Chicago P.D. Season 2 Data Overview

Thanks to Zoë Samudzi and Briana Ureña-Ravelo for feedback on parts of what follows. Deeply influential but not directly cited below are Sylvia Wynter on the idea of The Human and Che Gossett‘s years of twitter musings on humanity/animality along with decades of Black feminist abolitionist visions and critiques, especially the works of Ruth Wilson-Gilmore, Mariame Kaba and Angela Davis. Credit for anything useful below is theirs. Feedback – constructive, destructive and other – welcome.

Season 1 – Season 2 –

Chicago P.D. is a police drama produced by Wolf Entertainment running on NBC since 2014 with an ensemble cast structure centered around Hank Voight (Jason Beghe). The show tells fictional stories of the Chicago Police Department’s Intelligence Division as they try to incarcerate or kill people they criminalize.[1] It has single episode story lines with regular longer arcs or recurring story elements mixed in. Chicago P.D. mixes elements of a police drama and procedural with the procedural aspects focusing on torture. Its program is lionizing John Burge – albeit not by name and likely unthought – where the Chicago police coerce confessions through torture in semi-official locations, “The Cage” in Chicago P.D.. The show portrays the killer cops as heroic and their violences practical through gritty dialogue, Beghe’s gravely voice and quick trigger, the cops’ connections to criminalized populations that frame them as criminally knowledgeable and grounded and the decision to use handheld cameras for a more kinetic feel.

Chicago P.D. is well acted for the most part and competently shot. It has mostly coherent storylines and good pacing which would make it well scripted were it not for so many character tropes and bad dialogue. Its main drawbacks are not technical, but ethical. Chicago P.D., even by the low standards of cop shows, stands out for how warmly it embraces murderous cops and torture. Its heroes are at times portrayed ambiguously but are, like its closest predecessor The Shield, still virtuous protagonists. The horrors they enact and all their violences are towards supposedly noble ends.

Below are data tables that look at how frequently various things happen in the second season’s stories. Many of the categories reflect things seen in other cop shows too. Others are more unique to Chicago P.D. or useful only with lots of other context. For each table I try to offer context in the surrounding annotations. Some categories that are useful in other cops shows or even different seasons of the same show are not always applicable to others so this data overview will have tables others do not and vice versa.

Season two police killings

Chicago P.D. at least partially resolves seven of season two’s twenty-three episodes with the police killing the person they are criminalizing, killing sixteen people along the way. The amount of people killed by any particular cop in season two is only slightly remarkable. But the totals over the whole series show that most Chicago P.D. main cast characters are serial killers. For example in “Called in Dead”, Alinsky (Elias Koteas) says that he’s killed seven people to that date (three in the show to that point, the others from before the show starts). They are what the title character from Dexter is just lacking the self-awareness. More troubling is how Chicago P.D. normalizes police shootings as heroic outcomes as explored below the table.

Episode name/date Killed by police
Episode resolved via suspect’s death Criminalized person killed by
E1 “Call It Macaroni” 24 Sep 2014 3 Yes Halstead (1), Ruzek (1), Stillwell (1)
E2 “Get My Cigarettes” 1 Oct 2014 0 No N/A
E3 “The Weigh Station” 8 Oct 2014 1 No Alinsky
E4 “Chicken, Dynamite, Chainsaw” 15 Oct 2014 1 Yes Dawson
E5 “An Honest Woman” 22 Oct 2014 0 No N/A
E6 “Prison Ball” 5 Nov 2014 0 No N/A
E7 “They’ll Have to Go Through Me” 12 Nov 2014 1 No During police chase
E8 “Assignment of the Year” 19 Nov 2014 0 No N/A
E9 “Called in Dead” 10 Dec 2014 1 No Alinsky
E10 “Shouldn’t Have Been Alone” 7 Jan 2015 0 No N/A
E11 “We Don’t Work Together Anymore” 14 Jan 2015 0 No N/A
E12 “Disco Bob” 21 Jan 2015 0 No N/A
E13 “A Little Devil Complex” 4 Feb 2015
1 Yes Dawson
E14 “Erin’s Mom” 11 Feb 2015 1 Yes Civilian kills man detained by cops
E15 “What Do You Do” 18 Feb 2015 1 Yes Burgess
E16 “What Puts You On That Ledge” 25 Feb 2015 2 Yes Dawson (1), Atwater (1)
E17 “Say Her Real Name” 25 Mar 2015 0 No N/A
E18 “Get Back To Even” 1 Apr 2015 3 Yes Voight (2), Halstead (1)
E19 “The Three G’s” 8 Apr 2015 0 No N/A
E20 “The Number of Rats” 29 Apr 2015 0 No N/A
E21 “There’s My Girl” 6 May 2015 1 No Halstead
E22 “Push the Pain Away” 13 May 2015 1 No Guy suicides while detained by cops
E23 “Born Into Bad News” 20 May 2015 0 No N/A

The Chicago police department kill someone they criminalize in 30% of the season two episodes. Chicago P.D. is not directly responsible for material world police shootings but it, like all cop shows, plays a role in (re)producing public support for police violence through discursive illustration. It offers an imaginary heroic police violence. It relies on an audience that accepts these outcomes as palatable or else it would be read as the sadistic horror it is or, possibly, the audience would be aware of their enjoyment of sadistic horror. In Weber’s description of the state as the claimant to a monopoly over legitimate violence, Chicago P.D. normalizing police violence is the same as normalizing the state itself. The audience receiving these stories as heroic is part of statism; the organization of sociality around monopolies over legitimate violence.

Series Police Killings Running Totals by Main Cast Characters

Character Number of people they’ve executed
How many in each season
Voight 5 1 (3), 2 (2)
Alinsky 3 1 (2), 2 (1)
Halstead 4 1 (1), 2 (3)
Ruzek 2 1 (1), 2 (1)
Dawson 5 1 (3), 2 (2)
Burgess 2 1 (1), 2 (1)
Atwater 1 2 (1)

The only main cast characters to not kill somebody in the first two seasons are Platt, Lindsay (who kills two people in the next season’s opener…) and Roman.

Who do the cops pursue?

But to what end is the monopolized, legitimatized violence deployed? Chicago P.D. produces stories that portray the U.S. carceral system as not being built around Black Captivity. It tells stories of Black Captivity often without Black people. This is not a disavowal of Black criminality nor white innocence. It still narrates through Black criminality, often explicitly as when Voigt coerces snitches from his gang contacts. Instead it relies on Black Captivity being grammatical to the viewing audience. Audiences bring the knowledge of Black Captivity and mass incarceration to the show already. It doesn’t have to be said when it is the framework through which the audience understands the concept of prisons. So when Chicago P.D. represents cops criminalizing mostly non-Black people as their universe, it still does so through Black Captivity.

Chicago P.D.‘s second season presents a radically different picture of police violence than the material world offers. The CPD in season two pursues predominantly white people. The table below shows the demographics.

Episode name/date Racialization of person/people the cops criminalize Episode notes
E1 “Call It Macaroni” 24 Sep 2014 White
E2 “Get My Cigarettes” 1 Oct 2014 White
E3 “The Weigh Station” 8 Oct 2014 White
E4 “Chicken, Dynamite, Chainsaw” 15 Oct 2014 White
E5 “An Honest Woman” 22 Oct 2014 White Black character is a somewhat sympathetic grifter
E6 “Prison Ball” 5 Nov 2014 Black Black people are gang members
E7 “They’ll Have to Go Through Me” 12 Nov 2014 White
E8 “Assignment of the Year” 19 Nov 2014 White
E9 “Called in Dead” 10 Dec 2014 Black, white Black people are drug dealers
E10 “Shouldn’t Have Been Alone” 7 Jan 2015 White
E11 “We Don’t Work Together Anymore” 14 Jan 2015 Non-Black latinx Mexicans are narcos
E12 “Disco Bob” 21 Jan 2015 White Black people are generally criminalized
E13 “A Little Devil Complex” 4 Feb 2015
White
E14 “Erin’s Mom” 11 Feb 2015 White
E15 “What Do You Do” 18 Feb 2015 Black, Asian Black people are gang members, Asians are smugglers
E16 “What Puts You On That Ledge” 25 Feb 2015 White
E17 “Say Her Real Name” 25 Mar 2015 White Latinx diplomat is corrupt
E18 “Get Back To Even” 1 Apr 2015 Black, non-Black latinx Black people are drug dealers, Mexicans are narcos
E19 “The Three G’s” 8 Apr 2015 Asian Chinese people are Triads/human traffickers
E20 “The Number of Rats” 29 Apr 2015 White
E21 “There’s My Girl” 6 May 2015 White Non-Black latinxs are narcos
E22 “Push the Pain Away” 13 May 2015 White
E23 “Born Into Bad News” 20 May 2015 White, latinx, Black Non-Black latinxs are narcos

In Arabs and Muslims in the Media Evelyn Alsultany describes a “field of meaning” beyond simple ideas of representation. She writes:

The critical cultural studies approach that I employ strategically privileges the analysis of ideological work performed by images and story lines, as opposed to reading an image as negative or positive, and therefore gets us beyond reading a positive image as if it will eliminate stereotyping. If we interpret an image as either positive or negative, then we can conclude that the problem of racial stereotyping is over because of the appearance of sympathetic images of Arabs and Muslims during the War on Terror. However, an examination in relation to its narrative context reveals how it participates in a larger field of meaning about Arabs and Muslims. The notion of a field of meaning, or an ideological field, is a means to encompass the range of acceptable ideas about the War on Terror.

Here I use this “field of meaning” to look at how Chicago P.D. ties racialized subject positions to specific racist types. So in keeping with Alsultany’s focus, how often are Arabs and Muslims story lines not articulated to terrorism? As in, does Chicago P.D. allow Arabs and Muslims to have meaning that is not tied to terrorism?

Chicago P.D. mentions latinxs as part of the plot in five season two episodes. In each, the reference or entire story is about narcotrafficantes or gangs. There is not a single story arc to the contrary. This is Chicago P.D.‘s entire field of meaning for latinxs – specifically non-Black latinxs – in season two.

Chicago P.D. mentions Black people as part of the plot in seven season two episodes. In all but one, the Black characters are articulated to drug or gang stories and in the exception a young Black girl is a grifter (who is portrayed partially sympathetically) that still means criminality. Gangs/drug dealers are Black people’s field of meaning in season two.

The two season two episodes with Asian characters as part of the plot are about Triads or smugglers, like the season one episode. Between the three episodes Smuggler/Trafficker/Triad is Chicago P.D.‘s field of meaning for “Asian”.

Big Hero vs. Big Villain storytelling

Chicago P.D. regularly uses a cop show trope I’m calling Big Hero vs. Big Villain but only once in season two. “The Number of Rats” begins a multi-story, multi-season arc that crosses over another Wolf Entertainment-produced show, Law & Order: SVU.  Big Hero vs. Big Villain are story arcs where the police are less systemic violence’s agents and more individuals in contest with others. Big Hero vs. Big Villain can include a systemic framework as in The Wire‘s story lines of McNulty vs. the Barksdale Crew or Stringer Bell. Chicago P.D. does not do this in a meaningful way. Instead its Big Hero vs. Big Villain stories act as personal quests, deeply personal battles and redemption arcs for its protagonists and adds a level of illegibility to the people the CPD pursues through making their motivations more arbitrary.

Heroic portrayals of torture and police brutality

Chicago P.D. embraces police torturing people like no other show on television. The closest is Supernatural where the Winchester brothers frequently torture ‘demons’ towards various ends, usually to extract information. But torture isn’t central to their characters. It is for Voight in Chicago P.D. and, to a lesser extent, Alinsky. Chicago P.D. portrays torture as heroic in either how the heroes do the torturing or torture is a successful tactic, usually both. It is so common that it must be either convincing or have an already convinced audience. If it did not, much like the above police killings, the audience would receive it as the sadistic horror it is.

Episode name/date Is there torture/police brutality? What happens?
E1 “Call It Macaroni” 24 Sep 2014 No
E2 “Get My Cigarettes” 1 Oct 2014 No
E3 “The Weigh Station” 8 Oct 2014 Yes Voight beats a man in The Cage to extract info
E4 “Chicken, Dynamite, Chainsaw” 15 Oct 2014 No
E5 “An Honest Woman” 22 Oct 2014 Yes Voight tortures someone with pliers to get info and later puts a gun to someone’s head in a vacant lot to coerce cooperation
E6 “Prison Ball” 5 Nov 2014 No  
E7 “They’ll Have to Go Through Me” 12 Nov 2014 Yes Voight beats a man in The Cage
E8 “Assignment of the Year” 19 Nov 2014 No
E9 “Called in Dead” 10 Dec 2014 No
E10 “Shouldn’t Have Been Alone” 7 Jan 2015 No
E11 “We Don’t Work Together Anymore” 14 Jan 2015 Yes Voight beats a man to extract information
E12 “Disco Bob” 21 Jan 2015 No
E13 “A Little Devil Complex” 4 Feb 2015
No
E14 “Erin’s Mom” 11 Feb 2015 Yes Voight & Lindsay beat a gunshot victim and dump him into the snow. Voight beats another man, both cases to get info
E15 “What Do You Do” 18 Feb 2015 No
E16 “What Puts You On That Ledge” 25 Feb 2015 No
E17 “Say Her Real Name” 25 Mar 2015 Yes Burgess tases a guy for wearing a helmet. Ruzek beats, chokes and threatens a man to solicit a confession
E18 “Get Back To Even” 1 Apr 2015 No
E19 “The Three G’s” 8 Apr 2015 Yes Alinsky threatens to put a man’s hand through a sewing machine to solicit a confession
E20 “The Number of Rats” 29 Apr 2015 Yes Voight chokes a man in the SVU part of a crossover episode
E21 “There’s My Girl” 6 May 2015 Yes Voight beats and chokes a man in The Cage
E22 “Push the Pain Away” 13 May 2015 No
E23 “Born Into Bad News” 20 May 2015 Yes
Voight burns a man with a torch to extract info

Chicago P.D. tortures the people it criminalizes in ten out of twenty-three season two episodes (43%). Season two continues using “The Cage”, a location where the unit takes people to torture them. No character offers any meaningful dissent to these actions. Chicago P.D. portrays Voight torturing people as not only ethical, but effective. I aspire to abolition in this writing and am not concerned with “innocent” people being imprisoned so much as doing away with the prisons altogether. “Innocent” is not an ethics counterpoint to “guilty” when the supposedly “guilty” are victims of state violence, not necessarily causers of any harm. With that said, Friedrich Spee noted in his 1631 text Cautio Criminalis that “Torture has the power to create witches where none exist.” He continued, critiquing witchhunting advocates noting that “every one of their teachings concerning witches is based on no other foundations than fables or confessions extracted through torture.”

Real world Chicago police have long engaged in torture and Voight and his unit bear strong resemblance to Jon Burge, a highly decorated Chicago cop who coerced confessions by torturing, primarily, Black people his unit kidnapped off the street. Spee loudly critiqued torture as producing no useful information in the early 1600s and studies ever since have agreed with him. Given this, Chicago P.D. in two-fifths of season two episodes is naming witches “based on no other foundations than fables or confessions extracted through torture.” There is no reason to think anybody tortured by Voight’s unit or implicated by the tortured even did the thing they were accused of. Abolition says “Don’t hunt witches in the first place.” That is the important question. Even with that understanding, Chicago P.D. portrays the most harmful method of witchhunting in its firm support for torture and police brutality. Instead of the normal carceral apologia that killer cops are bad apples not reflective of the system, the show argues that the killer cops are actually the good apples.

Other cop show tropes

Voight or the second time in the series threatens someone with prison rape (in the Law & Order: SVU crossover episode connected to “The Number of Rats”. Sex work and sex workers (in the industry) remain peripheral to Chicago P.D. in season two. All mentions to date have either been as snitches or “trafficking” victims.

Chicago P.D. does not make significant use of the Ticking Time Bomb, carceral ableism or several other cop show tropes in season one. Further seasons will illuminate more themes. Feedback appreciated. Thanks for reading.

[1] I say “or kill” due to Chicago P.D. frequently resolving storylines by killing the suspect. This occurs far too often to consider it anything other than an expected outcome for the showrunners.

Black as a Sex and Subject Position in Porn

Rolling Stone on 10 June 2020 published a terrific article by EJ Dickson titled “Racism in Porn Industry Under Scrutiny Amid Nationwide Protests”. Dickson interviews Ana Foxxx, Ricky Johnson, Demi Sutra and others who lay out strong critiques of the porn industry’s anti-Blackness: how it produces anti-Black imagery and how agents, porn companies and producers, along with performers who go along with or embrace it, create a rigidly racialized economic caste among performers with Black performers being denied opportunity after opportunity. Dickson towards the end of the piece quotes a white producer for the white-owned Vixen Studios subsidiary Blacked.com. Dickson writes that Mike Moz “defended the practice of offering higher rates for white performers doing their first scenes with Black men” with Moz saying, “Within the industry, any kind of first has a value on it. You’re vying for those firsts.”

I quoted several performers in an earlier piece about the “firsts” Moz refers to and how this creates a separate job entirely for Black performers:

The higher earning potential happens in two ways. White women performers, especially successful ones, often follow a progression of roles. Lexington Steele describes it, “There are situations where it could be the industry, whether it’s her boyfriend, her husband or management that suggests she either doesn’t do [interracial] at all, or waits until a certain time when her rates can appreciate over time. Where it’s: girl-girl to boy-girl to anal to DP [double penetration] to, and then the ultimate she can charge her most is when she finally does interracial.” This is career path is unavailable to Black women performers whose scenes are always already “racial” but never “inter” from an earning perspective, even when explicitly pointed out as such. For example Nyomi Banxxx recalled about a scene with a white male performer, “I had this conversation with my agent. I had this conversation with a director, because we were arguing about rate. I said, ‘I need to get paid for an interracial rate, IR.’ ‘No that’s not IR.’” This is one reason why Misty Stone says, Black performers “do the same amount of work but [white performers] get different opportunities.

The “firsts” Moz defends are a series of sexual acts with Black being the most expensive act white ciswoman performers can do. Here Black is both a subject position and sex position that subordinates and stigmatizes Black performers. It says, “Look! A Black!” in the exact same sense Fanon means. This gives lie to Moz’s claim that Blacked will no longer “use terms like ‘BBC’ and ‘interracial’ in its marketing copy.” The subject and sex positions are in the very name “Blacked”. It implies interracial through using Black as a verb, a transgression action crossing a border between subject positions, contaminating white purity. If Blacked is truly ending it’s use of the term “interracial” in marketing then it is simply substituting “Blacked” for it as interracial was always redundant to the company name.

When the unnamed director told Banxxx, “No, that’s not [interracial]” to her demanding a higher rate for doing a scene with a white performer, they demonstrated porn’s anti-Black labor regime, how it uses Black as a verb to describe a contaminating, corrupting element. Black women are prohibited from this being already “Blacked”. The industry constructs this labor regime intentionally. One quite lightskinned Black performer told me years ago that her agent did not want her to market herself as Black so she would have better economic opportunities in the industry if coded as ‘latina’ or ‘Asian’. Anti-Blackness explicit in the industry as Dickson’s article lays out and Moz confirms and as Ana Foxxx, Ricky Johnson, Scarlett Bloom, Demi Sutra, Lotus Lain and so many other performers have been campaigning against for some time, including increasingly publicly outside of the sex work industry over the past couple weeks.

Chicago P.D. Season 1 Data Overview

Thanks to Zoë Samudzi and Briana Ureña-Ravelo for feedback on parts of what follows. Deeply influential but not directly cited below are Sylvia Wynter on the idea of The Human and Che Gossett‘s years of twitter musings on humanity/animality along with decades of Black feminist abolitionist visions and critiques, especially the works of Ruth Wilson-Gilmore, Mariame Kaba and Angela Davis. Credit for anything useful below is theirs. Feedback – constructive, destructive and other – welcome.

 

Chicago P.D. is a police drama produced by Wolf Entertainment running on NBC since 2014 with an ensemble cast structure centered around Hank Voight (Jason Beghe). The show tells fictional stories of the Chicago Police Department’s Intelligence Division as they try to incarcerate or kill people they criminalize.[1] It has single episode story lines with regular longer arcs or recurring story elements mixed in. Chicago P.D. mixes elements of a police drama and procedural with the procedural aspects focusing on torture. Its program is lionizing John Burge – albeit not by name and likely unthought – where the Chicago police coerce confessions through torture in semi-official locations, “The Cage” in Chicago P.D.. The show portrays the killer cops as heroic and their violences practical through gritty dialogue, Beghe’s gravely voice and quick trigger, the cops’ connections to criminalized populations that frame them as criminally knowledgeable and grounded and the decision to use handheld cameras for a more kinetic feel.

Chicago P.D. is well acted for the most part and competently shot. It has mostly coherent storylines and good pacing which would make it well scripted were it not for so many character tropes and bad dialogue. Its main drawbacks are not technical, but ethical. Chicago P.D., even by the low standards of cop shows, stands out for how warmly it embraces murderous cops and torture. Its heroes are at times portrayed ambiguously but are, like its closest predecessor The Shield, still virtuous protagonists. The horrors they enact and all their violences are towards supposedly noble ends.

Below are data tables that look at how frequently various things happen in the first season’s stories. Many of the categories reflect things seen in other cop shows too. Others are more unique to Chicago P.D. or useful only with lots of other context. For each table I try to offer context in the surrounding annotations. Some categories that are useful in other cops shows or even different seasons of the same show are not always applicable to others so this data overview will have tables others do not and vice versa.

Season one police killings

Chicago P.D. at least partially resolves six of season one’s fifteen episodes with the police killing the person they are criminalizing, killing nine people along the way. The amount of people killed by any particular cop in season one is only slightly remarkable. But the totals over the whole series show that most Chicago P.D. main cast characters are serial killers. For example in the season two episode “Called in Dead”, Alinsky (Elias Koteas) says that he’s killed seven people to that date (three in the show to that point, the others from before the show starts). They are what the title character from Dexter is just lacking the self-awareness. More troubling is how Chicago P.D. normalizes police shootings as heroic outcomes as explored below the table.

Episode name/date Killed by police
Episode resolved via suspect’s death Criminalized person killed by
E1 “Stepping Stone” 8 Jan 2014 0 No N/A
E2 “Wrong Side of the Bars” 15 Jan 2014 1 No Dawson
E3 “Chin Check” 22 Jan 2014 1 Yes Ruzek
E4 “Now Is Always Temporary” 29 Jan 2014 1 Yes Dawson
E5 “Thirty Balloons” 5 Feb 2014 1 No Voight
E6 “Conventions” 26 Feb 2014 1 Yes Alinsky
E7 “The Price We Pay” 5 Mar 2014 1 Yes Voight
E8 “Different Mistakes” 12 Mar 2014 0 No N/A
E9 “A Material Witness” 19 Mar 2014 0 No N/A
E10 “At Least It’s Justice” 2 Apr 2014 0 No N/A
E11 “Turn The Light Off” 9 Apr 2014 0 No N/A
E12 “8:30 PM” 30 Apr 2014 0 No N/A
E13 “My Way” 7 May 2014 1 Yes Halstead
E14 “The Docks” 14 May 2014 1 No Voight
E15 “A Beautiful Friendship” 21 May 2014 1 Yes Burgess

The Chicago police department kill someone they criminalize in over 40% of the season one episodes. Chicago P.D. is not directly responsible for material world police shootings but it, like all cop shows, plays a role in (re)producing public support for police violence through discursive illustration. It offers an imaginary heroic police violence. It relies on an audience that accepts these outcomes as palatable or else it would be read as the sadistic horror it is or, possibly, the audience would be aware of their enjoyment of sadistic horror. In Weber’s description of the state as the claimant to a monopoly over legitimate violence, Chicago P.D. normalizing police violence is the same as normalizing the state itself. The audience receiving these stories as heroic is part of statism; the organization of sociality around monopolies over legitimate violence.

Who do the cops pursue?

But to what end is the monopolized, legitimatized violence deployed? Chicago P.D. produces stories that portray the U.S. carceral system as not being built around Black Captivity. It tells stories of Black Captivity often without Black people. This is not a disavowal of Black criminality nor white innocence. It still narrates through Black criminality, often explicitly as when Voigt coerces snitches from his gang contacts in several early episodes. Instead it relies on Black Captivity being grammatical to the viewing audience. Audiences bring the knowledge of Black Captivity and mass incarceration to the show already. It doesn’t have to be said when it is the framework through which the audience understands the concept of prisons. So when Chicago P.D. represents cops criminalizing mostly non-Black people as their universe, it still does so through Black Captivity.

Chicago P.D.‘s first season presents a radically different picture of police violence than the material world offers. The CPD in season one pursues predominantly white people. The table below shows the demographics.

Episode name/date Racialization of person/people the cops criminalize
Episode notes
E1 “Stepping Stone” 8 Jan 2014
Non-Black latinx Non-Black Colombians are narcos, Black ppl are gang members
E2 “Wrong Side of the Bars” 15 Jan 2014
Non-Black latinx
Non-Black Colombians are narcos
E3 “Chin Check” 22 Jan 2014
White
Black people are gang members
E4 “Now Is Always Temporary” 29 Jan 2014
Black, white Black people are gang members
E5 “Thirty Balloons” 5 Feb 2014
White
Mexicans are narcos
E6 “Conventions” 26 Feb 2014
White
E7 “The Price We Pay” 5 Mar 2014
White
E8 “Different Mistakes” 12 Mar 2014
Chinese Chinese are Triads
E9 “A Material Witness” 19 Mar 2014
Non-Black latinx Black ppl and non-Black latinxs are gang members
E10 “At Least It’s Justice” 2 Apr 2014
White
E11 “Turn The Light Off” 9 Apr 2014
White
E12 “8:30 PM” 30 Apr 2014
Non-Black latinxs Colombians are narcos
E13 “My Way” 7 May 2014
South Asian Syrians are hospital bombing suspects
E14 “The Docks” 14 May 2014
Non-Black latinxs Colombians are narcos
E15 “A Beautiful Friendship” 21 May 2014
Non-Black latinxs Colombians are narcos

In Arabs and Muslims in the Media Evelyn Alsultany describes a “field of meaning” beyond simple ideas of representation. She writes:

The critical cultural studies approach that I employ strategically privileges the analysis of ideological work performed by images and story lines, as opposed to reading an image as negative or positive, and therefore gets us beyond reading a positive image as if it will eliminate stereotyping. If we interpret an image as either positive or negative, then we can conclude that the problem of racial stereotyping is over because of the appearance of sympathetic images of Arabs and Muslims during the War on Terror. However, an examination in relation to its narrative context reveals how it participates in a larger field of meaning about Arabs and Muslims. The notion of a field of meaning, or an ideological field, is a means to encompass the range of acceptable ideas about the War on Terror.

Here I use this “field of meaning” to look at how Chicago P.D. ties racialized subject positions to specific racist types. So in keeping with Alsultany’s focus, how often are Arabs and Muslims story lines not articulated to terrorism? As in, does Chicago P.D. allow Arabs and Muslims to have meaning that is not tied to terrorism?

Chicago P.D. mentions latinxs as part of the plot in seven episodes. In each, the reference or entire story is about narcotrafficantes or gangs. There is not a single story arc to the contrary. This is Chicago P.D.‘s entire field of meaning for latinxs – specifically non-Black latinxs – in season one.

Chicago P.D. mentions Black people as part of the plot in six episodes. In only one, “Wrong Side of the Bars”, is the Black character not articulated to gangs. Most are an early season story arc where Voight coerces Black drug dealers to snitch for him. Gangs/drug dealers are Black people’s field of meaning in season one.

The only season one episode with Muslims is about a bombing and the only one with with non-main cast Asians is about the Triads. This sample is too small to define the field of meaning.

Big Hero vs. Big Villain storytelling

Chicago P.D. regularly uses a cop show trope I’m calling Big Hero vs. Big Villain. Big Hero vs. Big Villain are story arcs where the police are less systemic violence’s agents and more individuals in contest with others. Big Hero vs. Big Villain can include a systemic framework as in The Wire‘s story lines of McNulty vs. the Barksdale Crew or Stringer Bell. Chicago P.D. does not do this in a meaningful way. Instead its Big Hero vs. Big Villain stories act as personal quests, deeply personal battles and redemption arcs for its protagonists and adds a level of illegibility to the people the CPD pursues through making their motivations more arbitrary. Season one has two main Big Hero vs. Big Villain story arcs. The first, Dawson v.s El Pulpo, starts in the first episode and ends in the season’s penultimate episode with the unit arresting Pulpo while Dawson is in the hospital. The second main arc is Voight vs. Internal Affairs, a slow burning story that continues throughout the series with the occasional flare-up.

Heroic portrayals of torture and police brutality

Chicago P.D. embraces police torturing people like no other show on television. The closest is Supernatural where the Winchester brothers frequently torture ‘demons’ towards various ends, usually to extract information. But torture isn’t central to their characters. It is for Voight in Chicago P.D. and, to a lesser extent, Alinsky. Chicago P.D. portrays torture as heroic in either how the heroes do the torturing or torture is a successful tactic, usually both. It is so common that it must be either convincing or have an already convinced audience. If it did not, much like the above police killings, the audience would receive it as the sadistic horror it is.

Episode name/date Is there torture/police brutality?
What happens?
E1 “Stepping Stone” 8 Jan 2014
Yes Voight beats someone to extract information
E2 “Wrong Side of the Bars” 15 Jan 2014
No
N/A
E3 “Chin Check” 22 Jan 2014
Yes
Voight and Alinsky kidnap and beat a Black man
E4 “Now Is Always Temporary” 29 Jan 2014
Yes
Lindsay locks a dopesick sex worker in a cage to extract information
E5 “Thirty Balloons” 5 Feb 2014
Yes
Voight beats two men with a pool cue and puts his pistol in a man’s mouth to extract information
E6 “Conventions” 26 Feb 2014
Yes Voight cuts someone with a knife to extract information
E7 “The Price We Pay” 5 Mar 2014
No N/A
E8 “Different Mistakes” 12 Mar 2014
No N/A
E9 “A Material Witness” 19 Mar 2014
Yes Voight beats a man with a crowbar and threatens to have him raped
E10 “At Least It’s Justice” 2 Apr 2014
Yes Voight shoots a man in the leg just because
E11 “Turn The Light Off” 9 Apr 2014
Yes Voight and Alinsky put a man’s hand in a garbage disposal to extract information
E12 “8:30 PM” 30 Apr 2014
Yes Voight tortures a man in a hospital boiler room
E13 “My Way” 7 May 2014
No N/A
E14 “The Docks” 14 May 2014
Yes Voight beats and, with Alinsky, chokes a man with chains while preparing to drown him
E15 “A Beautiful Friendship” 21 May 2014
No N/A

Chicago P.D. tortures the people it criminalizes in ten out of fifteen season one episodes (67%). It starts in the first episode when the show introduces “The Cage”, a location where the unit takes people to torture them. No character offers any meaningful dissent to these actions. Chicago P.D. portrays Voight torturing people as not only ethical, but effective. I aspire to abolition in this writing and am not concerned with “innocent” people being imprisoned so much as doing away with the prisons altogether. “Innocent” is not an ethics counterpoint to “guilty” when the supposedly “guilty” are victims of state violence, not necessarily causers of any harm. With that said, Friedrich Spee noted in his 1631 text Cautio Criminalis that “Torture has the power to create witches where none exist.” He continued, critiquing witchhunting advocates noting that “every one of their teachings concerning witches is based on no other foundations than fables or confessions extracted through torture.”

Real world Chicago police have long engaged in torture and Voight and his unit bear strong resemblence to Jon Burge, a highly decorated Chicago cop who coerced confessions by torturing, primarily, Black people his unit kidnapped off the street. Spee loudly critiqued torture as producing no useful information in the early 1600s and studies ever since have agreed with him. Given this, Chicago P.D. in two-thirds of season one episodes is naming witches “based on no other foundations than fables or confessions extracted through torture.” There is no reason to think anybody tortured by Voight’s unit or implicated by the tortured even did the thing they were accused of. Abolition says “Don’t hunt witches in the first place.” That is the important question. Even with that understanding, Chicago P.D. portrays the most harmful method of witchhunting in its firm support for torture and police brutality. Instead of the normal carceral apologia that killer cops are bad apples not reflective of the system, the show argues that the killer cops are actually the good apples.

Other cop show tropes

Chicago P.D. does not have many sex worker themes in season one. The character Nadia is a sex worker snitch active in a few episodes and is “saved” from sex work and addiction by Dawson and Linsay after Linsay tortures her by locking her in The Cage while she’s dopesick. Sex workers as coerced snitches has a long history in cop shows and Chicago P.D.‘s criminalization of sex work will have to wait until I post several seasons of data to have enough points to define it in detail or do a character review of Nadia through all her episodes before her character is killed.

Chicago P.D. does not make significant use of the Ticking Time Bomb, carceral ableism or several other cop show tropes in season one. Further seasons will illuminate more themes. Feedback appreciated. Thanks for reading.

(1) I say “or kill” due to Chicago P.D. frequently resolving storylines by killing the suspect. This occurs far too often to consider it anything other than an expected outcome for the showrunners.

A Colonizing Anarchism

AK Press in 2009 published James Horrox’s A Living Revolution: Anarchism in the Kibbutz Movement, an examination of European anarchism’s influences on Zionist settler colonialism in Palestine that aspires to locate anarchism in Israeli kibbutzim. His efforts instead expose failures of the European Left canons, a misstep from a respected Left publisher, and a willingness to embrace colonial violence and anti-semitism if it can be read as vaguely anarchistic.

livingreovlution_72web

Horrox’s text contains numerous factual errors as when he writes that Bar Giora “grew out of an organization known as the Hashomer” (p.20) and not the other way around. These inaccuracies are less a problem than how Horrox immediately follows writing Hashomer’s “members were, from an early stage, ‘motivated by a conviction that the commune was the best way of life for themselves and their families.’ The group developed an ‘alternative model based upon cooperative settlement,’” (p.20) without noting Hashomer’s primary motivation was establishing settler relations of force to create a racialized labor caste of colony guards. Their idea of a “commune” was explicitly defined as one without Palestinians. Horrox’s idealized spaces are mini settler sovereignties created through and in order to extend ethnic cleansing.

Horrox notes in the introduction that “Many see the kibbutz’s very existence as predicated on the forcible displacement and subjugation of the region’s native Arab population, and would consider any progressive ideals of equality and social justice that the kibbutzim profess to hold nullified by the massive inequality on which the practical manifestation of these ideals has come to be based,” [emphases in original] (p.8-9). He immediately dismisses the harm kibbutzim enact writing, “Throughout history, all projects attempting to self-organize have been caught in different types of power networks that have complicated their existence. The kibbutz is no different,” (p.9). Horrox doesn’t elucidate which projects he is talking about but surely not all of them create the “power networks” that othered populations are then “caught in”. 

It’s telling that Horrox cites Gershon Shafir’s 2002 work (with Yoav Peled) Being Israeli but not his celebrated 1989 text Land, Labor and the Origins of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict that directly contradicts Horrox’s thesis about socialist ideologies being the driving factors in the Zionist settler colonial forms of the kibbutz and moshav. Horrox contradicts himself, seemingly without knowing, throughout the text on this. “In 1909, a strike broke out when Kinneret’s Jewish workers decided they could no longer put up with the oppressive, arbitrary administration,” which sounds like something we hope anarchists would do. The sentence continues, “and the use of hired Arab labor,” (p.17). Oops. Doesn’t seem so anarchistic now. Settlers refusing to share the same labor fields as Palestinians is the point of Avoda Ivrit (Hebrew labor). Because Palestinian laborers had lower costs of living due to kinship networks, subsistence farming and, especially, because large landowners and agricultural interests already exploited Palestinian labor and depressed their wages, Jewish settlers could not compete with Palestinian labor. Instead of organizing alongside Palestinian laborers fighting exploitation, non-Palestinian Jews cooperated to exclude Palestinians from labor fields to increase their bargaining power by creating exclusive labor castes. Separation was the goal, not cooperation. Horrox even quotes Nachman Syrkin on this but finds different meaning. “In the planned cooperative settlement, the question of Jewish labor will find a solution, because the main problem, that of labor and capital, will be solved,” (p.16).

Separation as the source of settler labor prosperity is the topic of an influential thesis by Chaim Arlosoroff, a major Labor Zionism intellectual who Horrox cites throughout the text as an anarchist figure and thinker. Arlosoroff’s 1926 essay “On the Question of Joint Organization” argues for Zionists to follow South African settlers’ Color Bar – later termed apartheid – programs of labor separation instead of struggling jointly with Palestinians laborers on the railways, post offices and other British colonial infrastructures. Arlosoroff writes that wherever Jewish settlers labor in Palestine, they do so “in the shadow of cheap Arab labor,” a “primitive rival” whose “needs are little more than zero.” Arlosoroff both naturalizes the pre-Zionism exploitation of Palestinian workers while justifying settlers displacing them. For all of Horrox’s waxing about how Gustav Landauer and Pyotr Kropotkin – both of whom opposed Zionism – heavily influenced Arlosoroff, A.D. Gordon and others, he fails to note that the Second and Third Aliya settlers he idolizes aimed for, in their own terms, the “conquest of land” and not the “conquest of bread.” Zionists sought to enclose the land from the indigenous Palestinian peasantry. Claiming anarchism or not, this is an enclosure, not a creation of commons. This is the narrative gap Horrox constructs when noting the excitement over “workers cultivating publicly-owned land” (p.19) while not mentioning that Palestinians are neither the “workers” nor the “public” in that sentence despite being the vast majority of Palestine’s pre-Nakba population.

As a Living Revolution continues its major conflict is not settlers espousing anarchism while dispossessing Palestinians but settlers espousing anarchism losing ground to settlers espousing Marxism in Zionist discourse and colonization. Instead of the common Colonizer Left trope of the revolutionaries and capitalists fighting for control over colonial plunder, Horrox has sects of a Colonizer Left fighting for the ability to guide colonial plunder. This is more akin to how Budour Hassan finds many anarchists fetishizing the “Republicans of the Spanish Revolution [while neglecting] Spanish colonialism in North Africa.”

Horrox reproduces another oppressive formation in endorsing European anti-semitic ideas of Jewish degredation. Horrox writes of Zionism as the “reconstruction of an entire people,” the “Jewish renaissance” (p.2), a “national revival” (p.13) and “regeneration” (p.25). But what is wrong with we Jews that requires “renaissance”, “regeneration” or “revival”? Anti-semitism presupposes that something is wrong with Jews and this is evident in the writings Horrox cites as well as his own text. Horrox spends copious pages on A.D. Gordon as an anarchist. Ze’ev Sternhell, whose The Founding Myths of Israel Horrox cites only to ignore, quotes Gordon writing that Jews are “broken and crushed … sick and diseased in body and soul.” That “we are a parasitic people. We have no roots in the soil; there is no ground beneath our feet. And we are parasites not only in an economic sense but in spirit, in thought, in poetry, in literature, and in our virtues, our ideals, our higher human aspirations. Every alien movement sweeps us along, every wind in the world carries us. We in ourselves are almost nonexistent, so of course we are nothing in the eyes of other peoples either.” Horrox slightly cleans up this crude anti-semitism in one of the brief moments he even mentions Palestinians in the text writing that Gordon was “anything but naive about Arab resistance to Zionism, which he viewed as a perfectly understandable reaction to Jews’ westernized and rootless lifestyle,” (p.27). This and Horrox writing that his anarchist settlers “felt that the First Aliya Jews had succeeded merely in replicating the exploitative socio-economic structure of the Pale of Settlement, where Jews worked in clean jobs, far from the point of production, and relied on other groups to do the so-called dirty work,” (p.17). Either Horrox doesn’t understand that Zionism’s “New Jews” are an anti-semitic idea or he’s ok with the anti-semitsm. It’s an explicitly anti-semitic text either way.

Colonial violence and anti-semitism are foundational to European fascism so it makes horrible sense that Horrox celebrates the white supremacist eugenicist Arthur Ruppin and the early Revisionist Zionist Josef Trumpeldor. He mines their work for anarchist influences in the same way that Jacobin recently printed a hagiography for fascist Eduard Limonov. These decontextualized, highly selective readings do nothing to expand the reach of liberation movements but instead attempt to rehabilitate fascism, colonialism and ethnic cleansing and pretend they are not oppression. This mining has more in common with the Israeli military using Derrida, Deleuze and Gautari to plan attacks on Palestinians than it does anything remotely progressive.

Could this mess have been avoided? Horrox describes “anarchism’s social vision” at the beginning of the book and begins with Pierre-Joseph Proudhon who promoted genociding Europe’s Jews as part of his political philosophy. At least 150 years before Proudhon was born, and 200 years before A.D. Gordon, kidnapped Africans in Jamaica had already secured their freedom and established agricultural communities in the Blue Mountains in opposition to African Slavery and capitalist agricultural exploitation. Three years before Marx was born Black fighters at Negro Fort inside Seminole sovereignty raided southern Georgia for supplies and to free kin in direct opposition to the US settler slaver empire. Where are these communes in Horrox’s canon? Why are settler colonial geographies like the agricultural kibbutzim in the canon but the anti-colonial fugitive agricultural communes established in the Great Dismal Swamp ignored? The works Saidiya Hartman, Fred Moten, Zoé Samudzi and William C. Anderson, Marquis Bey and others are doing conceive resistance lineages and practices that do not need to do like Horrox with the kibbutzim or Jacobin with Limonov and try to crop out the horror to create the image of revolution. Instead they create and learn from resistance lineages established in opposition to capitalist, colonialist, anti-Black systems.

The latter two examples, Samudzi & Anderson and Bey, I note above are also published by AK Press the same as A Living Revolution which remains in AK’s catalogue. A few years back investigators showed that one of AK’s authors, Michael Schmidt, was espousing white nationalism under the rubrick of anarchism and AK reacted swiftly to cease publishing Schmidt’s works and remove him from their catalogue. They should do the same with A Living Revolution. Thanks for reading.

FBI Season One Data Overview

Thanks to Zoë Samudzi and Briana Ureña-Ravelo for feedback on parts of what follows. Deeply influential but not directly cited below are Sylvia Wynter on the idea of The Human and Che Gossett‘s years of twitter musings on humanity/animality along with decades of Black feminist abolitionist visions and critiques, especially the works of Ruth Wilson-Gilmore, Mariame Kaba and Angela Davis. Credit for anything useful below is theirs. Feedback – constructive, destructive and other – welcome.

FBI is a police procedural running on CBS since 2018 with an ensemble structure centered around two leads. It tells fictional stories of the FBI focused around partners Maggie Bell (Missy Peregrym) and Omar “OA” Zidan (Zeeko Zaki) as they try to incarcerate or kill the people they or the state criminalize.(1) It has single episode story lines with the occasional longer arc or recurring story element mixed in. FBI shares a lot with Criminal MindsNCIS and CSI in how it uses database searches and panoptic surveillance as an unnamed, pseudoneutral character that lends other characters omniscience (Criminal Minds also has an actually omniscient character in Spencer Reid). Season one has two recurring story arcs that affect multiple plot lines: Maggie discovers that someone murdered her husband and she tries to track down the killers, and Jubal interacts with other characters in substance abuse recovery.

The two leads are more or less competent in producing formulaic characters. Missy Peregrym reproduces her vulnerable-yet-violent-cop character Andy McNally from Rookie Blue except this time it’s her dead husband haunting her instead of an alcoholic dad.(2) Zeeko Zaki is a grim-faced agent who draws hard lines in the sand about any legal transgression and is constantly overcome by his emotions. FBI is more character driven than producer Dick Wolf’s famed Law & Order series and about the same mix of character + procedure as his Law & Order: Special Victim’s Unit. The only semi-novel aspect is Zaki from a representation perspective. There aren’t many Arab Muslim protagonists in US cop shows. The institutions are inherently reactionary so representation in them isn’t so interesting but is slightly novel. Like Wolf’s earlier shows, FBI is highly procedural if not always very realistic. It does resolve many story lines by killing the villain which is unlike Law & Order, but makes rare use of torture and ticking time bomb stories, both of which are more common on contemporary shows like Blue Bloods.

Below are data tables that look at how frequently various things happen in FBI‘s first season’s stories. All of the categories reflect things seen in other cop shows too. For each table I try to offer context in the surrounding annotations. While FBI has no novel or outlier data categories, some things do happen more or less frequently in FBI than other cop shows so some table descriptions focus differently from other shows’ data already presented on this site. FBI‘s one significant outlier is that it spends no time in season one demonizing journalism. This is uncommon among cop shows.

Season one police killings

FBI at least partially resolves six of season one’s twenty-two episodes with the death of the person the feds are pursuing and the FBI kills five people they are pursuing in two others. The amount of people killed by any particular agent in season one is only slightly remarkable though both OA and Maggie in season one kill more people than most of the people they criminalize. More troubling is how FBI normalizes police shootings as heroic outcomes as explored below the table.

Episode name/date Killed by police
Episode resolved via suspect’s death Suspect killed by
E1 “Pilot” 25 Sep 2018 0 No
N/A
E2 “Green Birds” 2 Oct 2018
1 Yes OA
E3 “Prey” 9 Oct 2018
0 No
N/A
E4 “Crossfire” 16 Oct 2018
1 Yes Unnamed FBI sniper
E5 “Doomsday” 23 Oct 2018
0 No N/A
E6 “Family Man” 30 Oct 2018
1 No Unnamed FBI SWAT
E7 “Cops and Robbers” 13 Nov 2018
0 No N/A
E8 “This Land Is Your Land” 20 Nov 2018
0 Sorta N/A
E9 “Compromised” 4 Dec 2018
0 Yes N/A
E10 “The Armorer’s Faith” 11 Dec 2018
5 No OA (1), British cops (1), other FBI (3)
E11 “Identity Crisis” 15 Jan 2019
0 No N/A
E12 “A New Dawn” 22 Jan 2019
0 No N/A
E13 “Partners in Crime” 12 Feb 2019
0 Yes Killed by kidnapee
E14 “Exposed” 19 Feb 2019
1 Sorta Maggie & OA shoot the same person
E15 “Scorched Earth” 26 Feb 2019
0 No N/A
E16 “Invisible” 12 Mar 2019
0 No
N/A
E17 “Apex” 26 Mar 2019
1 Yes Maggie
E18 “Most Wanted” 2 Apr 2019
0 No N/A
E19 “Conflict of Interest” 16 Apr 2019
2 Yes Maggie (1), Jubal (1)
E20 “What Lies Beneath” 30 Apr 2019 0 No N/A
E21 “Appearances” 7 May 2019
0 No N/A
E22 “Closure” 14 May 2019 0 Yes N/A

The FBI is involved involved in the deaths of people they pursue in about one-third of the season one episodes. FBI is not responsible for material world police shootings but it, like all cop shows, plays a role in (re)producing public support for police violence through discursive illustration. It offers an imaginary heroic police violence. It relies on an audience that already accepts these outcomes as palatable or else audiences would read it as the sadistic horror it is or, possibly, the audience would be aware of their enjoyment of sadistic horror. In Weber’s description of the state as the claimant to a monopoly over legitimate violence, FBI normalizing police violence is the same as normalizing the state itself. The relationship between the showrunners producing these stories and audiences receiving them as virtuous is part of statism; the organization of sociality around monopolies over legitimate violence.

Who do the cops pursue?

But to what end is the monopolized legitimate violence deployed? FBI portrays the U.S. carceral system as not being built around Black Captivity. It tells stories of Black Captivity largely without Black people. This is not a disavowal of Black criminality nor white innocence. It still narrates through Black criminality, at times explicitly beginning with the show’s pilot episode. Instead it relies on Black Captivity being grammatical to the viewing audience that brings knowledge of Black Captivity and mass incarceration to the show already. It doesn’t have to be spelled out when it is the framework through which the audience understands the concept of prisons. So when FBI represents FBI agents largely criminalizing white people as their universe, it still does so through Black Captivity.

FBI‘s first season presents a radically different picture of police violence than the material world offers. The FBI in season one pursues predominantly white people. The table below shows the demographics.

Episode name/date Racialization of person/people the cops pursue
Episode notes
E1 “Pilot” 25 Sep 2018 White, Black, non-Black latinx
Richard Spencer stand-in tries to instigate gang war. OA introduced as ex-counter-terror
E2 “Green Birds” 2 Oct 2018
Arab Muslim, South Asian Muslim Muslim man seduces USian women to join ISIS
E3 “Prey” 9 Oct 2018
White (Eastern European migrants)
Eastern European sex traffickers
E4 “Crossfire” 16 Oct 2018
White, Black
White ex-soldier mentors Somali child as sniper
E5 “Doomsday” 23 Oct 2018
White
E6 “Family Man” 30 Oct 2018
White
FBI asks if non-white latinx maid is connected to a cartel
E7 “Cops and Robbers” 13 Nov 2018
White (3), Black (1)
 
E8 “This Land Is Your Land” 20 Nov 2018
White
 
E9 “Compromised” 4 Dec 2018
White, Black, latinx
Black man is gang leader, non-Black latinx is cartel
E10 “The Armorer’s Faith” 11 Dec 2018
White, white latinx
Latinxs are Los Zetas
E11 “Identity Crisis” 15 Jan 2019
White latinx
White latinx coke dealers are Sinaloa Cartel
E12 “A New Dawn” 22 Jan 2019
White, Black
Black anti-racists are randonly dangerous
E13 “Partners in Crime” 12 Feb 2019
White
 
E14 “Exposed” 19 Feb 2019
White
E15 “Scorched Earth” 26 Feb 2019
White  
E16 “Invisible” 12 Mar 2019
White, Asian
E17 “Apex” 26 Mar 2019
White
E18 “Most Wanted” 2 Apr 2019
White
E19 “Conflict of Interest” 16 Apr 2019
Black Black men are gang affiliated
E20 “What Lies Beneath” 30 Apr 2019
Arab Mulsim, Arab Jew
Muslim Brotherhood only named organization
E21 “Appearances” 7 May 2019
White (2), non-Black latinx, Black
Multiracial meth dealing biker gang
E22 “Closure” 14 May 2019
White, white latinx, non-Black latinx
Juarez Cartel story

FBI often works to have contrasting “good” characters every time it produces a racist character type. In Arabs and Muslims in the Media Evelyn Alsultany describes a “field of meaning” beyond simple ideas of representation. She writes:

The critical cultural studies approach that I employ strategically privileges the analysis of ideological work performed by images and story lines, as opposed to reading an image as negative or positive, and therefore gets us beyond reading a positive image as if it will eliminate stereotyping. If we interpret an image as either positive or negative, then we can conclude that the problem of racial stereotyping is over because of the appearance of sympathetic images of Arabs and Muslims during the War on Terror. However, an examination in relation to its narrative context reveals how it participates in a larger field of meaning about Arabs and Muslims. The notion of a field of meaning, or an ideological field, is a means to encompass the range of acceptable ideas about the War on Terror.

Here I use this “field of meaning” to look at how FBI ties racialized subject positions to specific racist types. So in keeping with Alsultany’s focus, how often are Arabs and Muslims story lines not articulated to terrorism? As in, does FBI allow Arabs and Muslims to have meaning that is not tied to terrorism?

FBI makes latinxs part of the plot in six episodes. In each the latinx characters, primarily white latinxs (though some might be positioned non-white in the US and Canada by non-latinx white settlers), are articulated to gang or narcotrafficking stories with MS-13, the Sinaloa Cartel, Los Zetas and the Juarez Cartel all making appearances. Gang and cartel life is FBI‘s full imaginary, the field of meaning, for latinxs from MS-13 in the season opener to the Juarez Cartel in the season finale.

FBI features Black characters as central to storylines in four episodes and as ancillary to a few others. In the pilot episode Black characters are gang members or otherwise articulated to the gang story. It’s the same with episode 14, “Conflicts of Interest”, about a Nigerian fentanyl gang. Anti-Black portrayals of Black people go beyond racist types, they (re)produce a Black Criminality through which we are to understand Blackness as a whole. In “A New Dawn” the FBI is called in to investigate the killing of some alt-right blowhard who was inciting violence against non-white students. The person who killed him is a white anti-racist working with a group of Black liberation activists. The episode narrates the group as being too extreme – as opposed to moderately anti-racist? – criminalizing Black opposition to white violence. The Black liberation activists are dangerous to random people necessitating a COINTELPRO-style attack against the group. Though the show doesn’t intend this, the episode affirms resistance to anti-Blackness as something to be punished and the white communities attacking Black people are the victims of the anti-racists. The episode rejects the dead alt-right dude’s politics while faithfully producing imaginary “reverse racism”. The episode even reproduces the right wing trope that Black activists aren’t motivated on their own, but by white liberals intervening, in this case a college professor.

Both season one episodes with Muslims as parts of plot lines involve terrorism. “Green Birds” has an ISIS member seducing young white girls to carry out attacks. The white girls are dupes and the ISIS member’s actual romantic partner is a Nigerian Muslim girl. In “What Lies Beneath” the FBI provides security for a visiting Egyptian official with a history of torture. The group targeting him is never named in the end and the only organization named is the Muslim Brotherhood. OA himself is introduced in the pilot with a supervisor telling him he’s “no longer undercover tracking terrorists,” experience referred to throughout the season. OA’s meaning  and professional capacity is still tied to terrorism. FBI has no concepts of Arabs or Muslims outside of the War on Terror’s islamophobic field of meaning.

Big Hero vs. Big Villain storytelling

FBI barely uses a cop show trope I’m calling Big Hero vs. Big Villain. Big Hero vs. Big Villain are story arcs where the police are less systemic violence’s agents and more individuals in contest with others. Big Hero vs. Big Villain can be done in a way that includes a systemic framework, if not critique as in The Wire‘s story lines of McNulty vs. the Barksdale Crew or Stringer Bell. Season one has only one Big Hero vs. Big Villain story. Bell has a personal quest to solve her husband’s murder in an arc spanning several episodes and concluding with the season one finale. The only thing keeping this from being a true Big Hero vs. Big Villain story is the hero and villain are unknown to each other.

Heroic portrayals of torture and police brutality

FBI only makes use of torture in a single season one episode, “What Lies Beneath”, where OA sticks his finger into a hospitalized person’s bullt wound in and attempt to extract information. This is rare by the standards of contemporary cop shows like Blue Bloods or NCIS but in line with Wolf’s earlier shows.

The Ticking Time Bomb

FBI in season one has two Ticking Time Bomb episodes, “A New Dawn” and “What Lies Beneath”. This is rare compared to contemporary shows and more like those in the 1990s.

Other cop show tropes

FBI invokes few other cop show tropes in season one. Feedback appreciated. Thanks for reading.

(1) I say “or kill” due to FBI frequently resolving storylines by killing the suspect. This occurs far too often to consider it anything other than an expected outcome for the showrunners.

(2) This isn’t a slight against Peregrym. Young Woman Cop In A Mainstream Procedural only allows so much expressive range.

Blue Bloods Season 1 Data Overview

Thanks to Zoë Samudzi and Briana Ureña-Ravelo for feedback on parts of what follows. Deeply influential but not directly cited below are Sylvia Wynter on the idea of The Human and Che Gossett‘s years of twitter musings on humanity/animality along with decades of Black feminist abolitionist visions and critiques, especially the works of Ruth Wilson-Gilmore, Mariame Kaba and Angela Davis. Credit for anything useful below is theirs. Feedback – constructive, destructive and other – welcome.

Blue Bloods is a police drama running on CBS since 2010 with an ensemble cast structure. The show tells fictional stories of the New York Police Department and District Attorney through the point of view of a multigenerational police family as they try to (mostly) incarcerate or (less often) kill people.(1) It has single episode story lines with the occasional longer arc or recurring story element mixed in. Blue Bloods mixes elements of a police drama and procedural and centers both around the Reagan family. Its aesthetic is nostalgia for an idealized, late Jim Crow/early White Flight, suburban nuclear family, warrior caste Americana. Blue Bloods anchors episodes in family dinners where four generations of the Reagan family, all with different White American English accents even inside generations, gather every Sunday. The gatherings are  a Calvinist version of joyless Protestant heteronormativity, the family’s Catholicism notwithstanding. They affirm the bonds that keep them all dedicated to each other and the carceral state.

Blue Bloods is an artless show impossible to recommend. It offers bad writing and subpar acting yet receives high ratings. Tom Selleck’s entire range is breathing heavily through his nose and the guy married to the famous anti-vaxxer is convincing in his role only if he intends to be a guy who emotes solely by punching holes in drywall. The stories affirm the police and military as heroic institutions more explicitly than almost all other cop shows, making uniformly righteous US empire’s violent institutions.

Below are data tables that look at how frequently various things happen in the first season’s stories. Many of the categories reflect things seen in other cop shows too. Others are more unique to Blue Bloods or useful only with lots of other context. For each table I try to offer context in the surrounding annotations. Some categories that are useful in other cops shows or even different seasons of the same show are not always applicable to others so this data overview will have tables others do not and vice versa.

Season one police killings

Blue Bloods at least partially resolves seven of season one’s twenty-two episodes with the death of the person the police are pursuing. The amount of people any particular cop kills in season one is only slightly remarkable. But the totals over the whole series show that most Blue Bloods cops – specifically the main cast – have killed more people than very nearly all of the people they try to jail. They are what the title character from Dexter is just lacking the self-awareness. More troubling is how Blue Bloods normalizes police shootings as heroic outcomes as explored below the table.

Episode name/date Killed by police
Episode resolved via suspect’s death Suspect killed by
E1 “Pilot” 24 Sep 2010 1 Yes (2)
State of Florida
E2 “Samaritan” 1 Oct 2010
0 No N/A
E3 “Privilege” 8 Oct 2010
0 No
N/A
E4 “Officer Down” 15 Oct 2010
1 Yes Whole SWAT team + Danny & Jackie
E5 “What You See” 22 Oct 2010
0 No N/A
E6 “Smack Attack” 29 Oct 2010
0 No N/A
E7 “Brothers” 5 Nov 2010
0 No N/A
E8 “Chinatown” 12 Nov 2010
2 Sorta 1 by Jamie (3)          1 by Danny (4)
E9 “Re-Do” 19 Nov 2010
1 Yes Frank
E10 “After Hours” 3 Dec 2010
0 No N/A
E11 “Little Fish” 19 Jan 2011
0 No N/A
E12 “Family Ties” 26 Jan 2011
0 No N/A
E13 “Hall of Mirrors” 2 Feb 2011
0 No
N/A
E14 “My Funny Valentine” 9 Feb 2011
0 Yes Suicide
E15 “Dedication” 18 Feb 2011
1 Sorta Killed by Danny
E16 “Age of Innocence” 25 Feb 2011
0 No
N/A
E17 “Silver Star” 11 March 2011
0 No N/A
E18 “To Tell The Truth” 1 April 2011
0 No N/A
E19 “Model Behavior” 8 April 2011
0 No N/A
E20 “All That Glitters” 29 Apr 2011 0 No N/A
E21 “Cellar Boy” 6 May 2011
0 No N/A
E22 “The Blue Templar” 13 May 2011 0 Yes Suicide

The NYPD or associated agencies are involved in the deaths of the people they criminalize in over one-fifth of the season one episodes, nearly one-third if we include the two episodes where suicide resolves the story. Blue Bloods is not responsible for material world police shootings but it, like all cop shows, plays a role in (re)producing public support for police violence through discursive illustration. It offers an imaginary heroic police violence. It relies on an audience that accepts these outcomes as palatable or else it would be read as the sadistic horror it is or, possibly, the audience would be aware of their enjoyment of sadistic horror. In Weber’s description of the state as the claimant to a monopoly over legitimate violence, Blue Bloods normalizing police violence is the same as normalizing the state itself. The audience receiving these stories as heroic is part of statism; the organization of sociality around monopolies over legitimate violence.

Who do the cops pursue?

But to what end is the monopolized legitimate violence deployed? Blue Bloods produces stories that portray the U.S. carceral system as not being built around Black Captivity. It tells stories of Black Captivity largely without Black people. This is not a disavowal of Black criminality nor white innocence. It still narrates through Black criminality, at times explicitly as in the second episode “Samaritan”. Instead it relies on Black Captivity being grammatical to the viewing audience. Audiences bring the knowledge of Black Captivity and mass incarceration to the show already. It doesn’t have to be said when it is the framework through which the audience understands the concept of prisons. So when Blue Bloods represents white cops hunting white criminals as their universe, it still does so through Black Captivity.

Blue Bloods‘ first season presents a radically different picture of police violence than the material world offers. The NYPD in season one pursues predominantly white people. The table below shows the demographics.

Episode name/date Racialization of person/people the cops pursue
Episode notes
E1 “Pilot” 24 Sep 2010 White  
E2 “Samaritan” 1 Oct 2010
Black Black characters are gang members or family to them
E3 “Privilege” 8 Oct 2010
White latinx
Populist story about foreigners running amok
E4 “Officer Down” 15 Oct 2010
White One of the three is Eastern European
E5 “What You See” 22 Oct 2010
White, Arab
Story about a terror attack
E6 “Smack Attack” 29 Oct 2010
White
E7 “Brothers” 5 Nov 2010
Latinx Latinxs are drug dealers
E8 “Chinatown” 12 Nov 2010
Chinese Yellow Peril story
E9 “Re-Do” 19 Nov 2010
White
E10 “After Hours” 3 Dec 2010
White
E11 “Little Fish” 19 Jan 2011
White
E12 “Family Ties” 26 Jan 2011
White
E13 “Hall of Mirrors” 2 Feb 2011
South Asian Story with Muslims about terrorism
E14 “My Funny Valentine” 9 Feb 2011
White
E15 “Dedication” 18 Feb 2011
White Early subplot about Mexican cartels
E16 “Age of Innocence” 25 Feb 2011
White  
E17 “Silver Star” 11 March 2011
White
E18 “To Tell The Truth” 1 April 2011
White latinx
Latinxs are narcotraficantes
E19 “Model Behavior” 8 April 2011
White
E20 “All That Glitters” 29 Apr 2011 White
E21 “Cellar Boy” 6 May 2011
White
E22 “The Blue Templar” 13 May 2011 White

Blue Bloods often works to have contrasting “good” characters every time it produces a racist character type. In Arabs and Muslims in the Media Evelyn Alsultany describes a “field of meaning” beyond simple ideas of representation. She writes:

The critical cultural studies approach that I employ strategically privileges the analysis of ideological work performed by images and story lines, as opposed to reading an image as negative or positive, and therefore gets us beyond reading a positive image as if it will eliminate stereotyping. If we interpret an image as either positive or negative, then we can conclude that the problem of racial stereotyping is over because of the appearance of sympathetic images of Arabs and Muslims during the War on Terror. However, an examination in relation to its narrative context reveals how it participates in a larger field of meaning about Arabs and Muslims. The notion of a field of meaning, or an ideological field, is a means to encompass the range of acceptable ideas about the War on Terror.

Here I use this “field of meaning” to look at how Blue Bloods ties racialized subject positions to specific racist types. So in keeping with Alsultany’s focus, how often are Arabs and Muslims story lines not articulated to terrorism? As in, does Blue Bloods allow Arabs and Muslims to have meaning that is not tied to terrorism?

Blue Bloods mentions latinxs as part of the plot in five episodes. In the first, “Privilege”, the cops pursue a wealthy diplomatic family whose foreignness marks their danger as their wealth and appreciation for the ballet mark their arrogance. But this is no class critique as the Reagans themselves are wealthy and have no disdain for their own wealth. Instead it is conservative populism. The show does this again, without the xenophobia, later in season one in “Silver Star”.

The other episodes with latinxs are all tied to gangs or drug trafficking. One, “Dedication”, mentions Mexican drug cartels in passing as a possible threat to Frank. Two other episodes, “Brothers” and “To Tell the Truth” are more focused on non-Black latinx drug gangs. In three of five episodes with latinx story lines or subplots, they are international narcotraffickers or drug gangs. This is sufficient to identify a field of meaning. Season one also has a couple of episodes with white drug dealers but these do not create a field of meaning for whiteness. Instead they are deviations from whiteness’ field of meaning established by the Reagan family unit. One other episode, “My Funny Valentine”, uses a migrant latina “oh yays meester” housekeeper – who appears just once in the entire series and without any cleaning materials – as a foreign prop to further Frank’s moral authority.

Blue Bloods features Black characters in only one season one episode, “Samaritan” where the cops pursue a gang of (mostly) Black youths who are terrorizing random people on the subway and posting videos of it on “NYCTHUGZ.net”. The episode also has another Black character, the ‘samaritan’. He too is criminalized, albeit reluctantly. This is one of several episodes to explicitly endorse Stop & Frisk policies.

Both season one episodes with Muslim characters are about terrorism. “What You See” uses vaguely arabesque music throughout as menace rather than comfort and explicitly endorses racial profiling in an exchange between Danny and Jackie. Turns out the person they’re pursuing is a white woman who converted to Islam and they use this to double down on Islamophobia when Jackie says, “She’s an Islamic convert? Usually they’re the most zealous.” The second episode is “Hall of Mirrors” where a Pakastani Muslim undercover cop in a “sleeper cell” is shot and Danny has to discover if he was shot because his cover was blown or for unrelated reasons. In season one Blue Bloods has no concepts of Arabs or Muslims outside of the War on Terror’s field of meaning.

The sole episode with Chinese characters is about Chinese human traffickers that also has a Chinese dominatrix. Both play into already well established racist types.

The media in Blue Bloods

Blue Bloods shares with most cop shows – with the partial exception of The Wire – a tremendous disdain for journalism that is also not a systemic critique of the media. In Blue Bloods the media are uniformly unfair and appear in passing in most episodes as presenting some kind of danger or as misrepresenting police actions. The media are underhanded and have a vendetta against the police. Frank has to constantly put them in their place and coerce their behavior, even as he secretly dates a reporter. The media knowingly publish stories impugning Frank personally as well as the whole police department. The sole example to the contrary is when a group of media at a press conference applauds adoringly after hearing that Frank’s daughter is recovering from an attack by a serial killer.

Big Hero vs. Big Villain storytelling

Blue Bloods sometimes uses a cop show trope I’m calling Big Hero vs. Big Villain. Big Hero vs. Big Villain are story arcs where the police are less systemic violence’s agents and more individuals in contest with others. Big Hero vs. Big Villain can be done in a way that includes a systemic framework, if not critique as in The Wire‘s story lines of McNulty vs. the Barksdale Crew or Stringer Bell. Blue Bloods does not do this. Instead its Big Hero vs. Big Villain stories act as personal quests, deeply personal battles and redemption arcs for its protagonists and adds a level of illegibility to the people the NYPD pursues through making their motivations more arbitrary. Season one has two main Big Hero vs. Big Villain story arcs. The first starts in the first episode and ends in the finale with Jamie, then later the whole Reagan family, against The Blue Templar, a group of corrupt cops. It’s a recurring story throughout the season with Jamie. The second is “Re-Do” where Erin is attacked by someone she previously prosecuted, who taunts Danny as well, before Frank executes him while he’s assaulting Erin.

More often than Big Hero vs. Big Villain, Blue Bloods in season one offers ‘the personal is the carceral’ where one of the Reagans has a deep personal connection with either someone injured or someone they’re criminalizing. It’s another version of desystemizing police with personal moral arcs instead of instead of procedural ones. In “Officer Down” all the Reagans are personally invested in finding someone who killed another cop because someone killed their cop family member Joe. Danny is outraged on behalf of a dead ex-marine because he too was a marine in “Silver Star”. Former neighbors are both the killers and killed in “Cellar Boy”. Peruvian narcotraffickers kidnap Linda to coerce false testimony from Danny in “To Tell the Truth”. Most other episodes also serve as examples. The writers are not necessarily invested in desystemizing the police by doing this. It is also a heavy-handed story crutch to get the audience to care about characters and story arcs otherwise too shallow and dull to intrigue or invest.

Heroic portrayals of torture and police brutality

Blue Bloods regularly portrays torture as heroic. It is heroic in either how the heroes do the torturing or torture is a successful tactic towards saving the day. Blue Bloods is not alone in regularly portraying torture as effective and ethical. NCIS, the various CSI shows, The Shield, The Wire and many others also do. It is so common in cop shows that it must be either convincing or have an already convinced audience. If it did not, much like the above police killings, the audience would receive it as the sadistic horror it is. But Blue Bloods is slightly uncommon in that it lionizes torture as a central part of two characters (Danny, Henry).

We are introduced to Danny in the pilot where he, while trying to locate a kidnapped child, drowns in a toilet and beats someone to extract information. In “Officer Down” he takes someone to an abandoned field and puts a gun to his head to extract information. His brutality is so well known that someone from the Department of Homeland Security comments to Frank in “What You See” that having someone like Danny on a case is a good thing, in context referring to his predilection for violence. Danny’s partner Jackie too engages in police brutality but this is Danny’s defining characteristic and in the Blue Bloods universe he’s carrying on a family tradition started by his grandfather Henry, who was also a former police commissioner and whose slapper he carries with him and uses to beat people as in the episode “Brothers”. Unintentionally, Blue Bloods offers police brutality and torture as a fundamental part of policing in this way, showing that no matter what else changes, police brutality will always be a part of policing.

The Ticking Time Bomb

Blue Bloods makes a fairly modest use of the ticking time bomb as a story prop in season one. They create a certain sense of urgency in most episodes but only in a few – “Pilot”, “What You See”, “Re-Do” and “To Tell The Truth” – does Blue Bloods necessitate extraordinary measures to avert pending catastrophe. While doing this in four out of twenty-two episodes is quite a lot compared to classic procedural shows, it is less common than many shows from early years of the U.S. War on Terror that preceded it like Criminal Minds and NCIS. That Blue Bloods doesn’t rely on the ticking time bomb prop further damns how often it uses police brutality and resolves stories by killing those it criminalizes. There is less at stake in canon, yet the violence is not lessened.

State Rape

Blue Bloods regularly uses rape, specifically the threat of it, as a coercive tool. In “Privilege” Danny tells a detainee who mocks his pay that “I’m compensated in other ways, like when I get to see the look of love in a meat wrangler’s eye that they made some spoiled rich kid his new celly”. Danny waxes about this even when not threatening a detainee as in “Age of Innocence” when Jackie says, “This guy’s gonna miss hid maid in Rikers” and Danny responds with “He may end up being somebody’s maid in Rikers.” Beyond fantasizing rape as a coercive tool of the state, this naturalizes assault as a feminine condition. These threatened assaults are also the legitimate violence the state monopolizes.

Other cop show tropes

Blue Bloods invokes other cop show tropes but does so only in single episodes or for just moments in single episodes leaving insufficient data to cover its representations of transgender people, sex workers and more. These will be covered in later overviews of the whole series. In season one none are remarkable in a good way. Feedback appreciated. Thanks for reading.

 

 

(1) I say “or kill” due to Blue Bloods frequently resolving storylines by killing the suspect. This occurs far too often to consider it anything other than an expected outcome for the showrunners.

(2) Delayed death as the person is extradited to Florida to face the death penalty.

(3) Jamie chases a man into traffic who dies after being struck by a car.

(4) Danny shoots an armed man who is silent after he falls. Unclear if he dies.

Criminal Minds Season 2 Data Overview

Previous Criminal Minds data overviews: Season 1

This post collects data on how often various things happen during season two of the CBS police procedural and drama Criminal Minds. You can find a broader overview and context for the below data categories in the season one write-up linked above.

Season two police killings

Criminal Minds resolves ten of season two’s twenty-three episodes with the death of the person or persons they are pursuing. Derek Morgan killed three people by himself in season two and was one of three (along with Prentiss and Hotchner) to fatally shoot another. Morgan has killed five people over the first two seasons, Hotchner two (plus one non-fatal shooting), Greenaway two and Reid two. The only main cast members who have not killed people through two seasons are Jason Gideon, JJ and Penelope Garcia – the latter two of which are rarely or never in a position to have contact with the people the BAU pursues.

Episode name/date Body count Episode resolved via suspect’s death Suspect killed by
E1 “The Fisher King pt.2” 20 Sep 2006 1 Yes Suicide
E2 “P911” 27 Sep 2006 0 No N/A
E3 “The Perfect Storm” 4 Oct 2006 3 No Local cop
E4 “Psychodrama” 11 Oct 2006 2 No N/A
E5 “Aftermath” 18 Oct 2006 1 Yes Greenaway
E6 “The Boogeyman” 25 Oct 2006 2 No N/A
E7 “North Mammon” 1 Nov 2006 1 No N/A
E8 “Empty Planet” 8 Nov 2006 3 No N/A
E9 “The Last Word” 15 Nov 2006 5 No N/A
E10 “Lessons Learned” 22 Nov 2006 10 Yes 2 by Morgan / 2 by SWAT team
E11 “Sex, Birth, Death” 29 Nov 2006 3 No N/A
E12 “Profiler, Profiled” 13 Dec 2007 1 No N/A
E13 “No Way Out” 17 Jan 2007 3 No N/A
E14 “The Big Game” 4 Feb 2007 6 N/A N/A
E15 “Revelations” 7 Feb 2007 3 Yes Reid
E16 “Fear and Loathing” 14 Feb 2007 4 No N/A
E17 “Distress” 21 Feb 2007 4 Yes Unnamed police sniper
E18 “Jones” 28 Feb 2007 3 No N/A
E19 “Ashes and Dust” 21 Mar 2007 9 Yes N/A
E20 “Honor Among Thieves” 11 Apr 2007 3 Yes Russian mob
E21 “Open Season” 2 May 2007 7 Yes 1 by Morgan / 1 by intended victim
E22 “Legacy” 9 May 2007 2 Yes Morgan, Prentiss & Hotchner
E23 “No Way Out pt.2” 16 May 2007 3 Yes Suicide

Criminal Minds in season two pursues all white people except for episodes: “Fear and Loathing” – Black male, “Profiler, Profiled” – Black male, and “Lessons Learned” – several Arab and Black Muslim men. Season two stills portrays Black Captivity largely without Black people. It is explicit about it in episodes like “Profiler, Profiled” where it takes tremendous intervention in order to steer Black youth from criminality and where we first dive into Morgan’s background and meet a large group of violent Black men that comprise both his peers and authority figures. “Distress” too does this where Hotchner imagines exceptional difficulty finding someone in Houston’s Fifth Ward. “We’re looking for a homicidal serial criminal in an neighborhood populated by criminals. The challenge will be separating him from the rest.” But as noted in the season one overview, Criminal Minds finds Black criminality as much in audience grammar as in explicit dialogue.

“Aftermath” is an outlier in the police shootings category as Greenaway murders someone and Hotchner and a couple of others do not approve. Importantly, neither Gideon nor Hotchner pursues accountability for Greenaway despite knowing the murder was unjustified.

The media in Criminal Minds

Criminal Minds season two focuses a little less on journalism – in canon this means accountability – being a malicious force but it is still present in nearly every episode.

Big Hero vs. Big Villain storytelling

Criminal Minds regularly uses a cop show trope I’m calling Big Hero vs. Big Villain. Big Hero vs. Big Villain are story arcs where the police are less systemic violence’s agents and more individuals in contest with others styled more after a superhero with a personal rogue’s gallery.

Episode name/date Big Hero
Big Villain
Notes
E1 “The Fisher King pt.2” 20 Sep 2006 Whole BAU Randall Garner aka The Fisher King
Dies via suicide bombing
E10 “Lessons Learned” 22 Nov 2006 Gideon Jind Allah Gideon must outwit to avoid mass casualties
E13 “No Way Out” 17 Jan 2007 Gideon Frank Frank has super elaborate plans
E14 “The Big Game” 4 Feb 2007 Reid Hankel Hankel kidnaps Reid
E15 “Revelations” 7 Feb 2007 Reid Hankel Reid kills Hankel
E23 “No Way Out pt.2” 16 May 2007 Gideon Frank Frank kills people close to Gideon

Six of season two’s twenty-three episodes are entirely or feature elements of Big Hero vs. Big Villain story arcs. A seventh, “Profiler, Profiled”, could be included too and “Lesson’s Learned” could be excluded..

The season opening episode concludes a Big Hero vs. Big Villain story arc from season one. Randall Garner compiled extensive personal dossiers on the entire BAU through conversations with Reid’s mother while they both lived in the same psychiatric facility. Leaving aside the silliness and the ableist premise of hyperviolent crazy supervillains, Garner frames one BAU agent (Greenaway) while seducing another (Garcia) and creating mythologies around the rest. This is a story of individual personalities in contest, not agents of systemic violence pursuing their violent ends. The system is absent and the episode serves only to start Elle Greenaway on her way out of the BAU.

Episode thirteen introduces Frank for the first part of a nonsequential two episode story where he faces off against Gideon. As with Greenaway in “The Fisher King”, Gideon’s battle with Frank lays the groundwork for his exit from the BAU early in season three. Frank in “No Way Out pt.2” kills Gideon’s love interest and someone Gideon helped save during “The Fisher King pt.2”. In Reid’s two episode story arc against Tobias Hankell, Hankell kidnaps Reid and one of Hankell’s three personalities gets Reid addicted to dilaudid. Both Frank vs. Gideon and Hankell vs. Reid position BAU members as the targets and victims of the people the very people they pursue.

Heroic portrayals of torture

Episode name Torturer Does it succeed?
E2 “P911”
Morgan Yes
E4 “Psychodrama” Hotchner Yes
E10 “Lessons Learned”
CIA No

Criminal Minds has three clear heroic torture narratives in season two. Morgan slams someone’s head against a car while the man is surrounded by armed FBI agents in “P911”. Hotchner arranges do have pain medication denied to someone he shot in “Psychodrama”. In both examples the goal of the torture is simply pain. Neither Morgan nor Hotchner is trying to extract information so their torture is successful in that they cause the pain they sought. In the third example the CIA is torturing Jind Allah and Gideon stops them not because he is opposed, but to position himself as an alternative in a Good Cop/Bad Cop performance. Gideon even requests the torture briefly continue. The CIA’s torture happens to be unsuccessful but it is not a significant ethical problem in canon.

Season two ableist storytelling

Season two only amplifies Criminal Minds‘ ableist premise described in season one’s write up and there’s little to add here although Gideon briefly moves towards eugenics in describing Frank as having a biological inclination towards killing. Some episodes pathologize people in severe psychological crisis like “Distress” (US ex-soldier with PTSD from murdering Somalis lives inside a murderous flashback), “Psychodrama” (Bank robber in drug induced psychosis forces others to engage in incestuous and oedipal violence) and the Tobias Hankell episodes (Man with disassociative identities kids naps Reid).

The Ticking Time Bomb

Criminal Minds season two uses a ticking time bomb in every episode but “Aftermath”, “The Last Word”, “Profiler, Profiled” and “No Way Out pt.2” with a couple of others that are borderline. It still remains in season two a story crutch to develop urgency and justify the large numbers of police shootings and torture and to create a sense of urgency where the storytelling otherwise wouldn’t demand such investment.

Other cop show tropes

Criminal Minds season two has the first episodes to have significant Black characters beyond Derek Morgan. In one of the two, “Profiler, Profiled”, the storyline is tied to drugs and gangs as is common to cop shows. The other “Fear and Loathing” features a slight variant to another anti-Black cop show staple: the Loud and Wrong Civil Rights Activist. A third episode, “Lessons Learned”, has no Black characters beyond Morgan with dialogue but does mention they converted to Islam in jail making their narrative appearance Black criminality.

Season two introduces more prominently sex workers as targets of misogynist violence in three episodes, “The Last Word“, “Sex, Birth, Death” and “Legacy”. None of these have characters with significant agency nor is whorephobia or any misogynist violence even explored as a cause for the harm. In all episodes the FBI does not reflect on how being targeted by police makes sex workers more vulnerable to misogynist violence. Because Criminal Minds relies so little on street interviews it rarely reproduces the familiar Sex Worker Omniscient Snitch or Transwomen Sex Workers as Punchlines imaginaries so popular in Law & Order and other cop shows.

Season two brings Criminal Minds a second episode with a significant Muslim character, “Lessons Learned”. Like the only first season episode, this one is about terrorism. Through season two Criminal Minds is incapable of having Muslim characters without the stories being about terrorism.

Feedback appreciated. Thanks for reading.

Criminal Minds Season 1 Data Overview

Thanks to Zoë Samudzi and Briana Ureña-Ravelo for feedback on parts of what follows. Influential but not directly cited are Sylvia Wynter on the idea of The Human and Che Gossett‘s years of twitter musings on humanity/animality along with decades of Black feminist abolitionist visions and critiques especially the works of Ruth Wilson-Gilmore, Mariame Kaba, Angela Davis and others. Anything good below stems from their work. Please support their works whether or not you find this useful. Feedback – constructive, destructive and other – is appreciated and welcome.

Season 2

Criminal Minds is a police procedural that ran on CBS from 2005 to 2020 with an ensemble cast structure. The show tells fictional stories of the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit (BAU) as they try to incarcerate or kill people, usually with a strong focus on serial attacks, while also having various personal dramas.(1) It has single episode storylines with the occasional longer arc or recurring story element mixed in and spawned three spin-offs, Criminal Minds: Suspect Behavior, Criminal Minds (Korean adaptation) and Criminal Minds: Beyond Borders. Below are data tables that look at how frequently various things happen in the first season’s stories. Many of the categories reflect tropes seen in other cop shows too. I will also post their data. Others are more unique or useful only with lots of other context. For example it’s not always clear how many people die in an episode. I use my best guess in cases where someone is shot or otherwise injured and no outcome is declared and whether to include people already dead prior to an episode’s start – the BAU is usually called in after a series of attacks have already occurred – as part of the body count. The total episode body count isn’t a very insightful data point so I’m not worried about its imprecision. For each table I try to offer some context in the annotations that follow. Some categories that are useful in other cops shows or even different seasons of the same show are not always applicable to others. For example, Criminal Minds in season one does not use the threat of prison rape as an interrogation tool so it is not listed below whereas in some other shows it is common.

 Season one police killings

Eight of season one’s twenty-two episodes are resolved with the death of the suspect and the suspect(s) die in three others. The amount of people killed by any particular BAU agent in season one is only slightly remarkable – assuming we already suspended disbelief about the existence of a department of gun-toting, ass-kicking, minor celebrity bureaucratic psychologists. The totals over the whole series show that most members of the BAU – specifically the main cast – have killed more people than the majority of their profiled serial killers. They are what the title character from Dexter is just lacking the self-awareness. More troubling is how Criminal Minds normalizes police shootings as heroic outcomes as explored below the table.

Episode name/date Body count Episode resolved via suspect’s death Suspect killed by
E1 “Extreme Aggressor” 22 Sep 2005 2 Yes Greenaway
E2 “Compulsion” 29 Sep 2005 3 No N/A
E3 “Won’t Get Fooled Again” 5 Oct 2005 2 No (2) N/A
E4 “Plain Sight” 12 Oct 2005 2 No N/A
E5 “Broken Mirror” 19 Oct 2005 1 No N/A
E6 “L.D.S.K.” 2 Nov 2005 2 Yes Reid
E7 “The Fox” 9 Nov 2005 4 No N/A
E8 “Natural Born Killer” 16 Nov 2005 3 No N/A
E9 “Derailed” 23 Nov 2005 1 Yes Civilian train passenger
E10 “The Popular Kids” 30 Nov 2005 2 No N/A
E11 “Blood Hungry” 14 Dec 2005 2 No N/A
E12 “What Fresh Hell?” 1 Jan 2006 1 No N/A
E13 “Poison” 18 Jan 2006 2 No (3) N/A
E14 “Riding the Lightning” 25 Jan 2006 3 Yes Executed by the state of Florida
E15 “Unfinished Business” 1 Mar 2006 1 No N/A
E16 “The Tribe” 8 Mar 2006 13 No (4) 1 by Hotchner

1 by guest star

E17 “A Real Rain” 22 Mar 2006 4 Yes Unnamed NYPD sniper
E18 “Somebody’s Watching” 29 Mar 2006 3 No N/A
E19 “Machismo” 12 Apr 2006 3 Yes Group of vigilante women
E20 “Charm and Harm” 19 Apr 2006 3 Yes Morgan
E21 “Secrets and Lies” 3 May 2006 3 Yes Unnamed CIA personnel
E22 “The Fisher King pt.1” 10 May 2006 3 No N/A

The BAU or associated agencies are involved in the deaths of the people they pursue in just under half the episodes, a nearly 50% fatality rate for those targeted. Criminal Minds is not responsible for police shootings but it, like all cop shows, plays a role in (re)producing public support for police violence through discursive illustration. It offers an imaginary heroic police violence. It relies on an audience that accepts these outcomes as palatable or else it would be illegible and read as the sadistic horror it is. In Weber’s description of the state as the claimant to a monopoly over legitimate violence, Criminal Minds normalizing police violence is the same as normalizing the state itself. The audience receiving these stories as heroic is part of statism; the organization of sociality around monopolies over legitimate violence.

But to what end is the monopolized legitimate violence deployed? Criminal Minds‘ first season presents a radically different picture of police violence than the material world offers. The BAU in season one pursues only white people but for one non-Black, non-indigenous latinx man (“Machismo”). There is also one Arab Muslim man who is partnered with a white person but not targeted by the BAU (“Secrets and Lies”), though he is detained at the end. Criminal Minds produces stories that portray the U.S. carceral system as not being built around Black Captivity. It tells stories of Black Captivity without Black people. This is not a disavowal of Black criminality nor white innocence. It still narrates through Black criminality, at times explicitly as in the seventh episode “The Fox”. Instead it relies on Black Captivity being grammatical to the viewing audience. Audiences bring the knowledge of Black Captivity and mass incarceration to the show already. It doesn’t have to be said when it is the framework through which the audience understands the concept of prisons. So when Criminal Minds represents white cops hunting white criminals as their universe, it still does so through Black Captivity.

The media in Criminal Minds

Criminal Minds shares with all cop shows – with the partial exception of The Wire – a tremendous disdain for journalism that is also not a systemic critique of the media. The series has one character, Jennifer “JJ” Jareau (A.J. Cook), whose job is media liaison. Most cop shows do not have such a character. Collecting data for those shows about how they represent journalism makes sense as I can track where they attack journalism. But Criminal Minds has a whole character whose job it is to manipulate, deceive, put in their place and express contempt for the media. Journalists are a hostile force in Criminal Minds. I can’t track it in the same way as other data points because it’s fundamental to the show and in every season one episode. There are some outliers like in “L.D.S.K.” where JJ threatens a journalist with indefinite detention “under the P.A.T.R.I.O.T. Act” if he does not reveal his source or in “Unfinished Business” where JJ – offered as a sympathetic character – is continually interrupted by journalists in a hostile manner that flusters her. More common is where JJ releases false information via press releases or the team works to withhold information. In the former instance the press is a tool for the carceral state to manipulate. In the latter, an irresponsible threat to public safety. Most other cop shows show disdain for the media through painting them as unfair to cop who murder which is different than most of what Criminal Minds does. But no other cop show I know of takes time in every episode to critique the media, not even Blue Bloods which does it an awful lot.

Big Hero vs. Big Villain storytelling

Criminal Minds regularly uses a cop show trope I’m calling Big Hero vs. Big Villain. Big Hero vs. Big Villain are story arcs where the police are less systemic violence’s agents and more individuals in contest with others. Big Hero vs. Big Villain can be done in a way that includes a systemic framework, if not critique as in The Wire‘s storylines of McNulty vs. the Barksdale Crew or Stringer Bell. Criminal Minds does not do this. Instead its Big Hero vs. Big Villain stories act as personal quests, deeply personal battles and redemption arcs for its protagonists and adds a level of illegibility to the people the BAU pursues through making their motivations more arbitrary.

Episode name/date Big Hero
Big Villain
Notes
E1 “Extreme Aggressor” 22 Sep 2005 Gideon Richard Slessman Partial use. Slessman studies and mocks Gideon
E3 “Won’t Get Fooled Again” 5 Oct 2005 Gideon Adrian Bale
Gideon’s redemption story
E7 “The Fox” 9 Nov 2005 Gideon, later the whole BAU Karl Arnold, “The Fox”
Arnold reappears later in the series
E15 “Unfinished Business” 1 March 2006 Guest character Max Ryan Walter Kern A one-that-got-away redemption story
E21 “Secrets and Lies” 3 May 2006 Gideon
Bruno Hawks
Gideon redeems a fallen comrade
E22 “The Fisher King pt.1” 10 May 2006 Whole BAU
Randall Garner aka The Fisher King
Brings in personal details of each BAU member

Six of season one’s twenty-two episodes are entirely or feature elements of Big Hero vs. Big Villain story arcs. A seventh, “The Fox”, introduces Karl Arnold who will return in season five episode “Outfoxed” where he parlays with the BAU about someone they’re pursuing and delivers information to Hotchner in his Big Hero vs. Big Villain story arc with The Reaper.

The table’s first two examples introduce the BAU’s lead profiler Jason Gideon (Mandy Patinkin). We meet Gideon in episode one as a university professor and learn he stepped away from the BAU after losing several colleagues in a bombing in Boston carried out by Adrian Bale (Tim Kelleher). One person the BAU pursues in episode one has one of Gideon’s books and tells Gideon, “I’m a fan of yours” while taunting him about the consequences of Adrian Bale’s bombing. This doesn’t establish fully a Big Hero vs. Big Villain story on its own because Gideon had no idea this person existed. Yet it does firmly establish Adrian Bale as a personally important antagonist to Gideon. When Gideon outwits Bale in episode three this completes his redemption arc from traumatized ex-BAU member to being once again the lead profiler. These episodes are more expository than procedural in this respect.

Episode fifteen expands the Big Hero group beyond the active BAU and introduces Max Ryan (Geoff Pierson), a retired BAU profiler who was a mentor of sorts to Gideon and Hotchner and holds a legend status for younger members of the BAU. Someone Ryan pursued but did not find resurfaces and Ryan and the BAU have to pursue him again. In expanding Big Hero vs. Big Villain beyond the active BAU, Criminal Minds establishes that it is personal for the profilers. They are not dispensers of monopolized violence. This, along with the various conflicts the BAU has with higher-ups in the FBI, separates them from their systemic positions.

Heroic portrayals of torture

Criminal Minds regularly portrays torture as heroic. It is heroic in two respects in these stories. Either the story heroes do the torturing or torture is a successful tactic. While in later seasons Criminal Minds questions torture’s general efficacy, it does not question its ethics. Criminal Minds is not alone in regularly portraying torture as effective and ethical. NCIS, the various CSI shows, The Shield, The Wire and many others also do. It is so common in cop shows that it must be either convincing or have an already convinced audience. If it did not, much like the above police killings, the audience would receive it as the sadistic horror it is.

Episode name/date Torturer
Does it succeed?
E5 “Broken Mirror” 19 Oct 2005 Greenaway
Yes
E8 “Natural Born Killer” 16 Nov 2005 None but is suggested by others
N/A
E12 “What Fresh Hell?” 1 Jan 2006
Gideon No

Criminal Minds has three clear heroic torture narratives in season one. Elle Greenaway in “Broken Mirror” stomps on someone’s testicles in order to successfully acquire the location of someone kidnapped. Shortly after Reid asks Hotchner how Greenaway got the information and Hotchner jokes that the man will be sore. Here Criminal Minds shows torture as ethical, effective and humorous. FBI agents from another department in “Natural Born Killer” suggest torturing someone to acquire information. The BAU does not reject torture at all but offers that, because the person arrested was so horribly abused as a child, it will not be effective in this instance. The episode offers no concerns about its effectiveness otherwise nor its ethics. Jason Gideon in “What Fresh Hell” interrogates someone the BAU arrested by holding a loaded and cocked pistol to his head. Here torture does not work yet it is not questioned from an ethical perspective, only about legal risk and if it reflects poorly upon Gideon’s mental state.

Season one ableist storytelling

Much like its portrayal of the media, Criminal Minds doesn’t require a separate table on ableism in its storytelling due to its ubiquity. Criminal Minds would be better titled “Criminalized Minds”. Nearly every episode pathologizes harmful behavior as mental illness or malfunction of some sort. Just under half of season one’s episodes have all or predominantly women victims. Yet Criminal Minds does not portray this as patriarchal violence or, in any meaningful way, misogynistic. Instead it pathologizes violent misogynists as mentally ill and removes patriarchal violence entirely from the narratives. If, for example, a white male California professor harasses and gaslights exclusively Black feminists and, after having a public meltdown, notes he has severe mental illness that explains this behavior to a degree, we must accept his misogynoir as a pathology coincidental to systemic misogynoir. Yet there is no such pathology. Even if certain neuroatypicalities can explain some harmful behavior, it cannot explain why that professor only attacked Black women.(5) That is simply misogyny and anti-Blackness. So it is with Criminal Minds.

The BAU spends much of each episode identifying deviances in the people it pursues. They look for “triggers” and other identifying markers that will help them figure out what is wrong with their targets. There are very few episodes throughout the whole series that do not base their stories on pathologizing neuroatypicality. To make a table listing which episodes are ableist in premise or contain ableist elements is redundant to simply listing the episodes. The only way to do this in any coherent way would be to list those episodes where someone has a named mental illness such as with the twitchy, loud schizophrenic man in “Derailed”. To do this would establish an uncritical ability hierarchy that I have no interest in and cannot imagine useful. When I post data for Law & Order, CSI and others I will have separate tables for ableist stories and instances.

The Ticking Time Bomb

Criminal Minds relies on ticking time bomb premises in order to build a sense of urgency. The BAU doesn’t arrest people at home while they’re doing something mundane. Instead each episode is a pressing crisis which is somewhat unusual for a show so procedural heavy (though this is fairly common in NCIS and a few others). Only “Derailed”, “The Popular Kids” and “Somebody’s Watching” in season one do not have an immediate, time-sensitive crisis that saves somebody’s life.(6)

If this was just lazy storytelling it would be forgivable. But cops shows (re)produce discourse. Ticking time bombs means there is often ‘no time for that!’ and the BAU has to take exceptional measures to end crises, such as executing the people they pursue. Another cop show, 24, has such a strong discursive effect that far right U.S. Supreme Court judge Antonin Scalia invoked its ticking time bomb justifications for torture.

“Jack Bauer saved Los Angeles. … He saved hundreds of thousands of lives,” Judge Scalia said. Then, recalling Season 2, where the agent’s rough interrogation tactics saved California from a terrorist nuke, the Supreme Court judge etched a line in the sand.
“Are you going to convict Jack Bauer?” Judge Scalia challenged his fellow judges.

This is an exceptional example of cop shows having a strong discursive effect but it is less an outlier than it might first seem. In 2006 an U.S. army general met with 24‘s producers to ask them to tone down the torture. He said, “The kids see it, and say, ‘If torture is wrong, what about 24?” and suggested “they should do a show where torture backfires.” There is an immediate crisis that torture either solves or is intended to solve in each of Criminal Minds‘ season one episodes where cops torture or suggest it.

Other cop show tropes

Criminal Minds is a minor outlier to other cop shows in some respects. It excludes almost entirely Black people from season one so it cannot articulate them to stories of criminalized drugs or gangs like so many other shows do. Nor does the show offer consistent pairings of latinx people and narcotrafficking in season one. And since the show offers a Muslim character only once in season one, it isn’t clear based upon that single data point from this that Criminal Minds is incapable of having Muslim characters without a terrorism theme, an islamophobic trope discussed at length by Evelyn Alsultany in Arabs and Muslims in the Media: Race and Representation after 9/11. Criminal Minds does do this but it will only be evident here when I post the data for the whole series.

Feedback appreciated. Thanks for reading.

(1) I say “or kill” due to Criminal Minds frequently resolving storylines by killing the suspect. This occurs far too often to consider it anything other than an expected outcome for the showrunners.

(2) But suspect dies by suicide when cornered by the BAU

(3) But suspect dies by suicide in FBI custody

(4) Cult leader is not killed but BAU kills two cult members

(5) If the detail didn’t give it away, this happened in real life. No need to share the schmuck’s name as he’s already largely gone from public life.

(6) “The Fisher King pt.1” also has no ticking time bomb but that is only because it is a two part story arc that concludes in season two. At that point there is a ticking time bomb.

Punished to Perfection

SPOILER ALERTS for the “Ride the Lightning” episode of Criminal Minds and V for Vendetta comics and film. Many thanks to Zoé Samudzi for early feedback on the idea. Mariame Kaba, Critical Resistance, Ruth Wilson Gilmore and other Black liberation and abolitionist organizers have long described and critiqued the same ideas and credit for anything insightful in what follows is due to them even if not directly cited, although they should not be blamed for any misuses of their ideas. Please support their work. Feedback whether constructive, destructive or other is always welcomed.

 

The fourteenth episode in season one of the CBS police procedural Criminal Minds, “Riding the Lightning”, follows the FBI’s Behavioural Analysis Unit (BAU) as they interview Sarah Jean Dawes and Jacob Dawes, a white serial killer couple scheduled the following day for execution in Florida after being found guilty of killing twelve young women plus their infant son Riley. The interviews reveal that Sarah Jean was uninvolved in the killings and was a herself victim of Jacob’s abuse yet the BAU, despite finding Riley alive, doesn’t intervene against her murder by the state. The episode creates a sympathetic saint through martyrdom while punishing someone towards their perfection and it is not alone in its carceral saintmaking. It is representative of very common narratives and assumptions that brutalizing people improves them.

“Riding the Lightning” opens with BAU agent Jason Gideon (Mandy Patinkin) having a teary, appreciative smile on his face while listening to a live performance of Bach’s “Cello Suite No.1, Prelude”. It transitions into the interior of an FBI vehicle where BAU agents Gideon, Derek Morgan (Shemar Moore) and JJ (A.J. Cook) are discussing the killing carried out by married couple Sarah Jean Dawes (Jeanetta Arnette) and Jacob Dawes (Michael Massee) while the rest of the unit similarly discusses in another vehicle. A team led by Gideon interviews Sarah Jean while Hotchner (Thomas Gibson) leads Jacob’s interview.

We meet Sarah Jean when Gideon visits her cell where she is painting. Sarah Jean exudes a weary serenity, wisdom and peace that has Gideon questioning whether she killed Riley and, later, whether Riley is even dead. Jacob is her opposite. He revels in sexual violence, enjoys taunting the BAU and lasciviciously celebrates his misogynistic history.

The episode follows the BAU’s divergent interviews with Jacob and Sarah Jean. Sarah Jean is contemplative, nurturing and wise while Jacob is vicious, creepy and mocking. Through probing interviews directly against the boundaries Sarah Jean tries to enforce, the BAU figures out by using very implausible psychology that, not only did she not kill her son Riley at Jacob’s directive, but she didn’t kill him at all and the boy is alive, adopted by a rich family. Meanwhile Hotchner engages in a regressive masculinity contest with Jacob.

The episode climaxes with the BAU frantically searching for and finding the proof that Riley is alive while Jacob is executed. At the moment right before Jacob’s face is hidden from the murder viewing room, Hotchner slaps a picture of a now teenaged Riley up to the glass telling him, “You lose!” Jacob is at last not gleefully lecherous, providing for the audience a comeuppance for…someone seconds away from being executed? Morgan and Elle find Riley but Gideon orders them to back off after deciding to heed Sarah Jean’s wishes and letting the state kill her, ostensibly to prevent Riley from being contaminated by his association with his parents. Sarah Jean requests that Gideon witness her murder which he does while the warden, tears in his eyes knowing she didn’t kill her son, over a sad melody, sees to her death.

Even by the standards of pro-death penalty US cop stories, the FBI, warden, and condemned teaming up together to execute a sympathetic character consciously against the evidence is a little remarkable. Jacob’s murder, because of Hotch’s actions, intends audience pleasure. Sarah Jean’s murder/suicide bonds those not killed together, witnessing while manufacturing her martyrdom and beatification. It is their act of jointly killing her that makes them heroic and her willing walk to the electric chair that makes her a saint. It is the act of punishing her that brings her to the ethical sublime. Despite the terrible writing – Criminal Minds is always mediocre from the perspective of canon consistency and psychology but rarely is it as corny as “Riding the Lightning” – the episode is one of the more moving ones. The “heroic” death of a sympathetic character is deeply affecting. All state murder is horror yet Criminal Minds finds a way to not only make it heroic, but virtuous even in the context of executing someone who didn’t do the thing for which they’re being executed.

V for Valorus Victimizing

In both the 1982 comics series by Alan Moore and David Lloyd and 2005 film directed by James McTeigue, V for Vendetta offers another version of punishing someone to righteousness. The comics and film have some differences – for example in the comics Evey is a sex worker and in the film a tv production assistant – but in both Evey Hammond is imprisoned and tortured to heroism. “Riding the Lightning” takes place inside the Criminal Minds version of a Florida concentration camp (euphemised in US discourse as a deracialized “prison”) while Evey’s torture at the hands of V takes place in a mock concentration camp of V’s creation in a post-apocalyptic fascist London.

In both the comics (issues 6 and 7) and film, V imprisons Evey in a dark, cold cell, starves her, beats her, drowns her, gaslights her, verbally denigrates her and threatens her with execution. While jailed, he slips her written letters through a hole in the wall from another purported inmate, Valerie, telling her story of how she was captured, tortured and experimented on for being lesbian, and the beautiful parts of her life and loves prior to her time in the concentration camp. These letters shore up Evey’s resolve to not give up “the last inch” of herself even as V seeks to torture her into doing exactly that. In both versions Evey refuses to snitch at the point of death, at which point V exposes the ruse.

In both versions Evey initially responds reasonably, with rage and horror directed not at the fascist system of torture and prisons, but in V’s reproduction of it. Yet she quickly comes to embrace this as a lesson in freedom. V has tortured her in and into service to the greater good. What makes this so effective in the stories are Valerie’s letters. Concentration camp narratives are nearly always devastating and the version written by Moore and reproduced in the film is gutting. It is this affect that allows for V’s actions to be interpreted as reasonable. Without Valerie’s narration, V’s violence against Evey would seem as baldly cruel as it actually is.

This, like the Criminal Minds episode above, reproduces fascism in order to serve the greater good. In both versions reproducing fascism is simply making more of it even as both versions imagine themselves as doing so to produce justice and confront repressive violence (misogynistic killings in the Criminal Minds, state authoritarianism in V for Vendetta). They do not intend to be the same politically. Criminal Minds aspires to validate the carceral state while V for Vendetta aspires to anarchist revolution. Yet they both imagine carcerality to potentially produce justice, to manufacture better people. In the case of Criminal Minds this extends to the jailers who are the story’s surviving heroes.

After the Holocaust…

Everyday discourse naming judges as “justices”, carcerality (Black Captivity) as “the justice system”, prisons and jails as “reformatories” and more all produce the ideas that prisons serve some kind of good. So it isn’t really surprising that popular culture, even dissident narratives like V for Vendetta, reproduces this. But lots of leftist or progressive narratives also do. Anyone who has done work towards Palestinian liberation for much time has heard at least once “I can’t believe Jews could do this after the Holocaust” or some version thereof. Leaving aside the ahistorical, wrongheaded and confused timeline and conflation of “Jews” with “Israeli settler state”, this idea has the same premise as “Riding the Lightning” and V for Vendetta in brutalizing people to righteousness.

That it is surprising that a state calling itself Jewish can perpetrate the dispossession of Palestine and Palestinians in spite of the Holocaust assumes that the Nazi’s concentration camps produced something other than conformity, horror and death (and has a bizarre romanticization of ethnonationalism!). Jews – and other Nazi victims – were just people before the Holocaust. Survivors came out also as just people, if horrendously traumatized. Concentration camps cannot produce righteousness in the material world any more than they can in Criminal Minds or V for Vendetta. The same logic would ask, “How could Palestinian merchants as victims of Zionism – including mass incarceration – in Palestine exploit Black people in the US?” Israeli prisons no more make angels of Palestinians – individually or collectively – than Nazi concentration camps make angels of Jews. That is not what concentration camps are designed to do and it is true horror that they are imagined to do so.

Do you feel remorse?

The above three examples deal with three concentration camps, one real and two imagined (though one purports to reproduce a real US concentration camp). In the material world functioning of US concentration camps parole boards ask detainees summoned to plead for their freedom questions, often something like, “Do you feel your sentence fits the crime you committed?”, “Do you feel remorse for your crime?” and “What would you do different if you found yourself in a similar situation again?” In other words, “How did your time in the concentration camp make you a better person?” Black Captivity’s concentration camps are expected by parole boards to produce contemplative, remorseful people when what prisons produce is primarily violence, isolation and boredom. And if you don’t answer the questions in a way that suits the board, you can be redenied your freedom (to the very limited degree that parole is any kind of freedom). The assumptions of Criminal Minds, V for Vendetta and some progressive activists are the same as parole boards.

This is a way carceral normativity is (re)produced in normative popular culture, surprisingly large swaths of counterhegemonic discourse and by prison functionings themselves. It is the imaginary “rehabilitative” quality of concentration camps when no amount of individual transformation could ever be expected to avoid systemically produced incarceration in the first place. This is, to use Mariame Kaba’s twitter handle, “prison culture”. Thanks for reading.

Criminal Minds: “The Last Word”

(Season 2, Episode 9 | November 15 2006)

The 2006 Criminal Minds episode “The Last Word” examines the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit (BAU) in pursuit of two serial killers in St. Louis, one who targets suburban white women, the other targeting working class sex workers, who are mostly white in this telling. The episode aims to contrast how these two victim groups are differently treated by the press, local police and society and how it is up to gun-slinging door-breaking ass-kicking psychologists working for FBI to right these wrongs through catching the serial killers. It fails to do so meaningfully mostly due to an inability for an institution that marginalizes a population to reflect on the violence of that marginalization.

The loving couple

The loving parents of white heterosexual normativity

The episode has three opening segments, two relevant for this essay plus the introduction of a new main cast member. The relevant two both introduce a serial killer and victim. The first is a loving white heterosexual couple and their appreciated child playing in a public park in when the wife is abducted by the Mill Creek Killer. The second opens in a dirty apartment with a young child rousting his white impoverished sex worker mom after 10pm to go to work, obviously disappointed in his mother and her, the audience is to understand, empty promises. The young child is scolding his mother. “Why didn’t you wake me up?” she asks. “Why don’t you get an alarm clock,” the child replies. She is then killed by the Hollow Man in a grimy city alley.

The sex worker and the shadowy killer

The irresponsible parent, deemed responsible only for the harm that comes to her

In discussing the Hollow Man prior to arriving in St. Louis, BAU team member JJ says, “No one even knew this guy existed until he sent this letter,” informing a local journalist he was responsible for murdering six sex workers. Team leader Agent Hotchner compares this to the coverage of the Mill Creek Killer saying, “Well he’s killed more victims but look who he’s chosen. Hundreds of victims go unnoticed because they’re social outcasts and never make the front page.” Upon arrival in St. Louis JJ meets with the local reporter the Hollow Man has been communicating with. He asks JJ:

“So did the Hollow Man shoot those prostitutes because I wrote about the Mill Creek victims?”

“He would’ve killed them anyway. But right now he’s looking for recognition, that’s why he’s contacted you. […] We’re gonna ask that you not print anything about the Hollow Man or the women he’s killed.” 

“Don’t those victims deserve just as much ink as those others victims?”

“Of course they do. But we need the shooter to keep communicating with you. And if you satisfy his need for attention he may disappear and I’m sorry we just can’t take that chance.”

Hotchner and Reid visit the sex worker murdered in the opening segment’s mother, finding her drinking, stressed, and caring for her grandchildren. She tells them, “You wouldn’t even be here if it wasn’t for them,” referring to the wealthy suburban victims of the Mill Creek Killer. “No one writes about prostitutes being shot, because they won’t admit they think they’re cleaning up the place.” Hotchner replies, “You’re right. Cases like your daughter’s usually go unsolved. The problem is people aren’t looking for them because they don’t know they’re missing. Part of her job was to stay below the radar.” This brings mum over to Hocthner’s side saying, “She made bad choices, but she was a good person.”

As per the series rule, the BAU catches both the killers and accountability for their misogynist violence is achieved through the carceral state.

Best I know, the episode, like most Criminal Minds episodes, is silly from an investigatory standpoint and for sure is from a psychology standpoint. As example, Reid gives a staunch defense of the pseudoscience graphology in a throwaway scene. Though silly it is reasonably well written, paced and acted with Mandy Pantinkin especially giving his usual fine performance and Jason O’Mara being good and creepy in his brief scenes as the Mill Creek Killer.

the classified ad

At one point Reid says that the bratty juvenile novel Catcher in the Rye “is a widely accepted as a love book of sociopaths”….which is true if ‘sociopath’ is naturalized with ‘white’ lol

All Criminal Minds episodes are violent in the sense they lionize the carceral state and are premised on an ableist framework of criminalizing and pathologizing neuroatypicality. In pathologizing neuratypicality it, like so much of the franchise, naturalizes the misogyny underlying the killers’ actions by leaving it entirely unspoken. That both killers target exclusively women isn’t even mentioned. It does this while imagining mentally ill people as violent actors rather than the truth of people more likely to have violence enacted upon them. Alternately put, in the Criminal Minds franchises, misogynist violence is normal and unremarkable but neauroatypicality is itself dangerous and predatory.

In “The Last Word” this has an extra level of carcerality specifically targeting sex workers. When Hotchner says, “Hundreds of victims go unnoticed because they’re social outcasts,” he offers no reflection that the FBI is an agency that does the casting out he laments. In talking to the first sex worker’s mother Hotchner says, “Cases like your daughter’s usually go unsolved. The problem is people aren’t looking for them because they don’t know they’re missing. Part of her job was to stay below the radar,” without reflecting that it is his radar she had to stay under. That his radar is appropriate and virtuous is a given in the story’s context. When her mother said, “She made some bad choices” it both affirms her criminality and shifts the blame of her marginalization from her marginalizer, the patriarchal carceral state, to her. The only evidence of “bad choices” is an unspoken understanding that the audience is supposed to bring to the table, that she was a sex worker. The audience has to already understand this in order for the dialogue to make sense. It’s another example of how shows tell us as much about the audience as they do the writers.

This theme of the outcasting institution lamenting the perils of being cast out is a defining part of Criminal Minds and most police procedurals more broadly. Throughout all three Criminal Minds shows this is usually phrased as “low-risk” or “high-risk” victims. The high-risk, in the show, are those who present a high risk for the predator, not for whom the risk is high themselves (the show sometimes reverses this because the in canon writing is mediocre). Low-risk are those who murder presents little threat to the killers. The “low risk” represents the carceral state’s marginalization of certain populations and its subjection of them to violence similar to that of the non-state predators, as with sex workers in “The Last Word”. The are low-risk for the predators because they are simply joining the violence the state and patriarchy already enact.

This gets to part of the misogyny underlying carceral feminism and sex work abolition: the patriarchal carceral state is incapable of protecting its own outcasts nor recognizing its role in that marginalization even as it can define which populations are marginalized and how that marginalization makes those populations vulnerable in the first place. This dynamic is also why the current decriminalization efforts sex workers are fighter for are so vital. Actual decriminalization means that part of sex workers’ labor would no longer be staying under Agent Hotchner’s radar, at least in the sex work aspect of their lives.

Even adjusting for those limitations the story still fails at a fundamental level. The sex workers the Hollow Man kills mostly work outdoors and mostly are very impoverished. In St. Louis like most large US cities this means they are predominantly Black. That isn’t the case “The Last Word” presents. This is similar to the 2009 episode “To Hell… and Back” that presents the working class addict and sex worker population of Detroit, a city at the time nearly 85% Black, as largely white even as the episode’s guest star is Black. And leaving out this racialized dynamic also leaves out the limits of the potential decriminalization efforts. As some Black sex workers have pointed out, while decriminalization is an unambiguous good in that it removes an entire action node of criminalization from the carceral state, it doesn’t do address how Black people are criminalized en masse no matter their job. Decriminalizing sex work does not decriminalize the Blackness of Black sex workers. Support especially @thotscholar’s work for more on this. 

In the end on the plane ride home the BAU passes around a fax of the local paper’s lead story naming all of the Hollow Man’s sex worker victims. Each team member has a quick look and makes a reflection. Here then the outcasting institution gives validation to their own work in limiting the violence against sex workers to that which they themselves carry out. It’s a clear exemplar of the Weberian state’s claim to a monopoly on legitimate violence. The state’s violence against sex workers is legitimate. The serial killer’s is not. Violence against sex workers is no problem in this story, only the perpetrator’s non-state position is. 

“The Last Word” had 16.48 million US viewers in its initial showing, around 1 in 20 of the U.S. population. It didn’t invent any of the problems it exemplifies nor narrates but, in concert with its audience and those it purports to portray, it faithfully (re)produces whorephobia and misogyny along with the franchise’s baselines of anti-Blackness and ableism.

 

 

To support abolitionist work connect with Critical Resistance, Project Nia and other abolitionist groups. To support sex work decriminalization work connect with your local SWOP chapter or other local sex worker-led organizing efforts like the Las Vegas Sex Workers Collective.