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Bull - Unambiguous - Review:"Burn her at the Stake"

In its third episode, Bull tries to be timely. It… doesn’t really work.

“Unambiguous” opens with the entire team listening to a podcast by a self-proclaimed citizen journalist (Sarah Steele). Ellen has been hard at work investigating the cold case of a promising sports star killed on a college campus. In an effort to sensationalize the case as much as possible, she accuses a young student of murder. Reese (Celeste Arias) had filed an anonymous report with the college about the victim, Mike, raping her. She bought a gun days before the shooting. It’s easy to see why Ellen would jump on Reese as a suspect and the renewed interest in the case spurs the police to find DNA tying Reese to Mike. Reese is arrested and millions of podcast fans are vindicated.

But the case isn’t as easy as Ellen would have listeners believe. While the entire team is engrossed in the podcast, Bull is looking… quizzical. He goes to interview the alleged murderess and decides that she is not the killer. The team takes the case pro-bono and starts up the mirror jury circus.

As I mentioned, the topicality of the episode doesn’t work. It was obviously meant to spoof Serial, which was a phenomenon about two years ago. When there is such a specific reference point for an episode, including a Sarah Koenig lookalike, it ends up feeling incredibly dated and hollow. Luckily, the writers were able to get past the plot to focus on something a little deeper than a podcast that has swept the nation.

Because, unfortunately, rape on college campuses will never not be topical. By focusing on Reese, the episode delivers powerful emotional moments about helplessness, rage, and grief. As with the pilot in the previous episode, Bull’s relationship with Reese and his support of her ends up being the core of the episode.

Reese is scared. She may originally give off a tough image to Bull when he visits her in jail, but it is clear she is not handling the murder trial and her new notoriety well (who would?). Everything has shut down for her. Even when Cable invites her to see a secret show, Reese can only murmur a “maybe”. She can’t live her life if she is only looking at prison in her future.

Bull and Marissa focus on getting a jury full of people with daughters. They will be the most sympathetic to Reese’s plight. The tricky juror of the week, which seems like it will be an ongoing trope, is an organizer who is slavishly devoted to the podcast’s version of events (he really likes to put things in boxes). Even when Benny, as the defense lawyer, presents appealing alternate explanations of the crime, he refuses to be swayed.

But, as his social media reveals, the guy has a dog and thus has a heart. They just need to appeal to it. Benny offers the victim’s aggressive girlfriend and sketchy, steroid-selling teammate as two new suspects. While he works on the trial, Bull does a little investigative reporting and contacts Ellen.

Through the podcast, Bull writers can continue their themes about identity in a digital world. Cable floods the internet with articles and posts denouncing Ellen’s version of events, but she can’t sway all believers. Instead, Bull figures out how Ellen went from the raw data of her interviews to crafting the narrative to pinpoint Reese as the killer. As he’s finding all the information Ellen filtered out, he is simultaneously crafting his own narrative showing Reese’s innocence. The show doesn’t differentiate between the two. Bull may have purer motives, but both he and Ellen know exactly how to present a story that their listeners will connect with.

Too bad that doesn’t end well for Ellen. After getting thrown in jail to protect her sources, and then being released because she really hates jail, Ellen finds herself at the wrong end of a long drop from her apartment window. Even though any normal person would see that the same killer committed both murders, the prosecutor, Amanda, refuses to drop Reese’s case. This is where Bull has to change the narrative drastically.

He tells Reese she will have to take the stand and asks her to do something surprising. A through-line in the episode has been Bull coaching Reese on how to control her panic attacks. Both he and she know that Amanda will try to trigger one on the stand as supposed evidence of Reese’s guilt. Instead of asking her to hide her panic or ask for a recess, Bull shows her how to work through it. Reese needs to show her vulnerability to the jury, but she also needs to show them how it made her stronger and more capable. As Bull realizes, someone like Reese wouldn’t have killed Mike in blind, violent rage. She wanted him to face justice for what he did. Reese manages to show this to the jury. That, combined with Benny showing them how Ellen manipulated the podcast, is enough to give her her freedom. Reese loves to run, and, as Bull tells her, now she can run whenever she wants, without anything holding her back.

Reese’s story was a great character arc and also hinted at some of the trauma of Bull’s own past. Having him help Reese through her panic by showing her she was not alone was much more effective at communicating backstory than his talk with the juror in the pilot. It makes him feel like a well-rounded character and not just a collection of tics and clich├ęs.

The subplot for the episode was once again about Benny. This time, he is facing his ex-girlfriend, Amanda, in court. We get some more backstory on why Benny left the prosecutor’s office. Even though he had a stellar conviction rate, he felt like he was being forced to prosecute an innocent man. He blew the whistle on it and expected Amanda to walk out with him. She didn’t. Through the episode, Bull helps Amanda realize that sometimes the accused really are innocent and Benny valued his integrity too much to overlook that kind of injustice. It’s not enough to score Benny a date, but enough to get a smile.

Amanda also delivers the news the Mike's coach was involved in the steroid ring and is under investigation for both Mike's and Ellen's deaths.

This was another strong episode with great guest actors, but I wish they would spend a little more time rounding out the team. Cable got a couple of nice moments with Reese, but everyone else still feels like a cardboard cutout and not a real person. Nevertheless, I’m interested to see where the show goes next week!

What did you think of tonight’s episode? Let me know!

About the Author - Laurel Weibezahn
Laurel Weibezahn is a freelance writer. She lives in the Pacific Northwest.
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