The discovery of a young woman with a series of needles stuck through her arms leads the team into the world of freaks and geeks at a traveling carnival.
A young woman is found wrapped in a tarp, and there are long needles sticking out of her arms. They were inserted with precision to minimize bleeding and maximize pain. There is also a barbecue skewer stuck into her as well, with black wax on it. There are scars on her body like the marks left by the needles, indicating that repeated use created scarred areas. Doc Robbins finds lidocaine in her system, which is an anesthetic.
The woman had a knee implant, which gets them a name: Rachel Grier. They speak to Rachel’s sister, Dr Jennifer Grier, who says she hasn’t spoken to Rachel in years. Her daughter Silvia, however, had lunch with Rachel a few days ago. She says her aunt wanted to mend fences and come home.
There’s a painting on the tarp that has been covered with new paint, and Nick uses camera filters to discover the image beneath. It looks like a woman with flames in the same places as the needles in Rachel’s arms. The woman looks like a human candelabra, and Morgan does an image search and finds the website for Major Willie’s Rambling Carnival and Curious Extravaganza. It’s in Vegas, and they head there to check out the ‘Magnificent Femmistopheles: Empress of Pain’, aka the human candelabra. Major Willie identifies Rachel as ‘Femmistopheles’, but he doesn’t seem too choked up to learn that she’s dead. It isn’t a surprise, he says, considering how the rest of the world views people like them.
Rachel was killed with propofol, which in a large enough dose can paralyze the diaphragm and cause a person to suffocate. Willie has access to drugs like lidocaine, and he admits to giving such drugs to Rachel, but they don’t find any propofol at the carnival. However, they do find bags of blood that Rachel drew to use for her act, and the blood contains hormones indicating she was pregnant. They also find blood and semen in her bed, and the semen belongs to someone with Proteus syndrome—the Elephant Man in the show, Joshua Helm. Rachel wanted them to leave the show together, but he knew he couldn’t live a normal life the way she could. She lost the baby, but she wanted to try again. He refused, but he denies killing her.
Willie is found dead, staged to look like he was hanged. Rachel’s niece Silvia is caught fleeing the scene, and she says she just wanted to see the life her aunt was living. She felt a connection to the woman, and she stumbled into the tent and found Willie hanging there. The other people from the show saw her and looked at her like she was responsible, so she ran.
Willie died after something punctured his stomach from the inside. As part of his act, he swallowed strange items, so Nick and Greg go through the man’s stomach contents and find a nipple ring still attached to the nipple. The nipple ring has the Gemini zodiac sign, so they assume it belongs to one of the men at the carnival who goes by the name Zodiac. However, his nipples are intact. When they check everyone else from the show, they discover that Sergio the Strong is missing a nipple. His real name is Seth Helm, and he is Joshua’s fraternal twin brother. Their mother died in childbirth, and their father abandoned them. When his brother started to change, they knew their only shot was to join a show like this. He says Willie was better than most when it came to his brother, until he convinced Seth to help cover up Rachel’s death. He assumed that Willie killed Rachel and pushed him while he was sword-swallowing. This injured him internally, and he bit off Seth’s nipple in a struggle before he died. Seth thought if he made it look like a suicide, it would all go away. He coughs up a bottle of propofol, which ties back to Rachel’s sister Jennifer. She killed Rachel to keep the “freak” out of Silvia’s life.
“Freaks & Geeks” establishes the differences between these two groups of people within the traditional sideshow. “Freaks” are those who come by their talents naturally, such as those who have a genetic condition or physical deformity. “Geeks”, on the other hand, are people who earn their place in the carnival by honing their skills. Both types of people are represented in this episode, with the victim Rachel falling in the “geek” category. The young woman inserted large, 20-gauge needles into her arms at regular intervals and placed burning candles on the ends. She was the ‘human candelabra’, and the regular process of inserting needles into her arms caused scarring that turned the insertion points into pathways that could be reopened more easily and with a minimum of bleeding. It was still incredibly painful, and Rachel injected herself with lidocaine to manage it.
The leader of the carnival, Steven “Willie” Watt, provided Rachel with the pain medication, which he also used himself. He too is in the “geek” category, and he inserts a paperclip into his arm in the interrogation room before swallowing it. When the man turns up dead later in the episode due to internal bleeding, it looks like his ill-advised snack might have disagreed with him. However, the bleeding was actually caused when he was shoved while sword-swallowing.
The “freaks” in the episode include Zodiac, a man with congenital analgesia, and the Elephant Man, Joshua, who suffers from Proteus syndrome. Joshua and Rachel were in a relationship, and she was going to have his child until she suffered a miscarriage. Rachel wanted to try again, but Joshua said no. He thought Rachel lived in a fantasy world, and she thought they could actually live a normal life in the outside world. She could, and he tried to get her to leave, but he could never walk away from the carnival.
Despite all of the “freaks” and “geeks” surrounding Rachel at the carnival, it was her sister Jennifer’s intolerance that actually killed her in the end. Jennifer couldn’t handle the idea of Rachel coming back into her life and corrupting her daughter Silvia. Silvia admired her aunt, and Jennifer’s education and medical degree didn’t prevent her from being ignorant about Rachel’s lifestyle and choices. She refers to Joshua as a “thing” and is disgusted that her sister would fall in love with him. She injected Rachel with propofol and left her to suffocate, and she tells Catherine that she was protecting Silvia from the “monsters in this world”. Catherine responds that yes, Silvia is safe from the monsters, but it’s obviously the monster sitting in front of her that’s at the front of Catherine’s mind, not the people in the carnival.
Interacting with the “freaks” and “geeks” from the carnival has an effect on Catherine and DB. For Catherine, her history of bad relationships causes her to focus on Joshua as a suspect, assuming that he killed Rachel after she broke his heart. Joshua tells Catherine that she can’t comprehend the love they felt for each other, and he says she’ll never understand it. Catherine is slightly taken aback by the comment, but she doesn’t deny that he struck a nerve when she’s speaking to DB later. She still thinks Joshua is a viable suspect, but DB wonders if his own past is clouding his judgment. He admits that his focus on Willie is based on a bad experience from his childhood. In his case, the charismatic leader reminds him of Durga Joe, a man he and his parents knew a long time ago. DB’s parents were singers who joined a traveling show, and they drove around the country in their van. His parents didn’t like Durga Joe, who was so charismatic that he could make people do just about anything. They were afraid to leave, so they packed up their van and drove off in the middle of the night. DB understands that a man like Durga Joe or Willie can be the best con artist. Indeed, Willie talks Seth into disposing of Rachel’s body—his friend and the woman his brother loved—by convincing him that it was best for Joshua. Unfortunately for Willie, his charisma didn’t protect him when Seth gave him an ill-timed shove while he had a sword down his throat.
In addition to the background about his parents and the time they spent traveling with Durga Joe, DB offers up another interesting tidbit at the beginning of the episode. He’s looking at Las Vegas from a distance when Catherine arrives at the scene, and he says the city is beautiful from this vantage point. Catherine refers to the location as “the missile base”, and DB wonders why. She tries to change the subject, not sure why she even brought it up, but DB decides to offer up his own story in exchange for hers. He met his wife during his freshman year of college, he reveals, and she was his “first and only love”. Catherine is surprised to learn that he lost his virginity to his wife, but DB just shrugs it off and says that “life is simple sometimes.” Life was never simple for Catherine, however, as DB learns a minute later when she tells him the story about Tony Anthopolis and their ill-advised relationship when she was sixteen. DB clearly doesn’t judge her, and when she points out that she made bad choices when it came to men, he tells her that she was smart and was also looking for someone to recognize that. It’s an interesting, insightful conversation relating to both characters, and I’m going to miss their dynamic when Marg Helgenberger leaves the show. She and Ted Danson are great together.
See also: “Freaks & Geeks” episode guide