“There comes a point where staying silent costs more than telling the truth.” Thus spake Murray Clark, the short-sleeved dress-shirt-wearing working stiff of the ViCAP team, the throwback amidst a group that’s meant to be the future of the FBI. He says this to explain the fine art of working a confidential informant, knowing when to turn up the pressure to produce useful information. But he could just as well be talking about this entire episode, titled “Silence Is Purgatory” after a line of dialogue from one of its more memorable conversations. It’s about the dividing line between speaking up and shutting up, and the cost of either alternative.
From a plot perspective, it’s a pretty simple business. Clarice and the rest of her team are continuing to pursue, in secret, the conspiracy behind the so-called River Murders, which are all tied to trials of a drug called Reprisol (Reprisol, reprisal, potato, po-tah-to), which in turn are tied to crooked DC legal eagle Joe Hudlin. For Clarice, this means looking for leads wherever she can, from Tyson Conway (Douglas Smith), the well-meaning son of a Big Pharma exec he barely knows, to Julia Lawson (Jen Richards), the accountant for the pharmaceutical company that’s paying doctors big bucks to continue prescribing the stuff.
In Tyson’s case, connecting with her quarry is easy, as both of them were essentially abandoned by a parent, leaving them feeling like castoffs. But the sotto voce hostility with which Julia’s “roommate,” herself a cancer patient, reacts to Clarice’s name indicates something larger at work in this dynamic. Sure enough, Julia has something to say to Clarice, even after handing over key evidence: She is trans, and Clarice, through the press whirlwind surrounding the end of the Buffalo Bill case, helped make her life a living hell.
Which brings us back to The Silence of the Lambs, the still-controversial masterpiece from which Clarice springs, and the legacy of transphobia that emerged in its wake. People understandably focus on the scene in which the serial killer Buffalo Bill puts on his makeup and tucks in front of the mirror — but that’s not the real Bill, just a self-aggrandizing fantasy. No, the real Bill comes out when he’s taunting Catherine Martin by mocking her screams in the bottom of that well, pulling at his shirt to mimic having breasts in a cruel pantomime of womanhood, one meant to insult and injure. (I mean, in that tucking scene, he is wearing a dead woman’s scalp as a wig.) As both Hannibal Lecter and Clarice herself say in The Silence of the Lambs, Bill isn’t trans. He’s just a dime-a-dozen misogynist, killing women because he hates and resents them, not because he is one himself.
But within the world of Clarice, the discourse around Bill’s crimes is no more nuanced than the one around The Silence of the Lambs was when it came out 30 years ago. Transphobic shitheads are always going to use Bill as a cudgel; given that Clarice is built around Bill much more so than around even Hannibal the Cannibal, it behooves the show to address this head-on. Giving voice to these concerns, hiring a trans actress to play a trans woman in order to articulate them, making the point that the silences (pun almost certainly intended) around Bill and his place in popular culture are as damaging in their own way as an affirmative assertion of his illusory trans-ness would have been — these are worthwhile moves to have made. That they give Hudlin’s sly, sleazy use of Julia’s deadname when saying good night to her some added weight is just a bonus.
From a dramaturgical perspective, the most interesting thing about this subplot is how smoothly the show slots it into an episode that was, almost from top to bottom, about secrets and who is asked to carry their burdens. For Paul Krendler, the secret is allowing himself to fall off the wagon in order to stay in the good graces of his laywer-slash-blackmailer Hudlin, who himself is threatening to out the secret of Paul’s estranged wife Mandy’s own problem drinking. Paul tells Clark rather than his own sponsor; Clark argues that Paul was just looking for an excuse to relapse.
For Clark, the secret is the immigration status of his confidential informant’s boyfriend, which he uses as leverage to wheedle information out of her, much to the chagrin of his fellow agent Esquivel. But this secret comes back to bite him in the form of the dead body of the informant, whose body has been staged to look like a suicide, most likely by Hudlin, the very person against whom she was informing. Clark has been playing with fire, the argument seems to be; it was only a matter of time before someone got burned.
For Esquivel, the secret is his past as a military sniper, which he fears would alienate his girlfriend, who was a paramedic during the worst mass shooting in America up until that time. (It now ranks fifth; USA! USA!) Clarice attempts to reassure him — somewhat naïvely, let’s be honest here — that there’s a difference between a killer and a soldier; Esquivel himself is not so sure. (Full disclosure: Neither am I.)
For Ardelia Mapp, the secret is not just the burden of discrimination that the FBI places on all its Black agents, but the need to use Clarice as a counterexample to make the Black Coalition’s lawsuit against the Bureau stick. Ardelia gives Clarice a heads up at the end of the episode, and Clarice is okay with it. But the lawyer on the case is himself a veteran of a discrimination lawsuit within the Bureau, regarding Latinx agents; despite the suit’s success, the climate that resulted was so hostile that he and most of the other agents involved left the FBI soon after. Hardly an inspiring example.
And for Catherine Martin, who finally emerges from seclusion in her family home only to get re-dumped by the man she’d been seeing when Bill kidnapped her — well, hers is the biggest secret of all: She plans to find and kill Bill’s abusive mother. Will the hunted become the hunter, or will Clarice intervene in time? That the question is engaging at all is a testament to Clarice’s writing, which always seems to be a hair more inventive than it needs to be and a lot more good-hearted than it has to be.