CSI: Crime Scene Investigation--'Living Doll'

By Kristine Huntley
Posted at May 25, 2007 - 3:49 AM GMT

See Also: 'Living Doll' Episode Guide

Synopsis:

Continuing their hunt for the miniature crime scene killer, the CSIs track down another of Ernie Dell's foster children, Trevor Dell, but find him dead in his apartment. When Grissom discovers a miniature doll dressed like Trevor, he suspects the miniature killer has beat them to Trevor. Warrick looks at Trevor's computer and determines he's been dead for twelve days based on his instant messaging activity, while Nick reports that Trevor died from a hemorrhage due to blunt force trauma to the head. Grissom recovers a partial fingerprint from the back of the miniature man, and Wendy runs it, surprising him by telling him the DNA of skin cells in the print are female. Grissom takes the small bracelet on the doll to a local miniature shop, and the owner tells him he made the bracelet for a woman named Natalie.

Nick and Warrick determine Trevor was electrocuted when wires behind his sink connected with water in the sink, but what they at first think is an elaborate booby trap created by the miniature killer turns out to be nothing more than a red herring when they discover a neighbor is siphoning power from Trevor's apartment. Trevor's death was an accident, but the CSIs have a lead: they question a Mrs. Wexler about Natalie Davis, who came to her as a foster child before going to Ernie. She tells them Natalie was "broken" and sends the CSIs to Natalie's father, Christopher, a ventriloquist who calls his doll by the same name as his dead daughter, Chloe--Natalie's younger sister. He tells the CSIs that Natalie was responsible for her sister's death: she pushed her from their treehouse and watched as her father cleaned up her sister's blood using bleach.

The CSIs are horrified to learn Natalie has been working as a cleaning woman at their very offices, and Grissom makes a chilling discovery: a miniature car wreck in the desert, with a miniature of Sara under it. The car license plate matches a wrecked car from a case Sara worked weeks ago. Grissom is stunned, and reveals to the team that Natalie is seeking revenge on him for Ernie Dell's death, taking from him the one person he loves like he did to her. The team finds an address for Natalie and storms her apartment. She runs, but Nick and Warrick catch up to her and arrest her. Grissom interrogates her, desperately trying to find out where she's taken Sara, but Natalie doesn't give him an answer. Somewhere in the desert, as the rain pours down, Sara reaches out from under the crushed car...

Analysis:

CSI ends on a cliffhanger--but was it a cliffhanger of merit or necessity? With Jorja Fox's contract up for renegotiation--and, at the time of this writing, no deal has been struck--the writers were wise to capitalize on the 'will she or won't she return?" question by putting Sara in a life or death situation. I'm not sure if it's possible in the age of the internet, but if they could keep secret whether or not they reach a deal, the eighth season opener will definitely be buzzed about.

Not to cast any aspersions on Fox, but the latter half of the episode certainly give credence to the story in the New York Post that she didn't show up to film the final scene of the episode (story). We don't see Sara at all when Natalie abducts her and we don't see anything other than her hand when the final shot reveals Sara is under the car. It's a shame, because in both scenes not seeing Sara robs the reveal of some of its shock value.

This episode was billed as the one that would bring Grissom and Sara's relationship out into the open, and it did that when Grissom realized, out loud to the whole team, that because he had taken away the one person Natalie loved, Natalie intend to do the same to him by killing Sara. It's not quite the powerful, shocking moment it should be, in large part because we don't really get much of a reaction at all from the team. I suppose it might have been a bit out of place for one of them to go, "You and Sara are together?" but at the same time the big reveal could have packed a little more of a punch.

Ironically, the greatest strength and the greatest weakness of the Grissom-Sara coupling has been the same thing: the understated reserve with which the two conducted their romance. On the positive end of things, this kept their relationship from overshadowing the show in any way, and kept it from distracting from the cases. But, on the downside, it's made their actions at times seem implausible, as evinced in "Leaving Las Vegas" when Grissom leaves Sara without a kiss, an "I love you" or even an embrace. Are real people, even reserved ones, actually that remote with each other in private?

Though the scene where Grissom reveals to the team that he and Sara are together is somewhat lacking, his interrogation of Natalie isn't. He starts off gently, seeming to sympathize with the obviously unhinged Natalie, telling her he admirers her work and that she's unique among all the killers he's pursued in his years as a CSI. At first Natalie seems to be receptive, but when Grissom asks about Sara, she turns on him, rightly realizing his questioning is designed to get her to reveal where Sara is. This is turn sets off the usually taciturn Grissom, who yells at Natalie, asking where Sara is. William Petersen shrugs off Grissom's usual reserve to show the audience how deep Grissom's feelings for Sara run.

The miniature crime scene killer case has been building all season, claiming no fewer than 6 episodes of CSI's 24 of the season. Given that CSI shows usually patently avoid arcs, it's impressive that a full fourth of the season was devoted to this plotline. CSI relies heavily on being episodic rather than a serial, but I think the MCSK storyline struck a good balance--it managed to be intricate without being impossible to follow, even if you missed an episode or two along the way. The beginning of "Living Doll" has a quick recap of the previous murders as well as the key piece of evidence that Hodges found to link them all in "Lab Rats": the presence of bleach at every scene.

There are nice pieces of continuity woven throughout for the viewer that has followed the case. Most notable is the mysterious doll that shows up at each scene as well, usually in a picture or photograph. In this episode, the identity of the doll is revealed: it's the ventriloquist dummy that Natalie's father Christopher has named after her dead sister, Chloe. It's rather creepy to hear Christopher projecting Chloe's voice, and to see her show up in the miniature crime scenes is equally chilling. Is Natalie haunted by Chloe's death? Does Natalie perhaps feel some remorse for killing her sister? Chloe's doll-likeness showing up in every scene hints that it's at least possible.

It's tough to strike a balance while trying to do a serialized story in an episodic show, and in making the case and its resolution fairly straightforward, much of the potential depth is lost. What is Natalie's motive, other than that deep down she's pretty much a psychopath? She was "broken" before her sister's death since she is in fact the one who killed her sister. So what is it about bleach that sets her off? Yes, it was used by her father to clean up her sister's blood, but she's the one who killed her sister, so why would the bleach be so disturbing to her?

I am grateful the writers stayed away from the 'she was abused so she became a killer' stereotype--in a way, it is refreshing and different to see someone who is just plain evil and simply broken from the get-go. If she's a true sociopath, she wouldn't have any real attachment to anyone, but Grissom thinks Natalie took Sara in revenge for his investigation leading to Ernie Dell's suicide. That parallel is clear, but Jessica Collins wisely plays the character as so inhuman and so in her own head that it's hard to tell exactly what she cares about. To put it plainly, she's just too messed up to form anything as normal as basic human attachments.

Collins makes the character downright eerie, which, after a whole season's worth of build up, strikes just the right chord. Natalie is everything we didn't expect the miniature killer to be: she's too female, too young, too fragile looking to have killed as many people as she has. And yet, if the killer had turned out to be the stereotypical serial killer type--white male, in his 30s or 40s--wouldn't it have been just a tad bit disappointing? After a season-long arc, it's nice to have the killer turn out to be something other than what we expected.

What's next? Obviously, the "is Sara dead?" plot thread is going to be at the forefront of everyone's mind when the show returns for its eighth season. Depending on whether the first episode picks up right where "Living Doll" leaves off, the conclusion could be much like the second half of "Grave Danger", following the CSIs as they mount a desperate search to save Sara. That would of course depend on Fox returning for the next season. The possibility also exists for a flash-forward: the CSIs seem to like to skip ahead a few months, and it's just as likely (though in my opinion not nearly as effective) that what happened that night will be revealed in flashbacks.

However the cliffhanger is resolved, CSI is coming off an incredibly strong season and, though Grey's Anatomy managed to best it in the ratings, the show did manage to hold onto most of its audience despite the stiff competition from a younger, "hotter" show. The fact that CSI managed to turn its seventh season into one of its best ever is certainly something those behind the show should be proud of. By year seven, few shows can claim to feel fresh (even the inventive 24 started to show its age this season, its sixth), but CSI can certainly assert that. May the trend continue in its eighth year.

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Kristine Huntley is a freelance writer and reviewer.