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Criminal Minds - False Flag - Review: “The Truth is Out There”



Before we jump into the review for this episode, I would first like to wish everyone a happy 2018! Hoping you all had a wonderful holiday break and got a chance to relax and enjoy a bit of time off, and the new year is starting on a good note for you.

Now on to the episode – okay, this is what I’m taking about, right here! In my review for the episode “Neon Terror”, I’d criticized the predictable nature of the case, feeling it hindered an otherwise intriguing premise.

“False Flag”, on the other hand, had a very unpredictable case, and the episode was all the better for it. This is easily one of the best episodes of the season thus far, and dare I say it’s one of the stronger episodes of the series in general. The case kept me guessing both in terms of whodunit and why, the team faced off with a very formidable antagonist (played with delicious venom by Zelda Williams, aka Robin Williams’ daughter), the episode veered away from its typical setup, which really enhanced the unpredictable nature of the case. It had all the elements of what makes this show worth watching, and demonstrates why the show’s had a loyal fanbase for thirteen years.

The case was also incredibly relevant in a year when terms like “fake news” are part of our national lexicon, and conspiracy theories ran rampant. This season’s done well to touch on some bigger current social issues in some of its recent episodes – nuclear fears with “The Bunker”, media influence, mass shootings, and war propaganda with “Killer App” - and now this episode can be added to that shortlist. It’s a bold risk to take on some of the more prominent conspiracies that lurk around out there nowadays, and I don’t doubt this episode will prove controversial for some viewers, both in terms of how they touch on this particular issue and in terms of where one might stand on it. But I appreciate that the show didn’t shy away from tackling the issue head on regardless. It’s something the FBI has run up against numerous times, after all, not just in recent years, but throughout its history in general, so it’s only logical the show would showcase how the BAU handles that sort of scenario.

So without further ado, let’s work to unlock the truth of what all went down in “False Flag”.

The Case:

We get our first indication that this is not going to be your typical episode when it begins with a scenario that, in normal circumstances, we usually wind up seeing around the halfway point of an episode. The team is giving their profile to a group of people, and it’s such a jarring, unusual introduction that one could easily be forgiven for feeling like they missed something. I felt that way briefly at first myself! To sum up said profile: there’s been a couple murders in the Roswell area recently, and they believe their unsub is a male in his twenties.

To further add to the unexpected nature of the scene, the team isn’t giving their profile to the local police, like they normally do. No, instead, they’re giving this information to a small group that meets up on a regular basis. The group are known as the Roswell Truthers, and that title should immediately tip one off to the fact that this isn’t your average gathering. Yes. They’re a conspiracy theory group that likes to meet and discuss various conspiracies of interest to them.

And to say they’re skeptical of the BAU’s visit would be an understatement. The entire group has a clear standoffish demeanor about them, and they’re eyeing the team warily. In fact, when the team asks if the group has any questions for them, one guy decides to be cheeky and ask not about the profile or the unsub. Rather, he asks Rossi why his last book sucked so badly. Well, then. Apparently the guy believes that Thomas Yates, who you will recall was shot to death by Rossi last season after he’d resumed his killing spree, was a patsy for somebody else. Okay.

“We get it. You have no reason to trust us.”

Rossi’s clearly not interested in listening to this guy’s strange theory, and tries to get the conversation back onto finding this unsub, but the guy isn’t having it. When JJ tries to further diffuse the situation, the group sees her comments as confirmation of their theories. In short, the chances of these two groups working together swimmingly is pretty low.

The Truthers’ back and forth with the BAU is quickly forgotten, however, when a guy notices a gun in his pocket and starts freaking out. His name is Doug, and he’s clearly upset about something. Emily and Tara both try to talk him down, but he keeps on ranting, going so far as to call one of them a “bitch”. Things get even more confusing and horrifying when Doug says, “I know a false flag when I see one!”...right before committing suicide in front of everybody. Dang.

Buckle up, everyone, ‘cause we’re clearly in for one hell of a bumpy ride.

Naturally, since Doug seemed to be blaming somebody within the group for something, and since there’s two murders the team is trying to solve, the Truthers are all going to need to be held for twenty-four hours, and come down to the police station for interviews with the team. Needless to say, the group is unhappy with this setup, and they’ve all lawyered up, because apparently this case wasn’t already difficult enough for the team.

“We don’t just have egg on our face. We have blood on our hands.”

One woman, Melissa Miller, does agree to be interviewed, however. But she’s not doing so out of the kindness of her heart. Oh, no. She asks the team to give her back her phone that they’ve confiscated, so she can record her interview for her podcast. She wants to prove to her listeners just how horrible and mistrustful the FBI really is. Emily doesn’t think this is a good idea, pointing out the valid concern that Melissa could edit her recording and twist the team’s words around.

Tara, however, thinks it’s worth letting her do this, and Rossi backs her up on the idea. Giving Melissa what she wants could allow her to be a little more open and honest, as well as explain to the higher ups why Doug killed himself. The way he sees it, these truthers are going to be suspicious of the team either way, and Melissa’s the only one willing to talk to them at all, so might as well work with her and see what comes of it. Tara’s still a bit wary, but ultimately, she relents, and settles in for what promises to be a very tough interview with Melissa.

Face Off:

“It’s a cognitive trick that keeps you from having to admit that life is messy. It’s random.”

Melissa doesn’t make things easy for Tara right off the bat, either, immediately asking her about her honest opinion of truthers. Tara goes into an explanation about the scientific method, and how it differs from the unproven theories that truthers share. She brings up one of the most well-known recent conspiracies – the idea that Barack Obama was not born in the U.S. - and uses it as an example of how one can go about discrediting such theories. Tara also tries to reassure Melissa that she, and by extension the FBI, are trusthworthy, but Melissa just isn’t having it. She informs Tara that she’s looked up each and every one of the team members, to get an idea of just who she’s up against (she’s already wary of Garcia’s hacking abilities and how easy it is for her to poke into people’s personal lives), and when she finds out about the government money used to provide the team with a jet? Oh, she flips out. Further proof of the government’s surveillance abilities, you see.

Tara decides to let that go, and moves on to explain how the team learned of the murders they initially came to Roswell to investigate, and here’s where we get the Garcia presentation moment. Two men, Brian and Carl, have recently been found dead in their homes. Brian died by drowning, his face having been shoved into his aquarium tank. Carl, meanwhile, was shot in the neck. Carl’s death clearly looks like a murder, but Brian’s is a little more uncertain, as it also has the possibility of being a tragic freak accident.

Thing is, though, both Brian and Carl belonged to the Roswell Truthers. Brian believed in the theory that fluoride was being put into the nation’s water supply, while Carl was interested in JFK assassination theories – and what’s more, he was shot in the same spot on his neck as JFK. There’s also evidence of texts between Carl and Brian in which they discussed a “mystery discovery” of some sort shortly before their deaths, and even discussed police involvement. That fact, combined with both men’s connections to the group, makes it harder to buy the “tragic accident” theory with Brian, and certainly lends credence to the idea that both men were murdered, perhaps even specifically targeted. Sounds almost like a conspiracy in and of itself, doesn’t it?

The investigation into Carl and Brian’s deaths gets even curiouser when the team learns that Carl had told Brian about being stalked in the days leading up to his death. There doesn’t seem to be any signs of a break in in either man’s home, indicating that whomever killed them likely knew them (these Truthers wouldn’t let just anyone poke around in secret compartments, after all). The idea that the unsub must’ve at least known Carl is further bolstered when Matt finds an RFID card in his home. This card leads to a secret compartment where he hides all his guns. One gun happens to be missing, and it’s the one Carl was shot with. That’s when the team decided to give their profile to the Truther group, and...well, we all know what happened next. As of now, the team believes Doug is their unsub, as he fits their profile on many levels, and had a gun on him. But there’s no concrete way to prove it.

“Right now, from where I’m sitting, this ‘crazy conspiracy theorist’ is the only one making any sense.”

Another interesting discovery is the piece of paper from the book ‘Catcher in the Rye’ that Carl had covering his gunshot wound. As the BAU well knows, ‘Catcher in the Rye’ is a favorite book of many killers, and it makes sense a Truther would be interested in it, too. Melissa’s thoughts on ‘Catcher’, however? She believes the book is nothing more than a brainwashing tool used by the U.S. government to control people and inspire killers for them to catch. And that leads her into spouting off what is perhaps the harshest, cruelest conspiracy theory to pop up in recent times. Melissa’s pet conspiracy is the belief that mass shootings are staged, and that leads her to bring up the Sandy Hook school shooting conspiracy. To summarize, this conspiracy involves the actual belief some have that the Sandy Hook shooting was staged by the Obama administration as a means to try and push for stricter gun control.

Yeah.

Tara reacts to this disturbing conspiracy the way many would. She calmly gets up, excuses herself, goes into another room...and cusses up a storm. Emily is naturally concerned at Tara’s intense reaction, and decides to try changing strategies with Melissa, both in the hopes of giving Tara a bit of a break and to try and further throw Melissa off her game. So now it’s JJ’s turn to go a round with Melissa.

Finding the Truth:

JJ begins her interview by continuing their discussion of ‘Catcher in the Rye’. She and Luke had done a bit of homework upon discovering the piece of paper from that book that was found in Carl’s home, and discovered that it was the pick for a local book club’s monthly meeting. The text on the piece of paper found with Carl is different from the text in a regular copy of the book, thus meaning there are two different versions of the book floating around. The real copy, and an “alternate edition” which was edited by an apparently dangerous anarchist capable of making bombs...and the guy is somebody Melissa knows, no less. This case just gets weirder and weirder.

Emily’s next to meet with Melissa after this, and she fills her in on what happened when they went to search for the guy. Matt and Luke tracked him down, finding him residing in a farmhouse out in the middle of nowhere, as your paranoid hermit types do. Turns out Emily had beat them both there, though, via helicopter, no less (which further irritates Melissa), and she’s already gotten some much needed information from the guy. His name is Bob, and he’s responsible for the edited version of ‘Catcher in the Rye’. He also likes to edit other books favored by conspiracy theorists.

To our, and the team’s, surprise, however, as the investigation into the grounds of his house reveal, he’s not a bomber. He’s not even an anarchist or a hermit. Rather, he simply likes to mess with the Truthers’ heads and makes money from doing so. He’ll peddle vitamin supplements and literature that sounds even remotely conspiratorial to them, because he knows they’re an easy mark. He explains how simple it is to reel them in, noting specifically that the best way to get a conspiracy going is to start a sentence with the phrase, “Isn’t it interesting...”, as it primes people to be more open to considering virtually anything you spout at them.

So he’s not involved in any of this mess. But as noted, he does know Melissa...and Carl. In fact, he wrote a specific dedication in Carl’s copy of the book that reads, “To my darling Melissa. Love always, Carl”. Apparently, Carl and Melissa were dating, and keeping their relationship a secret. Hm. Sounds like we’ve got a potential motive setting up here.

Slip Past the Radar:

“Machines break down. Systems don’t work. Life is messy.”

While all this is going on, the team also focuses on trying to figure out a strange situation with the metal detector outside the Truthers’ meeting room. All Truthers had to walk through it prior to the BAU sharing their profile. And yet somehow Doug was able to sneak a gun into the room without the detector registering it. Melissa naturally believes the police must’ve planted the gun on Doug, but further inspection by Tara and Emily at one point seems to imply the metal detector was simply acting extra touchy and glitchy, which could account for Doug being able to slip through unnoticed.

So now we know Carl, Doug, and Melissa are all connected to some degree. The team then goes to the meeting room to try and recreate the scene of Doug’s suicide, and that’s when Tara hits on her own theory: Melissa was the one who planted the gun on Doug, and he came to realize that shortly before his suicide, having noticed her hiding in the back of the room. She was the “bitch” Doug was calling out, not any of the female BAU members.

“Allow me to be clear from this point forward: I’m gonna give you one chance to tell the truth.”

A rather surprising theory, to be sure – even the rest of the team wonders if the reason Tara is so hellbent on the idea of Melissa being their unsub is because of the way she struck such a nerve with her during their interview. But Tara is determined. She goes back for one more interview, but Melissa’s wise to what’s going on. She deletes her file and asks for an attorney. An investigation of her house turns up nothing of note, so the team turns to the Truthers in the hopes that one of them might provide some answers. And indeed, one of them does. Remember the guy who mocked Rossi’s book at the start of the episode? Apparently he held onto a bullet fired from the gun used to kill Carl, and confirmed Melissa had given it to him for safekeeping. Their unsub is not a man. It’s Melissa.

So why would Melissa target Carl and Doug? Because of the oldest motive in the book: a love triangle. That “mystery discovery” Carl was close to figuring out? It was about Melissa’s affair with Doug. He had a fight with her at his house, likely regarding his suspicions about her affair. Melissa then killed Carl, and planted the gun on Doug to make it seem like he killed Carl out of jealousy. Doug got wise to her scheme at the meeting, but decided he wasn’t going to be her fall guy, and killed himself. Basically, Melissa’s a manipulative little witch.

When it’s time to arrest her, Tara ends their interaction with one hell of a beautiful clincher: “Know what that is, Melissa? That is a magic bullet”

As for the mystery surrounding Brian? Turns out his death really was nothing more than an unfortunate accident. Further investigation showed that Brian had burns on his face from the chemicals that were found in his aquarium tank. Apparently, he was cleaning his tank, the strong smell of the chemicals overwhelmed him, and he simply fainted and drowned. Poor Brian.

So! Quite a lot to take in here, huh?

And yet, for as twisty and turning as this case was, it didn’t feel jumbled or overly complicated. Every time a new potential player or clue was introduced, I was intrigued to see how it’d tie into the story, instead of sitting here feeling confused and lost. I liked the way they kept us dangling for a bit in regards to how everyone was connected, and I liked that all the connections between the key players felt believable and logical.

I also liked how, despite the fact we only got a brief opportunity to see Doug, we could still ultimately wind up sympathizing with what became of him. The guy really was the definition of a patsy. I’m glad he wasn’t guilty of what happened to Carl in any way – in a story full of suspicious and manipulative people, having innocent victims like him and Brian were a much needed balance, and brought some humanity to the situation.

On the flip side of things, Bob was quite the entertaining character. He was the perfect “crazy old man” sort of character, and yet the actor played him in a way that didn’t make him feel like a caricature. He was colorful, yet genuine. I liked the way he interacted with Emily during their conversation, and I especially loved how the show used him as an example to demonstrate just how easy it really can be to lead somebody into believing anything. Many people have a tendency to think, “I could never be that gullible” in these situations, but Bob was a great way to puncture that confident mindset. He also served as a good warning as to what to look out for in order to avoid people taking advantage of them.

Melissa was clearly the star of this episode, though, and rightly so. I loved how Zelda Williams didn’t hold back in her portrayal pf her. She didn’t care if the viewers liked Melissa or not. She made her bold, outspoken, vile, unsettling...and yes, even a bit sympathetic, too. They didn’t really delve into Melissa’s past, but it was clear while watching her that something bad must’ve happened to her at some point in her life to make her so mistrustful and guarded towards others. And watching her spout such outlandish beliefs, I had to wonder at times if she really believed all she said. There’s evidence for either possibility, and Williams walked that ambiguous line perfectly.

Her interactions with the team were also fascinating to watch, and I think the show played it smart by having her go up against the BAU women specifically. It was cool to see a case that was so female-heavy in its focus, and I liked watching how Melissa interacted with Tara, Emily, and JJ respectively. She responded a bit differently with each woman, and I liked seeing how all three of them prepared for that, and responded accordingly. Tara and Melissa’s conversation was clearly the highlight, though, and a great way to showcase Tara’s abilities and talents. She had WAY more patience with Melissa than most people would’ve, and I liked the way Tara tried to balance attempting to try and understand Melissa with her no nonsense “I don’t have time for your BS” attitude.

I also enjoyed the interrogation scenes simply because it was such a refreshing change of pace for the show. The team wasn’t trying to talk down an unsub who had a weapon and a hostage in their hands, there weren’t the usual shootouts and chase scenes, no shots of the unsub mercilessly torturing their victim. Just an hour of showing the team doing what they do best, and using simple conversation to ratchet up the tension.

The structure of the episode added to that feeling as well, and for that, we have to give some kudos to Joe Mantegna. He directed this episode, and it’s probably the most creative directing job he’s had for this show thus far. The interrogation scenes felt appropriately claustrophobic, framing it so all we often saw were Melissa and one of the team members facing each other, the flashbacks had a bit of a haze about them, which gave off a proper disorienting “is this how it really happened?” vibe, and yet the scenes in the rest of the police station felt roomy enough to allow the team, and the viewers, to breathe a little. I also liked the way Doug’s outburst, as well as the team’s recreation of his suicide, were filmed. The camera swirled about in a way that made us feel like we were actually there and part of the action.

Kudos also have to go to the writer, Breen Frazier, as well, for going off the typical episode formula. Starting off by dropping viewers right into the middle of the team giving a profile was a clever move – it had viewers feeling off kilter right from the get-go and got us into the proper mood. The flashbacks felt natural and flowed well against the present day scenes. And the fact the show didn’t stick to its typical formula made it easier to keep viewers on their toes. On the one hand, I wish the show could do episodes like this more often, since they’ve proven they can clearly break out of the formula when they want to. On the other hand, I kinda like that these sorts of episodes only happen every so often, too – it’s like a special treat for the fans, in a way. Either way, I encourage the show to keep up this sort of creative storytelling.

As for the actual subject matter itself, I’m just going to say right now that I appreciate the show taking a firm stance on this particular topic. Whether one agrees with their take or not, if a show is going to tackle controversial issues, it seems pointless to be wishy washy in their handling of them. It’d be so easy, and understandable, for a show like this to be cautious, lest they potentially upset some of their audience, but they weren’t, and it made the episode all the more powerful. And yet, despite their obvious stance on the issue, I think the show did well at getting their point across while also treating the Truthers like humans instead of one-note villains.

If I have any critiques about the episode, it would basically be in Melissa’s motive for her crimes. When we initially learned that Carl died the same way JFK did, and Brian, who believed in “fluoride in the water” conspiracies drowned, I initially thought the unsub was going to be killing people in a manner similar to whatever conspiracy theory they personally believed for some reason. Maybe they hated certain conspiracies getting more attention than the ones they believed? Maybe it was somebody who was negatively impacted by conspiracy theories seeking retaliation? I still think that would’ve been an interesting way to go with the story, rather than having it all boil down to a mere love triangle gone wrong. Especially considering Melissa was vindictive enough to where I could see her powers being used for far more than personal revenge.

At the same time, however, it does seem fitting that a show that was all about conspiracy theories wound up having such a simple resolution, instead of leaning into the crazy and out there. That ending did fit well with the show’s message that not everything has to have some “deeper meaning” or reason behind it. So on that level, Melissa’s motive works, which I suppose leaves the whole thing a wash in the end.

My other critique would be that while I totally understand why the show had to have Melissa openly sharing things such as the Sandy Hook conspiracy, I can also understand some viewers, particularly those who have a personal connection to Sandy Hook, feeling uncomfortable. It’d be like ripping open a deep wound, and it’s valid to wonder if they really needed to “go there”.

In the end, though, those are the only real complaints of sorts I can think of regarding this episode. Ultimately, this episode was a winner all around, and I love that thirteen seasons into this show’s run, they can still come up with unusual, surprising, engaging stories such as this.

Meanwhile, back at Quantico:

Since this episode was virtually nothing but interrogation and flashbacks, there wasn’t really anything in the way of a side story for the team. But we did get to learn a couple personal tidbits about some of the team members this episode:

First up, the reason behind why Melissa’s rant about Sandy Hook struck such a nerve with Tara (aside from the simple fact that it’s a ludicrous conspiracy in and of itself) is revealed. Turns out Tara was actually on the scene the day of that shooting, helping victims and their families, and witnessing the horror and distress of all involved. So yeah. Talk about making things personal.

“Don’t get him started, Matt. Next he’ll be showing you YouTube clips.”

Second, and on a significantly lighter (?) note, we learn that apparently Rossi is into reading up on JFK conspiracies...and what’s more, he’s subjected poor Emily to numerous conversations and debates on the topic. Matt does not help the situation any, egging Rossi on by mentioning his own theory: that JFK was assassinated by the Chicago mob, to which Rossi agrees. In some ways, this scene felt a bit jarring in an episode that took great pains to point out how ridiculous, and downright hurtful, conspiracy theories can be. And it’s kind of unsettling to have jokes surrounding presidential assassination conspiracies in and of itself, too. At the same time, Emily’s reactions were entertaining, and I must admit that I would totally be up for watching an episode where the team sits around talking about the sillier, more lighthearted conspiracy theories that exist for an hour.

As for Tara, I don’t know that the show needed to have her be at Sandy Hook to show just how painful that particular conspiracy is, but I also think it adds an interesting, and poignant, element to her character. I loved her response when Melissa brought up that conspiracy, too. These people are often so levelheaded and in control on cases, but they’re also human. So I really liked that we got to see that side of Tara here. Her taking a moment to scream and curse in private was very cathartic and relatable for me, and not just within the context of this episode. Anyone who’s just so beyond done with the craziness that’s been the news in general lately could no doubt sympathize.

So that’s the 2017 side of episodes done and sorted. Hard to believe we’re about to kick off the second half of the season already, huh? As always, though, I look forward to seeing what 2018 brings for the team, and discussing all of it with you.

What did you think of the episode? What was your reaction to Melissa? Did the different structure of the episode work for you, or was it confusing? Do you think it’s as easy to draw people into conspiracies as Bob claims? Did you have Melissa pegged from the start, or did you suspect somebody else? Did you like the show’s take on current events, or did it feel out of place with the show? Are there any silly conspiracies you’re interested in? Share your thoughts in the comments!

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