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CSI: Crime Scene Investigation--'Ch-Ch-Changes'

By Kristine Huntley
Posted at November 22, 2004 - 11:14 PM GMT

See Also: 'Ch-Ch-Changes' Episode Guide

Note: This episode containes an Adult Content Warning.

Synopsis:

A young woman, Wendy Garner, is speeding when she's pulled over by a police officer. She explains to the officer that she's being pursued, and offers to show him a videotape she has. The officer turns her down. The scene shifts--Wendy lies dead in her car, Grissom examining the deep neck wound that killed her. Catherine finds Wendy's camcorder, but there's no tape inside. Grissom indicates that Wendy was cut below the throat as well, indicating her genital region.

David Phillips autopsies Wendy while Catherine looks on. He notes her large engagement ring, as well as the cosmetic surgery she's had, including breast implants and collagen in her lips. Meanwhile, Warrick and Sara go over Wendy's car. Sara is puzzled to discover two IDs in the car: Wendy's, which identifies her as a dancer at the Tangiers, and the driver's license and car registration of one Walter Clancy, a young, dark-haired man.

Dr. Robbins clears the mystery up: Wendy had gender reassignment surgery. Grissom posits that perhaps this is why her throat (where her Adam's Apple would have been) and genitals were cut. Catherine notes that it looks like a sexual assault turned into a hate crime.

Brass questions Officer Mann, the cop who pulled Wendy over. He claims he never looked at Wendy's videos, and that he let her go with a warning. Brass is suspicious of Mann's motivations, and suggests that perhaps Mann wanted sexual favors from Wendy and things went sour when he discovered Wendy had once been a man. Even when Brass brings up Mann's history of sexual harassment, Mann sticks to his story.

Catherine finds two matches to Wendy's prints: Wendy and Walter Clancy. Using a computer program, Archie adjusts Wendy's picture and transforms her back into Archie. Mia finds a seminal trace in Wendy's mouth, while Sara uses the serial number on Wendy's ring to trace it to her fiancÚ, Aaron Laner.

When Brass and Grissom visit Laner, it becomes clear that he had no idea that Wendy had once been Warren. The two met in a grief group--Aaron was mourning his wife, while Wendy was grieving for her "twin brother," Warren. Aaron and Wendy lived together, but were waiting until after their wedding to have sex. Upstairs, Sara discovers a bloody pad in the trash, as well as many bottles of pills and two post-it notes: one with instructions on taking the pills, and the other with several numbers on it.

Grissom and Catherine go to the Tangiers, where they question Wendy's fellow dancers. Several of them have had gender reassignment surgery like Wendy had, and they suggest she may have gone to a Dr. Mercer, known as being the best in his field. Mercer tells the CSIs that Wendy wanted to rush the gender reassignment surgery and was turned down by his clinic. He's shocked and sorry to hear about her death.

Mia examines the bloodied pad and identifies the blood as not being menstrual, but belonging to Wendy. Wendy was draining blood from elsewhere and putting it on pads to fake having a period. Mia thinks she must have had help. Greg tells Grissom that the drugs Wendy was taking were a post surgical cocktail of mostly illegal drugs.

Mimosa, one of the dancers who worked with Wendy, calls Grissom and asks him to meet her at The Apple Martini. She's a transgender as well, and flirts with Grissom gently while she tells him about the opposition transgenders face in society. Mimosa tells Grissom that Wendy called her the night of her death and told her about the tape she had. She points Grissom in the direction of Dr. Mona Lavalle, Wendy's therapist, for answers.

In the lab, Warrick is going over evidence. Mia tells him she's identified the blood on Wendy's shirt as male, but not Wendy's. It could be the killer's.

Grissom and Brass go to Dr. Lavalle's house, where her husband Francis directs them to the backyard, where Lavalle is running a therapy group for transgenders and their spouses. Lavalle tells Grissom and Brass that Wendy came to her after she was denied surgery, and that they were working on her impatience issues. Wendy saw Dr. Lavalle the night of her murder to talk about her upcoming wedding.

Armed with this new information, Nick and Warrick trace Wendy's route from Dr. Lavalle's house to her home. But given the distances and the time Lavalle claimed to have seen her, they can't account for fourteen minutes. Nick puts it together when he realizes there's a storage facility in the vicinity, and that the second post-it note Sara found in the bathroom.

The CSIs go to the facility, where they follow bloody footprints to the locker on the note. When they open the locker, they are greeted with a gruesome sight: a dead woman, lying on an operating table, a victim of a botched gender reassignment surgery. Robbins examines the body and determines that the dead woman has scarring that indicates she underwent multiple surgeries. The woman died two days ago, and despite the grim circumstances, Robbins says the cause of death--massive loss of blood due to hemorrhaging--indicates it was accidental.

Catherine gets a bloody print off of the makeshift vaginal stretcher used in the botched surgery. Mia gets a skin sample from inside a latex glove found in the locker. Nick identifies the victim as Vern Saldusky, who used to work at a bar called The Cockpit Lounge. Grissom and Nick go there to question one of Vern's co-workers, Mercedes, whose own gender reassignment surgery was horribly messed up, leaving her trapped between genders. She tells them when she was turned down for surgery through the proper channels, she went to a Dr. Carl Venday, who performed the surgeries when legitimate doctors wouldn't. Vern went to him a few days ago.

All the evidence leads to Venday. Venday is a former Vietnam vet who used to perform illegal abortions. The CSIs can trace the abdominal retractor used in Vern's botched surgery to Venday, who apparently has no record with the American Medical Association and no medical license. Grissom looks at photos of Venday from Vietnam and a later photo from a protest and makes a startling discovery: Venday is Dr. Mona Lavalle.

The CSIs bring Lavalle in for questioning. She says she hasn't been Venday in years, and claims to have dedicated her life to helping transgenders have the surgeries they desire. Grissom shoots back that she doesn't have a medical license, and asks how many have died. She claims Vern was a tragedy, but that she didn't kill Wendy. She has an alibi: she was at her daughter's soccer game when Wendy was killed. When the CSIs go to search Lavalle's house, Francis is enraged at the invasion of their privacy. After Francis leaves, Nick gets a sample of his spit that was sprayed after his impassioned speech. Warrick finds a partially unraveled tape from a camcorder.

The DNA in the latex glove to Amber Hanshaw, Dr. Lavalle's daughter's nanny. She admits to helping Dr. Lavalle, who helped her turn her life around, but says she was at Lavalle's daughter's soccer game when Wendy was killed. Amber's alibi holds up as well.

Archie fixes the tape, which Wendy used to record what she saw in the storage locker. Warrick says she was probably trying to expose Lavalle. But if Lavalle and Amber both have alibis, that leaves only Lavalle's husband Francis. Brass has him brought in; it was he who was chasing Wendy after she made the gruesome discovery. He ran her off the road and killed her. He admits he tried to protect his wife's work, which he clearly believes in. But when the CSIs bring up the seminal samples on Wendy's mouth, he denies any infidelity. Nick posits that since he's a spitter, he may have transferred the sample if he had oral sex with his wife.

Grissom shares the results of the investigation with Mimosa, the dancer who used to work with Wendy. She's saddened to learn Wendy was killed by someone in the transgender community. Grissom consoles her suggesting that as oysters are able to switch genders, perhaps humanity only having one gender is the mutation.

Analysis:

Fans expecting major ch-ch-changes in CSI: Crime Scene Investigation's big 100th episode may have been slightly disappointed to find the landmark episode was an ordinary albeit powerful case, but the episode did showcase what CSI does so well: engaging the audience with compelling mysteries and clever forensics. In that way, it's a completely appropriate way to commemorate one-hundred episodes of the most popular drama currently on television before those real ch-ch-changes come in next week with the show's 101st episode, "Mea Culpa" (story).

"Ch-Ch-Changes" is a superior CSI episode. This may be a personal preference, but I find the more we see of the person who turns out to be the murderer, the more powerful the episode. That often holds true for how much we learn about the victim and the survivors as well, which is why I generally prefer episodes that deal with just one case to ones that try to pack two or more in. "Ch-Ch-Changes" allows the viewer to get to know Wendy, a woman desperate to keep the perfect life she's worked so hard for, but yet is willing to risk that life to help others in the situation she once was in. And the episode also gives us the opportunity to know Mona Lavalle, whose desire to help people appears noble and obsessive at the beginning of the episode and twisted (given the fact that she doesn't possess a medical degree) by the end. And her husband, Francis, with his desire to protect his family, also comes through as a memorable character.

Another admirable aspect of CSI in general and this episode in particular is the fact that not every clue leads somewhere. Sometimes evidence isn't useful or needs to be discarded because it just doesn't pertain to the case. In this episode, the CSIs think that Wendy had oral sex with Francis and Mona. Nick ultimately comes up with a theory as to why it may have seemed that way (Francis is a spitter, and if he just had oral sex with his wife, he could have spread the trace to Wendy when he was yelling at her), but the end result is that the evidence was not only not useful, but misleading as well. The truth always lies with the evidence, but the CSIs have to sort through that evidence and sort out what's relevant and what's not; it's not all laid out neatly like bread crumbs in a line for them to follow. To me, that's a nice bit of realism that gives the show even more credibility.

Grissom shows his sensitive side in his talks with Wendy's friend Mimosa, who is also a transgendered woman. He's not put off by her subtle flirting, perhaps because in a way, he relates to her. Grissom is an outsider, too--not as much of one as a transgendered person in society, but nonetheless, quiet, awkward Grissom doesn't feel like he fits in with most people either. His scenes with Mimosa, both in the bar and in his office after the case is solved are both subtle and moving. William Petersen conveys compassion and sympathy especially well in the scene where he has to tell Mimosa that Wendy was killed by someone in the transgender community, a blow Mimosa takes especially hard.

Not all of the CSIs are as comfortable with the transgender community as Grissom is. Sara looks uncomfortable when Mia Dickerson tells her about a person she heard about who had the gender reassignment surgery. Whether Sara is reacting to Mia's story or Mia's own awkwardness isn't quite clear, but the look on Sara's face shows that clearly Mia's story is out of place at the very least. Greg is more straightforward. The funniest moment in the episode comes when Greg hurriedly tells Grissom, "For the record, I really like having a penis" before giving his boss the results of his lab work. It's pure Greg-style comic relief.

I happened to watch the show's "Pilot" episode this weekend. It made a nice counterpoint for the show's 100th episode. Despite the fact that CSI is probably working with a heftier budget these days, many things have stayed surprisingly consistent. We still gain most of our insights into the characters when they're in the lab or reacting to a case. The cases are still the focus, and the evidence is still everything. CSI may have been an underdog before it premiered, but since it debuted to surprisingly high numbers in a Friday night timeslot, the show has captured a sizable audience's collective imagination and hasn't let go.

Reaching one hundred episodes is a milestone. Getting a record number of reviewers for that one hundredth episode (story) is an impressive accomplishment. By the fifth season, many shows are losing viewers if not quality. CSI is not hurting for either by any means. With its two extremely successful spin-offs, CSI is more popular than ever. Will it last? If the stories stay strong and compelling, I don't expect CSI's star to fade anytime soon. Here's to one hundred more great episodes.

Discuss this reviews at Talk CSI!

Find more episode info in the Episode Guide.


Kristine Huntley is a freelance writer and reviewer.

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