You gotta have game.

If you ever needed proof that the universe in which Criminal Minds is set, while arbitrary, brutal, and unfair, is at its heart a better place than our world, I offer the following sentence:

“I told my HMO I got abducted by a serial killer, so they gave me free dental x-rays.”

 

Being a review of Criminal Minds 4×09, which may either be titled “Pickup” or “52 Pickup,” written by Breen Frazier, directed by Bobby Roth.

In this episode of Criminal Minds, the team travels to Atlanta to seek out a serial killer who picks women up in bars and then forces them to clean up after their own (slow, lingering) murders. A pretty straightforward ep, except there’s a lot of character development and thematic discussion in the crevices that’s not necessarily evident on first exposure.

If “Masterpiece” lacked in subtlety, this episode makes up for it. There’s so much fan service (totally awesome fan service, from Hotch and Prentiss’ candid discussions to Morgan teaching Reid how to flirt with girls) that it’s easy to miss a lot of the thematic fun. The episode title itself, of course, is one of the classic unsettling CM pun titles. The UNSUB picks up his victims, and the investigation revolves around the unsavory world of pickup artists—but he also forces them to “pick up,” swabbing their own blood off the floor as they die.

Reid (with Morgan’s able assistance) and Todd and Prentiss solve the case, between them, with their ability to pick up a member of the opposite sex. It’s all about manipulation, and that’s reinforced when Todd steps over one of Hotch’s invisible lines, and uses a manipulation that Hotch does not approve of. But there are other circumstances where the same tactic could be perfectly acceptable: Hotch lies to UNSUBs, after all.

So we get to see how the same power—the power to manipulate and lie—can be used for good or evil.

With this case we return to three of CM’s overarching leitmotifs. Not just Lies, but the Game (in this case, the game is manipulating sexual attraction, but it’s clearly identified as a game—both by antagonists (“Viper”), and heroes (Morgan) and Magic. And the difference is how the game is played.

When the bad guys do it, it has shills. Prey objects.  People who are there to be fooled and manipulated.

When the good guys do it, it’s a give-and-take. Reid makes his play for Austin, and then she returns the serve with something equally clever and charming—and tailored to his interests. Todd and Prentiss flirt with each other as much as with the uncooperative witness, but when they’re doing it to each other, it’s in fun, and everybody knows what’s going on. Likewise, Hotch and Garcia—Garcia, after all, flirts as easily as most people breathe. The flirting itself is the point for her, which echoes Viper’s claim that all he cares about is the spark, but in Garcia’s case it’s closer to true.

Everything is a continuum.

Criminal Minds airs Wednesday nights on CBS at 9 pm.

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