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Clarice S1E2: Haunted by More Than the “Ghosts of Highway 20”

I don’t know that I will wind up writing every week on the new episodes of Clarice. I don’t want to get caught up in a bunch of recap, and I don’t want to repeat myself too much. That said, so far I can’t shake the need to scream at anyone who will listen that DAMN this show is good, and I want it to succeed, and I want to scream it in all-caps.

Here’s the thing.  The underlying theme of Clarice (carried over from Silence of the Lambs) is that no one wants to look out for women. Clarice Starling is a woman in a man’s world, in a man’s job, primarily hunting men. Never mind that she’s up to the task, never mind that she’s smarter than most of them. She’s worthy, but no one cares. And as I watch the show, tragically haunted by the ghost of its male-led predecessor (and I love that guy too, but the show won’t mention his name and neither will I), I can’t help but feel that what Clarice the show has working against it most isn’t lack of quality, it’s just association, and that’s not its fault. Has a show ever been killed by irony?

I mean, look. There are going to be similarities. I’m glad the showrunners aren’t trying to make this a totally different show just for the sake of being different. Clarice Starling is a law officer. This week’s episode was an FBI standoff against a fringe militia group and a David Koresh type named Lucas Novak (Tim Guinee). Before we even get there, though, the mood is set by Starling doing push-ups (full ones, not modified) while Ardelia (Devyn A. Tyler) throws truth bombs at her. She reminds Starling that the guy Clarice shot in last week’s episode was her first since Buffalo Bill, and Clarice is kidding herself if she doesn’t think that has some effect on her. When Starling wonders if she should forget about this whole VICAP thing where she’s clearly not wanted anyway, Ardelia says that for Starling to bury herself in the basement of Behavioural Science like a “bridge troll” would be a waste of her talent.

Clarice at a desk in a basement office, on the phone

Ardelia is right, of course, and Starling heads off to work. Rebecca Breeds was a perfect casting choice for Clarice Starling, in my opinion. In addition to being terrifically talented, they are using her small stature to great advantage. As with Jodie Foster in the movie, Starling is constantly surrounded by men who tower over her, both literally and metaphorically.

Michael Cudlitz’s Paul Krendler is really beginning to grow on me, and not just in that “love to hate him” kind of way. Canonically speaking, Krendler is always awful, and always someone who butts heads with Starling. Here, he doesn’t want her on his task force for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is that he thinks she’s unstable because of her legitimate PTSD from the Buffalo Bill affair. Which is fair, but that logic could be applied to every lawman who has been through hard stuff. Would he feel this way about a male cop who has had the same experiences?

Is he also threatened by her presence, a woman, and one who is that much younger to boot? This was the first time we began to see some cracks in that veneer, though, and the nuance in Cudlitz’s performance, and I cheered (it is so much more interesting for him to be complicated, instead of just a jerk). The other times we’ve seen Paul Krendler in films, he’s older than Starling, but not by that much, and I never got the idea from the book that there was that much of an age gap in the books. We don’t have Jack Crawford here, or the H-word to be Starling’s other substitute father figures (say what you want, Clarice Starling is definitely a woman with her share of daddy issues). Given time, might Krendler soften up toward her and become a crusty, grouchy, yet kind of affectionate mentor? It could happen. This week was the first time I saw potential for that. By the end of the episode, he’s changed his mind about wanting her off his team, which is definite progress.

When Lucas Novak realizes that Starling is with the FBI team outside his gates, he sends a kid out as an emissary to say that he will negotiate with her, and only her. He recognizes her from TV, and because of his own narcissistic nature, assumes that the men on her team won’t have her back if she comes in alone. Thankfully, he’s wrong about that. As with last week, Agent Esquivel (Lucca De Oliveira) is there when she needs him…and is clearly more than a pretty face and a good shot. He’s also got Starling pegged pretty well when he cuts her off before she can thank him for it. He’s doing her the favour of sparing her having to say it.

When Starling wires up to go in to talk to Novak, her psychological background shows. The male officers all look at her like she’s crazy as she puts on makeup along with the wire, but she knows that a guy like Novak is going to feed off the notion that she prettied herself up for him. I also respect the honesty of this—she’s doing a man’s job, but she’s still a woman, and she’s going to use absolutely everything in her bag of tricks to get the job done, including feminine wiles if need be. So often I hear people suggesting that this kind of thing isn’t feminist, but I disagree. She’s a smart-as-hell woman who is reading the room, and knows how to play it to get what she needs. If it’s demeaning to anyone, I think it’s demeaning to the man who is able to be played that way.

Obviously it’s scary for Starling to put herself into the situation. Esquivel takes her aside before she goes in and tells her that the rest of the team is looking out for her, but I don’t know how much she trusts that (she probably trusts him a little at this point, since he’s got some street cred with her from last time). Seeing the kids in there remind her of her own childhood and siblings (siblings? That’s new on me, I’m looking forward to seeing where they take this), and Novak himself is a piece of work. I love the way they work in subtle things that are Easter eggs for us and PTSD triggers for Clarice. There’s a thing with homemade hand lotion, and we all know what that reminds us of.

Clarice, outside, in her FBI windbreaker

Starling is able to use Novak’s ego against him, but first she has to get him talking. He rattles her cage by saying “Buffalo Bill is a man who breaks my heart, thinking somebody would care for him if he was different.” Because Clarice Starling is absolutely the person you want to flex at that way, to suggest that the guy who skinned women was some sort of victim. I think that’s what’s really about to strengthen her resolve to get this guy. Speaking of Easter eggs, there’s a gorgeous flash to a memory that is direct from one of the books—washing blood out of her father’s hat, her worst memory of childhood (I love how her father’s occupation keeps changing slightly—book-dad was a night watchman, movie-dad a town marshal, and TV-dad a sheriff).

Starling discovers that what’s really going on is not the shooting they were called in for, but a prostitution ring, and that local law enforcement is in on it. She finds evidence in the basement, but it’s not solid enough proof. When she calls Krendler for assistance, he doesn’t want to help. They did what they were called in to do, he says, and they’re done. She asks him to trust her, saying she knows he has no reason to, but she knows she can get Novak to confess to the real crime. This is where we first start to see Krendler the human being. He says “you’re breaking up, I can’t hear you. Use your best judgment, get back here ASAP.” A little while ago, he wouldn’t have wanted to trust her best judgment. I don’t think he’s thrilled about it now, but he does it.

Starling is able to manipulate Novak into confessing and giving up the names of everyone involved. Solid, on tape, no question. She also gets him to believe that she came in without backup,  but no—Esquivel’s a dead shot, and Novak’s a dead duck. Starling later learns from Ruth Martin (Jayne Atkinson) that there probably won’t be much in the way of arrests for the prostitution ring because of the politics involved, and Martin is going to take the win that she can get. Ruth offers her a ride back, but Clarice says “I’ll ride back with my team.”

I might be back to talk about next week’s episode. Like I said, I don’t want to start repeating myself, and even I would get bored with a weekly dose of FOR THE LOVE OF GOD PLEASE GIVE THIS SHOW A CHANCE. But in a world where we are constantly crying out for women to get a fair shake both on and off the screen, CBS has handed us one on a silver platter. Are we really going to ignore this show with a strong female lead, just because we also want another season of the one with the men?

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Written by Cat Smith

Cat Smith is the reigning Miss Nerdstiles, having inherited the crown from absolutely no one, because she made it up. She is an actor, a musician, a cosplayer since before they had a word for it, and a general nuisance (General Nuisance *salute*). She and her ukulele have charmed the collective socks off of LI Who and LI Geek, ReGeneration Who, WHOlanta, Potterverse, Coal Hill Con, Time Eddy, MISTI-Con, Hudson Valley Comic Con, Wicked Faire, SqueeCon, The Way Station, and The Pandorica Restaurant . She has written for "Outside In" and "Why I Geek" (among others), and you can find her music on bandcamp at https://missnerdstiles.bandcamp.com/album/who-riginals. Consider supporting her continuing adventures by becoming a patron at patreon.com/missnerdstiles

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