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The best 'CSI' episode ever: Chaos Theory

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CBS

CSI was so completely the landscape of a vanishing era of television. The mothership series — the full clunky title was never not CSI: Crime Scene Investigation — was the top-rated scripted show for most of the 2000s. That show inspired two flavors of kooky spinoff. (Miami: Sundrenched ego-fascist modeling portfolio. NY: Word-vomit procedural Mad Libs.) The unlikelihood of CSI’s success has entered into legend: How nobody thought America wanted nerds scanning hair follicles; how it originally aired on Friday after Tim Daly’s highly-anticipated Fugitive reboot.

But the sheerness of CSI’s success also made it conventional. The show ascended so quickly from bold outlier to oft-imitated juggernaut. There were the pretenders: Never forget Medical Investigation, the show about medical investigators who investigate medically. And there were those spinoffs. Caruso-on-Miami was a brilliantly sustained act of self-parody, but once you saw that show or NY, the beats of a CSI mystery started to feel like beats.

This is a shame only because the original CSI was great in its prime, and its prime lasted a good long time. (Remember fifteen of its best moments here.) Original lead William Petersen played Gil Grissom as a cerebralist, hot for minutiae and kind of bored with humans. You can spot the Grissom influence across the spectrum: House on House, Bones on Bones, even kind of Sherlock on Sherlock. The difference is that those shows all depend on the idea that the lead character is a demi-Vulcan, sometimes because of some oft-explored personal trauma, sometimes because it’s just fun to write smarmy-smart dialogue.

CSI ends this weekend. You can’t quite say that its era is over. Final far-off spinoff Cyber is spinning alarmist grandparanoia into grayscale camp. But TV is changing. CBS now has three flavors of NCIS, a more cheerful acronymic procedural set in a universe where the Navy is every good and bad guy from 24; and two flavors of Criminal Minds, a wild-eyed death opus that’s like CSI rewritten in blood on the walls of an abandoned insane asylum. Any procedural that isn’t trying to be those two shows is trying to be Bones or Castle or all those USA-Network shows that USA doesn’t make anymore, with a couple wacky maybe-lovers investigating lo-fi crime.

CSI ruled the Earth at a time when to be a TV fan was to understand television as a binary of binaries: Procedural vs. Serialized; Broadcast vs. Cable; Old-Fashioned and New. CSI was all of the former, and I’m not totally sure we’ll ever something like it again. Something changes when shows like The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones become as popular as they have become — and something changes when the notion of “binging” becomes somehow the equivalent of “watching.” But when a typical show only runs around 13 episodes per season, or less, it starts to feel like every episode — or every scene, really — needs to be a half-court last-minute three-point shot. You forget how nice it could feel to watch a show dribble — and what it felt like when that show, simple and professional and clean-cut, decided to try something really interesting.

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“Chaos Theory” is the 25th episode of CSI, the second in its second season. It aired for the first time on Oct. 4, 2001, right as the show was crossing over from “hit” to “money-chugging sensation.” It starts where maybe half of all procedural episodes start: A cute blonde girl goes missing. The girl is Paige Rycoff: We meet her in the prologue, in her college dorm, her bags packed, her taxi outside. She never gets in the taxi: Four days later, Grissom arrives in her dorm room, trying to find a girl who’s almost certainly dead.

The first half of the episode runs through the usual assortment of cop-show red herrings. There’s the randy-skeeze frat guy who sounds almost too guilty in his interrogation:

FRAT GUY: “We live in the same dorm. We’re in Economics 101 together. So what?”

COP ASKING QUESTIONS: “So what?”

FRAT GUY: [unprompted] “Paige and I dated once or twice! She wasn’t my type!”

The CSI team finds evidence of rape inside of the dorm room — strands of Rohypnol, lots of actors who got paid big money to say “dried semen” over the years — and that leads them to Paige’s former roommate. It turns out that the roommate was date-raped during a floor party, knocked cold by a roofie and tormented not just by the horror committed against her but by the ambiguity of that horror: “Somebody that I was living with attacked me,” she says, “And I was never gonna know who.”

This should seem shameless, and it is — procedurals love to pull the sexual-assault card — but that line echoes throughout the episode. The CSI team tracks down her attacker, under the assumption that he must have killed Paige, too. (The DNA test takes about a day, natch.) But no: The guy’s on the baseball team, and he was out of town for an away game. He gets arrested — but the Paige mystery remains.

A new angle emerges: Paige’s professor, with greasy hair and glasses that say “I only wear these glasses to look sexier.” He was sleeping with Paige. But the evidence points away from him…and toward his vengeful wife. But then the evidence points away from her, too.

At the three-quarters mark of the episode, they find Paige’s corpse at the local dump. That leads them to the garbage bin outside Paige’s dorm…and the garbage bin has a big recent dent from a car that hit it, which makes them think maybe that same car did a hit-and-run on Paige and then dumped her body…but then they find the car, somehow identifying the car’s paint because it has a “unique light absorption rate”…and the car was being driven by a guy who was racing home because his wife was maybe giving birth…but there are no signs of human remains anywhere on the car. “We got tons of motive,” says Warrick, “And not a stitch of evidence.”

In a normal episode of CSI — or of any wannabe CSI knockoff — this is the point when some new piece of evidence shines through. Maybe that skeezeball frat dude lied about something, or maybe Paige’s ex-roommate killed her out of some twisted vengeance play, or maybe her professor, or the professor’s wife, or the expectant father. And at this point in the episode, you still feel like you’re watching a normal, pretty-good episode of a very good procedural. The rhythms are a bit off — how is it possible that they haven’t had any forward motion on this case? — but maybe that’s just a bug in the storytelling.

And then suddenly, “Chaos Theory” takes a hard left turn, and you realize that bug was a radical, redefining feature the whole time.

Grissom stares into the middle distance, surrounded by his friend-coworkers, and pontificates:

H.L. Mencken once said, “There’s an easy solution to every human problem. Neat, plausible, and wrong.” So if the solution to our problem is not neat, plausible, and wrong. Then it could be messy, unlikely, and right. Right? A butterfly flaps its wings in Brazil, we get a hurricane off the coast of Florida. Chaos Theory. Random events. The wholesale rejection of linear thought. If we apply it to Paige Rycoff and our case at this particular moment in time, then we can say: Life is unpredictable.

The team returns to the scene of the crime, and decides to construct an entirely new theory: What if the most important clue isn’t even there? They look around her room, realize it’s missing a trashcan. They go to the dorm’s trash chute, which has a busted spring that makes the chute door close extra aggressively — something that Warrick and Willows mentioned in passing at the seven-minute mark.

That busted spring turns out to be, essentially, the only clue that matters. In this new model of Paige Rycoff’s death, she dropped her trash can down the chute accidentally, and went down to the trash container. She leaned in to grab the can, in the dark shadows of the back alley, perched between the container and the brick wall…right as the expectant father came racing down the back alley, swerving to dodge the parked truck…and when he slammed into the garbage bin, he inadvertently slammed Paige between the bin and the brick wall, slamming her ribs through her inner organs, leaving her to die painfully.

“Lemme get this straight,” says Paige’s father, to Grissom, with under two minutes to go in the episode. “You’re saying a confluence of unrelated, unfortunate events conspired to kill my daughter?”

Yes, nods Grissom, that’s exactly what he’s saying.

Paige’s parents won’t hear it. “Somebody is responsible!” says her mom.

“Mrs. Rycoff,” says Grissom. “There is no one guilty of this.”

The parents storm out, promising to hire a private detective, swearing that they won’t rest until they bring Paige’s killer to justice. When you watch them leave now, you imagine them setting off on a whole new trail of dead ends. Because “Chaos Theory” has so completely inverted the usual formula — because every piece of evidence; besides a busted spring has turned into a red herring — you imagine those parents spending a lifetime chasing tantalizing clues that aren’t really clues. When you watch “Chaos Theory” now, you feel how the episode anticipates the ambiguity of Zodiac or Serial, those Heisenbergian mazes of investigation, of looking more and knowing less.

“We told them what happened,” says Grissom.

“But we didn’t give them what they needed,” says Willows. “Some closure.”

“Truth brings closure,” says Grissom.

Willows, with the last line: “Not always.”

“Chaos Theory” came from a crew of TV lifers: Director Kenneth Fink helmed 50 other CSI episodes; writers Eli Talbert and Josh Berman served time across the spectrum of procedural television. The thing I love about “Chaos Theory” is that it’s hard to tell if the conclusion was planned the whole time or a last-minute hail-mary for a script run amok. I almost prefer to believe the latter: That the experience of writing the script was the experience of investigating Paige Rycoff’s murder, with Talbert and Berman chasing down every clue and coming up empty, before finally deciding that, hell, maybe nobody did it.

“Chaos Theory” isn’t, like, L’Avventura — it does solve Paige’s murder — but there’s an unquestionable whiff of metafiction and deconstruction in its final act. Paige’s parents are us, demanding closure; Grissom is an unusually cruel TV writer, withholding catharsis. Or maybe “Chaos Theory” is the most realistic episode of any CSI ever: All the usual beats of TV crime suddenly entering a weird new territory where there are no easy solutions. You watch the episode waiting for a villain. In the end, the villain is the evidence, confusing the investigators, tantalizing Paige’s parents with the promise of some higher truth.

CSI ran for another 300 episodes, some great, most pretty good, one made by the director of Death Proof. And yet, you watch “Chaos Theory” and you feel like you’ve just seen the beautiful, ambiguous series finale for the whole CSI experiment. Way back in the pilot episode, Petersen got to say Grissom’s mission statement: “There is always a clue.”

In “Chaos Theory,” there is always another clue. It will drive a man crazy, the clues.

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