[Review by Noah Burns]
[Writer: Rob Pearlstein | Director: Dwight Little | Aired: 06/22/2005]
I want to rave about “Pre-filer”. It’s Tim Minear’s take on the “killing serial killers” sub-sub-genre of the “serial killer” sub-genre of the American crime show genre. (Whew.) As is to be expected, it’s the best thing I’ve ever seen done in it’s class. The final 15 minutes in particular are among the best in the series. But “Pre-filer”‘s middle section is bizarrely loaded with filler, and contains several moments that come off contrived. This is unusual for this series, and leaves the episode enervated in the lead up to it’s phenomenal finale. Nonetheless, in addition to that finale the episode has an effective beginning, and a number of quality scenes and pieces of dialogue throughout that advance some interesting and important themes. So consider the following a partial rave, with some complaints mixed in.
“Pre-filer” begins the second mini-arc of the series, being the first of three episodes that focus almost entirely on Rebecca and her demons. Perhaps it will be helpful, then, to do a little review of where we are with her character at the beginning of this episode. When she first joined Web’s team back in “New Girl in Town” [1×01], Rebecca didn’t even know for sure that she was, let alone who she was. We were introduced to her split identity, Rebecca Locke and Becky George, and in subsequent episodes it was developed that she recognizes what happened to her but not who she was when it happened. This distinction will be played on at the critical moment in “Pre-filer”, to incredible effect. We also saw in “Old Wounds” [1×03] that she is having trouble keeping control of herself due to her, well, old wounds. Her encounters with Det. Strong and Brandt allowed her to see the consequences of what happens when you let pain subsume your will. Her will will be put to the test here. Finally, “Everything Nice” [1×02] laid the groundwork on the themes of safety and fear, the tragedy showing what happens when you run towards the former (which is illusory) due to your inability to master the latter. Further, it gave us a picture Rebecca’s relationship to innocence, and set the stage for her confrontation with her own innocence later.
The structure of “Pre-filer” isn’t as tight as those of the first three episodes were, but it’s still effective at setting up the drama and carrying the themes. In overview, it is a “slippery slope” for the first half, showing us less and less depraved and “deserving” victims until we are confronted with one potential victim who is a walking moral ambiguity. In the second half, this ambiguity is played up until we get an exposition of just how horrible he has the potential to be, every bit the equal of the first potential killer. At this point Rebecca is forced to make a choice, and the denouement deals with the consequences of her choice.
The teaser gives us the first victim of the Pre-filer (Mel’s moniker for Martin Manning), a janitor at a local college named Jeremy Fitch who took photos of freshman girls who were in the shower or asleep in bed. He’s not a very sympathetic victim. His intent based on the photos, the drawings he made of tied up girls spraying blood from neck wounds, and the possession of weapons of torture could not have been more clear: he was planning to brutally murder multiple innocent women. Paul sums it up in one obvious line: “This is really sick.” As the evidence piles up, Rebecca circles Fitch, looking at him with a strange there-but-not-there look in her eyes. It’s clear from that look, her tone of voice, and her one liner that she approves of what happened to him. And I think many people probably would too.
After the opening credits, Rebecca gives us a slide show of other probable killers murdered before they were able to commit any crime. Their intentions are every bit as horrible as Jeremy Fitch’s. When Rebecca gives the team the signature of the killer, Mel begins a little discussion that sets up the ambiguities of the rest of the episode quite nicely. She asks Rebecca if she has it right, “A killer who kills serial killers?” and Rebecca corrects her, “Future serial killers”. Web then complicates things further with his line, “He’s a profiler. He does what we do.” From “New Girl in Town” [1×01]: “We know who he is by what he does.” If we are shown someone’s identity by their actions, and the team’s actions are the same as the killer’s, then the team members’ identities must be the same. So why aren’t Web’s team serial killers? Note the reactions to this reveal: Paul looks disturbed, Danny is enthusiastic, Rebecca is ambiguous but supportive, and Mel says nothing.
James Havens is the next stop down the slippery slope. I really like his scene with the Pre-filer. The direction, music, and acting establish Havens instantly as a more relateable person than Fitch. Fitch was introduced as a monster in waiting, and while we reasonably assume that there will be evidence of bad intentions in Havens’ case, it’s not the first thing we see of him. We are moved to pity for him rather than revulsion. He is a lonely, isolated man whose inability to connect with others has made him hate them for their own relationships. His visible fear of the Pre-filer is interesting. None of the serial killers presented on show so far have been afraid of death. There’s still something left inside this man that he feels is worth saving, some part of himself he wishes to preserve. And so, therefore, should we. On the other hand, Prefiler is not wrong about his potential for horror. He is damned forever: he hates others for their relationships, that which he desperately wants, but that very hate permanently separates him from others. It obviates any chance he will ever have at friendship, let alone intimacy. He is caught within himself in a cycle of greater isolation spawning greater hate spawning greater isolation. Sooner or later, he is going to act on that hate and inflict his wounds on others. What shall we do? What can we do?
Web arrives at the crime scene looking badass in sunglasses. I find his reaction to Mel’s description of the victim interesting. He looks almost disappointed in Havens. Perhaps I’m misreading the expression, but if I’m correct, that’s a very nuanced piece of acting by Peter Coyote and I think it makes sense with everything we learn about Web’s character over the course of the show. In any case, as Web’s spidey sense tingles and he looks around for the “Pre-filer”, Danny and Paul have an argument about the morality of the Pre-filer’s actions. (Web is not interested.) Danny makes the case that, given the clearly serial-killerish behavior of Havens and the other victims, statistically speaking they were going to commit crimes and their murders were justified. As I said before, I think a lot of people would agree with this point of view, and it is one that we have to take seriously. If we’re quite sure that someone is going to kill innocent people, aren’t we justified in killing them before they have the chance to do so? Imagine that Havens had walked into the movie theatre with his gun. Would that be sufficient evidence for using deadly force against him? What other possible intent could he have? While his real actions posed a less imminent threat, the same question applies: What other possible intent could he have, given the evidence of what he had done?
Paul’s response to Danny’s argument is to ask him whether he fits the criteria that he’s using to judge Havens. Danny hasn’t killed stray dogs, but he has likely killed armed suspects. He lives alone. He is in possession of images of violence and pornography. Is it just a matter of time before he becomes a likely killer as well?
Web seems to have been convinced of something, perhaps Pre-filer’s presence, and gets into Havens’ car, where Rebecca is sitting in the front seat. This is very subtle: they are once again in the killer-victim arrangement. Web asks Rebecca to give him a description of the killer, who sat where Web is sitting, and instead she gives a description of the victim as a killer, who sat where she is. We see the special effects that we last saw when she was empathizing with Donna Burton, the victim’s mouth speaking with her voice, reflected in a mirror. But she did not consider Donna Burton a killer. There is a new element here, and it suggests that Rebecca herself has some of the same violent feelings that Havens had. What she says of him with respect to his fear of others and relationships certainly applies to her as well, and will be explored in “Loneliest Number” [1×05], as well as in the last three episodes of the series. This is yet another parallel between an agent on Web’s team and a potential serial killer.
Pre-filer’s final target is Roger Comack, who is by far the most relatable of his targets. Our first glimpse of him is as a fun-loving father playing football with his young sons. This was a very effective moment: I sure as hell thought they were going to find a big bloody mess at that house the first time I saw this episode. This moment works on many levels, though, because of the structure that I’ve just outlined. We started out in a world of depravity so far removed from any sense of humanity that the come down when he see Roger in all his ostensible normalcy is shocking. At the same time, however, we’ve been prepared: Pre-filer is choosing less and less obvious targets each time.
The most disturbing part about this sequence of targets (and that’s a tough competition) is the implication that there is something in common between as normal and likable a family man as Roger Comack and as marginal and vile a character as Jeremy Fitch. “Pre-filer” is not, however, merely trying to frighten us with a presentation of ubiquitous serial killers. It is reminding us of the illusory nature of complete security. Every human being, including the so-called good ones, has some evil in their heart. The source of this evil, and how to deal with it, is the topic of the episode and the whole series.
In between some of the great moments at the Havens crime scene and Martin Manning’s house, we get quite a few that don’t work for me, where the plotting and concept are excellent but the execution mediocre. I sympathize with the plight of the Comack family, but their rather predictable dialog and reactions make it hard for me to sympathize with the characters we see on screen. They look and sound like they’re in a television show, and that breaks me out the world of the show. The extremely brief confrontation between Rebecca and Roger in his office comes across exactly the same way.
Another problem, one that afflicts a number of episodes of the show, is the unearned, overly-dramatic line leading up to a scene change or commercial break. The example that grates on me the most is this:
Paul: You don’t think Roger’s coming back. You think the killer’s formed some kind of connection with Rebecca and might try to engage her again.
Web: That’s why you’re sticking with her.
I can almost hear Web saying, “That’s why you’re sticking with her, and I’m going to walk away dramatically.” What’s most disappointing, though, is that this confrontation doesn’t really give us any new information about Paul or Web, nor does it engage with any of the themes that have been built in the episode. Not to mention, Paul’s deduction is extremely obvious: If the killer has been calling Rebecca personally, it’s obvious that he is interested in her, and it seems highly unlikely that Roger would return to a house full of FBI agents. If only Paul and Web had engaged on the substance of Pre-filer’s connection to Rebecca! Without that kind of depth, which Minear almost always offers when he’s writing, this moment comes off as an empty attempt at creating dramatic tension.
There is a dead zone in the episode between the first encounter with Comack and his sons and Rebecca and Paul’s search for Comack at the hotel. Excepting the conversation between Rebecca and Marty and the Angel references, nothing particularly interesting happens. This is the show at its most procedural: events moving the plot from A to B, instead of the plot being moved by the characters. Fortunately, this is rare on The Inside.
Now that I’ve aired my grievances, let’s talk about that phone conversation between Martin Manning and Rebecca.
Rebecca: Why Roger Comack?
Manning: Oh please. It’s not enough I gave you answer, you want me to read it out loud for you?
Rebecca: Fine, then why me?
Manning: You can thank your boss for that. He showed you off for me. He’s very proud of you.
This piece of their conversation illuminates for me the scene in which Manning breaks into the team’s office, and queues up an article about Becky George for Rebecca to find. Initially, Rebecca described his action as meant to intimidate and to say that he’s better than they are at profiling. But here she clues us in on what she withheld from Web in her previous analysis. In breaking into Rebecca’s office, Manning is repeating the pattern of accessing public records, and reviewing them. You might even consider this the penetration of the lair that he describes later in the episode. In other words, Manning is “prefiling” Rebecca, telling her that she is a potential serial killer, a potential “Prefiler” herself. This had already been indicated several times before, and it is the at the heart of “Pre-filer”.
As I said before, the final 15 minutes of this episode almost make me forget any mistakes in the first half-hour. Rebecca is kidnapped (again) by the Prefiler, and is forced by him to profile Roger Comack. She describes in detail his descent from normal family man at a business convention to pedophile. She tells him how he hates himself and hates the girls for making him feel that way. She mentions Aubrey Richardson, who was earlier revealed as his likely target, and then later described by Rebecca as a symbolic reference to her. Put it together and we have Rebecca profiling a man whom she believes will rape and murder her – as a child, as Becky George. In other words, he is her abductor. Almost.
And she is the Prefiler:
[From the script]Now she’s into it. Slowly taking him apart.
Rebecca: (Cont’d) It will get worse. The tension there. And you’ll need to find a way out, to get normal. And that’s when it’ll happen. Six months, maybe a year from now. Just once, but it won’t last, and you’ll need to do it to get normal again. And again. And again. And again.
Rebecca now has the familiar, cold judgment in her eyes.
All that separates Roger from being the man she describes is a choice. All she has to do to become Manning is to choose say the word. In a tense, harrowing moment, she looks at Roger with hatred and fury, and then tells Manning to let him go. Manning is in the act of killing Roger by suffocation when Rebecca convinces him to give her her turn to profile him.
Manning: So you wanna do me, huh? Okay. I’ll give ya a head start. My childhood was bad. I hate myself…
Rebecca: You hate half yourself. The other half you like. The smart half. The part of you that sees things, so quickly, and puts them all together. You like the part that thinks, and hate the part that feels. Because you feel the same thing Roger feels. The same thing Jeremy Fitch feels, and James Havens, and Frank Bicks. Every time you kill one of them, you kill that half. But nothing changes, does it? What happened a long time ago, to us? Still happened. And there’s not a thing you can do to stop it.
This profile gives us further insight into Rebecca. She likes the rational part of herself (Rebecca Locke), and hates the emotional part (Becky George) because of the pain that Becky George causes her, and the hatred that comes from that pain. Somewhere inside Manning is a hurt child, who is terrified.
Rebecca was forced to make a choice. Though she accepted that what happened to her actually happened, before this moment she hadn’t come to the place where she could accept her complete inability to do anything to change it. All of us have either known people who have been locked in a pattern of behavior driven by the desire to undo a terrible past life event, or been locked in such a pattern ourselves. One common television trope that is a mild example of this is the desire of characters to make up for who they were in high school at a reunion, as if their being accepted by the cool kids now will undo all of the suffering from their earlier rejection and abuse. It won’t. Racism is sometimes (though certainly not always) a kind of side effect of poverty: it gives one a morally unambiguous (from the racist’s perspective, since the object of their racism is less than human or dangerous) target at which to vent one’s anger over the daily beatings taken by the poor working man, as if beating another man will relieve that suffering. It won’t. There is nothing that we can do for the hurt children inside of us. (At least not yet.) And this is what Rebecca needs to be careful of: becoming like the Pre-filer, a man locked into a pattern of behavior in which he tries to cut out the part of himself that was hurt by killing others who were hurt in the same way.
Remember that this is exactly what we saw characterized serial killers on The Inside in “Old Wounds” [1×03]. But her choice was even more difficult. The man whose life she decided to save was her abductor in potentia. In deciding that he should live, then, Rebecca accepted that she cannot heal her own past wounds by inflicting them onto others. She is almost, though not quite, forgiving her captor. It amounts to something more like resigning herself to the notion that hating him won’t make a difference. This will be developed further in “Point of Origin” [1×06].
The argument in the show, it would appear, is that the killing of potential killers is wrong not only because of the victim’s innocence, but also because it is destructive to those who do it. It is an attempt to create an illusory sense of retroactive safety: we wish we were safe when we were in fact hurt. We want to live in that safety now, as well. The serial killers are people who can never grow. Their desire for halting change comes from the same root as the desire for safety in the past and present. We want to go home, or rather, to what we always wished home was: a place where we were loved and we knew we were safe. But, though we may have been loved, we were never safe. And we never will be. Rebecca has finally accepted this, and she is no longer in danger of becoming a killer herself. At least, not for the reasons outlined above.
This being a Tim Minear show, however, we are thrown two final curveballs. The first is Rebecca tagging along to see Comack thrown from his own home. I think Paul is absolutely right that this is what she wanted to see. Any pleasure she takes in his pain is understandable, if still perhaps reproachable. The second is something I saw coming but was still disturbed by. As Roger Comack drives off towards his new life, where he will no longer be surrounded by the stabilizing influence of familial love, we watch as he looks “just a little too long” at two young girls playing outside in their yard. For all our ability to philosophize and analyze, the knowledge that our safety is illusory and the feeling of triumph that we may feel in overcoming our fear of that fact do not in any way mitigate feelings that we have made a mistake, and that those young girls’ lives are worth our every effort to protect them, even murder.
Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)
+ The show playing at the Vista theater being “Once More, With Feeling”.
+ “Where’s Angel?” He was cancelled, dear.
+ Web’s latest joke: “I may have to seize the cat.”
+ Did I mention that the show playing at the Vista theater was “Once More, With Feeling”?
* There is a short but interesting moment when Rebecca discovers the article Prefiler left up for her on her computer. I’m intrigued by the headline, “Local Girl Still Missing”, and I believe that to be clever way for the writers to deliver current news about Rebecca to us in the audience. This news will become the subject of “Little Girl Lost” [1×10].