CSI: New York--'Commuted Sentences'

By Kristine Huntley
Posted at November 8, 2007 - 9:56 AM GMT

See Also: 'Commuted Sentences' Episode Guide

Synopsis:

The body of Mitchell Bentley III is found in front of the apartment building where Fern Lazlow, the woman he was recently acquitted of raping, lives. Mitchell was stabbed four times, and Fern was found covered in blood, so the case appears to be open-and-shut, but Fern denies any involvement: she says she found his body, checked for a pulse and freaked out when she realized he was her assailant. Across town, Danny, Lindsay and Hawkes investigate the murder of a woman named Joanna Morgan, who was killed on the steps of a museum by a close range fatal gunshot wound to the chest. Based on the exit wound of the bullet, they suspect the shooter was standing right behind her and was likely hit by the bullet as well. Lindsay uses a slingshot to recreate the trajectory of the bullet and the CSIs are able to recover it, confirming that both Joanna's blood and an unknown male's are on the bullet. Mac and Stella learn Mitchell Bentley dined with a book editor named Amber Stanton the night of his death.

The CSIs are surprised to discover their cases are connected when Danny and Lindsay learn Joanna bought a pair of shoes from a boutique that prints a New York subway system on the bottom of their shoes--a specialized tread that happened to be found on a bandage at the scene of Bentley's death. The CSIs find a connection between Amber, Joanna and Fern: all three were the victims of rape. Hawkes determines that Joanna ingested food that, had she lived, would have given her a very bad case of food poisoning. The CSIs search hospital reports and learn a man named Steve Kaplan checked into a hospital with food poisoning--and asked for painkillers. Danny and Detective Angell bring Steve in and confront him: he was acquitted of killing a model several years ago. He tells them he met Joanna on the internet, and after dinner she pulled a gun on him. He fought her and the gun went off; he claims self-defense but Angell arrests him for murder. A shoebox and a train ticket chad connect Amber to Mitchell's death; she met Joanna on a train and they bonded over their traumatic experiences and rage over the fact that so many rapists and murderers beat the system. Joanna went after Steve, while Amber killed Mitchell, wholly unaware that Fern would find him and be implicated in his death. Fern is released, and Amber is arrested on murder charges.

Analysis:

While I thoroughly enjoy most hours of CSI: NY and its parent shows, there aren't really many episodes that make me really sit down and think long and hard about the issues raised in them. Sometimes they try--CSI's "The Case of the Cross-Dressing Carp, with its exploration of water contamination and ire over indifference to the issue--but few really make me ponder the cases or react emotionally to them. But "Commuted Sentences" really got under my skin, much in the way season two's "All Access" did. But unlike "All Access," which was a cheap hour of exploitation of violence against women, "Commuted Sentences" is thoughtful and thought-provoking, and doesn't provide any easy answers.

I'll readily admit Mac pissed me off in this episode, with his overly righteous tone and his trotting out of his own strict moral code. Mac isn't really a character that sees grey areas, and at times this makes him downright frustrating. Still, I don't think it was necessarily a mistake to have Mac be the lead interrogator in the scene, even if he did come off as preachy and uptight. Gary Sinise is at his stiffest in scenes like these, conveying that Mac is clinging to his rigid idea of justice because, in the face of injustice, it's pretty much all he's got. Justice isn't perfect but it's all Mac's got--and sometimes his toeing of the line makes him come off as uptight and narrow-minded.

Thankfully, Danny is around to offset him in that scene. Danny is by far the most compassionate character on the show, the character who can't help but react emotionally to everything he encounters. Earlier he scornfully dismissed Steve Caplan, knowing the self-defense charge was more or less true, but not having any problem with him going away for murder after he escaped an earlier rap. But he's much gentler with Amber, and there's a notable lilt of compassion in his voice when he tells her she's going to be serving time for murder. Carmine Giovinazzo gives a nuanced, layered performance in these scenes; of all the characters, Danny's perspective is most in opposition to Mac's. Where Mac sees only black and white, Danny sees shades of grey everywhere, sympathizing with transgressors whose motives are born out of grief ("Super Men") while scorning those who kill for greed or arrogance ("Bad Beat", "Dancing with the Fishes"). Danny is by far the most emotionally complex character on the show, and this episode does a good job of limning Danny's own complicated moral code.

Stella is not nearly as involved with the case emotionally as I'd expect her to be, but after last seasons "Open and Shut" it probably would have been overkill to have her get too involved with the case on a personal level. Stella is a tough character, and while she expresses sympathy for Fern and her plight, not having Stella identify with every woman who's a victim of violence at the hands of a man is a wise decision. There's nothing more irritating than a character who sees herself or himself in every case remotely related to her or his own experience, as Lindsay proved last season. I loved Stella's look at the end of the episode, when Amber and Fern passed each other in the hall and exchanged a meaningful look.

And what did that "meaningful look" mean, exactly? Had Fern known what Amber and Joanna had been planning all along? Was she a tangential part of it after all? Or was the look simply one of solidarity--and a possible passing on of the vengeance torch? Stella doesn't seem quite sure, and neither is the viewer. It's a wonderfully ambiguous moment, and contributes to the episode's resonance even after the end credits have rolled, leaving viewers to ponder what exactly the significance was behind that look.

At the heart of the case are three very interesting and sympathetic women. We only get to see Joanna in flashbacks, but Amber and Fern each get a fair amount of screentime. Both are a tad on the arrogant side--or is that righteousness? Their attitudes aren't all that different from Mac's; like him, they believe their ideas about justice--and how it should be meted out--are correct. Both women opine that the man in question--a rapist whom the system failed to catch--deserved to die. What recourse is there when traditional justice fails? The answer isn't quite as simple or easy as Mac Taylor would like it to be. I found myself rooting for the women, and hoping Amber would get off on a technicality--just as Mitchell Bentley and Steve Kaplan had.

In such a serious episode, comic relief is key, and scribe John Dove wisely peppers the episode with scenes here and there to lighten the mood. Lab techs Adam and Kendall provide a chuckle when Kendall tells Mac that Adam is looking faint because he's on a diet after being complimented on his "baby fat" at a club. Mac's reaction at the end of the scene--handing Adam a muffin and telling him to eat is priceless, as is Adam's food lust. Kendall first showed up in "Can You Hear Me Now?", and so far I'm not sure I buy her as a lab tech; she comes across more like a wealthy socialite slumming it in the lab for fun. Bess Wohl is a competent actress, but it would have been much more fun to see a fellow nerdy type as a counterpart for the delightfully geeky Adam.

The Montana jokes are getting so stale you can practically see the mold growing on them, but I did appreciate Lindsay's retort to Danny's umpteenth "did you do that in Montana?" quip after she makes the slingshot. She replies with smarmy glee that her dead on aim comes from pelting boys. Anna Belknap delivers the line with genuine relish, giving us a glimpse of what Lindsay could be if only she would inhabit the role more thoroughly. It's a nice moment, and hopefully we'll see more of that spirit in Lindsay in the future.

There's true sizzle in the flirtatious scene between Flack and Detective Angell. If CSI: NY is looking for a hot young couple, the writers need look no further than this sexy duo, who are so genetically blessed it's almost absurd. And yet, both wear it well; Angell, who grew up with brothers, seems to dismiss her own beauty, while Flack is genuinely unaware of what a looker he is. Angell calling him on his line and Flack's bashful response makes for a very cute, very charged moment, and one has to wonder what might have transpired if Amber hadn't interrupted. Even Amber picks up on the sparks, referring to Flack as Angell's "boyfriend." This is one pairing worth exploring.

We're thankfully granted a reprieve in this episode from the overly heavy 333 case, and while I suspect it's a brief one, I'm very grateful for it. I'm reserving final judgment until the case plays out, but thus far, aside from the delivery of a bloody t-shirt to Mac's office in "You Only Die Once" that never has been explained or even mentioned again, the mystery has been deeply underwhelming. The converging cases in "Commuted Sentences" were anything but.

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Find more episode info in the Episode Guide.


Kristine Huntley is a freelance writer and reviewer.