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.

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Criminal Minds: Beyond Borders

The popular CBS police procedural Criminal Minds has spawned a second spin-off, Criminal Minds: Beyond Borders. It takes the format of the original franchise with one major exception, the FBI profilers are operating around the globe. The FBI in this framework are an active policing institution with global carceral power, something like what the show Crossing Lines imagines Interpol to be. It offers the opportunity to explore sovereign imperial violence through the lens of how it portrays the world.

The pilot episode, “The Harmful One”, opens with a voiceover: “Over 68 million Americans leave the safety of our borders every year. If danger strikes, the FBI’s International Response Team is called into action.” Implied is that the U.S. borders are something other than regimes of violence and that to be inside them offers security. This also illustrates a tension in the stories where the U.S. empire’s sovereign violence is carried, if not carried out, by U.S. citizens wherever they go, no matter any competing sovereignty.

The episode takes place in Thailand in and around Bangkok. Two white U.S. college students are on a volunteering trip at a cassava farm where they do good by displacing paid local labor. Influenced by a cute boy who is also displacing Thai labor, one girl falsely accuses the farmer of watching her shower and convinces the other girl to abandon their work. They leave the farm and are promptly kidnapped.

We first meet the new Criminal Minds team with the franchise’s lead character FBI profiler David Rossi (fundraiser for the Israeli military Joe Mantegna) in a shooting simulation alongside Jack Garret (noted Hollywood conservative Gary Sinise). Rossi kills the suspect in the simulation and is promptly chastised by Garret who says, “We could’ve talked him down.” Garret moves to review the shooting. Instead they both jokingly dismiss the idea and decide to get coffee. Garret gets a text that sends him to Thailand on the trail of the two girls.

The IRT finds that the boy had previously been convicted of rape but “a Romeo and Juliet” law that knocked his conviction down to a misdemeanor leads the group’s technical analyst ‘Monty’ Montgomery (Tyler James Williams) to say, “I’m not sure how serious it was.”

Upon landing they encounter Clare Seger (Alana de la Garza). She is called the groups “cultural expert” which turns out to be a colonial anthropology position unburdened by expertise. She tells fellow agent Mae Jarvis (Annie Funke), “Listen, this police force is a boy’s club so don’t take it personally.” She thus sets the stage for a recurring theme in the episode where the FBI will upend local patriarchy. Clearly ‘FBI’ stands for ‘Feminist Bureau of Investigation’ though it is never made clear which strand of leaning in it is, Clintonian or Thatcherite?

Despite zero evidence in any direction the IRT goes with the theory that the kidnapping is related to a human trafficking ring. Garret and Cultural Expert go to the farm they girls disappeared from to investigate whether the farmer was involved. Cultural Expert’s hot take absolving him: “Well he’s exhausted but willing to talk. He seems embarrassed about the conditions he provides here and he’s not surprised they left. They’re not the first kids to go. And I spotted a Buddha which means he believes in karma.” I’m not sure what followed immediately after this because I rolled my eyes so hard that I momentarily lost the ability to focus.

Thai cop tells white woman no.png

Taksin tells Jarvis “No!”

The IRT is hindered by local authorities through a combination of incompetence and sexism. The racism of native incompetence is an exposition tool so things needing explaining can have it without condescending to the audience as it’s more palatable to condescend to Thai people. Jarvis especially is repeatedly thwarted, especially by Taksin (Keong Sim), the local liaison. The local police do not properly preserve a murdered man’s body and thus it is up to Jarvis to get around restrictions put on her actions by Thai people. Taksin has never heard of a serial killer’s “comfort zone” despite being a high ranking Bangkok cop, thus Garret must explain it to him. Taksin stops Jarvis from photographing a dead body because of something to do with sexism.

Anyway, after stoking the fears of human trafficking they silently drop the theory once they find a piece of actual evidence. They find this after the IRT chases a Thai man through a crowded marketplace. Garret tackles the man, puts him in a choke hold, and demands answers which are immediately provided. Here the FBI can engage in wanton destruction in Thailand without even a frowning glance.

Garret choking a Thai man

Garret chokes the truth out of a suspect while crushing someone’s vegetable crop

Turns out the killer is a random tribal man (Duoa Moua) who mostly grunts and growls and, for unexplained reasons, has pierced his cheeks and mouth with lengths of metal. The character would comfortably fit in Eli Roth’s racism concentrate The Green Inferno.

thai killer

The kidnapper of innocent white women as we first meet him

But how will they stop him? Garret hunts for ideas asking, “Are there any cultural traditions for the last remaining member of a family?” Cultural Expert decides that the killer is celebrating Ullambana, which happens in August, and is sacrificing the white labor displacers to appease his ancestors. Wut? In the end the IRT saves the white women from the terrifying brown man, the killer offs himself and Jarvis conquers the patriarchy by getting a validating nod from Taksin.

The second episode, “Harvested”, opens with a bunch of white people at some expensive festival in Mumbai. Two American dude-bros pop some kind of drug while an Indian man watches predatorily from the shadows. One guy wakes up without a kidney in the middle of a slum nicknamed “Kidneyville.”

Upon arrival in India Cultural Expert drops some knowledge on the team: “Some things to keep in mind: Politeness is politic. Never use someone’s first name without their consent. Never refuse hospitality and never initiate physical contact with someone of the opposite sex. Even something as innocuous as a handshake can be looked upon as a sexual advance.” How is the latter different from the United States where men take everything from a retweet to an axe kick to the forehead as a sexual invitation? Anywho…

The second episode isn’t worth describing at length though it briefly places the kidney and other organ thefts inside casteism’s brutality and the colorist legacy of British colonialism which is encouraging. Yet imperial intervention is somehow still heroic and the US police with zero local knowledge aside from Cultural Expert are the competent ones. This story too ends with the killer’s suicide and too has opportunities for massive eye-rolling. For example Cultural Expert asks if Garret knows that the Mumbai slum they were in that had an open sewer and caste-based organ harvesting program is “completely green” because they recycle all the plastics they have and make them into little toys?

Sovereign Violence Without Borders

Criminal Minds: Beyond Borders is pretty bad television. It has the very same shallow pop psychology premised on ableism as the original series, specifically pathologizing mental illness as a producer of violence, rather than a location upon which violence is enacted. The ensemble cast has little chemistry and the writing is bad both ethically and poetically. But it is interesting in a way.

In this story American sovereign violence follows citizens wherever they go regardless of the sovereign’s borders. The monopoly over legitimate violence that defines the state is deterritorialized in empire. In this read, how do “Over 68 million Americans leave the safety of our borders every year” when for first class imperial citizens those borders are biopolitical and not geopolitical? The answer is that they more or less don’t, except in North Korea perhaps. This is what Garret means when he says of the Thai police, “It’s not their job to worry about missing Americans. It’s ours.” Just as biopolitics govern US citizens, empire governs the episode’s othered populations with necropolitics. The first two episodes both end in the end of life for the villain and in both instances is of someone already dispossessed (a Dalit man in Mumbai and a tribal man in Thailand). Necropolitics is already in play in the material world for these populations and Criminal Minds: Beyond Borders reproduces it faithfully. The series will explore these ideas, however unintentionally, as it unjustifiably continues airing episodes.

Lastly, the first two episodes do not question empire’s right to police the world nor its competency to do so. Both exist as unstated facts and only the competency part is defined at all and then, only through positioning alongside native incompetency. But this is expected. After all if the stories investigated whether or not the FBI should be active all over the globe they will find that it shouldn’t. And the series would have to end. Which it should.