July 16 2024

CSI Files

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Review: CSI: Crime Scene Investigation–‘Fracked’

7 min read

The discovery of a man’s body in a sulphur spring leads the CSIs to a corrupt gas company.

Synopsis:


The body of a man is found by several teenagers in a sulphur spring. Langston notices the man has been hit in the head with a pistol, while Nick notices his shirt is torn. The pair also notice fresh motor oil deposits. In the morgue, Doc Robbins tells Catherine that the man drowned, and finds fluid trapped in his lungs. He also notes that the man was very sick, pointing out cancerous lesions on the man’s tissue. Catherine compares a sample from the sulphur spring with the water from the man’s lungs and finds they’re not a match. Catherine runs the man’s prints through AFIS and identifies him as Walter Burns, a resident of the small town of Cable Springs. Walter lost his wife the year before. Greg discovers Walter made a dozen calls to a reporter named Rosalind Johnson, who owns and writes for the Cable Springs Reporter. Rosalind admits that Walter is a source, but is reluctant to give the CSIs any details beyond that. She does share that Walter’s wife was sick, too. An abandoned vehicle belonging to a man named Richard Adams is discovered in Fremont with blood in it—and Walter Burns’ address in the GPS. Nick learns that Richard worked for a gas company in Cable Springs, and he and Detective Reed discover Richard Adams’ body in a pile of garbage outside a seedy motel. Reed finds another link between Adams and Walter: the last number Adams called was Rosalind Johnson’s.

Richard Adams’ wife tells Nick her husband was a safety inspector for the Conservo Gas Company and that he frequently visited ranchers who complained about the gas company. She tells the CSI that Richard thought someone was following him, and says that Rosalind Johnson was constantly calling him. She clams up when he asks about Conservo, saying that she signed a confidentiality agreement and will lose her insurance if she talks, and shows Nick a goat’s head that was left at the house in a box. Langston and Doc Robbins autopsy the goat head and find lesions similar to the ones Walter had. Archie recovers photos from Richard Adams’ phone of the goat before its death, and from the photo is able to get the location where the photo was taken: a ranch right down the street from Walter Burns’ property belonging to a man named Bill Gibson. Nick and Langston go to Bill Gibson’s ranch and find the angry rancher holding the body of a dead goat—the last of his livestock. Bill tells them the goat was sick, and makes the CSIs nervous by brandishing a shotgun. When asked about Walter, he tells Nick and Langston that Walter was going to get proof that Conservo was poisoning the water. Bill provides the proof in dramatic fashion when he throws a match down his well—and the well explodes!

Once they’ve recovered from their shock, Langston and Nick retrieve a sample of the water and notice it has a chemical odor. Langston tries igniting it and the water catches on fire. Rosalind Johnson confronts Langston, telling him that Walter and Bill knew what he knows now: Conservo is taking short cuts with safety measures when it comes to drilling for gas. After Hodges confirms that there are multiple chemicals in the water and Doc Robbins finds Walter, Bill Gibson and Mrs. Gibson all suffered from the same cancerous lesions, Catherine turns to Ecklie in the hopes of exposing Conservo. Catherine tells Ecklie the gas company is using hydraulic fracturing, known as “fracking,” to remove gas from the earth, causing poisons to seep into the water. While Ecklie is reluctant to let Catherine go after the gas company, Langston matches the motor oil found at the sulphur spring to a commercial grade Conservo uses, allowing the CSIs to get a warrant to search the gas company premises. Nick and Langston find a piece of Walter Burns’ shirt by one of the evaporation pools, but the killer, truck driver Cody Trimble, is found dead, the victim of a convenient hit and run accident. The CSIs link Cody to the murders of both Walter Burns and Richard Adams, closing the case… though not to their satisfaction. Ecklie tells Catherine and Brass the hit and run case can stay open. Langston meets with Rosalind and tells her about Walter’s heroic attempt to get gas from Conservo. Concerned about her cough, Langston tells her he got her into a clinical trial in the hopes that her life can be saved.

Analysis:

Anyone familiar with the new Battlestar Galactica, which aired on the SyFy channel from 2003-2009, will recognize the word “frack,” which was a stand in for a popular expletive that the FCC still bans on television. Bradley Thompson and David Weddle wrote for the show for the duration of its run, and brought their knowledge of the quirks and eccentricities of science fiction fans to the lighthearted and thoroughly enjoyable season nine entry “A Space Oddity”. “Fracked” isn’t a science fiction story so to speak, though sci-fi fans no doubt chuckled at Langston’s quip about the word “fracked”: “sounds like a sci-fi expletive.” Clearly, Langston knows his BSG. Fans of the show also probably enjoyed the fact that Katee Sackhoff’s character Detective Reed showed up in the episode, as Sackhoff played the role of maverick pilot Starbuck in Battlestar. The references might not mean much to the average CSI fan, but for those that watched BSG, they’re fun little in jokes.

Instead of a sci-fi story, Thompson and Weddle offer up a frightening environmental story about people in a small town being poisoned by a local gas company. Conservo Gas’s hydraulic fracturing is releasing deadly chemicals into the water that goes to the ranches and households in the small town of Cable Springs. After losing his wife to cancer caused by the gas company and getting sick himself, Walter Burns set out to expose the gas company—and ended up paying with his life. It is Bill Gibson who reveals the danger of the water to the CSIs, though he also gives his life in order to do so. Bill, holding the body of the last of his livestock in his arms, is a man with nothing left to lose. Henry Sanders gives a powerful performance as Bill, revealing the depth of the rancher’s loss. The moment when he tosses burning match down his well is a truly shocking one.

Conservo Gas is an awfully powerful company, one we’re never really given a face for, save for a random foreman and a dead truck driver. We don’t meet any evil executives or sinister managers, making Conservo a somewhat nebulous villain, more a caricature than a fully realized nemesis. That’s the problem with episodes that address Important Issues: more often than not, the two sides are presented in rather black and white terms. Here, the gas company is bad—they poison the water, they kill a man they catch trespassing on their property and they have one of their own employees rather brutally murdered after threatening him the day before. That’s not just sinister; it’s full blown evil. The victims of Conservo’s policy are just the opposite: hard-working, downtrodden, honest ranchers and their wives, as well as a muckraking reporter. The case couldn’t be more black and white, and that makes it less, not more interesting.

Langston connects with dogged reporter Rosalind Johnson, who is fighting to get the story about Conservo Gas to the Cable Springs community and is dealt a pair of major setbacks when Walter Burns is murdered, followed shortly by her source at Conservo, Richard Adams. Poor Rosalind can’t catch a break, but she’s not going to give up her fight for the story. Played with aplomb by Angela Bettis, Rosalind is both driven and shrewd; she trades information with Langston in order to discover how Walter died. Though Rosalind might frustrate most CSIs, Langston is patient with her, and in the end, so sympathetic to her plight that he arranges for her to have a place in a clinical trial his friend is conducting. Rosalind is grateful, but it’s unclear whether the trial will be enough to save her, or if she has any chance of continuing the fight.

The episode is left open-ended, with the case closed in a purposefully unsatisfying way: the trucker who killed both Walter and Richard is found dead, the victim of a hit-and-run that seems to be anything but an accident. Ecklie, forced to be the buzz kill on the case, shoots down Catherine’s desire to issue a public safety alert, but he does agree to leave the hit-and-run case open, leaving open the possibility that the case will be revisited at some point. If it is, hopefully the villains can be fleshed out a bit—it’s much more fun and interesting to hate truly well developed and cleverly crafted bad guys, as opposed to ones that simply fall into the category of stereotypically evil companies. If the storyline is revisited, hopefully we’ll see some of the human faces behind Conservo.

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