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Criminal Minds - Broken Wing - Review: “Mercy”

One of my favorite things about this show is getting to learn more about the team members themselves. I know some fans of shows like this prefer the personal backstories to be in the background, as the cases are the main focus. And I totally get that, but my feeling is that If I’m going to watch people solve cases week in and week out, I want to get to know more about the people doing this job as well. It’s not a job that just any ol’ person can do, after all, and so it’s interesting to me to learn how these characters’ lives shape and affect the way they do this job, as well as the ways in which they do or don’t handle the stress involved.

This show’s been pretty good at letting us get to know more about these team members over its run in various ways. Sometimes it’s done in the form of an episode bearing their name, in which they’re the main focus the entire hour, other times it can be something as brief as one or two lines mentioning their home life in an episode. Sometimes the personal storyline is entirely separate from the case the team is working, and other times, it’s weaved into the case.

This episode is an example of the latter, as it focuses on Tara’s struggle to move past a difficult period in her life as she, along with the team, work a case with an unsub who struggles to do the same. Tara and the unsub both dealt with the problem of drug addiction, and I think the show was trying to highlight the differences in how they each dealt with that problem. In some ways, I think it worked, as the differences we did see and learn about were made very stark and clear. In other ways, however, I feel like the unsub’s story wasn’t as fleshed out as it should’ve been, which meant the comparison didn’t quite have the impact it should’ve had.

Still, there was plenty here for me to like, especially when it came to the storyline involving Tara’s past – it’s an example of what I like when it comes to learning about these characters on this show. So as always, let’s get into this, and see what we discover along the way.

The Case:

Things are, as always, starting off pretty well. A young woman named Bonnie is getting a nice little welcome home from a couple friends of hers. Has she been on a vacation? Returning from a work trip?

Nope, her situation is a little more serious than that. Bonnie’s been away at a rehab center, working on recovering from a drug addiction. The rehab seems to have gone well, and she’s excited to be back home and ready to restart her life. She even has plans with her children the following day. And so her friends came over to show their support and check in on her, and bring a few gifts as well. Bonnie’s friends offer to stay with her that evening, to make sure she’s okay, but she insists she’ll be fine, even going so far as to reassure them she has a plan to get through the night. With that, her friends leave, and she works on getting stuff ready for the following day.

Later that night, however, Bonnie’s starting to experience some signs of withdrawal. She tries to calm herself down, repeating a mantra over and over (“Fake it ‘til you make it”), but it’s clear she may need a little stronger support, so she calls somebody to come over and stay with her. By the time this person’s visit ends, however, it’s obvious they weren’t there to help poor Bonnie.

“I need your help.”
“I’ve heard that one before.”

Elsewhere, Tara’s giving a BAU-related presentation to a group out in Los Angeles. A man joins the lecture as it wraps up, his eyes on her the entire time. Knowing this show, you’d be forgiven for being wary of some stranger fixating on a team member, but luckily, in this case, it’s soon revealed the man knows Tara quite well. You’ll remember how, last season, we found out that Tara had been married once before a number of years back?

Well, we’re getting to meet him now, as the man wanting to meet Tara is her ex-husband. His name is Daryl, and he’s a professor. Despite the fact they’ve been divorced for quite some time, there’s still some tension between them. Daryl had struggled with drugs during their marriage, and by the time he did try and get sober, it was too late to save their relationship. He looks to be doing much better now, but it’s clear the emotional wounds between them still run deep.

Daryl’s not here to try and get back with Tara or anything of that sort, though. In fact, to Tara’s surprise, he’s gotten married within the last year, and his wife suggested he reach out to her. Apparently, Mary and Daryl think Tara and the BAU can help with a problem. Daryl works in a recovery group, and he’s noticed that a few of the members have been dying lately. Normally, that wouldn’t be unusual – unfortunately, relapse is very common among drug users, and some of them die from that.

But these deaths don’t look like a typical overdose to Daryl. All of the victims have died within twenty-four hours of completing their rehab programs. They’d all been in for cocaine, meth, alcohol, and so forth, but their deaths are from heroin overdoses. Typically, drug users die by overdosing on the drug they’d been known to use. Tara agrees to inform the team of these suspicious deaths, and upon filling them in, they decide to start up an investigation.

The team looks further into the victims, and note that they all got different types of treatment for their drug use. Problem is, some of the treatments they got weren’t exactly above board. Perfect environment for an unsub to thrive. The team then learns about Bonnie’s death, and further examination at the morgue, as well as an interview with her friends, proves there’s something strange going on here. There was a tattoo of sorts left on Bonnie’s body that hadn’t been there before (an image of a wing), and a drug in her system that made it easier for the unsub to subdue her. She could’ve been open to the drug and tattoo, sure, but her friends also note that she never did drugs that involved needles. Yet she was injected.

Daryl and Tara, meanwhile, discover that the unsub was making “research chemicals”, aka fake drugs, as they’d harder to identify. The unsub is being invited into his victims’ homes, so they obviously know and trust him. But what’s his motive? Is he attacking people who look as though they’re going to relapse, believing them to be “weak”? Is he in recovery himself, and these killings are his twisted way of coping with his addiction?

At a rehab clinic, a counselor is talking to a young couple, Clay and Molly, and the discussion isn’t going very well. He’s trying to gently explain to Clay that he’s being removed from the program for not doing the work, but Clay and Molly are understandably frustrated and angry at this decision. Clay's certain that his insurance running out is the real reason he’s being let go, though the counselor insists that’s not the case. Clay then turns to a friend for sympathy, but this friend turns out to be the unsub. Not only does he drug and tattoo Clay (who was actually going to relapse as it was), he ultimately smothers him to death.

“You have a fundamental misunderstanding of what you’re investigating.”

JJ and Luke go to the clinic to investigate, and that’s when they meet a guy by the name of Dr. Rob Smith. And if the team was looking for a suspect, Smith sure as hell fits the bill. He comes in, cocky and full of attitude, and is offended at the idea that his clinic would be under investigation. He claims he doesn’t hate his patients, but believes them to be selfish, and insists that’s what leads to their downfall. JJ then finds Molly, and asks her to come to the station for an interview. Molly’s on lockdown and not allowed to leave the premises, but she hands over Clay’s journal, which she’d secretly hid among her own, in the hopes that maybe it’ll help the team find their unsub.

Garcia looks up Smith’s past, and surprise, surprise, he’s not exactly “Doctor of the Year”. In fact, he has no credentials to be a medical doctor at all. He’s also got a hefty criminal past involving drug and assault charges, as well as manslaughter (!) for beating to death a guy who called him a failure, and is also a slumlord. Just the sort of guy you want helping people during a low point in their lives! Seven of the nine victims went to his clinic, thus further raising the red flags. Basically, he feels these addicts don’t work hard enough, and if they fail, it reflects badly on him (apparently his criminal history doesn’t, I guess). Sounds like a good motive for murder to me.

Smith, still angry over being investigated, calls Molly in and demands to talk with her about what happened to Clay’s journal. Surely she’s going to be the next victim, right? Thankfully, no, as Luke and Matt show up at that very moment to take him in for questioning. Smith attempts to escape – seriously, this guy’s not even trying to make himself look good – only to learn very quickly that trying to outrun Luke and Matt is just plain dumb, and he’s arrested.

During the interrogation, Smith points out that he makes money off his victims – their relapsing allows him to charge their insurance over and over. Why kill those who are making him rich? That’s an interesting, and scummy, defense, but it is a valid argument. Smith is most definitely a creep, but he isn’t their unsub. As for Smith’s freaking out over the journals? He was just afraid that his scheme would be revealed. He’s not keen on helping any further with the investigation, either, telling Luke and Matt point blank, “When you need to get off steroids, come see me.” I swear, this guy…

The team continues to examine the journals, and they see a lot of mentions of angels and broken wings, which naturally fits with the tattoo found on the victims. It also reveals more about the unsub’s motive. He’s not killing these people out of anger or jealousy. Rather, he’s an angel of mercy. He thinks he’s helping his victims. The “angel of mercy” angle, along with his experience in creating drugs, indicates he’s likely part of the nursing staff.

And if his victims have tattoos, Daryl and Tara conclude that it’s likely he has one, too – the other half of that pair of wings. Further digging from Garcia reveals their unsub at last. His name is Douglas, and as the team soon learns, he lost his own wife to an overdose five years ago. He initially wanted to channel his grief into helping others, but upon seeing others struggle the way she did, he figures it’s better to put them out of their misery. And he’s got his latest victim in his sights: Molly. She’d been let go from Smith’s group as well (did I mention I really hate that guy?), and turned to Douglas for help.

“This disease, it’s impossible. Impossible to cure, impossible to predict.”

Douglas is in the process of drugging Molly when Luke and Emily arrive, and with Tara’s help, Emily conveys a sympathetic message to Douglas in an attempt to talk him down. The strategy works, and Douglas, tearful and apologetic, is taken into custody as the team rescues Molly. At one point, Luke gets a look at his back, and it’s covered in tattoos, all a nod to each of his victims, as well as his wife. Talk about your cold, hard evidence.

This wasn’t too bad a case in general. I liked the initial debate over whether these were accidental deaths or murders, and I wish they could’ve delved into that a little further. I felt they did well at making us care about Bonnie, Clay, and Molly throughout, and the fakeout with Smith being a suspect was good, as was the intense back and forth between him, Luke, Matt, and JJ. In some ways I feel like he might’ve been a little TOO much of a villain – it would’ve been good to see a softer side, no matter how slight, at some point. I thought, for instance, that when he was letting Molly go from the group towards the end, it’d be revealed it was his way of trying to protect her from an unsub he knew was lurking around the clinic. That could’ve been an opportunity to humanize him a bit.

But I do like that he was an example of some of the more predatory people that lurk around in the rehab business, and I’m glad the show brought a bit of attention to that issue. It is a genuine problem that deserves more attention, and to be honest, I think that aspect of the story might’ve made for a more interesting motive for the unsub himself, as that’s the big area where I felt the case got kinda weak. Once again, it feels like they just crammed the unsub’s backstory in at the end because time was running out and they needed to wrap things up, and it’s frustrating when that happens. Garcia looks him up and bam, we find him. It robs the story of some suspense.

I think the “lost loved one” aspect might’ve worked better had we gotten to know some of these victims’ loved ones better. Maybe we could’ve seen more of the families and friends of those who died storming into the clinic and demanding answers, or standing outside the clinic and protesting its methods, or something. That could’ve been a good way to hint towards the unsub’s own motive, and it could’ve given us a few more potential suspects to play with as well.

Since they didn’t go that deep into his backstory, however, it makes me wonder why they even bothered with that idea at all. The idea of these deaths being perceived as accidental overdoses, combined with these patients’ fears about their insurance running out, could’ve made for a far more intriguing motive instead, especially if the unsub had been a former patient. Or they could’ve kept the “lost loved one” angle and had it where his wife’s death wasn’t taken seriously enough, or was at the hands of her clinic, either accidentally or intentionally, and he needed to seek revenge. Just a few ideas off the top of my head.

I also wish they could’ve found a different way to take Douglas down at the end instead of the usual “confront him while he’s got a hostage” scene. Having Tara separated from the rest of the team made things kind of disjointed throughout as it was, but her share her speech through Emily at the end was just plain awkward. It would’ve been better to find some other way for Tara to get her message out to Douglas directly. Heck, since Emily has her own experience witnessing somebody struggle with drugs, maybe she could’ve relied on that. If Tara was listening in, it could’ve been a good source of comfort for her in regards to her own situation with Daryl as well.

So yeah. The story wasn’t perfect, no, but I think there was still enough good stuff in it to keep me interested. In fact, I think most of the strongest aspects of the episode weren’t tied to the case at all. We got to learn more about Tara along the way here as well, and that’s where I think the show did best with its insight and deeper exploration regarding drug addiction and its impact upon people.

Closing a Chapter:

As Tara and Daryl work the case together, it forces them to work through some issues from their own past as well, and Tara learns a few troubling things about her ex along the way. The reason Daryl knew about the fake drugs? He confesses that he knew how to fake out the drug tests Tara forced him to take back in the day. He knows Douglas would have a tattoo, because he too has one…of Tara’s name He also admits to not remembering much about a violent scuffle the two had once. This particularly hurts Tara, who remembers that scary moment all too well.

At one point, Tara talks to Daryl’s new wife, Mary. She explains that there was more to Daryl’s reasons for coming to Tara with this case. Yes, he wanted to figure out why these people were dying, but he also felt it would be a good opportunity for him to properly achieve the ninth step of his sobriety. That step involves making amends, something he’d hoped to with Tara at long last. Mary says that Daryl had wanted to reach out to Tara numerous times over the years, but was advised not to by his sponsor, that he needed to focus on moving forward instead.

Mary then admits to being afraid that Daryl might consider going back to Tara. Apparently Daryl still has very fond feelings towards her. Tara insists that she has no interest in that happening. She’s happy to see he’s moved on, and wants him and Mary to be happy together. All she wanted was for them to solve this case, which they did.

“I killed myself to help him get clean.”

There’s just one thing that’s bothering Tara, however. Daryl got sober after getting together with Mary, which is great, but what Tara can’t understand is why he couldn’t make that same commitment for her. She finally asks Daryl that very question at the end, and he explains that she actually was the reason for his sobriety. When she’d left him and ended their marriage, that made it clear to Daryl he’d officially hit rock bottom, and he turned his focus to getting better. Her leaving saved his life. That explanation brings Tara some comfort, and she echoes her happy wishes to Daryl about Mary.

It’s always good to get to know Tara better, and I like that the show followed up on her revelation last season that she’d been previously married. Her interactions with Daryl were well done – it was fun to see them sharing a few lighthearted memories from their time together, and I liked seeing that they still cared about each other on some level. I also like that we got to see their professional respect for each other, with Daryl turning to Tara for help with this case and Tara being willing to hear him out.

And yet, I also like how they handled the tension and painful memories as well. Tara’s hurt over Daryl not remembering the darker times in their relationship was genuinely heartbreaking, and their awkward moments felt real and believable. The episode did well exploring just how easy it can be for a relationship to be ripped apart by something as awful as drug abuse, and the guilt Tara and Daryl both felt over what they did or didn’t do, or could or couldn’t have done, to handle it or fix it.

I do find it weird that Garcia seemed shocked by Tara’s mention of her ex-husband, though. I seem to recall Tara mentioning her prior marriage during a chat with the others on the jet last year, so it’s not like it was a secret. Yeah, Garcia wouldn’t have been present for that conversation, but you would think she would’ve heard about the marriage at some point since then.

The moments with Daryl weren’t the only strong aspect of this part of the storyline. I really appreciated Tara’s talk with Mary as well. I like that Mary’s fears about Daryl maybe wanting to go back to Tara were treated as valid, because it was indeed clear that Daryl still cared deeply for Tara (the guy still has her name tattooed on him, after all). But it was also nice to see her understand why it was so important for Daryl and Tara to work this case together, too, and trust them both.

Tara handled everything with Mary well, too. It’s not like Mary and Daryl needed her blessing or anything like that, mind, and I like that it wasn’t presented that way. But for everyone’s sake, Tara’s happy wishes were a good way to show her moving on the way Daryl did, and properly close that chapter in their lives and part on happier terms.

I do think it would’ve been nice if Tara had opened up to one of the others at some point about her conflicted feelings regarding Daryl. As noted elsewhere, most of the team has some kind of experience dealing with somebody close to them struggling with addiction, so it would’ve been interesting to see her talk with one of them about that, perhaps offer a unique perspective. There is something inspiring to the fact that Tara figured out how to deal with her feelings on her own, though. And she’s never really been the sort to have a lot of deep heart-to-heart talks as it is, so dealing with this on her own seemed fitting in that way, too.

On a different note, it’s also fitting this episode had a lot of Tara focus considering it was directed by Aisha Tyler herself, I think she did well at balancing the scenes featuring her with the scenes involving everyone else, and I liked her use of closeups, and framing certain scenes where all you saw were one or two people at a time (the scene of Daryl attacking Tara being a notable example). It really added to the feelings of isolation running throughout the story, and let us focus on their emotions more clearly. The haziness during the scenes with Bonnie and Clay was well done, too, helping to further put us into their respective headspaces. That emotional connection is what makes this show work.

What did you think of this episode? Did you like getting to meet Daryl, and his interactions with Tara? Did you enjoy getting a deeper glimpse into another part of Tara’s past? Did the unsub reveal work for you? Just how big a scumbag is that Dr. Smith? Share your thoughts in the comments!


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