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
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”

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
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
E8 “Natural Born Killer” 16 Nov 2005 None but is suggested by others
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.

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.