'Eleventh Hour': What's under the Hood?

Rufus SewellOver the first couple of weeks of these posts on Eleventh Hour, there have been a number of commenters discussing the relative chemistry, or lack thereof, between the series' two principal characters. To which I respond: Chemistry? This is a show about science. What does chemistry have to do with that?

In all seriousness, though, this line of thinking raises an important point. Thus far, Eleventh Hour has primarily been interesting to watch because it offers up plotlines that are so very different from every other mystery show on TV. It's compelling because it offers a unique brand of storytelling. But while there's a lot to say about the uniqueness of the storylines, there isn't a whole lot to say so far about the characters. We know so very little about them. And it might be a while before that changes.

That's not so much a flaw of the show as it is a realistic assessment of its main character. Jacob Hood is not a guy who's going to open up and tell anyone his life story. He'll gladly go into detail about the chemical composition of any object in the room, or tell you a story about the historical origins of scientific terms, or pontificate about the corrupting influences of corporate culture on American life. But if the topic turns to himself, Hood becomes very terse, very quickly. I mentioned during the pilot episode that when he made mention of his late wife, it sure seemed like it was the very first time he had ever brought her up in front of Rachel, something which seems to be proved in this episode. In episode two, we got the first glimmer of what Hood may have been like prior to working for the FBI when the homeopathic pharmacist Lizzie brought up a research study he had done, but Jacob seemed highly uncomfortable talking about himself and quickly changed the subject back to the case at hand. When Rachel asked what Jacob was like at the end of the episode, Jacob noted that he was probably somewhat like Stephen Brown, but didn't elaborate with anything specific about his youth. And here in this episode, when Rachel tries to actually talk with him for the first time about his late wife, Jacob goes quiet and once again instantly returns the discussion back to the case they're working. Character development on Dr. Hood is going to be a slow grind, because he's just not very comfortable talking about himself.

Rachel makes far more of an effort here in this episode to build up a rapport with Jacob, as if trying to manufacture that chemistry between them that people are looking for. Beyond trying to ask Hood about his wife, Rachel is far chattier in this episode than she was in the prior two, trying to engage Jacob in conversation whenever possible by letting him talk about the things he is comfortable talking about. But we shouldn't be expecting them to be constantly engaging in witty banter; it's just not in their nature. Hood is a super-serious guy, and from what little we know about Rachel - and we actually know even less about her than we do about Jacob - she seems to be pretty serious too.

Ultimately, all that we can do is have faith that the layers to Jacob Hood will slowly be revealed, piece by piece over time, and that it will all be worth it. There's a huge, huge double standard among TV critics when it comes to the leeway they'll grant to shows regarding character development. If it takes a long time to slowly unfold the layers of Don Draper, it's masterful novelistic storytelling; if it takes a long time to slowly pull back the curtain on Gil Grissom, it's a mediocre show that doesn't care about character development. It's going to take a while to fill out the picture of Jacob Hood. You just have to have faith that it'll be worth it.

Marley SheltonAnd now to the case o' the week. Among the lessons to be learned this week: a tub of margarine can be highly deadly; the French will stop at nothing to get their drink on; it is possible to die in a seedy motel of something other than a drug overdose or a grisly homicide; and it is perfectly OK to autopsy the family dog in the front yard.

Before it became the Silicon Valley, California's South Bay was known as the "Valley of Heart's Delight," miles upon miles of beautiful orchards in one of the world's most optimal locations for growing fruits and vegetables. The last fifty years changed all that; the area is all highways and concrete and tech firms now, and agriculture has largely been driven away. So if you're, say, a family of four in San Jose sitting down for breakfast, you generally aren't going to know if the fruit you're eating comes from the next county over or South America.

Into that environment, we begin with a pair of families. The Henson family is desperately trying to save one of the area's few remaining family farms from an army of creditors and the dominance of the major agricultural corporations, while the Stanner family represents the aforementioned family of four in San Jose sitting down to eat their breakfast. Three of the four members of the Stanner family suddenly drop to the ground, and paramedics are rushed in. The three family members are all alive, but have suddenly and inexplicably all become paralyzed.

When local doctors, the FDA and the CDC can't figure it out, Jacob and Rachel are called in. Everyone thinks that the family had to have been poisoned, but nobody can figure out why the family's teen daughter Rachel was unaffected. Jacob quickly rules out the possibility that it was Rachel who did the poisoning, reasoning that her lousy science grades mean she'd hardly possess the know-how to do it.

Hood and Rachel head from the hospital to the Stanner house to investigate, and Hood launches into a showy demonstration about how pretty much anything in a kitchen can be deadly if used the wrong way - or the right way, if indeed you are trying to kill somebody. Hood has a real flair for these types of demonstrations; he loves to talk, just not about himself. Jacob and Rachel find the family dog. She's dead. The dog ate scraps of the same food that everyone in the family ate, but Hood explains that the dog would have died first because dogs metabolize their food faster than humans. Hood proceeds to perform an autopsy of the dog - in the front yard - and finds a strange fungus in the digestive tract.

When Hood brings a sample of the fungus to a lab, he can identify it as botrytis cinerea. But it's not a pure version of the fungus. It's been altered somehow. The fungus is one that only grows on plants, so that narrows the source of the problem down to fruits and vegetables. Hood is thinking that the food that paralyzed the Stanner family is genetically modified fruit.

The investigation leads to an agricultual technology company at the forefront of genetically modified foods. Hood is not fond of these corporate food folks; he believes that corporations rush these GMO foods to market before doing an adequate amount of safety testing and that FDA standards for the testing are too weak. Jacob brings up these points to Jason Cooper, the head of Aeonium Agritech, and Cooper shoots back that without genetically modified foods, the world would be in a massive food crisis and the entire Third World would basically starve. Hood also then goes on to rail against the corporate influence in academia, with how corporations fund universities and get to steer what research is done and who it benefits. These are all huge policy questions that people have written large books on, and they're all buried here in the middle of this little procedural drama.

After visiting Aeonium, Jacob and Rachel head to a branch of the University of California, where a research lab has basically been turned into Aeonium's private R&D lab. A professor named Altschuler is in charge of research of genetically modified foods, and has been working with botrytis cinerea, but the professor has gone missing. By the time Jacob and Rachel track him down to a seedy motel room, the professor is dead, having been killed by a pet scorpion. It's not just any scorpion, but a super-scorpion, one that is itself a genetically modified hybrid.

Hood starts to put the pieces together. Scorpion venom paralyzes insects, so there's the link to the families being paralyzed (a second family, the Sheridans, has since been added). So Hood figures that the modified fungus from earlier was actually botrytis cinerea spliced with some scorpion venom, which would serve as a pesticide.

But a pesticide should only kill insects, not any people who eat the food sprayed with the pesticide. That wouldn't be a very effective farming technique. The modified fungus only attacks insects. Hood is stumped until he has the good fortune of Rachel offering him some candy from a vending machine. Hood tells Rachel that there are insects in her Good 'n Plenty (or, as the prop box actually reads, Candy 'n Licorice). Rachel is not amused. It's not the candy, but rather the food coloring, a specific food coloring made from a specific insect protein. The reason only two families had the misfortune of falling ill, when undoubtedly many families ate the same fruits and vegetables, is that they were unlucky enough to consume the right mix of those fruits plus something containing that specific food coloring.

Jacob and Rachel go back to confront Jason Cooper at Aeonium, who admits that Altschuler knew about this potential problem, but Cooper swept it under the rug. Cooper agrees to destroy every remaining sample of the pesticide and issue a recall of any affected foods. But the specific local source of the food problem isn't isolated until Jacob and Rachel are overseeing the removal of the pesticides, and one employee decides to flee the scene. It's Eddie Henson, son of the Henson family who was trying to save his family farm by stealing pesticide and saving the family money. Bob Henson was desperate to save his farm, which was being squeezed by the giant agricorps, Monsanto on one side and Dole on the other. The poor guy was just trying to save his family farm and had no idea that his farm would end up responsible for a major food scare.

Two members of the Stanner family, plus the Sheridan family, are able to survive. Altschuler's last act was basically to sting himself with his scorpion so much that he turned his own blood into an effective antivenin to reverse the effects of the venom-casued paralysis. Another day thus saved, Hood is able to go back to his usual routine of talking about anything other than himself. Rachel, on the other hand, tells us what she'll be doing in the future. "Guess I'm going to have to look a little more closely at my food labels from now on," she accepts.

Your turn! Here's some food for thought. Any chance you may change any of your eating habits after seeing this episode? Do you fear a possible global food crisis looming? If you ran a company that basically ran your own university science lab, what would you research? And given the questions about chemistry between Rachel and Jacob, do you buy that they could pass themselves off as a married couple, as Rachel does here?

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