What follows is a review—maybe I should start calling these critiques, actually—of Criminal Minds 4×03, “Minimal Loss,“ written by Andrew Wilder, directed by Felix Enriquez Alcalá. But it diverges a bit into metatext, thematic burden, and the structure of narratives. Sorry, it’s just the way my brain works.
So somebody doing casting at Criminal Minds has a sense of humor. There’s a running gag—this is third season so far—where the show casts popular child actors as serial killers. So far, James Van Der Beek as one of the second season’s cruellest—and most tragic—baddies, Frankie Muniz as a beloved comic book artist traumatized into a psychotic break, and now…
Luke Perry as a charismatic, child-molesting cult leader.
Oh, the fun never stops.
In this week’s episode, Reid and Prentiss go undercover in a cult as child services agents, and there—through a series of bureaucratic screwups and power plays of Biblical proportions—they remain, stranded in an FBI vs. religious sect standoff that will look awfully familiar to watchers of the evening news.
This isn’t the first time Spencer Reid has been held hostage by a scripture-quoting devil played by a former child star. “Revelations,” 2×15, is of course the canonical example (How many more bad Bible jokes can I get away with before you come through the Internet at me?), and this episode is very plainly aware of its antecedent, even framing several shots (a captor bringing Prentiss water, Reid staring down the barrel of a gun) in such a manner so as to make the comparison patent. One thing Criminal Minds likes to do is make a virtue of its resonances, and treat them as themes emerging from and submerging into a fugue.
So this time, instead of having made a critically poor judgment and finding himself in dire straits alone, Reid has a partner—the dissociative, detail-oriented, painfully honest Emily Prentiss, who betrays a not unanticipated streak of chivalry and courage this episode. (If Reid is Parsifal in the Arthurian imagery of the show, Prentiss is Gareth Beaumains, the aristocratic child presented to Arthur’s court under false pretenses, who grows to be a great knight after all.)
Between the two of them, they save the day. More or less; as with so many Criminal Minds episodes, the good guys don’t get a clean win, and the title tells the tale. The losses may be minimal. But they are real.
But it isn’t really the plot of this episode I want to talk about. Rather, I want to talk about a thematic argument that’s been working through the show since that previous episode—”Revelations”—in which the seven protagonists are equated with the seven archangels, the killers or cult leaders with the vengeful Old Testament God, and the law of the land with a kinder New Testament God.
We get this outright in “Revelations” where the killer, played by James Van Der Beek (go ahead and laugh, “Dawson is the killer!” worked unnervingly well), believes that he is inhabited by the archangel Raphael, and it is his duty to seek out sinners and unleash a retribution upon them. But in the process of accomplishing this, he finds he must face seven angels of the Apocalypse—the seven BAU agents. Throughout the episode, parallels are drawn between the killer, whose name is Tobias (and yes, that is a Book of Tobit reference) and Reid. Tobias/Raphael threatens Reid with a revolver loaded with one bullet, which Raphael explains is “God’s will.”
But somehow, the gun never fires when it’s pointed at Reid. Eventually, it becomes plain that Dr. Spencer Reid is the “real” metaphorical Raphael—after all, he is the most intellectual of angels. He eventually proves his command of scripture is superior to the angel’s (Reid may be an agnostic, but he’s also a visual eidetic) and the revolver with its single bullet fires when it at long last falls into his hands.
Two years of miscellaneous dialogue about such knotty questions as the existence of God in a universe in which true evil exists ensue, without anything like a proper answer arising. (Which, really, is just as it should be.) This is also a world in which you have to be careful what you ask for, because providence is listening. And sometimes it will provide you with exactly what you asked for—usually in the form of clues provided by another horribly mutilated corpse.
Characters with faith lose it, characters whose faith has been broken struggle to regain it, and a character whose sole claim to spirituality is a belief that “everything happens for a reason” (oh, and that David Bowie is God) get shot and left for dead. Reid looks on from the sidelines, struggling with drug addiction, smug in his agnosticism, and occasionally yanking the chain of one or another of his compatriots.
Until fate brings him into the power of another Scripture-quoting crazy, one who is lead by his own hypocritical fanaticism to consider Reid an ally because Reid also knows how to manipulate scripture. There’s a lovely underplayed scene in the climax, when the cult leader and his followers are moving towards an explosive mass suicide, where Reid—aware that rescue is on the way and stalling for times—attempts to make one follower reconsider his actions with a few well-chosen Bible verses.
The cult leader catches him at it, and a confrontation ensues that quickly escalates to violence: “You think you know the word better than I?”
And Reid, who is imbued by his actor with a little habit of intellectual scorn for people who can’t quite keep up, replies: “No. I’m just demonstrating that you can use the Bible to manipulate anything.”
Predictably, a beatdown ensues. As the cult leader is training his gun on a prostrate Reid—”God could have stopped me!”— the cavalry (in the form of Derek Morgan, a character who has had a few recent run-ins with religious insecurity himself) arrives.
Reid’s action-hero one-liner, as he’s dragging himself up off the floor? “He just did.”
It’s a lucid parallel with “Revelations,” the idea that God—or justice, or mercy, or whatever you want to call us—walks among us. That it is us, that no higher power can absolve us of that duty to be kind and courageous and—if need be—ruthless in defense of those who cannot defend themselves.
God is the protagonists—or at least God acts through them. Of course everything happens for a reason; they’re characters in a teleplay.
It’s God’s will. One bullet. Use it well, because the decision is on you.
Criminal Minds airs Wednesday nights at 9/8 central on CBS. The title of this post is from a song of the same name, by Janis Ian.