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.
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
|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
||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.
||Does it succeed?
|E5 “Broken Mirror” 19 Oct 2005||Greenaway
|E8 “Natural Born Killer” 16 Nov 2005||None but is suggested by others
|E12 “What Fresh Hell?” 1 Jan 2006
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.