Author: Astralis (songs_of_summer)
Spoilers: seasons one to five
WHO ARE YOU?
I started watching CSI just over a year ago. It was my sister's fault, like most things, but I don't think her trying to convince me to watch this "really cool programme" was supposed to lead to me spending far too much of my time thinking about the show and about one character in particular: Sara Sidle.
Sara tends to inspire mixed reactions among CSI fans: there are those that passionately love her, those that can't stand her, and a relatively quiet group who couldn't care less. It's typical for most characters in most fandoms, I suppose, I just notice the "Sara hate" more because I can't understand why people wouldn't like her.
When I'm in a rational mood I can acknowledge their objections. She can be tactless and insensitive, she can be single-minded almost to the point of obsession, and sometimes the only way she can express herself comes across as whining which irritates even me.
But I still love her.
Sara is a lot of things. She's a perfectionist, she's a workaholic, she "writes everything down in shorthand" to "keep things in order". She's not so good with people, and she doesn't know what the right thing to say is in any given situation. She doesn't see it as her job: it's Catherine's job, or Nick's. As far as Sara's concerned, her job's about getting justice for the victim, rather than the political niceties sometimes involved. When Grissom pulls everyone off their own cases to work a rush case of Warrick's in Invisible Evidence, Sara's the only one who says she's working her own homicide, that she has a duty to solve that case. She tells Nick later that she's "pissed off" because "victims aren't equal". For Sara, a victim is a victim and that's what matters most.
There have been two things that have remained constant factors in Sara's life since she arrived on the show and in Las Vegas in the second episode of CSI. One of those is work, the other is Gil Grissom. In a way, these two things are what have defined Sara for many fans.
INSIDE THE BOX
The impression we get from the show is that Sara lives to work. She's frequently told by her co-workers that she needs a distraction, that she needs to get out more. When Grissom leaves Warrick in charge of the shift while both he and Catherine are away, the reason he gives for not offering it to Sara, who, to quote Warrick, would "jump at the chance" is that he doesn't want someone who'd stay up for three straight days. Sara tends to let work become more important than minor details like sleeping or eating: she'll sleep in the lab, and only when she can't stay awake a minute longer, rather than waste time by going home.
This fixation on work has (obviously) a lot to do with who Sara is. She's a scientist, she always has been, it's how she defines herself. When asked what she was in high school, Sara doesn't even hesitate in her answer: "Science nerd." Sara's always been pretty single-minded - she graduated as valetudinarian just before she turned 17, went to Harvard on early admissions with a huge scholarship, and then transferred to UC Berkeley where she got first a Bachelor's and then a Master's degree in science. I think it's pretty clear that Sara's smart, but also that she's committed to what she does. No amount of brains is going to get someone into Harvard at that age without the desire and committment to succeed, and this single-minded determination to the exclusion of all else is one of the things I love about Sara.
Sara devotes herself to her work both for herself and for the victims of the crime. She likes to see everything neatly solved and criminals brought to justice - as do the rest of the team - but for Sara, in certain cases, it goes way beyond that. Everyone has cases that hit too close to home, but no one else deliberately sleeps in the lab or ends up in Grissom's office in tears because of those cases. What really gets Sara, what affects her more than anything else, is cases of abuse and violence against women. It comes up again and again and again (and again).
The first episode in which we see this is Sex, Lies, and Larvae in season one. This is one of the few cases where it's physical abuse that gets Sara; usually it's rape. She and Grissom are working the case of a woman whose body was found in the mountains. An autopsy revealed that the victim - Kaye Shelton - had been a long term victim of domestic abuse. Her husband, Scott, has an answer for everything. He's cocky and chauvinistic and Sara - who's already upset enough from the autopsy - clearly loathes him. When Sara and Grissom find blood in his home and Scott tries to claim he doesn't know how it got there, Sara loses it. Her empathy for the victim has turned into sheer rage, and she begins to scream at Scott, so Grissom has to physically restrain her. When Brass leads Scott away, Grissom asks Sara what the matter is. Her answer? "I am a woman and I have a gun and look how he treated me. I can only imagine how he treated his wife". Later it's back to empathy, and she turns up in Grissom's office to inform him she's hearing the victim's screams. It's a strangely fascinating scene; Sara's edgy, and desperation has driven her to be completely honest with the person she trusts the most.
Clearly there's something more going on here than just empathy. Sex, Lies and Larvae isn't the only episode in which this comes up - there's a multitude of them, because crimes against women happen all too often, both in real life and in the CSI world. Sara reacts to them all in the same way: by becoming emotionally attached to the victim, whether they're alive, dead, or in between; and by becoming passionately - almost obsessively - determined to find the perpetrator, to bring justice to the victim. Sara has changed over the seasons, but her reactions to rape and abuse cases have remained constant.
Exactly why Sara reacts to these cases in the way she does is unclear, so theories abound. Most of them come down to one of two basic premises, that either Sara or someone she loved was the victim of rape or a similar crime. We know she's trained in weaponless defence, and fans speculate that that may come from a desire not to be hurt again - but then, even if she's never been through anything like rape, she's a CSI and she knows how dangerous the world can be. Personally, I'm inclined to believe something has happened to her, but then, I lean towards angst and a good story.
While she's not always confident with herself as a person, Sara has faith in herself as a scientist, and she knows she's good at her job. It's important to her that she is good, because science is reliable. Unlike people, it's not likely to change, do unexpected things, or bite you in the back. She doesn't like to have her abilities questioned. In season four's After the Show, in which everyone behaves like bunch of squabbling teenagers, Sara and Nick's high profile case is given to Catherine, primarily because the suspect, a photographer, is willing to talk to "the pretty one" (yes, he said this to Sara's face) and no one else. It's Nick who says "We wouldn't ask for it if we couldn't do it", but Sara is with him 100%. As she tells him later: "I would take you and me over Catherine and Greg anytime." She's good at her job and she knows it, and she's not afraid of making sure everyone else knows it too. To some people this comes off as over-confidence or arrogance, but I see Sara clinging to the one thing she's sure about, trying to find her place.
FRIENDS AND LOVERS (or not)
Sara came to Las Vegas primarily because one person asked her to: Gil Grissom. What Sara's past relationship with Grissom has been is one of the mysteries of her character, and all we really know is that she was a student of his at one point. When she arrives in Vegas, however, Grissom informs her that he has "so many unanswered whys". Sara looks away and says that "the only why that matters now is why Warrick Brown left that scene." Sara's face usually gives away more than her words, and averting her eyes is a sure sign that something's going on. It seems from this little exchange that something happened, or almost happened, between them at one point, but four or so years later we don't know what that was.
They've had an interesting relationship over the years. Whether you're a Grissom/Sara shipper or not - and I'm not - it's hard to deny that there's always been an element of something more than platonic between them. Grissom's interest, or lack of interest, or problem with expressing and dealing with interest in Sara - yes, I'm confused too - have had, and probably will continue to have, a huge affect on her life.
In the first two or three seasons they had a fairly good relationship - most of the time - although it's clear there's some kind of gap between them as early as the Sex, Lies and Larvae empathy scene: the only way Grissom can deal with the revelation that she's hearing the victim's screams is to go back and look at Kaye Shelton's body for fresh clues - to help Sara do what she needs to do, which is arrest the husband "who's guilty as sin", and get some kind of justice for Kaye. He also can't cope with what comes after "what if you hear the victim's screams?", which is, "Do you want to sleep with me?" This is desperation on Sara's part, because she doesn't invite people into her life easily. And for those of you who are twelve years old at heart - like me - Sara's definition of "sleep with me" meant that "when I wake up under the blanket in a cold sweat hearing Kaye's screams, you can tell me it's nothing. It's just empathy." This is as opposed to the conventional, euphemistic meaning of the term. What's important here - aside from the fact that hearing the victim's screams is not healthy - is that Sara trusts Grissom enough to tell him this. She respects him and his judgement, and it's Grissom she turns to when she's stuck with the case, confused, upset, and doubting a science which wasn't giving her the evidence she needed.
Later that season they work a rape case in Too Tough to Die. The victim, Pamela Adler, was literally too tough to die - she's been raped and beaten, but instead of dying, she's left in a vegetative condition. At the end of the episode Sara turns up in Grissom's office in tears. She's become attached to the victim, and she's upset with a justice system that means the man who attacked Pamela and removed her chance of ever living a normal life can't be charged with murder or manslaughter because the victim was too tough to die, despite the intent of the criminal. Again, aside from what all this says about Sara, it's important that she trusts Grissom enough to let him see her like that.
By season four, there's no equivalent to those scenes. Sara's no longer trusting Grissom with those sorts of things. Like season one, in season four there are two episodes in which Sara becomes more involved than usual, Homebodies and Coming of Rage. Sara works both cases with Grissom, just as she works the Sex, Lies and Larvae and Too Tough to Die cases with him, but she's trying to hide her emotional reactions in both cases. She's not going to him with them, and he's not seeking her out to see if she's okay. Their relationship has changed.
If there's one point that changed that relationship irrevocably - for better or for worse, depending on your position - it came in Play with Fire at the end of season three. Sara tried to apply words to what had been going on between her and Grissom. She asked him out to dinner "to see what happens". He turned her down. It was probably the likely outcome, but he'd given her the courage to do it by calling her "honey" after he found her sitting outside the lab, dazed and confused and clutching a cut hand following the accidental blowing up of the DNA lab.
And so by the end of season four, the trust and respect seem to have gone. Season four, for Grissom and Sara, wasn't fun. It wasn't really fun for the fans either, watching what had been a good friendship at the very least turn into tension. It was just another part of Sara's downward spiral, and probably both a contributor to it and a result of it.
CRASH AND BURN
The Sara who arrived in Las Vegas was brash, smart, and self-confident, at least on the outside. She said fun things like, "Anyone touches that before it's dusted, I break their fingers." And then stuff happened, and in the season four finale, Bloodlines, Sara gets pulled over for failing to stop at a stop sign, and is discovered to have a blood alcohol count that's slightly above the legal limit for the state of Nevada. The cops give her a break and don't charge her - which would have meant the end of her career in law enforcement - but they do call Grissom to pick her up. And Sara can't hide any more. She's been hiding from him, she's been hiding from herself, and she's been trying to find the answers to her problems in alcohol, and really, it's not surprising.
Her boyfriend turns out to have another girlfriend. A friend of hers turns out to be a killer. Work sucks, she's lonely, and looking for an escape she turns to alcohol. It's not really shown, just a mention in Early Rollout and then the Bloodlines scene, but it's pretty obvious what the writers' intention was. The woman who likes to keep things under control has turned to something that, by its very nature, reduces the possibility of self-control. Sara was - is - desperate - but for what? My guess is to forget, for a while. Sara's a thinker, she doesn't sleep much, and there's a limit to how much overtime one can work. So somewhere during season four she just turned to alcohol. Maybe at first she just wanted to relax, a distraction, something that wasn't about death and destruction and nightmares, and then it all escalated. She lost control of herself, and that control was one of the things Sara valued most of all. It's in her face and her eyes, when she looks away from someone to prevent them from seeing her emotions. It's in the flat tone her voice takes on when she's hiding something that she's afraid her tone will give away.
And Grissom's seen her at one of her lowest points. She was willing to let him see that in season one, but a lot of water's passed under the bridge by the end of season four and their relationship's changed. Unfortunately we can only guess at the immediate aftermath of events, because this was literally the final scene of season four. At the start of season five, Sara's back from a vacation (which was probably not entirely voluntary on her part) and she's seeing a counsellor. She's estalished that she has "me" problems, and we also learn she has 'family issues' of some kind. Most of this we find out because she was talking to her reflection in a mirror.
I don't know where she's going from here. I'd like a return to the smart funny Sara of seasons one and two - the self-sufficient one who doesn't care if she's stepping on people's toes, as long as she's solving the case. But whatever happens, whatever they do with Sara, as long as she's on CSI I'm watching the show. If I have to, I'll watch for her and her only. Because, in the end, all it really comes down to is that I love Sara, and everything about her.