See, when Patrick Nielsen Hayden invited me to blog for Tor.com, one of the things I had decided was that I wasn’t going to do this. Because yes, I have a favorite TV show. But I’m a freak, and my favorite TV show isn’t SFF. At least...not patently.
It’s CBS’s Criminal Minds, just beginning its fourth season, and in that time its gone from being a dark horse that nobody expected to see last out thirteen episodes to being a top-twenty show that consistently wins its night, despite having been led-in by such notorious dogs as Kid Nation.
But then I saw that Theresa Delucci is blogging Dexter here, and I couldn’t resist holding up the side in favor of my favorite serial killer show.
Briefly, Criminal Minds is a TV show about seven geniuses with post-traumatic stress disorder attempting to save the world from the worst human monsters imaginable. But the important word in that phrase is human; the underpinning discussion of the show is about why people break, and if you give it a few episodes to do its thematic sleight of hand, you come to realize that what they’re conducting is a very high-level argument about nature versus nurture and good versus evil, with side trips into the existence of free will—and they’re admitting they don’t have anything like a satisfying answer. They also like to deconstruct other media—with special attention to comic books (there’s a third season episode that does lovely things with The Crow, for example) and slasher movies.
(It’s also an Arthurian romance and a meditation on the existence and evolution of God, but that’s another column.)
Right, that’s the backstory. I don’t have time to go through three seasons worth of character arc (and the characters do, indeed, arc—a significant part of the game the creators are playing involves the deconstruction of stereotypes and snap impressions. One of the initial seven characters is a rape survivor. It’s not the one you think. In fact, it’s not any of the women.) so we’re just going to jump in with the resolution of last season’s cliffhanger.
When last we left our intrepid band of adventurers, they had determined that killings previously believed to be perpetrated by a Son-of-Sam style random gunman in New York City were actually dry runs by a terrorist cell planning to bomb eight locations around the city. The episode ended with a payoff on one of the longest-term bits of setup I recall from series TV: for three seasons, we’ve had the team driving everywhere in anonymous black SUVs.
In the final frames of the third-season finale, one of those SUVs blew up. Which one?
Well, it’s one way to keep your primary cast from renegotiating their contracts....
The opening sequence of the season 4 premier (entitled “Mayhem,” for those of you who love such things) is one of the best examples of point of view I’ve ever seen. We begin with a lingering shot of a dark city street, burnt papers drifting, a lamppost with signs exhorting motorists to “DO NOT EVEN THINK OF PARKING HERE.” Utter silence. No music.
And then a bloody hand, held open, cradled upwards. The camera pans up the arm to the battered face of one of our primary characters, Supervisory Special Agent Aaron Hotchner (Thomas Gibson). The camera swings around over his shoulder, and we see him standing before a shattered shop window, a broken car door thrown up against it, and behind that window television cameras and wide-screen TVs showing...Hotch, and the burning hulk of a black SUV behind him. I’m particularly impressed by this shot, because the previous season’s finale made a great deal of hay over both the cops and the terrorists using CCTV as a weapon.
Now we have SFX, a ringing sound, sirens. He turns and stares at the burning vehicle. An bystander appears and seems to be attempting to help, but Hotch can’t hear him, and begins demanding the bystander call 911, trying to take control of the scene of a crime of which he is the victim. All in all, very unsettling, and a very clearly detailed presentation of the experience of shock.
No, I’m not going to do the entire episode scene by scene, but honestly this is one of the two best scenes in the episode. (The other is Derek Morgan (Shemar Moore) clearing the subway train, complete with adrenaline tunnel vision and rattling breath.) I wanted to make the point of the show’s attention to detail and characterization, and the way its creators (who include an FBI profiler and a former Chicago beat cop) pay attention to the myths of Hollywood and how much more interesting the reality can be. Rather than seeing our heroes reacting cooly to disaster, we see them shattered, panicking, shocky, on the verge of tears—and doing the job anyway, because the job has got to be done.
I’m afraid this episode, for this show, is a little thematically thin. Which means it’s got about four times as much going on as most network dramas. It’s also only forty-one minutes long, including a several-minute “previously on Criminal Minds” segment, which makes me wonder what exactly is on the cutting room floor.
CM season finales and openers also tend to be a little contrived, and this one is no exception. The bad guys rely on a complex nested plot of the sort that in the real world would never survive contact with the enemy, and it’s evident to the viewer from the instant they come on screen who the bad guys are.
However, in this case, I’m willing to forgive. In part because it’s a caper plot, and contrivance is one of the conventions of caper plots. (I’m a big Mission: Impossible (the original TV show) fan, and it revolves around just the same kind of manipulations—the difference here being that the good guys are the victims of the caper.) But also in part because after leading us through the caper by the nose, the show offers us some absolutely beautiful and prickly character moments with no easy resolution.
There’s the beautiful scene in which Morgan tells Penelope Garcia (Kirsten Vangsness) that she’s his god-given solace, for example, in a scene which may seem transparently romantic to a first-time viewer, but to the long-term fan is a nuanced and painful confession from a man whose ability to form emotional bonds is (possibly irrevocably) broken to a woman who is dealing with her own issues of the heart. There’s Morgan and Hotch’s final argument, where Hotch accuses Morgan of precisely his own failing—a sharp and lucid projection of Hotch’s own issues onto another.
And there’s the understated setup of what I suspect will be one of the ongoing plotlines of the season—Hotch holding himself up by sheer will until he literally collapses. How long is that acoustic trauma going to persist? This show is a show that believes in lasting damage, after all.
I predict that for Hotch, the pain is not over.