February 25 2024

CSI Files

An archive of CSI, NCIS, Criminal Minds and crime drama news

Retro Review: CSI: Crime Scene Investigation–‘Unfriendly Skies’

6 min read

Grissom is perturbed by the death of an agitated passenger on Las Vegas Air flight.

With the CSI franchise in reruns for the summer, CSI Files is taking the opportunity to go back to the beginning, offering reviews of episodes from the early seasons of CSI: Crime Scene Investigation and CSI: Miami, many of which aired before the site’s 2003 founding! The retro reviews will run for the duration of the summer until new episodes of the franchise start to air in the fall.


Grissom and his team arrive at a unique crime scene: the first class cabin of a Las Vegas Air flight. The body of Tony Candlewell lies in the aisle, dead. Brass tells Grissom the potential suspects and witnesses number ten: nine passengers and one flight attendant in first class. Grissom sends Catherine and Warrick to handle questioning the ten while Nick accompanies the body to the coroner, leaving Sara and Grissom to process the plane. The plane’s captain recounts Tony boarding and then becoming agitated midway through the flight. He sent the flight attendant for the section, Shannon, to deal with the man. In the morgue, Dr. Jenna Williams tells Nick that Candlewell had a fever at the time he died, and also points out petechial hemorrhaging in his eyes, boot prints on his coat, a broken hand, and bruising on his knuckles. While Grissom and Sara process the plane, Catherine, Brass and Warrick question the various passengers, including Dr. Kiera Behrle, who is traveling with her young daughter, Emily; an internet start up mogul named Nate who complained that Tony was kicking his seat; a businessman named Lou Evertt who was drinking heavily on the flight and claimed Tony slashed him across the face; Max and Marlene Valdez, a middle-aged married couple who were unsettled by Tony’s violence; Carl Finn and Vicky Mercer, co-workers who had a steamy mid-air hook-up; and Preston Cash, a blind man who heard the scuffle with Tony and the other passengers—and the eerie silence that followed it.

Dr. Williams autopsies Tony and learns he was suffering from encephalitis: a swelling of the brain that caused his fever and disorientation. Though the passengers and the flight attendant are less than forthcoming, Grissom and his team are able to identify the shoe prints from three of the passengers on the back of Tony’s jacket: Kiera, Max and Lou. Kiera claims she tried to revive Tony using the defibrillator paddles, but the team finds them free of jell when they check, indicating they weren’t used. Going off the physical evidence they have, Grissom and his team reenact what happened on the plane: Tony got up from his seat and became agitated when he couldn’t get into the bathroom. Shannon tried to talk him back into his seat, but Tony only became more frantic, spilling Lou’s drink and sending Max careening into a cart of drinks. When Tony ran to the plane’s door and tried to open it mid-flight, the rest of the passengers set upon him and literally beat him to death. When Grissom gives his report to the Sheriff, Mobley decides not to prosecute even though Grissom thinks the passengers went beyond self-defense. Grissom returns to the lab to find his team discussing amongst themselves whether they would have acted as the passengers did, and he reminds them that not a single person bothered to stop to ask Tony what was wrong, which could have prevented his death.


This eerily prescient episode aired less than a year before 9/11, but it deals with issues that would soon be at the forefront of everyone’s mind. As Warrick notes at the end, there are few places people feel more vulnerable than at 30,000 feet in the air, trapped in a small cabin with strangers. Grissom and Warrick both make fair points in the discussion at the end of the episode. Grissom points out that no one stopped to ask Tony what was wrong before he got out of control, but Warrick isn’t wrong when he says it’s human nature to attack a threat. Catherine points out that had she been traveling with her daughter, she wouldn’t have hesitated to do what it took to keep her child safe. Nick is noncommittal, while Sara is horrified at her colleagues’ responses, claiming she could never take the life of another person. Per usual, it is Grissom who looks at the case from a unique angle: the victim’s point of view.

Grissom is dismayed when Sheriff Mobley decides not to prosecute any of the passengers, sending them on their way to enjoy their Vegas vacations instead. The CSI tells Mobley he wants “at least five” people charged with murder, but Mobley points out that no jury will convict any of them. Grissom believes they should be charged anyway, but the ambitious Mobley—whom Grissom suspects has his eye on political office—has his mind made up. In CSI‘s first season, Grissom and his team really come across as underdogs: though Grissom will bark orders at crime scenes, he often comes up against people who oppose him, be it the sheriff, who outranks him, or dayshift supervisor Conrad Ecklie, who plays the political game much better than Grissom.

In this episode, Grissom only has twelve hours with the crime scene in which to figure out what happened to Tony Candlewell. Not only is he on the clock because the crime scene is an airplane, but Mobley points out that because the murder took place in flight, the case technically is under the FAA’s jurisdiction. Because the FAA won’t show up until the morning, Grissom has all night to process the plane and question the passengers. Grissom naturally chooses the plane, sending Catherine to deal with the witnesses because she’s a “people person.” The plane proves to be much more forthcoming than the passengers.

In the end, Grissom decides to gather his team together to reenact what happened on the plane based on the evidence they have gathered from the scene and the victim’s body, and the few witness accounts that were actually helpful. The team has a bit of fun with the casting, most notably Nick and Warrick, who take on the roles of Max and Marlene Valdez, respectively. Nick claims the role of the husband because as a CSI 3, he outranks Warrick, but Warrick is dismissive, saying, “You’re henpecked.” When playing out the part where Marlene Valdez jumps to her husband’s defense, Warrick comments that he’s “saving Nick’s butt as usual.” The lighthearted teasing banter between Nick and Warrick was definitely a highlight of the show’s early episodes.

Grissom and Sara have a flirtatious conversation earlier in the episode when they learn two passengers joined the mile high club in the first class bathroom. When Grissom notes that the elevation enhances the sexual experience, Sara says that it’s not all it’s cracked up to be and presses Grissom for his source. The befuddled CSI cites an obscure science journal Sara says she’s never heard of. He proceeds to turn the question around on Sara and she cites a Delta Airlines flight and a man named Ken Fuller who apparently didn’t impress her. The conversation highlights Sara’s curiosity about her boss’s personal life, as well as underscoring the differences between the adventurous Sara and the much more staid Grissom.

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