(Warning: spoilers ahead)
This episode hits all the marks for what makes a good episode of Criminal Intent, but is more than just a good episode.
The acting is superb; Erbe and D'Onofrio were in top form for this episode, capturing a range of emotions from the subtle to the dramatic with urgent and heartfelt realism. Series regulars Vance and Sheridan also hit all the right notes, giving their characters more life and nuance than usual. Yet perhaps the best acting in this episode is by Carrie Preston, the guest actress who vividly and poignantly brings the desperate suffering of beleaguered and isolated mother Doreen Whitlock to life. Guest star Sam Robards also performs brilliantly, creating perhaps one of the most despicable characters to grace the show (which is saying a lot). Even the child actors are all convincing.
I think a big part of why there were so many inspired performances in this episode was the sheer power of the story. Method actor D'Onofrio focuses his acting work on locating genuine emotional responses in his "affective memory" to bring to the screen so that what the viewer sees is "real"--in the sense that the emotions the viewer sees expressed are not only what the character is feeling, but what the actor is feeling as well. This is probably a large part of why D'Onofrio is such a powerful and charismatic presence on screen, impossible to overlook or ignore even in some of his weakest moments as an actor. And with a story as powerful and painful as this one to work with, it is not hard to see how D'Onofrio and the other actors could access genuine and intense emotions to bring to the screen. Both D'Onofrio and Erbe vividly capture the emotions this story evokes: disgust, hatred, sympathy, great sorrow for a deeply wounded individual, and anguish at the senselessness of a crime that could have been prevented, should someone have cared for Doreen enough to stand up for her against her controlling husband.
One of the running themes of Goren's character is his fierce anger at those who exploit the weak without regard for their suffering. D'Onofrio plays this angle brilliantly in this episode, showing the self-restraint Goren has to tap into when confronted by the actions of those selfish, cruel, and exploitative individuals he calls "evil." (Watch Goren's reaction when he and Eames are turned away by Paul Whitlock at his door after Paul has taken Doreen home. One can practically see Goren swallowing down his anger.) This is most evident in the interrogation room; interrogation scenes often feature some of the series' best acting, as they are scenes in which many deep areas of the soul and psyche are unearthed. And the interrogation scene in this episode may just be the best of the series. Goren's anger is so powerful and vivid, and yet it seems the viewer is only seeing the tip of the iceberg; one can see the struggle in which Goren must engage to restrain himself from acting out violently against Whitlock.
This episode somehow managed to mine the most deeply personal of storylines and motives while also exploring political and social issues in a nuanced manner. An early lead puts the detectives on the trail of a group of Middle Eastern men they suspect of terrorism. When the detectives are finally confronted with the fact that they have unintentionally traumatized the family of a man who was doing nothing more criminal than getting lost and frustrated on his way to perform in a musical concert at his child's school--to celebrate the message "We Are One World," no less--the look of shame and regret on their faces is subtle but poignant. Again, the actors bring the story to life, and the story brings the actors to life. This story also touches on notes of feminism, of the suffering women experience when they are objectified by being valued only in terms of the services they can provide, not as individuals in their own right, and when they are expected to take care of everyone but themselves. The viewer experiences Doreen's anguish on both the personal and political levels.
No other episode of Criminal Intent that I have seen thus far has the emotional impact of this episode. Watching Doreen stumble on her words, fighting so hard to keep it together to live up to her husband's impossible standards of perfection, and ingratiating herself to everyone around her with no regard for herself whatsoever, is painful to watch. Discovering the extent of her isolation as the story unfolds, and the extent to which her husband is indifferent to her suffering, is heartbreaking. Doreen did embody the selflessness of Mother Mary, but it was warped by the unbelievable stress and emotional neglect she faced every day, with her ultimately sublimating her wish for the release of death into a story about how she could redeem herself after death and succeed where she failed in life, by bringing others the happiness she felt she couldn't bring them in life.
You can see the heartbreak on the face of Goren, Eames, Carver, and Deakins in this episode. I believe this is because the heartbreak is real, felt by the actors as well as their characters. The story is so powerful that its impact is very direct and personal, cutting right through one's defenses as a viewer and going straight to the heart. One of the running themes of Criminal Intent that sets it apart from other shows in the genre is of focusing on the pain and trauma that drives the criminals into their fateful actions and letting the viewer see this through the eyes of a detective who is not just another tough, clever cop, but a person whose capacity to do his job well is directly linked to his ability to experience compassion. D'Onofrio is riveting in this episode, depicting Goren at his most compassionate and heartbroken, and Preston is equally riveting depicting a woman so forlorn that she is extremely sympathetic even in the wake of the commission of one of the most heinous crimes imaginable. This episode pulls no punches in its examination of both the personal and political aspects of one of the most disturbing sorts of crimes, and the result is transcendent.