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Criminal Minds - To A Better Place - Review: “Inner Struggle”

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After a season premiere that kicked things off in a fast-paced, action-packed manner, this week marks a dramatic shift in tone, as the show’s decided to completely return to basics. No evil masterminds on the horizon, no team members in peril, just a typical ol’ “team gets a case and solves it” episode.

That’s not to say we’re entirely free of any references to all the team’s recently been through. The six week break they were all ordered to take at the end of “Wheels Up” is addressed, along with Reid’s emotional struggles and the nature of his reinstatement. Even then, though, those topics are touched upon in a fairly lightweight, surface manner. Anyone dropping into this episode without having seen the season premiere would have no clue that Emily had recently been tortured, or a team member had died. A return to basics after a streak of high stakes drama is always good and even necessary, but that doesn’t mean a show should play down or ignore the effects of the dramatic storylines. The fact that this week’s case wasn’t exactly unique didn’t really help matters, either.

Even with those issues, though, there were still some good elements to the episode, and it is only the second one of the season at that. There’s plenty of time to continue to further explore some of the issues touched upon (or not touched upon) in this episode, and what we did get did a nice job of continuing to set up potentially interesting moments and storylines for the season. And after a premiere as intense “Wheels Up”, any episode that follows it is likely to seem a little dull by comparison.

As always, time to jump in and discuss this week’s episode – let’s see what all went down, and how our favorite team is faring.

The Case:

Feels a bit odd getting back into the “introduce us to the potential victims” opening scene, doesn’t it? We didn’t have a whole lot of that last season, after all, and certainly didn’t have it in “Wheels Up”. But we do have it here, and as always, things start on a fairly innocuous note, as we see two bikers chatting it up while taking a break from riding around. Their conversation is quickly interrupted, however, when one of them hears some sort of strange buzzing sound nearby. The men immediately go to investigate, only to be hit with an overwhelmingly nasty smell of some kind. And it doesn’t take us long to find out what’s causing that smell, either, as we see a suitcase with flies buzzing around it...and part of somebody’s face sticking out through an unzipped portion of the bag. Boy, I do not envy the people who have to look through that suitcase.

“Maybe her dining partner suddenly acquired an appetite for something else.”

Soon after, Garcia informs the team, and us, of the details of the bikers’ unfortunate discovery. The body of a young woman, Ann Baker, was discovered in the suitcase. Mercifully, she wasn’t chopped up; rather, the unsub just folded her body up as best they could to fit it in. Lovely. When investigators checked out her home, they observed what looked to be preparations for a romantic dinner...and traces of blood on the floor of the place. Which is odd, since there was no signs of forced struggle or a break in.

Unfortunately, Ann isn’t the only woman this has happened to, either, as another suitcase with a woman’s body inside was discovered two weeks prior. They’ve yet to identify that woman, but her situation seems fairly similar to that of Ann’s, up to and including the dinner in the apartment and the traces of blood. And as the team prepares to fly down to Florida (it’s always Florida that gets these kinds of cases), we see yet another suitcase dripping blood.

On the jet, the team learns a little more about Ann – despite the seemingly romantic dinner being prepared, she was revealed to be single. She was also well-liked, active on social media, and worked as a volunteer at a palliative care center. There’s no info on where the luggage was brought, but the team thinks that the luggage was meant to be symbolic of “sending a lover packing”.

Upon arriving in Naples, JJ and Rossi go to the morgue to get more information on the women. They learn that all the women apparently died in similar fashion, having been asphyxiated, but there’s a few notable differences among them, too. There were defensive wounds found on a woman named Laura, and she was also in nothing but her underwear at the time. There was also spermicide present, so unless the unsub had staged things, which didn’t appear to be the case, there was consensual sex, or plans for it, which would fit with the whole “romantic dinner” setup that’s been found in the women’s homes.

Things get especially weird, though, when it’s revealed that the women had lipstick smeared across their faces. JJ and Matt later discover that it doesn’t match the sort of lipstick the women regularly wear, so it must be something the unsub brings with them, which is...creepy. To make matters even stranger, Reid discovers that the type of lipstick (Midnight Surprise, ooh, la, la) the unsub uses hasn’t been sold in nearly thirty years, because a carcinogen used in the making of that lipstick was banned. Therefore, this unsub’s either old enough to remember that time period, thus putting him somewhere in his twenties, and he’s targeting women who remind him of a woman he knew back then.

“A Ted Bundy for the emo generation.”

That methodology changes slightly, however, when a fourth victim is added to the list, a woman named Holly. Her body was left in her home instead of stuffed in a suitcase, and he sexually assaulted her, as he didn’t have the time to court her the way he did the other women. She was also killed by blunt force instead of strangulation, because of the rapid nature of the attack. And the Jane Doe, who we soon learn was the first victim and is named Patty, didn’t have the whole “romantic dinner” setup in her home, and very few of the typical means of connecting with the unsub that the other women had.

She does have lots of kitchenware, though, which initially sounds odd for a woman who lives alone and has few family and friends. But that discovery eventually leads the team to notice a notable similarity among three of the four women. They all either worked in or visited healthcare and counseling places. Laura was struggling with the recent loss of a friend, Ann, as noted, was a volunteer at a hospital, and Patty was an unofficial caterer for hospitals and support groups. Aha. This leads the team to conclude that the unsub has a thing for “Florence Nightingale” types, and feigns pain to lure them in, since they’d feel a need to want to help and take care of him, or bond over shared suffering.

And indeed, as we meet our unsub, that theory seems to pan out. During a day off from his job at a local coffee shop, he stops in to chat with a co-worker named Helen. He flirts with her a little, but the conversation turns serious as they bond over losing family members. Having satisfactorily connected with Helen, the guy heads home, eager to tell his grandma all about this woman who’s stolen his heart.

There’s just one not-so-little problem: Grandma isn’t real. Yes, it becomes quickly clear that she’d died some time ago, and this guy evidently hasn’t accepted, or is conveniently ignoring, that fact. The messy nature of the house further indicates just how far gone he is in regards to his delusions and his grief. To make matters worse, this vision of his grandma paints her as a deeply unpleasant woman. She’s mistrustful of any woman he meets, calling them all whores and going on and on about how no woman could ever love him and how they’ll all eventually leave him. I would say it’s a good thing such a hateful woman is gone, but since her nasty attitude has burned itself into his brain and messed him up, well, that clearly hasn’t solved the problem, has it?

It doesn’t take us long to figure out why our unsub (whose name is revealed to be Billy) or his grandma have such a warped view of women, either. Seems when Billy was just a kid, his mom Ruth up and left the family. Her husband had walked out when Billy was just a baby, and Ruth was then subjected to a life of verbal and physical abuse from her own mother, Edith. Edith’s bitterness, meanwhile, was the result of her own husband, Joseph, abandoning her and running off with a nurse who’d looked after him during an illness years prior. She figured that if she had to suffer, so did everyone around her. Edith’s cruelty affected Billy early on – he started struggling with psychiatric problems, and at the tender age of eight, attempted suicide, which, damn. Ruth also developed a drug habit along the way to cope with her sorry excuse for a mother’s nasty behavior, so, yeah. Not exactly your portrait of a happy family here.

Thing is, as Reid looks up information on Ruth, she doesn’t read as the sort of woman who would’ve abandoned her son. She kept up with his medical care, kept him fed and clothed, made sure he was being taken care of financially, even sent him to summer camp at one point. Turns out Ruth had eventually finally had enough of the abuse, and decided to get her life together. She began going to rehab and worked on a plan that would get her and Billy out of their abusive home for good, allowing them to stay with a friend named Susan, and even went so far as to send some of their belongings out so that Susan could hold them for safekeeping. The plan were working, too! Ruth was very close to making it all a reality.

Then she mysteriously disappeared, and Billy was left in the care of his horrid grandmother. Any attempts Edith made to try and keep her son’s mental issues at bay only seemed to work for a short while, as the older Billy got, the more he too began to struggle even further with trying to keep his violent urges in check. Clearly, he failed.

Since four women have already been victims of Billy’s violent rage, naturally, we’re all fearing what this means for Helen, and to absolutely nobody’s surprise, she winds up being his next victim. He asks her out under the pretense of a date, only to suggest taking her home to meet his grandma in a way that had me yelling at her to get the hell out of his car. Once she agrees, he lures her into his home and once she sees his grandma isn’t there and asks to leave, he proceeds to hold her captive. She watches in horror as he talks to nobody, and he taunts her by echoing all his grandma’s nasty attitudes about women.

He doesn’t get very far, however, as the team arrives at his apartment shortly after, with Reid leading the charge into the room. An already tense situation is made even more so with Reid’s presence, for reasons I’ll discuss a little ways below, and Billy’s menacing stance towards Reid just adds to the nervous atmosphere. Luckily, though, Billy soon surrenders peacefully, and Helen is saved. Whew.

Later, on the jet, we learn why Billy targeted the first four women. Remember how Ann was a volunteer at a hospital? Turns out she was the nurse assigned to care for Edith shortly before her death. Patty was also connected to Edith, having catered her memorial service. And after Edith’s death, Billy had attended a grief support group, and that’s where he met Laura.

As for Holly? She had no connections to Billy or his family. She was simply a tragic case of “wrong place, wrong time”.

And what became of Billy’s mom, Ruth? Well, apparently, just as she was about to leave with Billy, she and Edith got into a horrible fight, and Edith struck her in the head, killing her. She then buried Ruth’s body in the backyard. Billy, who was six at the time, witnessed the murder, and was so traumatized that he suppressed the memory, thus allowing Edith to make him believe his mom simply hated him and didn’t want him anymore. Seriously, what a depressing story.

It was also a pretty predictable story, unfortunately, with elements we’ve seen numerous times before in other episodes. We had the guy hallucinating and talking to somebody who’s not really there, check (“With Friends Like These”, “Normal”, “Protection”). An unsub trying to recreate some aspect of a woman they once knew, check (“Cold Comfort”, “Inner Beauty”). Bodies being encased in something, check (“Inner Beauty”). An unsub with an abusive and unstable home life? Way too many examples to list.

To be fair, those tropes and similarities come with the territory on a show like this. As Luke pointed out at the end of the episode, no matter how out there unsubs may get, the motives and methods they use are as old as time. Using similar themes and crimes is to be expected after a while. The problem is that it makes it that much harder to make those stories feel all that fresh and surprising thirteen seasons in. We knew right away who our unsub was, we knew the moment he met Helen at the coffee shop that she’d soon be one of his victims, and we knew the team would get there in time. For those viewers who like to sit and solve the cases alongside the team, and enjoy the guessing game element of the investigation, that predictability can zap away some of the enjoyment of watching.

Perhaps it could’ve been a little more interesting if Billy had injured himself or attempted suicide in order to try and fight his murderous urges as Reid tried to take him down. It could’ve added a little difficulty to the feelings of uncertainty Reid was dealing with throughout the episode, and added a little more sympathy for Billy. Maybe Helen could’ve escaped Billy and hid out somewhere in the house, upping the tension as he tried to look for her. Or she could’ve run away and ran into a team member along the way, alerting them to his presence. Perhaps we could’ve seen Billy trying to dump one of his suitcases only to run into some obstacles along the way. Just a few suggestions of some minor things that could’ve upped the stakes a bit and kept us a little more engrossed in the story.

I also wonder if it would’ve been better if Helen’s friend, who kept encouraging her to ask Billy out, was actually suspicious of him instead. We could’ve gotten a better idea of why Billy’s act worked on some women and not others, and it would’ve also saved us a lot of awkward-sounding conversation between Helen and her friend. Hearing her try and tell her friend to date Billy just felt flat, because we already knew from the get-go that Billy was a bad guy. If they were going to go with her supporting the idea of them dating, those moments of encouragement would’ve worked much better if we’d been just as fooled by Billy as Helen was.

None of this is to say the case wasn’t a total bust, mind. The more we learned about Billy’s horribly sad childhood, the easier it was to sympathize with him. The hallucination of Edith was kinda creepy, as was watching Billy talk to nobody. And I was interested in the connections many of Billy’s victims had to him and his family. Sure, it was all very coincidental, but I think it also did well to explain why he targeted those women. Sometimes the scariest killers can be those who you know, after all.

Ultimately, though, my interest this week was mostly focused on how the team was doing in the aftermath of the season premiere’s events, and thankfully, despite a few missed opportunities and quibbles, that side of things still managed to be pretty interesting overall. So just how is everyone faring after their six week break from the job?

Meanwhile, back at Quantico:

Rossi may have made some calls and pulled some strings last episode to get Reid back into his FBI vest and working with the team, but that doesn’t mean all is completely back to normal. When we first see Reid this episode, initially one could be forgiven for believing he’s getting all renegade on a case.

But no. As we soon learn, it turns out he’s simply out doing his reinstatement training. Notably, his ability to shoot a gun and hit his target. And if the way he blows out the head and chest portions of his last target is any indication, he’s incredibly focused and determined. We also see him shooting a clown target at one point, which is an odd detail, but that strange moment aside, if his teacher’s comments are anything to go by, his retraining is going well. Woohoo!

“You’ve had a lifetime’s worth of trauma packed into the last six months.”

Before Reid can properly celebrate, though, he has to meet with with an Agent Lawerence. Lawerence has been meeting with him of late, talking to Reid about his progress with his PTSS and being briefed on his chances at official reinstatement. Now he’s able to make a proper decision regarding Reid’s future with the team. The good news? Reid has officially been reinstated. Yay!

The bad news? There’s a condition to that reinstatement, a condition which we learn about later on in the episode, during a brief chat between Reid and Emily. For every one hundred days Reid works in the field, he has to take thirty days off. There’s a valid reason for that – Lawrence tells Reid a story about another agent who went through similar stress years prior. He’d gone through his reinstatement training and was able to return to work...only to crack a few months into his return, and nearly cost other agents their lives in the process. Naturally, the FBI would like very much to avoid a repeat of that sort of incident, hence the time off.

“I know you, Spencer. The limb isn’t gonna break.”

And yet, for somebody who’s worked as hard and as long at this job as Reid has, being ordered to take any time off is a bit defeating. Luckily, Emily informs Reid that she’s managed to find something to keep him occupied during that time off – she’s arranged for him to teach seminars about any topic he wants to other agents. Reid is pleased with that arrangement, but he still feels a little unsettled in general. Despite his frustration at being made to take time off, he can also understand it, because he’s still very shaken up by his thirst to kill Scratch. Reid still can't help seeing this unusually violent urge of his as proof of how his time in prison changed him, potentially for the worse.

Emily does her best to reassure him, admitting that she was just as hellbent on wanting to kill Scratch as he was. I imagine if she were to poll the rest of the team, they’d all have said the same thing. Even Garcia would’ve agreed. She also reminds Reid that she went to bat for him when it came to discussion of reinstatement, and assures him that she trusts his judgment in the field.

“I can’t put my finger on it, but it kinda feels like something’s changed.”

Fortunately, her words seem to have a positive effect, as Reid admits on the plane ride home that while he feels different after all he’s been through, it seems to be in a much more positive way. He seems more open to things, less afraid, more confident. He’s not even as bugged about germs anymore! Obviously, this doesn’t mean he’s magically all better, but it’s certainly a step in the right direction.

In non-Reid related topics, we also learn that Emily binge-watched “The Amazing Race” during those six weeks off, and just as the team celebrates Reid’s official return, they also get to celebrate Matt officially joining the team. He’d been holding down the fort while everyone was taking their mandated leave, handling all the files and adjusting to a new schedule, one which seems to work much better for family time.

I thought all the Reid stuff this episode was well-handled in general. Seeing him doing his retraining at the start brought back echos of him learning how to fire a gun in “L.D.S.K.”, and it was a great example of how far he’s come on that front over the course of the series. I appreciated seeing him open up to Emily about his concerns over the conditions on his reinstatement, and his continued fears over being so eager to kill somebody. It was an honest look at the struggle he’s wrestling with, and the fact that he’s so worried about losing his innocence and humanity is very true to form for Reid. I’d be concerned if he wasn’t troubled by these feelings of his. Lawrence’s story about the other agent who struggled upon his return read as obvious foreshadowing over Reid going through something similar, so if that’s the case, then I hope we get to see more examples of him struggling with his feelings until that kind of a case happens.

I also like the idea of Reid being able to teach seminars during his thirty day break, and hope we can either see or hear about what he taught in these classes, and any good or bad experiences he had during the seminars (preferably more of the former than the latter). I especially like that the seminars were Emily’s idea, as it’s yet another example of how well she understands him. Seeing how much she supports Reid and has his back is heartwarming, and whether she and Reid eventually clash on the job or not, thankfully, we know their friendship is strong enough that they’d be able to withstand any issues that may come up.

I do feel, however, that Reid’s talk with Emily would’ve fit better at the end of the episode. It just seemed a bit odd that, after a case in which Reid had to talk down an unsub while struggling with some personal issues, Emily was chatting with the rest of the team on the jet at the end like it was nothing. It would’ve made perfect sense for her to come over and have a heart to heart then, and see how he was doing.

An end of episode talk would’ve also worked on Emily’s behalf, too, because, um, show? Remember all that horrible torture Scratch put her through in the season premiere? Kind of thinking she should’ve had an opportunity to talk about that at some point. Yes, Emily’s survived a ridiculous amount of crazy things, including two major near death experiences, but that doesn’t mean she wouldn’t have been shaken up by what she’d been through recently, so I would have liked to see how she was dealing with that horror. And considering how incredibly worried Reid had been about her in “Wheels Up”, one would think he, of all people, would’ve wanted to ask her how she was doing, and fussing over her a bit. A big ol’ missed opportunity there, I feel.

There’s also the rather significant fact that the team recently lost one of their own on the job. Six weeks isn’t that big a time frame to distance themselves from that loss, so the team should still be mourning Stephen Walker to some degree, no? Garcia was so broken up over Stephen’s death, so I would've thought she'd be more subdued, and given how well Emily and Rossi knew Stephen, one or both of them should have made some mention of him at some point. Especially considering Emily’s the unit chief. Remember how broken up she was retelling the story of that Interpol teammate she’d lost in “Tribute” a couple seasons back? Why not show a similar emotional reaction here? Let us see her guilt, show her being wary about Reid going to confront Billy, or feeling protective over any of the recently injured team members who went into the field.

I also would’ve liked to hear about how the others spent their time recovering over the six week break, and if they’re still feeling the effects of any of their injuries. Bottom line, when a show puts its characters through intense trauma, there’d better be some proper exploration of the aftermath,

Those notable issues aside, however, I did still enjoy the end scene for what it was. It was nice to see everyone in a calmer, lighter mood, the whole thing with JJ, Reid, and the germs was cute, I liked Luke complimenting Reid on taking down Billy, and seeing everyone talk about the case in a way that showed they weren’t letting it haunt them spoke volumes. I also enjoyed the bits of humor sprinkled throughout the episode, dorky as it was. Luke’s silly comment about uniforms and sponge baths, Rossi doing lame dad puns about was goofy, but amusing, and after all these poor people have been through, I’ll gladly take any happy moments with them that I can get.

Also, it was nice to see Matt working full-time with the rest of the team. I like the idea of him taking care of things while the rest of the team was laid up, and hearing a bit about how he and his family are adjusting to the new hours was cute.

And with that, it looks like all is back to normal for the team. How long that’ll last remains to be seen, of course, but for the time being, it looks like we’re back to our typical routine. Honestly, I’m okay with that, and I imagine the team is, too.

What did you think of this week’s episode? Did the case work for you? How do you think the others spent their time off? Do you think Reid will snap on a case, and if so, how long do you think it’ll be until that happens? Do you think there’s a risk of Emily struggling in the field at some point, too, after all she’s been through? How’s Matt working for you as a team member thus far? Share your thoughts in the comments!

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