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Criminal Minds - Killer App - Review: “Trigger”

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If I had to sum up this episode in one word, it would be “sobering”.

Initially, this episode was supposed to air the week “Blue Angel” aired. The real life tragedy that was the mass shooting in Vegas, however, understandably forced this episode, which dealt with a mass shooting, to be pushed back. A wise and respectful decision on the network’s part, given the nature of this case, though, honestly, at the same time, I don’t know that airing the episode at a later date would’ve really made it any easier to watch. There were a lot of traumatizing images throughout, after all, and considering the mass shooting in this episode was committed with a drone, of all things, that’s...not exactly a scenario we need to consider right now. Just seems way too plausible for anyone’s comfort level at this point.

Those notable concerns aside, however, I will say that despite the chilling nature of this case, it was a legitimately good episode. I was wary upon seeing the title, because, c’mon, “Killer App”? Sounded like the premise for a super cheesy story. But luckily, this episode managed to take what could’ve been a ridiculous premise and used it to highlight some rather important topics. Ethics were a big part of the case, but there was also some good exploration of how to deal, or not deal, with personal trauma, and even a bit of interesting and subtle commentary on some of the issues that can lead people to commit this kind of atrocious violence in the first place. The case also provided a few good twists, just as “Blue Angel” did, and gave us a list of potential suspects that were all over the moral spectrum, which fit well with the issues raised throughout.

Because this episode was initially supposed to be the third one of the season, we also get some proper closure on the Mr. Scratch case, and that brings its own interesting issues for a couple members of the team along the way. Always good when an episode can give us a lot to think about and discuss, so let’s get into this.

The Case:

Things start off pretty innocently, as they often do on this show. A couple guys are finishing up their break at their Silicon Valley video game workplace (which is named Ori-Gamey. Cute, show) – and said break apparently includes the opportunity to play various games, which, hello, sign me up for that kind of job. They get to chatting about other various lighthearted topics, crack a few cheesy jokes, la dee dah, all is good.

Then comes the gunfire. Chaos ensues as everyone runs to take cover, and while most people manage to spare themselves by finding good hiding places, some aren’t so lucky, and we get to see people getting shot and dying right before our eyes. It’s a very unflinching, terrifying scene, and reaffirms my earlier point that an episode like this would likely always feel “too soon” in light of current events.

Back at Quantico, Emily gets wind of the shooting via Homeland Security, and the rest of the team learns about it via watching the news in the bullpen. Since the situation’s still unfolding, they’re not sure yet whether it’s a terror-related shooting spree or a lone wolf scenario, but as they make their way towards Silicon Valley, they take stock of the few concrete details they do have. If there is one upside to this tragic event, it’s that the death toll is fairly low – three people killed. That’s three too many, but considering the nature of the shooting, the fact the number isn’t higher is rather remarkable. The scene’s also been secured and there’s no active shooter on the grounds, which is another small piece of good news.

The team then decides to try and see if the victims can give them some insight into the shooter’s motives, and it doesn’t take long to come up with a possible theory. The three people killed were all men. One of them was a security guard named Douglas, the other two were named Rafael and Zach. They were all different nationalities, and Rafael was a Muslim immigrating to this country. Sounds like grounds for a potential hate crime. There’s no recorded footage of the shooting, because the cameras jammed, but the team hopes that perhaps the witnesses can give them some idea of just how it all went down.

Those hopes are quickly dashed, however, as the witnesses only further muddle things. Some claimed they saw or heard the shooter, only for it to turn out to be another co-worker running for cover or shouting something, and others were in other parts of the building, limiting the amount of things they saw and heard as well. The confusion isn’t surprising, of course – a chaotic scene like this is bound to lead to conflicting reports, and the team knows full well that witness testimony is rarely ever reliable. The fact the traumatized survivors are still standing right in the middle of the freaking crime scene itself probably doesn’t help with their ability to focus, either. Still, it also means the team isn’t as far ahead as they’d hoped to be.

The local agents are equally as mystified by the situation, particularly how easy it was for the security guard to be taken out. Given his level of experience, he should’ve been able to nab the shooter right away, but the shooter was somehow sneaky enough to get the upper hand and shoot him first. The unsub was quite accurate in general, actually – there were bullets flying everywhere, and yet only three people were hit directly...and from a notable distance at that. Could one shooter really be responsible for that? Could there be more shooters involved?

The team takes this opportunity to start trying to work through the potential list of motives, their first choice being one of the most obvious: the disgruntled employee. And wouldn’t ya know, there just happened to be a man named Hugh who was recently let go from the company, and who retaliated by posting nasty, and racist, comments online. What’s more, he was seen on the premises around the time of the shooting. JJ and Matt manage to track this guy as he’s driving around town, but Hugh immediately gives chase. This is an especially bad move considering his young daughter is in the car with him. Luckily, JJ, Matt, and the local police manage to box him in and hold him at bay before he can do any real damage.

Despite his questionable behavior since his firing, Hugh is visibly nervous and insists that he’s not the shooter, nor does he have any idea who the shooter is. He’s telling the truth, so there’s that motive crossed off the list. The team’s going to have to move faster to figure out what’s going on, though, because sadly, there’s yet another mass shooting at a workplace that night. Just like with the first shooting, we never see the unsub; instead, we get more images of people being shot at and collapsing to the floor. Because we really needed to see more of that.

This latest shooting killed four people, all of whom had been working the night shift. Initially, the team wonders if maybe they’re all connected on that level, but that’s a dead end, too, as they never worked the same shifts and only occasionally worked together. The team does get to cross two other motives off their list now, however – three of the four victims were white, and there doesn’t seem to be any religious motivation for the shootings, which seems to rule out hate crimes and terrorism as possible options.

That strange level of accuracy comes into play once again, though – and what’s weirder is that the unsub didn’t shoot from inside the building. Rather, they were apparently shooting from a window above where the victims sat. That’s when Reid hits on what’s really going on here. It’s not a human being shooting these people. Not directly, anyway. It’s an armed drone. And that drone is being controlled by the killer, who’s safely sitting somewhere else entirely and observing from a distance. So now we’ve got a whole new issue to worry about: mass shootings via drones. Thanks, CM!

The drone also explains all the confusion with the witness statements and why nobody could accurately describe the shooter. With this newfound revelation, the team seems re-energized. Garcia works on getting pictures of the drone via a nearby traffic camera, while the team continues to figure out what connects the victims. All they know thus far is that with the exception of Douglas, all the other victims worked in the video game industry. So they do a little more digging, and that’s when things start getting especially interesting. Turns out that none of the victims were employed between February and July of 2016.

Things get even more curious when we encounter our next victim, Tori. She’s in her car talking to somebody about the shootings, and judging from her conversation, they seem to have an especially personal impact on her. Sounds suspicious, but before we can find out just why she’s so affected by them, her car gets shot up. She thankfully manages to survive that particular near death experience, but her ordeal is far from over, as she’s immediately taken captive by the guy that looks to be our main unsub. His name is Jake, and what’s more, he seems to be blaming Tori for his becoming a killer. Between that and her odd conversation, looks like it’s time to figure out what’s up with her.

Further investigation gives us some potential insight, both into Tori and Jake’s anger towards her. Tori works for a private military consulting firm called Peakstone. They’re contractors who provide the military with drone operators for overseas operations. Luke recalled working with those contractors during his days in Afghanistan, but he speaks of them in wary tones, implying they’re a “different breed” of people. Even the local officers seem nervous about dealing with them in order to help solve these shootings.

Peakstone was working on a drone project as a means of helping with the staffing and resourcing issues within the U.S. military. Given this was a tech-heavy project, they needed the help of coders. And they hired those February 2016. So it turns out our seven victims were employed at that time, just not with the businesses they were working at when they died.

Jake was hired by Peakstone at that time as well, but not as a coder. Rather, since he was well-versed in playing first-person shooter games, the company wanted him to be a test pilot for the drone product to make sure it worked well and would appeal to other gamers as well. They dressed this whole project up in grand patriotic “serving your country and keeping us safe” fervor, to make it even more appealing. For the next few months, Jake participated in fifteen military missions for the company, all of which proved very successful.

Here’s the problem, though: war isn’t a video game. These were real people being killed in these missions. Between that and the fact that the people who worked at the company, as well as the actual soldiers, were quite blasé in their attitudes about killing people (they referred to it as “cutting the grass”, and called the victims “fun-sized terrorists”. Charming), needless to say, this “job” soon took quite the mental and emotional toll on Jake.

Unfortunately, things only got worse that following July, when one of Jake’s missions went horribly awry. Initially Jake believed he’d hit an insurgent camp, but the truth turned out to be significantly more horrifying. Due to either bad intel or a malfunction in the software, what Jake had actually wound up bombing wasn’t a camp, but an elementary school. 372 innocent children died as a result of that bombing. Those “fun-sized terrorists” Jake’s co-workers were talking about were the children themselves. Yikes.

Peakstone rightly ended the project after the tragedy, but that’s the only smart move they made in the aftermath. When Emily demands to speak to the higher ups upon learning about this whole debacle, she learns, to her horror, that not only did they cover up the bombing (can’t get that sweet, sweet government contract otherwise, after all!), but they also sent a letter to Jake in which they “thanked” him for his service, and then proceeded to give him the full statistics on the bombing, including the body counts. Because that’s not frighteningly sadistic at all. The company claimed it was because they wanted their workers to get the full story on their missions, as opposed to what the media would share, but even then, that’s enough to mess with somebody’s head. Once Jake realized the full extent of what he’d done, he snapped, and decided to take out the people who helped design such an effed-up project in the first place.

“Not everyone has the self-awareness to make that decision.”

To add insult to injury, the head of Peakstone, known only as “Mr. X” (talk about your appropriate villain names, huh?), doesn’t seem at all fazed over messing up Jake’s life like this. Emily calls his company’s behavior out in a glorious display of righteous anger during her meeting with him, but X clearly refuses to take any responsibility, because, as he notes, people like Jake knew going in that they’d get those letters. And they didn’t have to open them if they couldn’t deal with reading the statistics. Yeah, this guy’s a real piece of work. So now not only is the team trying to find Jake, but they’re also determined to punish Peakstone for their own crimes.

On the plus side, they do soon find Jake, but on the minus side, he’s already dead by the time they find him. Tori had shot at him before escaping, but she didn’t actually kill him. Somebody else related to Peakstone used covert means to kill him. Talk about your ironic twists. Peakstone claimed yet another victim. If there’s one upside in this whole crazy mess, though, it’s getting to see everyone else at Peakstone being investigated and taken down. Hearing Emily tell Mr. X that he was under arrest, and seeing them slap the cuffs on him, was beyond satisfying.

And despite Tori’s attempts to play the innocent victim, it’s soon revealed that she was the one who tried to put a public face on the company’s attempts to cover up the school bombing. Somebody from Peakstone attempts to kill her at the hospital to keep her from spilling the beans even further, but he gets stopped by the team, and he, along with Tori, are taken into custody for their role in the coverup. Tori manages to strike a deal with prosecutors and get a lighter sentence, but the others look like they’ll be in prison for a while. None of this helps heal the wounds Jake and the people at Peakstone inflicted, though.

As noted, my biggest issue with this episode was the disturbingly realistic nature of the shootings themselves, as I feel leaving things to our imagination might’ve worked better. Even if recent events in Vegas hadn’t happened, those sorts of stories are still far too memorable in recent years to where it might work better to keep the violence on the tame side. The mention of the elementary school made the case even more poignant – yeah, the one in this episode was because of a bombing instead of a shooting, but still, the two crimes being as entwined as they were, well, it was hard not to immediately think of the real world similarities.

Tough as this case was to watch, however, I also think it was probably the best one thus far this season. Jake proved to be a truly sympathetic unsub, which is saying something, considering the nature of his crimes. He was a young man who got in way over his head and was manipulated to become a killer. We didn’t learn anything about his life pre-Peakstone, so perhaps he’d had violent tendencies well beforehand. But even if that were the case, the fact that he showed clear remorse and horror over the violence he committed via Peakstone implies he could’ve had a chance at controlling and taming those violent urges had he found a much better outlet, and it’s a shame he never got that chance.

Despite her shady nature, I also couldn’t help but feel a bit for Tori, as it seemed she was being manipulated to some degree as well. The attempt on her own life while she was laid up in the hospital room spoke to that suspicion. Problem is, where Jake felt remorse, she seemed to be leaning more towards turning just as cold as the higher ups at Peakstone were, hence why it made it harder to fully empathize with her. As the episode went on, her shifty nature became more and more obvious, but in this case, I think that knowledge worked to the advantage of the story, as it had me wondering just how deep her involvement in this coverup was, as well as how far she’d go to protect herself and the company.

And then of course, there’s Peakstone itself. I thought the commentary on the moral and ethical issues that come with the use of drones, as well as the various ways the military operates nowadays, was an incredibly powerful touch and kept me absorbed in the case. One could argue that perhaps Mr. X came off a little too “Hollywood villain” in some respects, but in this case, I felt he worked as a balance to the more sympathetic Jake and Tori with her shades of gray. I also liked how the case was layered without being overcomplicated and crowded, and felt the layers and twists heightened the general feelings of helplessness and paranoia that ran throughout the episode.

The war/video game aspects made for a good debate as well. I appreciated Garcia making a point of reminding people that playing violent video games didn’t automatically make a person violent. At the same time, I also liked how the show demonstrated that the more realistic violence in media becomes, the harder it can be for people to tell fiction from reality, and how easy it can be to treat everything like a game. Mind, that’s kind of an ironic point for this show to make, especially given the realistic nature of the shootings here, but still, it’s a valid critique in and of itself. Normally this show’s shied away from the more political aspects of these sorts of cases, but I think the subtle commentary worked well here, and wouldn’t mind seeing them go that route again in the future if and when possible.

On a more personal level, I also liked how the episode touched on the comparisons and connections this case brought up for the BAU. The nod to Luke’s time in Afghanistan was a nice touch, and gave us a further bit of insight into that time in his life, a time that I hope the show properly explores in depth down the line. And I especially liked Emily comparing how Peakstone handled PTSD issues to how the BAU handled PTSD (or rather, PTSS, as it’s now known) issues. The comparison fit well into the continuing theme of the team trying to move past everything with Mr. Scratch, and it also highlighted how the team’s managed to deal with all the other trauma they’ve experienced, both on the job and personally, throughout the years. Emily’s protectiveness and disgust with politics came through loud and clear in her anger at Peakstone’s actions, and her passionate appeal to the morality of the situation…well, let’s just say Hotch would’ve been proud.

The mention of the team’s struggle to move on from Scratch wasn’t just lip service, either. We got another glimpse into the aftermath of that case this episode, this time via Emily and Luke. Let’s see how they’re learning to deal with this particular situation.

Meanwhile, back at Quantico:

“I was a little light on the details.”

Before the case consumes everyone’s day, Emily has other rather pressing business to attend to, business which involves Luke specifically. Upon calling him into her office, Emily starts questioning him about the details of his report from the night Mr. Scratch died. Apparently, Luke hasn’t been completely open about how his encounter with Scratch played out, and she’s giving him the opportunity to share the details.

To recap, Scratch was trying to escape the team, who’d descended on the warehouse where he’d been holding Emily captive. He wound up in a shootout with Luke, and that eventually led to Scratch attempting to escape via the warehouse roof, only to slip and wind up dangling off the side. Luke saw Scratch dangling, and had debated whether or not to pull him back. He ultimately held back, letting Scratch fall to his death. Luke relates these details to Emily, and she accepts he’s telling the truth.

It’s clear, however, that Luke’s still wrestling a bit with the fact that he let Scratch fall. Yes, Scratch was a vile criminal, but it’s easy to still feel some level of guilt over letting somebody die. Besides that, Scratch never had to answer for his crimes, and that’s equally as frustrating. Emily reminds Luke that he was merely following protocol. After all, she notes, if he had tried to pull Scratch back up, they both would’ve fallen to their deaths. In her view, Luke did the right thing. With that reassurance, Luke properly fills out his report, and later that night, he stops by to bring Emily’s office again to bring her some food, which they then proceed to enjoy as she finishes up her mountain of paperwork. A nice, quiet end to an intense, upsetting episode.

I always appreciate it when the show allows us a glimpse into a part of these cases that we don’t get to see explored all that often. Hotch struggled with his report on Mr. Scratch after his attack a few years back, so it seems appropriate that that theme would continue on here. We know the team does a lot of reports for their cases, but it’s always interesting to see how they deal with writing up details of what happened on a case that was particularly personal for them, or for a fellow teammate.

And I like that we got to peek in on Luke’s issues with this case. We haven’t really explored how he handles difficult, personal cases yet, so this was a good chance to touch on that, and I felt it gave us some interesting insight into him as a character. Given his reticence about everything surrounding Scratch’s death, I find myself wondering if that case brought up painful memories of some kind of similar scenario from his days in Afghanistan. It’s especially fitting that he debated over helping Scratch because it ties well into the contrast between his overall gentle, kind personality and his darker, more ruthless side (the way he confronted Shaw when visiting Reid in prison last season).

The whole segment with Luke also has me wondering if we’re going to get an episode centering on how each individual team member is handling the aftermath of Scratch this season. Obviously I hope the show doesn’t just stick to one episode of exploration for each individual team member and call it a day – I want this to be a general theme throughout the season. But I’m all for specific focus where possible on how each team member is coping and/or struggling in their own ways, too.

Perhaps the best part of the segment with Luke, though, was his end scene with Emily, simply because, after such a dark, unsettling case and all this talk of Mr. Scratch, a relatively light and happy ending was sorely welcome. Emily and Luke have had a nice little rapport of sorts thus far, and I enjoyed him offering to keep her company and the two of them sharing a meal. It’s a lovely sign of their deepening friendship, as well as proof of how quickly Luke’s managed to make himself at home with this team over time.

As fun as it is to see these new friendships, though, the old ones still hold a special place for many fans. Luckily, we get a chance to see some of the latter in the next episode with the return of a special guest: Derek Morgan! Yes, he’s popping in once again, and while his reasons for showing up are once again unpleasant in nature, it’ll still be great to see him all the same. The team could certainly use a familiar, kind face right now.

What did you think of the episode? Did the delay make it easier to watch, or did it still hit too close to home? Did the layered nature of the case work for you? Do you feel Jake deserved sympathy? Did Luke’s storyline prove satisfactory, or were you wanting a little more? Share your thoughts in the comments!

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