall. Thanks to Ardelia — who’s still debating whether to risk rocking the boat as part of the FBI’s nascent “Black Coalition” or play it safe and “change the system from within” — the team connects this case to that of a murdered Black child years earlier, found under similar circumstances. The culprit is the adult son of a neighboring woman whom she’s been passing off as her husband for years, since her real husband abandoned the family; he killed the boys in a misguided attempt to save them from the same ruinous, incestuous fate.
The case is the right mixture of lurid and tragic for a show like Clarice. It also provides the show with an opportunity to reveal the sad backstories of a pair of supporting characters. Clark, the short-sleeved throwback of the team, has spent his life and career searching for a sister who was abducted many years before, with rumors of her involvement in pornography his only lead (hence his stash of stroke mags; creepy, but I guess you go where the investigation takes you). Ardelia, meanwhile, divulges that a cop beat her father into a coma when she was a child during a labor dispute — a telling contrast with the origin story of her best friend, Clarice, whose father was a cop. The two swap stories of their beloved but misfortune-shrouded old men while lying drunkenly in bed together after a meal with Ardelia’s chef grandmother, lending additional intimacy to the revelations.
Is it perfect television? No, not by any stretch. It strains credulity, for example, that Hudlin would call his FBI agent client at work to blackmail him over a government line. Elsewhere, Clarice keeps grilling the incestuous mother about the location of her son even though she already knows the truth, leading to a scene that’s a bit too close to the “Is this your homework, Larry?” confrontation from The Big Lebowski for comfort. And not to toot my own investigative horn, but I knew the son/husband was the killer the moment I laid eyes on him — and of the four people interviewed by Clarice and Ardelia in that scene, he was conspicuously the only one not to volunteer his DNA, in case you hadn’t cracked it already.
But the show gives you enough little moments of inspiration to mitigate the damage of these lapses — the mother of the latest victim grasping for Clarice’s hand when she sees her son’s body, for example, or a prolonged period of silence during which Clarice and Ardelia just lie in bed, looking into each other’s eyes, until their beepers break that silence and end the moment. For a show that has straddled the line between “good but not great” and “bad but not terrible,” such moments really matter.