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Criminal Minds - Night Lights – Review: “Darkness”

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And we’re back! Hopefully 2019 has been off to a good start for you guys thus far. I’d like to say the same could be said of this show’s first episode back from winter break, but after a strong finish to the first two-thirds of the season, this episode felt a, in comparison.

It wasn’t a total flop, mind. The premise was interesting and gave us a few creepy, tense scenes, we got the entire team back together again, and the side story, while minimal, had some cute moments. But as interesting as the idea was, it felt like it didn’t quite fully come together well enough. Parts of it felt kind of rushed and underdeveloped, some of the connections to the unsub felt a little thin, and there were some moments with the unsub and his victims that felt repetitive. Let’s get into this one and see what worked and what didn’t.

The Case:

A woman is concerned. Her watch’s motion sensor is going off quite a bit, and she’s convinced there’s a serious reason for it. Her husband brushes off her worries, claiming it’s just a cat tripping the sensor. Anyone who’s watched enough TV knows the explanation won’t be that simple, and these two are in their darkened room late at night, so you know something scary is going to happen soon.

Sure enough, they then hear a loud banging at their door.. Their monitor shows a man on their front porch, wearing nothing but his underwear, begging for somebody to let him in, claiming “they’re going to kill us”. The home security people contact the couple, and the person on the other line tells them they’re aware of the problem, the police are coming, and orders them to stay in their room. The wife seems hesitant to stay put – she’s concerned for this guy’s safety and wants to help him, but her husband nixes the idea. The couple then watches in horror as a mysterious figure comes up behind the man and snatches him away.

The next day, the team receives the footage of the man being abducted, and Emily informs them that it’s believed this abduction is linked to the murder of a couple from the prior week, who were found bound with duct tape. If this was a surprise attack, and their unsub is murdering couples, there’s a good chance this man’s significant other might be dead.

“Fortunately, we will have reinforcements on this case.”

Luckily, the team will be at full capacity to work this case, because Reid’s back early from his seminar! Yay! After a brief round of greetings, everyone heads out to Portland. And they need to hurry, too, because when we next see the underwear-clad man, we learn that he and his girlfriend are both being held captive by the unsub, and just like the previous couple, they’re bound with duct tape. The woman asks her boyfriend if anyone saw him, and he tells her he tried to get help. They’re both clearly scared, and the man wants to take this opportunity to tell his girlfriend he loves her, just in case. Aw. The unsub appears at this point, coming towards the man with some kind of blowtorch..and proceeds to point it towards his eye. Oh, dear.

The latest couple has yet to be identified, so the team looks at the first couple to see if they can provide any clues. Their names are William and Sarah, and they lived pretty respectable, low-key lives. William was a beloved doctor, and Sarah worked at a bird sanctuary. They were both in their early sixties, which makes the abduction of the recent man all the more puzzling, as he’s much younger than them. William and Sarah’s eyes were burned, their eyelashes singed and eyebrows completely burned off (yeow), and they were both stabbed numerous times. Reid observes that the man in the video had burns around one of his eyes, too, so the unsub’s got a definite M.O.

The couple and the young man lived in different neighborhoods, but both neighborhoods were known for being fairly quiet and nice. Unfortunately, the young man must’ve been new to the area, or visiting, because had he kept running, he would’ve realized there was a police station not too far from the home he tried to enter. So there’s a few similarities between the couples, but there’s still a lot of unanswered questions to sort through.

JJ meets up with William and Sarah’s son. He’s clearly grieving, even more because he’s the one who discovered their bodies. He can’t think of anyone who might want to murder them, though. There is one thing he found odd about the house when he came to check on his parents – the lights were all off. That hadn’t been mentioned to the police. Seems the unsub cut the power before attacking.

And that’s not all he did, either. As Reid explores the house, he notices burns on a table, and Matt finds bloody handprints on the floor. Proof that William and Sarah had tried to feel their way around and attempted to escape, while blinded, in the dark. Either that, or the unsub intentionally let them go, because he enjoyed seeing them panic. If that’s the case, JJ theorizes, that means he intentionally let the young man loose into the neighborhood, too. He likes the thrill of the hunt. Creepy.

Reid’s been examining the video and the unsub’s use of goggles further, and mentions that the goggles allow him to see easily in the dark. What JJ can’t figure out, though, is why he still needs to wear them once he’s blinded his victims. Further examination of other security footage in the area reveals a new discovery as well. The young man is a very strong runner, and it’s likely his girlfriend is, too. This angle finally reveals the young man’s name, J.P., and that of his fiancee, Nikki, and the team also learns that they were temporarily staying at a home share rental house. Explains the reason for them not being a local couple. But they’ve got an address, so finally, a chance to try and save these people!

When next we check in with J.P. and Nikki, they’re trying to distract each other by recalling fond memories of their relationship, but the unsub’s return ends that brief respite. He’s got his goggles on, and lets J.P. go again. J.P. and Nikki take this opportunity to try and plot their escape, and Nikki, who can still see at this point, attempts to help him navigate his way out of the room. J.P. then hears noises outside, and is excited – it’s officers come to save them! As he makes his way towards the front door, the team prepares to enter the house. J.P. is just about to make it out...when he gets stabbed.

As for the team? They did arrive at J.P. and Nikki’s home...but they’re not there. The unsub had them held in another house entirely. He’s cut the power at their rental home, too. So why did the unsub take this particular couple to another location? And how did he manage to get two people to come with him without either one of them trying to escape?

Luke talks to a neighbor who’s known for being up at night, and he remembers that J.P. and Nikki were coming home from a run the other night, and a man was with them, helping them inside. The guy had assumed this man was a drug dealer, and also notes that the mystery man was wearing the night goggles. Yep. He saw the unsub.

Reid looks more into the goggles the unsub wore, and learns that they’re actually electronic sunglasses for visually impaired people. So the unsub’s got problems with his eyesight, which explains his blinding his victims. He’s tired of being treated differently because of his disability, has felt frustrated and isolated because of his issues, and as a result, he wants his victims to experience the struggles he’s had to deal with his entire life. J.P.’s already been blinded, so provided Nikki’s been spared thus far, if she can treat him like a normal human being, that might give her a fighting chance.

Garcia then shares some surprising information about William that she’s discovered. As noted, he’s a doctor, and his specialty was working with children. His specific area of work involved exposure therapy, which helps people actively confront their fears up close (for instance, people with arachnophobia would be gradually exposed to spiders, ideally learning, with time, to not fear them once they saw them. That would be a “Hell, no” for me). With children, though, exposure therapy, obviously, has to be handled very delicately. But tragically, one of William’s teenage patients had taken their life after working with him. As a result, questions arose about the validity of his methods. To his credit, William was deeply affected by the patient’s death and worked to improve and refine his work.

Want to guess who else was a patient of William’s? If you said our unsub, you’re right. And I’ll give you three guesses as to what he would’ve been treated for, too. If he was exposed to William’s unconventional methods, too, maybe he was negatively impacted to the point of going on a killing spree. Reid and JJ go back to talk to William’s son, and despite his defense of his father, insisting that William wanted to try and improve on his work, he allows them to look through the patient files.

Fortunately, it doesn’t take long to find a file that appears to belong to the unsub. The file reveals the young man was a patient of William’s for fourteen months, and his therapy involved the use of blindfolds and being locked in dark rooms. Pretty intense methods. Reid and JJ figure that his parents likely continued the therapy at home, not as a punishment, but because they they thought they were adding on to what William had done. But of course, since they’re not licensed doctors, their attempts didn’t pan out as well, and that further traumatized their son.

Tara and Luke, meanwhile, meet up with the woman who, along with her parents, manages the house that J.P. and Nikki rented. She insists her parents wouldn’t have done anything to make themselves a target of the unsub. When Tara rattles off a number, 20411, however, that brings back a painful memory for her. She recalls a bonfire party she went to when in high school. While at the party, she met this guy, and they snuck off to a special spot where teens liked to go for more intimate activities. Once they got there, the unsub had asked her to describe Mars to him, as it was in the sky that night, because he wasn’t able to see it himself. Aha.

His plans for her didn’t involve romance, though, as the next thing she remembered was him holding her down and attempting to blindfold her. Luckily, she managed to escape and was rescued by a friend who’d heard her screaming for help. He lived at the house that had the number Tara shared. She tells Tara and Luke that she’ll never forget the guy’s name, either. It’s Dustin. And boy, does he have quite the troubled history, as we learn that he’d been kicked out of numerous schools, spent time in a reform school, and then had also been in prison for ten years...for permanently blinding a man during a bar fight. What’s more, he wound up in solitary confinement for much of those ten years after killing a fellow inmate. Yeow.

Once he got out, he murdered his parents, then went after William and his wife, and after that, he went to the rental house to retaliate against his classmate who’d gotten him kicked out of school over the assault at the bonfire party. Of course, she wasn’t living there, and that’s how J.P. and Nikki, who had zero personal connection to Dustin, wound up as his next victims instead.

Back at the house, Nikki’s doing her best to attempt to bond with Dustin and try and keep him calm. She’s curious about what happened to him, and volunteers to help him with whatever he needs. All she wants in return is to see J.P, and he encourages her to go look for him. As he walks her through the house, she’s soon greeted with the horrifying sight of the unsub’s deceased parents displayed on the couch. He then shows her J.P.’s body as well, and starts yelling at her. Nikki takes that opportunity to grab a flashlight and shine it right at Dustin as he’s putting on his sunglasses, blinding him enough for her to get a head start.

She’s so close, too! Right as she gets towards the front of the house, she sees the team arrive. Nikki breaks a window, calling to them, and they assure her they’re coming in. Before they can get to her, however, Dustin catches up and stabs her. Upon breakiing into the house, JJ and Luke run to her, and she seems to have a pulse, so JJ helps get her out of there as the rest of the team goes searching for Dustin. Luke makes his way upstairs, but what he doesn’t realize is that Dustin’s spotted him. He’s about to stab Luke when he’s shot dead by Matt, who shows up just in time. Whew. Later, we see Nikki being wheeled into an ambulance, with the assumption she’ll be all right.

So first things first, I really liked the idea for this case. An unsub being tormented by therapy gone wrong or using it for cruel means isn’t anything new on this show, of course – we’ve had a few stories like that over the years. But in most of those cases, the therapy was intentionally abusive. Parents trying to “cure” their kids of being gay, a serial killer posing as a therapist, and using people’s phobias as a means of murder, things of that sort.

In this case, however, the doctor’s therapy was genuinely intended to be helpful, and the parents, while clearly not equipped to properly treat their son, seemed to mean well, too. So the idea that people can try and do everything right to help a child, and they still turn out awful in the end, had some interesting possibilities.

Problem is, I feel like those possibilities weren’t very well explored. We spent so much time focusing on the unsub marching his victims around a dark house, and I would’ve preferred some of that time being used to focus on the effect this help had on Dustin over the years instead. Maybe a flashback to his childhood, or a scene or two of him out and about and hearing people make the same sorts of dismissive, judgmental comments he’d heard his parents or the doctor make when he was young. Or hell, maybe we learn that he thought his doctor and parents were looking down on him for his disability when they actually weren’t. That could’ve made for a surprise twist.

And if they wanted to show how the negative attitudes about his disability impacted him, they could’ve had a scene or two with that as well. Show him with a permanent scar from his bar fight as an early hint at his violent tendencies, or, if he is out and about and hearing somebody say something cruel, have him get aggressive and threatening. He wasn’t even a very sympathetic unsub, for that matter – it might’ve been even more interesting if they had him picking victims that either shared his disability or had other disabilities, and he was actually thinking he was trying to “help” them the way his parents and the doctor tried to help him. That could’ve brought some good pathos.

I also felt the connection with his former classmate was a bit thin. I get that he wanted to target her because he blamed her for adding to his downward spiral, but I feel like they should’ve had a stronger connection than that of two people who just happened to meet up at a party years ago. As for J.P. and Nikki, I like the idea of them unintentionally winding up among his victims – it made for a nice change from the usual, “He’s going after everyone who personally tormented him” setup – but I wish that could’ve been made apparent a little sooner, so that we'd be just as curious as the team as to why he’d changed the types of victims he targeted so fast.

As for other nitpicks, there’s the scene where Reid and JJ were sorting through all the records. First off, the son tells them it’ll take a while to search through the files, and yet it didn’t. If they’re going to suggest that a search will take a while, it’d be nice to actually see some examples of it. Or, since Reid’s back, let his speed reading abilities help make it quicker if they really needed to hurry things along.

But that’s not the part of that scene that bugged me the most. The team didn’t even know Dustin’s name yet and yet they just happened to find a file that appeared to fit what he struggled with? Surely he wasn’t the only patient who had a fear of the dark, that’s a very common childhood fear. Even within the narrowed down time frame they were focusing on, I still find it hard to believe he was the only kid being treated for that fear. It just seemed weird to me that they happened to find a file that they were later able to match with Dustin, and besides that, wouldn’t his name have been listed in that file, too? If so, they wouldn’t have had any need for that girl from high school to identify him later.

As noted at the start, though, there were some good moments. I did like the idea of the electronic sunglasses, and the unsub being able to see his victims while they couldn’t see him. That’s always creepy. I loved Nikki fighting back as she did, too, though I wish we had more examples on this show of women escaping and getting away clean without the unsub catching up to them. Even if she goes into hiding to try and avoid them until she can get in contact with the police or the BAU, at least that could still keep the tension without the unsub needing to recapture her.

I also liked Matt saving Luke at the end as he did, and I liked the scenes with William and Sarah’s son, and his attempts to try and defend his dad’s work. It’s another aspect of the story I would’ve liked to delve into further, and in some ways, it may have been especially interesting if William’s intentions had been less than honorable, and his son had believed otherwise all this time, only to learn later that his grief/fond memories/what have you had kept him from realizing the truth.

But I think the few moments we did get did well at highlighting the struggle his son was dealing with, and his attempts to deal with the public criticism, as well as the story of the poor teenage victim, were appropriately subtle ways of touching on the complicated nature of William’s work and its impact.

So that’s the case side of things for this week. Luckily, the personal side of things was, like with the last episode, much more pleasant. Brief, but pleasant.

Meanwhile, back at Quantico:

“I’m dying for some frivolity, joy, and some overpriced snacks.”

Before the team gets the case, they’re all sitting around chatting, and the topic of discussion is a housewarming party for Luke and Lisa. It’s not any of the team’s idea, though – Lisa had suggested it to Luke. Not only would it be a great excuse for a party, but it would give her a good opportunity to better know his teammates.

Problem is, Luke’s not exactly on board with the idea. He doesn’t see the need for all this fuss. Rossi has an alternate theory for Luke’s resistance: it’s a further sign of a deeper commitment. Luke points out that Rossi’s the pot calling the kettle black with that theory, which, fair, but Rossi reminds him he’s a “reformed kettle”. Bottom line, the team’s on board with the idea, Lisa wants it, so Luke’s outvoted.

Funny thing, though, when the team does have the party at the end of the episode...Lisa’s unable to be there! She got called into work, so it’s just the team hanging out together. But that seems to work fine for them, as they all spend time chatting and laughing and enjoying Reid spouting off facts (for instance, there’s never been a case of a blind person developing schizophrenia, apparently). They also bring some bottles of wine, some bread, and some salt for Luke and Lisa, all with a reference to the movie It’s a Wonderful Life: “May your home always have bread, that your house may never know hunger, salt, that life may always have flavor, and wine, in which joy and prosperity may reign forever.” Reid then shares another fact about the movie (the FBI discredited the movie at one point because they felt it promoted communism), and with that, the team makes a toast to celebrate the occasion.

A pretty slight B-story, but it was a cute one nonetheless, simply ‘cause it’s always fun to see the team hanging out together. It does seem odd to just now have a housewarming party for Luke and Lisa – one would think they might’ve done that a lot sooner, or had talked about planning something of that sort around the time when the couple actually moved in together. But given all that Luke’s been through recently, and given how busy Lisa is with her job, too, I suppose it makes sense they’d only now be getting around to a proper celebration. Hopefully next time they plan a party Lisa can be part of the festivities.

What did you think of the episode? Did the case work for you? How nice was it to have the entire team back together? What sorts of fears would you need exposure therapy for? What would you bring to a housewarming party? Share your thoughts in the comments!

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