Chicago P.D. Season 5 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 1Season 2Season 3Season 4 – Season 5 – Season 6 – Season 7

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 competently acted for the most part and decently 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 fifth 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 five police killings

Chicago P.D. at least partially resolves eight of season five’s twenty-two episodes with the police killing the person they are criminalizing, killing twenty-four people along the way. The amount of people killed by any particular cop in season five 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 “Reform” 27 Sep 2017
3 No Halstead (1), Ruzek (1), Atwater (1)
E2 “The Thing About Heroes” 4 Oct 2017 1 No Halstead
E3 “Promise” 11 Oct 2017
1 Yes Voight
E4 “Snitch” 18 Oct 2017 0 No N/A
E5 “Home” 25 Oct 2017 1 No Voight
E6 “Fallen” 8 Nov 2017 1 No Cop suicides to avoid charges
E7 “Care Under Fire” 15 Nov 2017 1 No Dawson
E8 “Politics” 29 Nov 2017 0 No Halstead
E9 “Monster” 6 Dec 2017 1 No Killed by a judge
E10 “Rabbit Hole” 3 Jan 2018 0 No N/A
E11 “Confidential” 10 Jan 2018 1 No Burgess
E12 “Captive” 17 Jan 2018 2 Yes Dawson (1), Atwater (1)
E13 “Chasing Monsters” 31 Jan 2018
5 Yes Dawson (1), Atwater (1), Visiting cop (3)
E14 “Anthem” 7 Feb 2018 2 Yes Voight (1), Halstead (1)
E15 “Sisterhood” 28 Feb 2018 0 Yes Dawson (1), Lindsay (1)
E16 “Profiles” 7 Mar 2018 0 No N/A
E17 “Breaking Point” 14 Mar 2018 0 No N/A
E18 “Ghosts” 21 Mar 2018 1 No Upton
E19 “Payback” 11 Apr 2018 0 No N/A
E20 “Saved” 18 April 2018 2 Yes Halstead, Ruzek & Upton combine on 2
E21 “Allegiance” 2 May 2018 1 Yes Ruzek (1)
E22 “Homecoming” 9 May 2018 1 Yes Voight

The Chicago police department kills someone they criminalize in 68% of the season five 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.

Voight kills two people in season five by proxy, once contracting it out to a gang and the second to a prison warden. And Burgess’ season five killing is done when she coerces a Black woman under threat of imprisonment to walk around a notoriously anti-Black neighborhood and ask non-Black dealers and gang members for information. The woman is killed as her partner suggested she would be. All the other season five killings are direct shootings.

Series Police Killings Running Totals by Main Cast Characters

Character Number of people they’ve executed
(How many) in each season
Voight 12 1 (3), 2 (2), 3 (3), 5 (4)
Alinsky 4 1 (2), 2 (1), 4 (1)
Halstead 13 1 (1), 2 (3), 3 (4), 4 (1), 5 (4)
Ruzek 6 1 (1), 2 (1), 3 (1), 5 (3)
Dawson 10 1 (3), 2 (2), 3 (2), 5 (3)
Burgess 3 1 (1), 2 (1), 5 (1)
Atwater 3 2 (1), 3 (1), 4 (1)
Lindsay 6 3 (5), 4 (1)
Upton 2 5 (2)

The only significant recurring character to not kill somebody in the first five seasons is Platt.

Who do the cops pursue?

But to what end does the show deploy the monopolized, legitimatized violence? 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 gang member snitches. 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 fifth season presents a radically different picture of police violence than the material world offers. The CPD in season five pursues predominantly white people. The table below shows the demographics.

Episode name/date Racialization of who the cops criminalize
Episode notes
E1 “Reform” 27 Sep 2017
Black Black people are gang members
E2 “The Thing About Heroes” 4 Oct 2017 Arab/Muslim Story about terrorism
E3 “Promise” 11 Oct 2017
Latinx Latinx are cartels, gang members
E4 “Snitch” 18 Oct 2017 Black Black people are gang members
E5 “Home” 25 Oct 2017 White N/A
E6 “Fallen” 8 Nov 2017 Black Black people are drug dealers
E7 “Care Under Fire” 15 Nov 2017 Latinx, white N/A
E8 “Politics” 29 Nov 2017 White (migrant) N/A
E9 “Monster” 6 Dec 2017 White N/A
E10 “Rabbit Hole” 3 Jan 2018 White Latinxs are drug dealers
E11 “Confidential” 10 Jan 2018 Latinx Latinxs are drug dealers, Black people are addicts
E12 “Captive” 17 Jan 2018 Black, latinx Black people are gang members, latinxs are drug dealers
E13 “Chasing Monsters” 31 Jan 2018
Latinx Latinxs are gang members
E14 “Anthem” 7 Feb 2018 Black Black people are gang members
E15 “Sisterhood” 28 Feb 2018 Latinx Latinxs are gang members
E16 “Profiles” 7 Mar 2018 White N/A
E17 “Breaking Point” 14 Mar 2018 Black Black people are gang members
E18 “Ghosts” 21 Mar 2018 White Latinxs are drug dealers
E19 “Payback” 11 Apr 2018 Black Latinxs are drug dealers, Black people are addicts
E20 “Saved” 18 April 2018 White N/As
E21 “Allegiance” 2 May 2018 Black, white Black people are drug dealers
E22 “Homecoming” 9 May 2018 Latinx Latinxs are gang members

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 latinx people as part of the plot in eleven season five episodes. In nine, the reference includes narcotrafficantes or gangs. Only in “Care Under Fire” and “Saved” do storylines with latinx references not read as a criminalized types. Their field of meaning in season five, as with all prior seasons, is drug dealer/gang member/narco.

Chicago P.D. mentions Black people as part of the plot in nine season five episodes. In each, the Black characters are articulated to drug or gang stories. Gangs and drug dealing are Black people’s field of meaning in season five, each playing into a well defined imagery of Black criminality.

Season five concludes the story arc of Voigt vs. Denny Green. The conclusion provides a crystal clear delineation of of Black Criminality and white innocence as Chicago P.D.‘s field of meaning. In “Payback”, Alinsky frames a man on a drug charge to avoid prosecution for his role in a murder Voigt did in season three. Voight knows Alinsky framed the person and does not intervene. Earlier in the season in “Fallen”, Voight helps frame a Black man to cover for a corrupt white cop who suicided so the cop’s family will get his pension. The season ends with Voight setting up Green for trying to prosecute him and explaining to him that his transgressions were for the good of the city while Green’s are harmful and criminal. This parallels another storyline in “Fallen” where the criminality of a working class Black drug dealer is normal while that of a wealthy suburban white dealer is anomalous.

The only other season five episode that racializes a non-white population is “The Thing About Hereos” where Muslims are terrorists, consistent with all prior season portrayals. Upton mocks a detained man in the episode showing him pictures of his dead wife, earlier killed by her partner Halstead. She tells him, “Don’t be sad, she died for the cause” while smirking to Alinsky who smirks back.

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 five. “Homecoming” concludes a multi-story, multi-season arc conflict between Hank Voigt and his old partner Denny Green with Voigt setting Green up before Green can set up Voigt. 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/brutality?
What happens
E1 “Reform” 27 Sep 2017
No N/A
E2 “The Thing About Heroes” 4 Oct 2017 Yes Voight beats a man and puts a gun to his head
E3 “Promise” 11 Oct 2017
No N/A
E4 “Snitch” 18 Oct 2017 Yes Ruzek beats a man for talking back
E5 “Home” 25 Oct 2017 Yes Voight beats a man and threatens to have another man raped to death in prison
E6 “Fallen” 8 Nov 2017 No N/A
E7 “Care Under Fire” 15 Nov 2017 Yes Halstead beats a random dude
E8 “Politics” 29 Nov 2017 No N/A
E9 “Monster” 6 Dec 2017 No N/A
E10 “Rabbit Hole” 3 Jan 2018 No N/A
E11 “Confidential” 10 Jan 2018 Yes Voight threatens to and then begins to kill someone in a hospital but is interrupted
E12 “Captive” 17 Jan 2018 Yes Voight and Alinsky threaten to kill someone in The Cage
E13 “Chasing Monsters” 31 Jan 2018
No N/A
E14 “Anthem” 7 Feb 2018 No N/A
E15 “Sisterhood” 28 Feb 2018 No N/A
E16 “Profiles” 7 Mar 2018 No N/A
E17 “Breaking Point” 14 Mar 2018 No N/A
E18 “Ghosts” 21 Mar 2018 Yes Upton beats an immobilized guy
E19 “Payback” 11 Apr 2018 Yes Ruzek strangles a detained guy
E20 “Saved” 18 April 2018 Yes Voight pistolwhips and later beats a handcuffed guy
E21 “Allegiance” 2 May 2018 No N/A
E22 “Homecoming” 9 May 2018 Yes Voight: chokes 1 guy, beats 2 other and threatens to kill 1 to extract information. Burgess beats a woman and threatens to deport her mom to extract info

Chicago P.D. tortures the people it criminalizes in ten out of twenty-two season five episodes (45%). Season five 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 or tortured so much as doing away with prisons and policing altogether. “Innocent” is not an ethics counterpoint to “guilty” when the supposedly “guilty” are victims of state violence, not necessarily causers of 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 nearly half of season five 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 usual police apologia that brutal cops are bad apples not reflective of the system, the show argues that the murdering, torturing cops are actually the good apples.

Season five misogyny

Chicago P.D. is rife with “normal” misogyny. In rare instances it comes under carceral feminist critique. Season five has a couple of longer story arcs where two cast members are portrayed as complex men going through some shit instead of violent misogynists. “Rabbit Hole” concludes a three episode story arc where Halstead continually rapes a woman, deceiving her as to his real identity as a cop and thus violating the terms upon which she gave consent. The woman is facing jail time in the end and Halstead is worried about losing his job for violating protocol (but not his freedom because cops are allowed by law to rape in this manner). Upton approaches the woman who is locked up and tells her she will help her stay out of jail if she doesn’t tell the other police what Halstead did. In “Chasing Monsters” Dawson ends the episode by killing his romantic partner. In the episode context his romantic partner is a visiting Salvadoran cop whose child was killed by an MS-13 stand-in gang and she is in Chicago on a revenge mission disguised as a police exchange (these are the stories that the show passes off as “gritty” and “realistic”…). She kills her target and Dawson kills her. The story is bizarre and silly but a much more plausible idea that Dawson killed his romantic partner is horrifyingly plausible. Police have domestic violence rates as much as 40% than the civilian population and cops regularly kill, and get away with killing, their romantic partners. Yet the only time the show covers a cop being violent towards his romantic partner it’s Dawson in a tragic hero moment. And in “Politics” sex workers are not people, but objects to be incarcerated or saved. Sex work is peripheral to Chicago P.D. storylines but in the rare instances sex work is discussed it is almost exclusively on these terms.

Other cop show tropes

Chicago P.D. does not make significant use of the Ticking Time Bomb, carceral ableism or several other cop show tropes in season five. 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.

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.