Chicago P.D. Season 6 Data Overview

Thanks to Zoë Samudzi and Briana Ureña-Ravelo for feedback on parts of what follows. Deeply influential but not directly cited below are Sylvia Wynter on the idea of The Human and Che Gossett‘s years of twitter musings on humanity/animality along with decades of Black feminist abolitionist visions and critiques, especially the works of Ruth Wilson-Gilmore, Mariame Kaba and Angela Davis. Credit for anything useful below is theirs. Feedback – constructive, destructive and other – welcome.

Season 1Season 2Season 3Season 4Season 5 – Season 6 – Season 7

Chicago P.D. is a police drama produced by Wolf Entertainment running on NBC since 2014 with an ensemble cast structure centered around Hank Voight (Jason Beghe). The show tells fictional stories of the Chicago Police Department’s Intelligence Division as they try to incarcerate or kill people they criminalize.[1] It has single episode story lines with regular longer arcs or recurring story elements mixed in. Chicago P.D. mixes elements of a police drama and procedural with the procedural aspects focusing on torture. Its program is lionizing John Burge – albeit not by name and likely unthought – where the Chicago police coerce confessions through torture in semi-official locations, “The Cage” in Chicago P.D.. The show portrays the killer cops as heroic and their violences practical through gritty dialogue, Beghe’s gravely voice and quick trigger, the cops’ connections to criminalized populations that frame them as criminally knowledgeable and grounded and the decision to use handheld cameras for a more kinetic feel.

Chicago P.D. is competently acted for the most part and decently shot. It has mostly coherent storylines and good pacing which would make it well scripted were it not for so many character tropes and bad dialogue. Its main drawbacks are not technical, but ethical. Chicago P.D., even by the low standards of cop shows, stands out for how warmly it embraces murderous cops and torture. Its heroes are at times portrayed ambiguously but are, like its closest predecessor The Shield, still virtuous protagonists. The horrors they enact and all their violences are towards supposedly noble ends.

Below are data tables that look at how frequently various things happen in the sixth season’s stories. Many of the categories reflect things seen in other cop shows too. Others are more unique to Chicago P.D. or useful only with lots of other context. For each table I try to offer context in the surrounding annotations. Some categories that are useful in other cops shows or even different seasons of the same show are not always applicable to others so this data overview will have tables others do not and vice versa.

Season six police killings

Chicago P.D. at least partially resolves ten of season six’s twenty-two episodes with the police killing the person they are criminalizing, killing fourteen people along the way. The amount of people killed by any particular cop in season six is only slightly remarkable. But the totals over the whole series show that most Chicago P.D. main cast characters are serial killers. For example in “Called in Dead”, Alinsky (Elias Koteas) says that he’s killed seven people to that date (three in the show to that point, the others from before the show starts). They are what the title character from Dexter is just lacking the self-awareness. More troubling is how Chicago P.D. normalizes police shootings as heroic outcomes as explored below the table.

Episode name/date Killed by police
Episode resolved via suspect’s death Criminalized person killed by
E1 “New Normal” 26 Sep 2018
0 No N/A
E2 “Endings” 3 Oct 2018 1 Yes Halstead
E3 “Bad Boys” 10 Oct 2018
1 Yes Ruzek
E4 “Ride Along” 17 Oct 2018 0 No N/A
E5 “Fathers and Sons” 24 Oct 2018 1 No Voight/Ruzek/Halstead
E6 “True and False” 31 Oct 2018 1 Yes Ruzek
E7 “Trigger” 7 Nov 2018 1 Yes Halstead
E8 “Black and Blue” 14 Nov 2018 0 Yes N/A
E9 “Descent” 5 Dec 2018 1 Yes Dawson
E10 “Brotherhood” 9 Jan 2019 1 No Upton
E11 “Trust” 16 Jan 2019 0 No N/A
E12 “Outrage” 23 Jan 2019 1 Yes Retired cop
E13 “Night In Chicago” 6 Feb 2019
1 No Patrol cop
E14 “Ties That Bind” 13 Feb 2019 0 No N/A
E15 “Good Men” 20 Feb 2019 0 No N/A
E16 “The Forgotten” 27 Feb 2019 1 Yes Cop from different division
E17 “Pain Killer” 27 Mar 2019 1 Yes Unnamed SWAT sniper
E18 “This City” 3 Apr 2019
1 Yes Voight by proxy
E19 “What Could Have Been” 24 Apr 2019 0 No N/A
E20 “Sacrifice” 8 May 2019
1 No Atwater & Burgess
E21 “Confession” 15 May 2019 0 No N/A
E22 “Reckoning” 22 May 2019 1 No Resigning cop

The Chicago police department kills someone they criminalize in 64% of season six episodes. Chicago P.D. is not directly responsible for material world police shootings but it, like all cop shows, plays a role in (re)producing public support for police violence through discursive illustration. It offers an imaginary heroic police violence. It relies on an audience that accepts these outcomes as palatable or else it would be read as the sadistic horror it is or, possibly, the audience would be aware of their enjoyment of sadistic horror. In Weber’s description of the state as the claimant to a monopoly over legitimate violence, Chicago P.D. normalizing police violence is the same as normalizing the state itself. The audience receiving these stories as heroic is part of statism; the organization of sociality around monopolies over legitimate violence.

Voight farms out a hit and Atwater and Burgess fatally chase someone onto the El tracks where he dies. The other season six killings are police shootings.

Series Police Killings Running Totals by Main Cast Characters

Character Number of people they’ve executed
(How many) in each season
Voight 14 1 (3), 2 (2), 3 (3), 5 (4), 6 (2)
Alinsky 4 1 (2), 2 (1), 4 (1)
Halstead 16 1 (1), 2 (3), 3 (4), 4 (1), 5 (4), 6 (3)
Ruzek 9 1 (1), 2 (1), 3 (1), 5 (3), 6 (3)
Dawson 11 1 (3), 2 (2), 3 (2), 5 (3), 6 (1)
Burgess 4 1 (1), 2 (1), 5 (1), 6 (1)
Atwater 4 2 (1), 3 (1), 4 (1), 6 (1)
Lindsay 6 3 (5), 4 (1)
Upton 4 5 (2), 6 (2)

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

Who do the cops pursue?

But to what end does the show deploy the monopolized, legitimatized violence? Chicago P.D. produces stories that portray the U.S. carceral system as not being built around Black Captivity. It tells stories of Black Captivity often without Black people. This is not a disavowal of Black criminality nor white innocence. It still narrates through Black criminality, often explicitly as when Voigt coerces gang member snitches. Instead it relies on Black Captivity being grammatical to the viewing audience. Audiences bring the knowledge of Black Captivity and mass incarceration to the show already. It doesn’t have to be said when it is the framework through which the audience understands the concept of prisons. So when Chicago P.D. represents cops criminalizing mostly non-Black people as their universe, it still does so through Black Captivity.

Chicago P.D.‘s sixth season presents a radically different picture of police violence than the material world offers. The CPD in season six pursues predominantly white people. The table below shows the demographics.

Episode name/date Racialization of who the cops criminalize
Episode notes
E1 “New Normal” 26 Sep 2018 Latinx, Black Latinxs and Black people are drug dealers
E2 “Endings” 3 Oct 2018 Latinx Latinxs are narcos
E3 “Bad Boys” 10 Oct 2018 Latinx Latinxs are gang members
E4 “Ride Along” 17 Oct 2018 White
E5 “Fathers and Sons” 24 Oct 2018 Latinx, white Latinxs are narcos
E6 “True and False” 31 Oct 2018 White, Black Black people are violent
E7 “Trigger” 7 Nov 2018 White Terrorism story about Muslims
E8 “Black and Blue” 14 Nov 2018 Black Black people are drug dealers
E9 “Descent” 5 Dec 2018 White
E10 “Brotherhood” 9 Jan 2019 White
E11 “Trust” 16 Jan 2019 Black Black people are drug dealers
E12 “Outrage” 23 Jan 2019 White
E13 “Night In Chicago” 6 Feb 2019 Black Black people are drug dealers
E14 “Ties That Bind” 13 Feb 2019 White
E15 “Good Men” 20 Feb 2019 Black Black people are gang members
E16 “The Forgotten” 27 Feb 2019 White Black people are drug dealers
E17 “Pain Killer” 27 Mar 2019 Black Black people are drug dealers
E18 “This City” 3 Apr 2019 Black Black people are gang members
E19 “What Could Have Been” 24 Apr 2019 Black Black people are drug dealers
E20 “Sacrifice” 8 May 2019 White
E21 “Confession” 15 May 2019 Black Black people are gang members. Latinxs are narcos
E22 “Reckoning” 22 May 2019 Black Black people are gang members

In Arabs and Muslims in the Media Evelyn Alsultany describes a “field of meaning” beyond simple ideas of representation. She writes:

The critical cultural studies approach that I employ strategically privileges the analysis of ideological work performed by images and story lines, as opposed to reading an image as negative or positive, and therefore gets us beyond reading a positive image as if it will eliminate stereotyping. If we interpret an image as either positive or negative, then we can conclude that the problem of racial stereotyping is over because of the appearance of sympathetic images of Arabs and Muslims during the War on Terror. However, an examination in relation to its narrative context reveals how it participates in a larger field of meaning about Arabs and Muslims. The notion of a field of meaning, or an ideological field, is a means to encompass the range of acceptable ideas about the War on Terror.

Here I use this “field of meaning” to look at how Chicago P.D. ties racialized subject positions to specific racist types. So in keeping with Alsultany’s focus, how often are Arabs and Muslims story lines not articulated to terrorism? As in, does Chicago P.D. allow Arabs and Muslims to have meaning that is not tied to terrorism?

Chicago P.D. mentions latinx people as part of the plot in five season six episodes. In all, the reference includes narcotraficantes or gangs. Their field of meaning in season six, as with all prior seasons, is drug dealer/gang member/narco.

Chicago P.D. mentions Black people as part of the plot in twelve season six episodes. In each, the Black characters are articulated to drug or gang stories. Gangs and drug dealing are Black people’s field of meaning in season six, each playing into a well defined imagery of Black criminality. The show posits not only Black criminality, but criminality exclusive to all other pursuits. Even shallow understandings of Chicago history know that gangs have been active in Chicago politics for over a century. Longtime Mayor Richard Daley got his political start in a white supremacist Irish gang, the Hamburg Athletic Club. Black Panther chapter leader Fred Hampton famously organized with the Blackstone Rangers and Black Gangster Disciples. Yet in “Trust”, Halstead views election signs in the closet of a Black man they’re criminalizing and asks, “What’s a gangbanger like Griffin doing with Vote for Helton materials?” The implication being that Griffin’s Blackness, synonymous with his criminality in the show/United States, necessarily means his political leanings .

In “Night in Chicago” Atwater is undercover deceiving a Black person he’s criminalizing. Belligerent white cops pull them over and begin to provoke and harrass Atwater and his intended victim. One of the white cops kills Atwater’s target. The show presents body-cam footage later intending to prove that Atwater’s target lunged towards rhe cop providing cause for the cop to kill him. Atwater, while strongly disagreeing with the cops pulling them over, agrees in the end that it was a “good shoot”. Alternately put, in the episode Chicago P.D. has racist white cops that it explicitly acknowledges to be racist who execute a Black man the show explicitly says they had no business encountering and, in the end, the show still calls it a “good shoot”. The whole thing stresses Atwater a bit and Voight tells him, “This is Chicago, it’s not easy to be an idealist.” This is in direct contradiction to the abolitionist forces in Chicago whose years of organizing forced discussions of police violence into the show’s stories in the first place. Idealist action towards Black liberation is why Voight uttered those words in the first place.

The only other season six episode that racializes a non-white population is “Trigger”, yet another story with Muslim characters about terrorism, consistent with every mention of Muslims in the first six seasons.

The show works hard to frame white innocence in “Sacrifice” where white people knock over phramacy deliveries in order to get medicine to save a white woman’s life. The cops find the people, portrayed sympathetically, and arrange in the end for the white woman to get the stolen drugs anyway. Their criminality is reluctant and only at the point of life and death unlike the show’s intentional, naturalized Black criminality.

Big Hero vs. Big Villain storytelling

Chicago P.D. regularly uses a cop show trope I’m calling Big Hero vs. Big Villain but only once in season six. Season six has a multi-episode arc conflict between Hank Voigt and police superintendent and mayoral candidate Brian Kelton that concludes with another cop murdering Kelton in the season finale. Big Hero vs. Big Villain are story arcs where the police are less systemic violence’s agents and more individuals in contest with others. Big Hero vs. Big Villain can include a systemic framework as in The Wire‘s story lines of McNulty vs. the Barksdale Crew or Stringer Bell. Chicago P.D. does not do this in a meaningful way. Instead its Big Hero vs. Big Villain stories act as personal quests, deeply personal battles and redemption arcs for its protagonists and adds a level of illegibility to the people the CPD pursues through making their motivations more arbitrary.

Heroic portrayals of torture and police brutality

Chicago P.D. embraces police torturing people like no other show on television. The closest is Supernatural where the Winchester brothers frequently torture ‘demons’ towards various ends, usually to extract information. But torture isn’t central to their characters. It is for Voight in Chicago P.D. and, to a lesser extent, Alinsky. Chicago P.D. portrays torture as heroic in either how the heroes do the torturing or torture is a successful tactic, usually both. It is so common that it must be either convincing or have an already convinced audience. If it did not, much like the above police killings, the audience would receive it as the sadistic horror it is.

Episode name/date Is there torture/brutality?
What happens
E1 “New Normal” 26 Sep 2018 No N/A
E2 “Endings” 3 Oct 2018 Yes Halstead and Voight threaten to snitchjacket a guy to the cartel and describe his pending torture to extract info
E3 “Bad Boys” 10 Oct 2018 Yes Voight chokes and beats a guy to extract info
E4 “Ride Along” 17 Oct 2018 No N/A
E5 “Fathers and Sons” 24 Oct 2018 No N/A
E6 “True and False” 31 Oct 2018 No N/A
E7 “Trigger” 7 Nov 2018 Yes DHS tortures people to extract info
E8 “Black and Blue” 14 Nov 2018 No N/A
E9 “Descent” 5 Dec 2018 Yes Voight beats, chokes and threatens to fake a suicide of someone to extract info
E10 “Brotherhood” 9 Jan 2019 No N/A
E11 “Trust” 16 Jan 2019 No N/A
E12 “Outrage” 23 Jan 2019 No N/A
E13 “Night In Chicago” 6 Feb 2019 No N/A
E14 “Ties That Bind” 13 Feb 2019 Yes Voight kicks a guy in the face to extract info. Ruzek threatens him at gunpoint then Voight threatens him with a hammer
E15 “Good Men” 20 Feb 2019 No N/A
E16 “The Forgotten” 27 Feb 2019 YesN/A Voight and Ruzek strangle someone to extract info
E17 “Pain Killer” 27 Mar 2019 No N/A
E18 “This City” 3 Apr 2019 No N/A
E19 “What Could Have Been” 24 Apr 2019 No N/A
E20 “Sacrifice” 8 May 2019 No N/A
E21 “Confession” 15 May 2019 No N/A
E22 “Reckoning” 22 May 2019 Yes Voight and Ruzek beat a man to extract info

Chicago P.D. tortures the people it criminalizes in seven out of twenty-two season six episodes (32%). Season six continues using “The Cage”, a location where the unit takes people to torture them. No character offers any meaningful dissent to these actions. Chicago P.D. portrays Voight torturing people as not only ethical, but effective. I aspire to abolition in this writing and am not concerned with “innocent” people being imprisoned or tortured so much as doing away with prisons and policing altogether. “Innocent” is not an ethics counterpoint to “guilty” when the supposedly “guilty” are victims of state violence, not necessarily causers of harm. With that said, Friedrich Spee noted in his 1631 text Cautio Criminalis that “Torture has the power to create witches where none exist.” He continued, critiquing witchhunting advocates noting that “every one of their teachings concerning witches is based on no other foundations than fables or confessions extracted through torture.”

Real world Chicago police have long engaged in torture and Voight and his unit bear strong resemblance to Jon Burge, a highly decorated Chicago cop who coerced confessions by torturing, primarily, Black people his unit kidnapped off the street. Spee loudly critiqued torture as producing no useful information in the early 1600s and studies ever since have agreed with him. Given this, Chicago P.D. in nearly half of season six episodes is naming witches “based on no other foundations than fables or confessions extracted through torture.” There is no reason to think anybody tortured by Voight’s unit or implicated by the tortured even did the thing they were accused of. Abolition says “Don’t hunt witches in the first place.” That is the important question. Even with that understanding, Chicago P.D. portrays the most harmful method of witchhunting in its firm support for torture and police brutality. Instead of the usual police apologia that brutal cops are bad apples not reflective of the system, the show argues that the murdering, torturing cops are actually the good apples.

Other cop show tropes

Chicago P.D. does not make significant use of the Ticking Time Bomb, carceral ableism or several other cop show tropes in season six. Further seasons will illuminate more themes. Feedback appreciated. Thanks for reading.

[1] I say “or kill” due to Chicago P.D. frequently resolving storylines by killing the suspect. This occurs far too often to consider it anything other than an expected outcome for the showrunners.

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
Notes
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
Yes
E8 “Natural Born Killer” 16 Nov 2005 None but is suggested by others
N/A
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.