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CSI: Crime Scene Investigation--'Still Life'

By Kristine Huntley
Posted at December 13, 2005 - 5:06 PM GMT

See Also: 'Still Life' Episode Guide


Young mother Karen Matthews experiences every mother's worst nightmares when her son Jesse disappears from Mesa Valley Park while playing on the playground. Brass talks to a distraught Karen, who can't think of anyone who might want to take her son. Her husband, Dwight, a solider, was killed in Afghanistan four years ago and both of her parents are dead. The CSI team is called in to scour the scene. Brass shows a woman whose child was at the park a picture of Jesse and she recalls seeing him and remembers a man in a blue baseball cap watching him, and Karen recalls seeing the man as well. Nick is caught off balance when he spots Kelly Gordon, the daughter of the man who kidnapped him and buried him alive, at the scene, watching him. Karen gives the dogs a jacket of Jesse's, but it leads them nowhere, and she tells them that the jacket is new and he hadn't worn it long. Inside the park bathroom, Warrick discovers a bloody piece of metal and a pair of boy's underwear, which Karen, devastated, identifies as Jesse's.

Catherine and Greg head to Karen's house and the heartbroken mother shows Catherine pictures of Jesse. Finger-paintings cover the wall, and Karen tells Catherine that Jesse is home schooled. Catherine looks around the house and is surprised to discover unopened presents from Karen's husband's parents in the garage. Catherine asks Karen about the presents, and she admits that Dwight's parents thought they should be raising Jesse, making Catherine suspect they might have taken the boy. Greg talks to Ken McCracken, Karen's next-door neighbor, who says his dog barks at Jesse through the fence separating their yards. Ken thinks Karen killed his previous dog because it used to sniff around their yard and bark at the boy. Back at the station, Brass questions Warren and Faye Matthews, Jesse's grandparents. They tell him that Jesse came from a long line of military men, but that Karen cut them off from seeing the boy completely after Dwight died. While his wife uses the bathroom, Warren admits to Brass that he is suffering from Alzheimer's and went to see his grandson the week before, but that Karen refused to let him in.

The blood from the bathroom doesn't match the DNA in Jesse's toothbrush, but the CSIs are able to trace it to a convicted necrophiliac, Connor Daley. He claims to have been in the park that day and had a nosebleed in the bathroom. He broke the toilet paper holder when he grabbed at it, cutting himself further. He recalls seeing a man in the a 51's baseball cap in the bathroom with the boy. An APB goes out, and a couple, Victor and Valerie Esposito, are apprehended in a mini-mart with Jesse. But when he's brought to the station and returned to Karen, he calls out to Valerie, not Karen. Valerie calls him Adam as she's led away. Puzzled, Warrick leads Jesse away for some tests. Victor and Valerie have pictures of the boy they claim as their son, and he is identical to Karen's pictures of Jesse. The CSIs get DNA and fingerprint samples from the couple, Karen and the boy. Valerie recounts the birth of her son to Catherine, and Victor tells Catherine that he was in the park with Adam that day, meeting a guy about a bet.

Archie tells Catherine that a photo of Karen at the beach is photo-shopped--she inserted Jesse's image into the picture. Catherine learns the Espositos have a family home page, and many of Karen's photos are actually of Adam from the Esposito's website. Catherine confirms that Adam's DNA matches the Espositos'--he's their son. But the DNA on Jesse's toothbrush has 13 alleles in common with Karen, indicating Jesse must have been around at some point. But where is Jesse now? When Brass tells Karen that he knows Adam isn't her son, she breaks down, screaming and calling for Jesse. Greg finds a birth certificate for Jesse but no death certificate. All the photos of Jesse appear to be genuine until the age of two--right around the time Dwight was killed. None of the neighbors even recall seeing Jesse since then. Karen sticks to her story when Catherine questions her, insisting that Adam is actually Jesse, her son. Warrick, Sara and Greg return to Karen's house with soil probes to search for Jesse's body. Inside the house, Grissom photographs the finger-paintings and tells Catherine he thinks Karen may have done them, to keep up the illusion that Jesse was alive. He tells Catherine about the death of his father, a botany teacher who died when Grissom was nine. Catherine discovers a four-year old bottle of anti-psychotics prescribed to Karen.

Nick discovers a tissue sample in Karen's car, but he's called away from his investigation by a page: he has a visitor. Kelly Gordon meets him in the lobby and tells him she's been paroled. She admits to coming to the crime scene and tells Nick that she's been thinking about what he said to her in the jail after he was rescued, about not taking her resentment with her when she's released. When he asks how she is, she tells him she's perfect and leaves. At Karen Matthew's house, Warrick finds a disturbance in the soil and begins digging, but he only recovers a small toy dinosaur. Analysis of the soil reveals an organic compound and traces of Olanzapine--the anti-psychotic prescribed to Karen. Brass tells Catherine that Karen was treated for post-partum psychosis after Jesse was born. Catherine concludes she must have poisoned Jesse with Olanzapine after Dwight's funeral--she so desperately did not want him to become a solider. When Ken McCracken's dog kept sniffing around the body, she must have moved it. Though Karen was obviously deeply disturbed and thought she was protecting her son in her own mind, Brass points out that it's still murder.


None of the CSI shows do depressing like the original. "Still Life" is nothing short of a tragic tale. From the moment she appears on screen, frantically searching for the child she clearly believes is missing, there's an air of profound sadness about Karen Matthews. Heather Stephens is perfectly cast as the young mother, who never at any point admits, to either the CSIs or herself, that her child is dead. Her house, which at first has a lived-in warmth to it, becomes stomach-turning as the CSIs realize just how far she's gone to create the illusion that Jesse is alive and creating finger-paintings for his mother.

Karen's illusion is so convincing that by the time we see Brass staking out the Espinozas, we're almost convinced that the case is closed--or we would be, if the episode hadn't just reached the halfway mark. The second half is spent mostly on the revelation of the truly bizarre lengths Karen went to in order to keep up the illusion that Jesse was alive—photo-shopping pictures of him, buying him new clothes, leaving a child's plates out on the table and making finger-paintings. What appeared normal and familiar in the first half is decidedly eerie in the second. The change in perspective as the viewer goes from seeing Karen as a normal, concerned mother to a deranged and sick woman, is truly compelling and effective.

What are we supposed to feel for Karen Matthews? Pity? Revulsion? Horror? The episode leaves it up to the viewer to decide, though Karen is presented as a mostly sympathetic character. The topic of post-partem depression and/or psychosis is a hot one, given that over the last decade or so there have tragically been more than a few news stories about a mothers taking the lives of their children (Susan Smith and Andrea Yates being the most well-known). That Karen was able to keep up the illusion that Jesse was alive for four years is shocking but everything the episode offers us as proof is completely believable.

The episode also brings up an interesting, if tangential question about the role of the internet in a case like this. By now most everybody has heard of identity theft, but certainly it's never taken such a novel twist as it does in this episode. Karen steals Adam's image and recasts him in photographs as Jesse, so convincingly that the CSIs don't even bat an eye until they actually meet Adam and his actual family. The pictures are obtained from the most innocuous of sources--a family webpage that was probably put up so that the Espositos' extended family and friends could see their pictures. It just goes to show, folks: be careful what you put up on the net, because you never know who is watching or how it could be used. Scary stuff indeed.

Viewers everywhere are no doubt rejoicing at the downfall of Nick's unfortunate mustache. It only lasted three episodes, so I guess either fan reaction was deafening or George Eads got tired of the look. Nick has much more to worry about than his mustache anyway--Kelly Gordon, last seen behind bars in "Grave Danger", has been paroled. Stopping by to see Nick at work makes some sense, but spying on him at a crime scene is just downright creepy. Does Nick have a stalker on his hands now? Possibly; Kelly Gordon is supposed to resurface again in a few episodes. Aimee Graham makes Kelly both sinister and sympathetic in the same breath and seeing this storyline unfold promises to be one of the most exciting things about the current season of CSI.

The writers apparently intend to delve into Grissom's psyche more this season, a welcome development for sure, even if it's introduced somewhat awkwardly in this episode when Grissom confides in Catherine about the death of his father and how his mother just shut down after his death. It's the right moment, but oddly personal for Grissom, who usually remains detached. We learn Grissom's father was a botanist, which might explain Grissom's love of science. We also learn he died when Grissom was only nine, and that Grissom was in the room when his father passed away--he witnessed his mother come in and try, in vain, to awaken his father. Losing a parent at such a young age is traumatic, and perhaps goes to explain in part why Grissom is so emotionally guarded.

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Find more episode info in the Episode Guide.

Kristine Huntley is a freelance writer and reviewer.

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