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Criminal Minds - Spectator Showing - Review: “Like a Car Crash”

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So, everyone all settled back in after that crazy season premiere?

Luckily, the show does allow for a breather, as we get back to our typical case of the week setup with this episode. Unfortunately, however, the case was kind of a messy one, with a really good premise that didn’t seem to fully pan out well. The episode tried to balance the case with a more lighthearted glimpse into Matt’s family life, but I’m not sure they balanced the two stories all that well.

Even with those complaints, though, there were still some nice, intriguing aspects to the episode. So let’s see how it all played out.

The Case:

As is often the case on this show, things start off innocently enough. A mother and daughter are arriving home at the end of the day, chatting about this and that. As the mom checks the mail, she notices a package resting underneath the mailbox and brings it inside. When she goes to open it, she sees a strange book sitting there. Once she looks at the book, her eyes widen, and shortly after, there’s an explosion.

Fortunately, as the team soon learns upon getting the case, the mother, Rhonda, and her daughter, Sophia, survived the blast, though they’re currently in critical condition. Unfortunately, however, they aren’t the only victims of these bombs. Two other people were also recently targeted with similar packages, and they did not survive. Perhaps the bomb that was sent to the mother and daughter malfunctioned?

As the team begins work on the case, we cut to a scene of two men meeting up on the side of a dirt road somewhere. Money is exchanged, and guy #1 opens the back of his car to reveal the item guy #2 wants to purchase: a dead body. What? Guy #2 is angry that this body is that of a man instead of a woman, and the first guy taunts him with the assumption that he’s upset because he wants to use the body for, um...intimate purposes. Wow, this is getting weirder and weirder.

Despite his irritation at not getting exactly what he wanted, however, guy #2 decides to take the corpse, and drives away with it. And it’s not long before we find out why he’d preferred a female body, and thankfully it has nothing to do with necrophilia. He takes the body to a shed, puts it in a yellow dress, straps it to a chair, and sets a book in its lap with a hollowed out page in which he stuffs various items for a bomb. The book looks suspiciously similar to the type of book that the mother had opened earlier. After he gets the corpse all set up, the man leaves the shed, goes a distance away...and blows the whole thing up. He then returns to admire the aftermath, with body parts and blood everywhere and the building basically in shambles. O-kay, then!

On the jet, the team shares their current theories and observations regarding the bomber, and so far, this case doesn’t fit the typical bomber profile. The packages were not mailed to the victims; rather, the bomber hand-delivered them. There’s also no sign of a manifesto or any types of political rants, which tend to be common among bombers. Nor is there any immediate and obvious connection among the victims, as they all vary in ages, races, and genders, and all lived in different states besides (notably, Ohio, Kentucky, and now Tennessee). So it’s hard to figure out what this guy’s motive, or general plan, is right now.

At the station, Rossi checks in with Matt, who’s staying behind to support his wife, Kristy (more on that later). Matt’s still doing his part to work the case from home, though, and he informs Rossi of a few new details. One, they’re looking for a lone unsub. Two, the bombs are not very sophisticated. There’s no triggers or timers in them, which indicates the unsub is using some kind of remote control device to set them off.

Emily, meanwhile, starts putting together the pieces of the book that Rhonda had opened, and she notices a curious detail – there’s a photo of Rhonda’s house that was part of the package. Why would the unsub want to photograph his victim’s home and send them such a picture?

Reid and JJ go to the hospital, where Rhonda’s parents are staying vigil over their daughter and granddaughter. They ask if Rhonda had any enemies, and her mom immediately says no. Interviews with neighbors back that up – by all accounts, Rhonda was a good person, and there was no history of any controversial political views or other kinds of issues. According to her dad, however, there was one person who might’ve had an ax to grind: an ex-husband who had apparently threatened her at one point, angry that he lost custody of their daughter. The team looks into the ex, but he’s quickly cleared as a suspect.

So if this isn’t political or even personal, are these attacks purely random? The fact they’re spread across various states, and the variety of victims, certainly seem to indicate that’s the case. His need to interact with the victims indicates some kind of sadistic thrill in taunting and targeting them. To that point, things get even creepier when Rhonda’s mom alerts the team to a suspicious envelope she’d found when she went to the post office to pick up more of Rhonda’s mail (awfully brave of her to even touch any of it after this). Inside is a card, with a message that says, “Your presence is requested at the funeral of Rhonda Kirkman. Fun and games to follow.” What’s more, the other victims’ families got cards with similar messages. Well. That’s...incredibly bone-chilling.

It’s not long before the team has a new victim to add to their list, as the unsub targets another man. We see him observing the guy coming and going, he photographs his house, and then he watches as the man opens the package, photographing the actual explosion as it happens. He also dies, leaving Rhonda and Sophia as the only survivors thus far. It seems the unsub intentionally made their bomb less deadly, so what is it about these two in particular that made the unsub want to spare them?

Turns out the team may actually find their answers not with the victims, but with their loved ones. Since all the victims’ families got those creepy funeral cards, that implies the connection is actually between them. Rhonda’s parents are brought in to look at photos of the victims’ families, and it turns out that they do recognize a few of the people. They’d all taken a Canadian cruise the month prior, and during a stop in Montreal, some in the group rented a car and took a road trip to check out some of the sights.

The team also learns about the shed bombing and the corpse in the yellow dress. While they’re figuring out the connection to that incident to these bombings, Rhonda’s mom unknowingly interacts with the unsub, as he stops by the hospital...with a package. They make a bit of small talk, and he claims to be there to visit his mom. He then leaves, passing by Luke and a few other officers, completely undetected, and manages to drop off the package in Sophia’s room.

Luke notices the box when he goes to check on her, and immediately orders everyone to clear out. There’s a tense period where Luke tries to handle the package while Garcia, JJ, and Tara frantically try to get a hold of him, but thankfully, all is fine. The package was a decoy, just there for show. Reid and JJ manage to get hospital footage showing the unsub leaving Sophia’s room, so now they’ve got a visual on him as well. So he wants Rhonda and Sophia to suffer, hence why he keeps them alive. But why?

Rossi continues to talk with Rhonda’s parents about the cruise and the road trip, and her dad recalls that at one point, they’d stopped off at some house because one of the travelers, a man named Colin, wanted to get some photos of the place. He’d asked Rhonda’s mom to take a photo of him in front of the house, and she’d tripped on some flowers while she tried to get the picture. She was also wearing a yellow dress. Aha.

What’s so strange about that? Well, this particular house had police tape around it, and a bit of notoriety. Eight bodies were found in the basement of that house, the victims of a murderer. A man had been taking in people who were down on their luck, a la Dorothea Puente (look up that case if you want to know more, it’s a weird story), and over time, he poisoned them, and used their government checks. When police came calling, he blew himself up in front of the house with a homemade explosive.

The infamy of the house had turned it into something of a sick tourist trap, which seemed to upset one person in particular: the son of one of the victims, a woman named Audrey. She’d changed her name to Sally after escaping an abusive husband, and fled to this house, mistakenly thinking it would be her safe haven. Her son, Shelby, had witnessed the abuse growing up, and upon learning of her death, had left some flowers at the site to pay his respects.

While there, however, he saw the tourists poking about the place, saw Rhonda’s mom stepping on his flowers and snapping a photo, and...yeah. I think you know where this is going. Shelby’s our unsub. Despite his love for his mom and his attempts to protect her, he seemed to inherit his father’s violent tendencies. Angry over the disrespect shown towards his mom, he wanted to make all these rubberneckers pay.

The unsub manages to lure Rhonda’s mom away from the station by pretending to be a doctor calling about Rhonda, and holds her captive at Rhonda’s home. Turns out the site of his mother’s murder isn’t the only memory that angers him, either. His family had lived in New Orleans for a time after Katrina hit. His mom made nice lunches for the “disaster tours” that came through the area, and he begins ranting about the people who would take those tours, gawking at the tragic aftermath of a horrific disaster, and the shame his mom felt at having to feed those people.

Emily, Reid, and JJ ultimately manage to find and confront Shelby. He warns them that he’ll blow everybody up, but Emily calls his bluff, and as he makes a move, JJ shoots him dead. Rhonda’s mom is saved, and Rhonda and Sophia are soon on the mend as well. JJ asks Emily how she knew Shelby was lying about the bomb, and she explains that the “fun and games” part of his cards was a giveaway. He was on a mission, not suicidal.

So this case was...weird. I really liked the concept of it all, with a victim’s loved one seeking revenge on those who gawk at tragic scenes. Given how exploitative the true crime genre can be much of the time (and I say that as somebody who reads and watches true crime stories), I think this is a very interesting angle to explore and comment on. Shelby’s motive provides a perfect opportunity to make him a sympathetic unsub, something this show’s done well with in the past. And his use of funeral cards, and the bizarre moment with him buying, dressing up, and ultimately blowing up the corpse, were strange, creepy details that really added to the horror and tension of the story as well. All the elements were there for a really good, intriguing case.

And all seemed to kinda fall apart In the end anyway, largely because the way Shelby targeted his victims was so much of a stretch, and the connection between them was a very weak one. They all happened to meet up on a cruise and took a road trip together? That’s it? We didn’t even get any real explanation of just how he was able to find out all their names and track them down. Obviously if he knew they were taking a cruise, that gave him an opportunity to look them up, but even then, I don’t know that he would’ve been able to gain that much information on them, to the point where he knew precisely where they lived and whatnot.

Given the way Shelby talked about “disaster tours” when ranting at Rhonda, I think that would’ve been a much better setup to explain how he targeted his victims. Maybe he kept tabs on any groups that advertised and took tours of ghastly murder scenes, or who tried to turn murder sites into a business (for example, the Lizzie Borden home now being a bed and breakfast), and stalked his victims that way. Maybe his victims were people who worked in those kinds of jobs, which would’ve helped better explain just how he was able to look up their personal information and track them down. He’d mentioned his mom being ashamed to work for that Katrina tour group, so it could’ve been a thing where either she quit and he resented those who didn’t do the same, or if she didn’t quit, that bothered him, and he transferred that anger to others in that line of work in turn.

And then once all of that was established, they could’ve had the site of his mom’s murder being part of one of those “disaster tours”, thus putting the personal aspect into a much more logical context. Also, I get that he wanted to make his victims’ loved ones suffer, the way he suffered his mom’s loss, but they didn’t really do much else with that, either. You create creepy, taunting cards advertising “fun and games to follow”, there should be some follow up with that. Perhaps he could’ve wanted them to see their loved ones’ deaths being used as sick entertainment, the way it was with his mom.

Plus, I get that letting Rhonda and Sophia live with the horror they experienced was his way of taunting them, but even then, that still didn’t feel like enough of an explanation for why they were spared. Especially considering the whole point of his spree was to make the loved ones suffer, not the victims themselves. I’m guessing part of his reason for sparing them could’ve been because they’d escaped an abusive husband and father, the way he and his mom had, but again, they never really delved much into that similarity, and that sympathy wouldn’t quite fit with his general sadistic behavior.

Yeah. Basically, this can be summed up as a “good premise, messy execution” sort of case. I think it also didn’t help that the back and forth between the case and the personal storyline with Matt’s family felt rather jarring, thus robbing the case of some of its tension.

That said, at least the storyline with Matt and his family was cute. Slight, but cute. And we even got a (brief) nod to JJ’s return to work as well.

Meanwhile, back at Quantico:

“Feels like old times.”

First things first, JJ’s back at work after healing up from her recent shooting! Yay! She’s sitting alone in the conference room when we first see her, but it’s not for long, as Reid’s the first one in to greet her and welcome her back. There still seems to be a hint of the awkwardness between them, after recent events, but they also welcome the opportunity to be openly affectionate like this, and behave like friends again.

Soon after, everyone else trickles in, and there’s more hugs to go around. Emily talks with JJ about the idea of letting her slowly readjust to work, and taking it easy in the field. But of course, we all know JJ won’t go for that. She is ready and raring to be involved. This case wound up not being a very active one for her, as she wound up spending much of her time at the station. But she did get to take down Shelby, and given the look on her face afterward, it’s clear where her mind really was.

“Sometimes I wish I could just snap my fingers and make all the bad in the world go away.”

The storyline with Matt, on the other hand, is much lighter overall. As noted, he stays behind this episode to tend to his wife, Kristy. Nothing wrong with her, just that her stage of pregnancy has her on mandated bedrest. And with the kids being out of school, and the parents unable to find a sitter, Matt has to be there to take care of the family. He sees to it that Kristy’s all settled in, even giving her a bell she can use to get his attention if needed. Then he tries to keep the kids occupied. They start off attempting to make something new to eat, instead of the same ol’ same ol’ foods, but that doesn’t pan out, so they wisely decide on pizza.

Later, he checks in with Kristy, and tells her about the case. He mentions Sophia, and the look on his face as he discusses the tragedy of a child being attacked by this unsub is heartbreaking. He then tries to cheer Kristy up by telling her about a strange board game he’s trying to play with the kids. It sounds really complicated and weird from his description, but they’re having fun with it, and he tries to act like he knows how it works.

His oldest son is pretty savvy, though, and calls him out on his pretend knowledge of the game during a chat later that evening. Matt also assures him that Kristy will be okay, and right on cue, she calls him in for another talk. He updates her on Rhonda and Sophia’s recovery, and, while listening to some opera, tells her that he’d tried to explain the story of Madame Butterfly to his daughter. She didn’t seem all that interested in it, though, only wondering if the American sailor was Popeye. Heh.

The mention of their kids then gets Matt to thinking about the amount of trust that they have in both him and Kristy, and the responsibility of parenthood. Kristy then suggests that this fifth child should be their last, and Matt seems to be on board with that idea.

This side story with Matt was pretty light, but cute nonetheless. His kids are absolutely adorable, and I loved seeing him in husband and father mode throughout. It was nice to see him and Kristy have a few quiet, sweet moments together (I was briefly thinking she’d go into labor at first, but nope), and it was fun to see the ways he tried to keep his kids occupied and entertained. I might’ve gone with another activity that wasn’t that strange game, or perhaps I may have cut down on some of those scenes to further flesh out the weaker aspects of the case, but still, it’s always nice to get glimpses into these team members’ personal lives, and with so few episodes left, I’ll take whatever time we can get with them.

The bit with JJ at the beginning was even lighter, very blink-and-you’ll-miss-it, and while I’d have loved to see the show delve a bit into how she’s dealing with the aftermath of her shooting, I’ve long since come to accept that these little one-off mentions are about all we tend to get in terms of dealing with the aftermath much of the time. At least there was some acknowledgment of it, and after Emily’s words to JJ about taking it easy, I appreciate that this case was much lighter in that regard for her.

I also liked the small nod to Reid and JJ still adjusting from the awkwardness of everything that’s happened between them lately, and I found it rather interesting that they wound up paired together on the case as well. It has me wondering if that will be a thing with them in these remaining episodes. Guess we’ll find out as the season continues to wind down.

What did you think of this episode? Did you find any aspects of the case lacking, or did it have just the right amount of tension? Did you enjoy the side story with Matt and his family? Share your thoughts in the comments!

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