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.