Nick and Sara clash over a case involving a hoarder whose house contains several dead bodies.
Sara and Nick are sent to investigate when neighbors report a foul stench coming from a hoarder’s house. Marta Santiago was given until Friday of the following week by the state to clean out her house, but when Sara and Nick arrive they find Marta’s possessions piled up so high they block the front door. When the CSIs go in the back, they make their way through piles of stuff before Nick steps in a pile of goop… which proves to be the body of a woman. At first the CSIs fear it’s Marta Santiago, but when she comes home and finds them in her house, she recognizes the woman as her daughter Diana. Greg and David Phillips move Diana’s body out of the house, and in the morgue, Doc Robbins estimates Diana has been dead for five to seven days. He determines she was killed by a blow to the head, and shows Langston the unusual barcode pattern made by the object she was struck with. Sara tries to track down Marta’s other children, Julian and Alicia, and she and Nick follow a blood trail through the house. A ruckus distracts them and Sara goes outside to find Julian confronting the cops. He’s shocked to learn Diana is dead, and tells Sara he hasn’t spoken to Alicia in a while.
Dr. Priscilla Prescott, who has been treating Marta Santiago, comes to the lab to help question Marta. She maintains that Marta isn’t capable of killing her daughter or anyone else—but that it is possible that her disorder caused her to overlook Diana’s body in the house. Marta recalls Diana fell and was bleeding, but she remembers Diana leaving. Back at the house, Greg discovers the object that killed Diana: a large pile of magazines bound together with twine. When Greg backs into a pile, a shotgun goes off, causing him, Nick and Sara to duck—and Greg to stumble across a skeleton with its wrists tied together with red ribbon. In the morgue, Doc Robbins and Langston determine the skeleton belonged to a male aged 15 to 17. A tox screen of a marrow sample from the boy’s bones reveals that he died of massive arsenic poisoning. Nick brings Langston and Dr. Prescott to the house, where Dr. Prescott points out some of the stacked bins are time capsules made up of Alicia’s belongings. When they go into Alicia’s room, the three are surprised to find it completely empty.
Three more boys’ skeletons with their hands bound are discovered buried just outside the house. The CSIs are able to identify the first boy, as well as two of the buried ones as Matthew Price, Ryan Happ and Derrick Kennedy—all teenage runaways who had been staying at a halfway house run by Julian Santiago. After learning Alicia got friendly with several of the boys, the CSIs question Julian, positing that he killed them for getting close to his sister. Julian lawyers up. Langston and Nick scour the house and are shocked to find Alicia handcuffed to a bed behind piles of the bins. Alicia is taken to the hospital, where she tells Nick her mother imprisoned her. Greg traces the handcuffs to a purchase made by Julian Santiago, and Sara wonders if the young man was controlling his mother. She and Nick clash over her protectiveness of Marta Santiago, and Langston points out that they don’t have enough evidence to point the finger at either. After determining the red ribbon used to bind the boys’ hands was all from the same roll, the CSIs go back to the house to seek it out—and find it among canisters of rat poison. DNA on the ribbon and rat poison connects the murders not to Marta or her son, but Alicia. Langston realizes Marta imprisoned her daughter to stop her from killing. Julian and Marta are released, and Sara urges Julian to take care of his mother.
CSI takes on a hot topic and gives it far more than a cursory exploration in this thoughtful and surprising episode, which keeps the viewer guessing until the end. Hoarding is a hot topic right now: there are two reality TV shows devoted to the phenomenon, A&E’s Hoarders and TLC’s Hoarding: Buried Alive. (You can test your hoarding knowledge with this TLC quiz.) Affecting around three million Americans, the disorder is definitely an oft-discussed topic these days, and a glance at the houses profiled by the A&E and TLC shows reveals that the house depicted in this episode is an accurate depiction of a hoarder’s house. Though some of Nick’s comments come off as flippant and cruel, it’s hard not to have the same reaction, especially when he steps in the decomposing fluids from Diana’s body or when Greg finds a family of scorpions nesting on Matthew Price’s bones.
The episode kept me guessing; while I never suspected Marta of the murders, I wasn’t sure which of her children was the guilty party. I actually suspected Alicia was the killer early on based on Julian’s comments about her being at home longer than her siblings and therefore being more warped by her mother’s disorder. But when the CSIs discovered Alicia chained up, the twist threw me off. At the end of the episode when it’s revealed that Alicia is actually a serial killer, Sara points out to Julian that Alicia’s proclivities aren’t related to her mother’s disorder, making a distinction that is likely as important for Julian as it is for Sara.
The episode is grounded by Sara’s emotional reaction to the case, and the personal demons it brings up for her. Sara sees something of her own mother in Marta Santiago, prompting her to treat the woman with compassion and patience. She’s as certain as Dr. Prescott is that Marta isn’t the killer, an assertion that rubs Nick the wrong way. Whether Sara’s defense of Marta comes from gut instinct or a recognition that Marta doesn’t have violent tendencies based on her knowledge of her own mother isn’t completely clear to the audience. Maybe it isn’t for Sara, either. Regardless, she’s understandably frustrated with Nick’s lack of compassion, and when he asks her, “What is it about this woman that has you so blind?” Sara retorts, “What is it about this case that has you acting like such an ass right now?”
I suspect sympathies will be split between Sara and Nick. Mine are with Sara, not based on any preference of one character over another, but because her reaction was actually based on personal experience combined with a willingness to look at Marta Santiago’s problem as a disorder. Nick’s attitude in the episode is fairly off-putting; usually easy-going, Nick isn’t one to jump to conclusions about people as quickly as he does here. Maybe it’s because he’s the one who steps in the goopy remains of Diana Santiago, or maybe it’s because he’s overwhelmed at the prospect of processing the admittedly massive crime scene, but Nick makes some comments in the episode that are pretty insensitive. His annoyance shines through in comments like the one he makes to Dr. Prescott about “trash whispering.” His frustration was understandable, but there seemed to be a fair amount of vitriol and scorn behind it, which is somewhat out of character for the usually affable CSI.
Sara’s reaction is the opposite; she immediately recognizes the hoarding as a disorder and approaches Marta in that context. For Sara, Marta’s disorder brings up memories of her mother, and she opens up to Julian about her past in a way she wouldn’t have been capable of a few seasons ago. She describes how her schizophrenic mother murdered her father when she was a child in such a frank, open way that it’s hard to imagine that she was once a character who would act out or break down rather than reveal what was bothering her. Sara drives home the point that Marta isn’t responsible for Alicia’s predatory nature, and uses Julian, who turned out just fine, as an example. Like Sara, Julian survived a traumatic childhood—and thrived.
Nick and Sara are back on solid ground by the end of the episode; they’ve worked together for so long that there’s no need for apology or discussion about the argument. Sara comes into his office and says, “Hey,” and the ice is broken. Nick tells her the case has inspired him to clean out his office (a feeling shared by the audience, no doubt!) and shows her a marble Grissom gave to him. Sara recognizes it immediately, quoting Grissom’s saying with Nick: “If life ever gets crazy, roll with it.” It’s gratifying to see that after all these two have been through together, they’re able to disagree and move on from it at the end of the day.