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CSI: Crime Scene Investigation--'Mascara'

By Kristine Huntley
Posted at April 4, 2009 - 1:57 AM GMT

See Also: 'Mascara' Episode Guide

Synopsis:

A disoriented young woman runs from a Lucha Libre match out into the streets of Vegas, trying to hail a cab but failing. When she notices a masked man following her she flees, but the man catches up to her and breaks her neck. When the CSIs arrive at the scene, Langston is shocked to recognize the woman as Sylvia Mallick, a former student of his from WLVU. Before he left the university to join the crime lab, Langston was her thesis advisor. At the autopsy, Langston discovers a piece of white leather in Sylvia's hand and sends it off to the lab for analysis. Dr. Robbins determines that Sylvia's killer broke three of Sylvia's vertebrae, killing her swiftly. After examining Sylvia's cell phone and seeing several recent calls from another former student, Dan Forester, Langston goes to the casino where Dan works as a bartender to speak with him. Dan tells Langston that Sylvia, who was his live-in girlfriend, told him that she was doing research the night before, and Langston tells the young man that Sylvia is dead. Langston visits Sylvia's office on campus and finds papers strewn all across the floor. He finds the autographed copy of his book that he gave her--along with a picture of a murdered woman.

When Ray brings the picture back to the lab, Catherine recalls the case: the Southwest Strangler killed three Hispanic women eleven years ago. All the women died from broken necks, and toxicology has found another link: like the women murdered eleven years ago, Sylvia had Datura in her system, a drug that caused her disorientation. The team contacts the narcotics department to get a list of known Datura dealers, leading Nick and Brass to a house in a rundown Las Vegas neighborhood. They interrupt a voodoo ritual in the house--and spot a bowl of brown powder they recognize as Datura. They show a photo of Sylvia to the priest, but he claims not to know her. Greg looks at surveillance camera footage from locations near to where Sylvia's body was found and pinpoints her location: the corner of Harlem and Pinker, coming out of a building. Langston, Nick and Brass go to the location and walk into a Lucha Libre, or Mexican wrestling, match where the opponents face each other wearing elaborate masks. Brass and Langston set about questioning the various wrestlers with criminal records, but all of them claim innocence of the past crimes they were arrested for or convicted of, and none of them admit to murdering Sylvia. The announcer, Esteban Fillipe, recognizes Sylvia and tells the CSIs that she used to come up to him with lots of questions.

Stymied, Langston turns back to the leather scrap. After Hodges tells him it's approximately fifty years old, Langston and Riley scour a database of luchadores, they get a match to one named Fantasmo. Fantasmo, whose real name is Jesus, tells Ray and Brass that his mask is a copy of the mask that belonged to his father, also a Lucha Libre wrestler. When asked for his DNA, he readily offers it up. Wendy analyzes the leather for DNA and eliminates Jesus's sample, finding only one other: Esteban Fillipe's. In the locker room at the wrestling ring, Jesus confronts Esteban and accuses him of stealing his father's mask. Jesus notes that he's seen Esteban looking at girls--including Sylvia. Esteban shoots Jesus three times and flees into the crowd, pursed by Ray and Brass who have come to arrest him. They finally manage to corner him and arrest him. Esteban denies hurting anyone--he claims the god of violence is responsible for his actions. Disgusted, Ray refuses to let him shirk blame for the murder. Afterwards, Ray recalls Sylvia's compassion for the victims of serial killers who were never caught and starts to write the book she never got a chance to finish.

Analysis:

The show's landmark 200th outing gets off to a cinematic start, eschewing the typical opening credits for an opening in which the casts' names are flashed over a burning circle while drums beat in the background. Visually it's dazzling and the drums add an intensity to it that all speaks to the promise of an exciting, larger-than-life episode. Alas, the story doesn't live up to the stunning visuals and mystique the episode establishes: it's paper thin and lacking emotional impact. Save for Sylvia, neither the victims or the suspects or the killer have any real personalities. The killer murdered three women eleven years ago, and then mysteriously stopped for some reason that is never explained. If Esteban really is deranged, why would he cease killing? After all, CSI has taught us that serial killers generally don't stop until they're caught--rather, they escalate. At best, Esteban is a sketchily developed character, and the audience doesn't even know if the CSIs ever discovered his last victim, Jesus.

It's fairly obvious that the story was secondary to William Friedkin's direction. As he did with the first CSI episode he directed, "Cockroaches", Friedkin offers up a lush, vibrant sensory experience, taking no scene for granted. Whether it be the long, florescent-lit hallway Langston travels down to reach Sylvia's office or the colorful, charged Lucha Libre match or the elaborate voodoo ceremony Brass and Nick walk in on, Friedkin presents everything in vivid detail. The setting is impressive, but where "Mascara" differs from episodes like "Fur and Loathing" or "Who Shot Sherlock?", the audience is never really invited into the world the episode explores. We see the Lucha Libre matches and the various masks the luchadores don, but we don't really get a sense for the men involved, aside from the fact that many of them have criminal records. Even less is revealed about the voodoo ritual Nick and Brass witness--it doesn't seem to have a purpose in the narrative at all. It's all very sensational, but to what end? Ultimately, Esteban could have been any deranged killer--the Lucha Libre match was just a backdrop, rather than an integral part of the story in the way other subcultures have been in other episodes of the series.

Much as I like Ray Langston and greatly enjoy Laurence Fishburne's portrayal of him, I can't help but think that the 200th episode of CSI should have put a little more focus on the whole team rather than simply centering completely around Langston. Perhaps that's putting an artificial emphasis on the number, but when the words "CSI: The 200th Episode" flash across the screen before the episode begins, it does feel like there should be some significance to the episode. And there is--for Ray. The other characters--many of whom we've come to know over eight and a half seasons, feel very much marginalized in this outing. Catherine provides background on the serial killer, Nick is the muscle and Greg shows up to look at surveillance tapes. It's a bit frustrating to see them with so little to do in the show's 200th entry. It's been eight episodes since Grissom left the lab in Catherine's hands in "One To Go", but we've yet to really glean any insight into how she's settling into the role.

That said, the episode's best moments lie in the exploration of Langston's connection to Sylvia. The first flashback featuring Langston telling Sylvia that he's leaving WLVU to become a CSI clues the audience into the fact that four months have passed since he joined the team. Langston has settled in with the team so well that it takes a moment to realize that this is probably the first time Ray has ever been confronted with the corpse of someone he knows. Unfortunately, save for the flashbacks, we're not given much insight into what Ray's going through during the episode. Not a single member of the team pulls him aside to see how he's doing or ask him if perhaps he is too close to the victim to properly work the case. The emotional resonance that should exist in the present isn't really there, until the end when Ray decides to work on Sylvia's book. It's a nice moment, but nowhere near as moving as "Turn, Turn, Turn", the episode in which Nick was devastated by the death of a teenage girl he encountered on several previous cases.

Astute viewers will recall Dan Forester, Sylvia's live in love, from "One to Go," as being the student who suggested the idea of having a real serial killer interact with Langston's class. If this episode is any indication, Langston seems to have no love for this former pupil--the way he casually tells the boy that his girlfriend is dead is downright cruel and off-putting. Sure, Dan and Sylvia fought the night of her death, but that doesn't make Dan undeserving of Langston's sympathy. After all, much as Langston might have bonded Sylvia, Dan lived with her. It seems out-of-character for Langston to be so unsympathetic. After all, this is the man who went out of his way to offer hope to the bereft Miles in "Disarmed and Dangerous" and to console Nick in "Turn, Turn, Turn." It's hard to swallow that in the space of just a few episodes he's become so hardened--no matter how determined he is to catch Sylvia's killer.

Ultimately, "Mascara" showcases a lot of CSI's weaknesses. The show has been accused of being too slick, too glossy, to formulaic. Most of the time, it's not at all--it's a finely crafted procedural that gracefully manages to integrate compelling character moments and stories with emotional impact. But while Friedkin does an impressive job here with the look of the episode, it's all style and no substance here. There's no heart to anchor this story, no interesting twist to intrigue the audience, no moments of warmth between the characters that remind the audience that while there are many, many procedurals on the air, CSI is the one they keep coming back to for all of these things. There's a reason this show has made it to 200 episodes, and that's because it's capable of far, far more than this.

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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