Come up and see me sometime. Come on Wednesday. It’s amateur night.

Being a review of Criminal Minds 04×16, “Pleasure is my Business,” written by Breen Frazier, directed by Gwyneth Horder-Payton.

With a title like that, and the premise of a killer prostitute, I was dreading this episode almost as much as “Zoe’s Reprise,” last week’s episode. Fourth season, after all, is the traditional time for a successful series to shark-jump, and I was braced for it.

Apparently, I owe Breen Frazier as much of an apology as I owe Oahn Ly. Because Criminal Minds is living up to its tradition of hitting its stride at the midseason point (I believe they have twenty-seven episodes this season, so this is just about exactly the middle of the year) and barreling into the homestretch with ears pinned back and the bit between its teeth. What Mr. Frazier has done in this episode is write a poignant and savage expose of privilege and the old boy’s network, as seen through the eyes of a female serial killer whose job is having sex with those men.

Megan Kane is one of the more sympathetic murderers in the history of a show that specializes in sympathetic, pathetic killers.  Actually, in one way she’s a deviation from the show’s normal thematic freight, because Criminal Minds commonly avoids valorizing its antagonists. It doesn’t usually play the Hollywood myth of the glamorous, appealing serial killer. (When it does, rarely, it inevitably takes it apart again—as in Keith Carradine’s briefly recurring character, who started off sexy and mysterious and rapidly got stripped of his glamor.)

Instead, it generally shows us broken monsters struggling with broken existences. But this character (played by Brianna Brown, who has an almost creepy and I suspect noncoincidental resemblance to Sarah Michelle Gellar from some angles) may be a murderer, but we’re left with far more sympathy for her than for most of her victims. Even the fact that she cold-bloodedly murders the most sympathetic of them (he may be a robber baron, but at least he’s a loving husband) does little to dent that audience approval. It does, however, serve as notice to the alert viewer that she’s not actually one of the good guys.

Ahem. Sorry, I was so interested that for a minute there I lost the format.

Anyway, this episode revolves around the team’s efforts to track down and stop a serial killer who is murdering the upper echelon of moneyed bastards in Texas, all the while wending their way through a near-impenetrable screen of legal talent determined to protect the corporate interests of the men employing the hookers. Their quarry is both a smart and a lucky serial killer, and she manages to find out rather a lot about the team and their plans from her clients and from simply being in the right place at the right time.

While each of the other characters gets at least one nicely detailed scene, at its core this is an episode about the killer and Hotch, and the relationship between the two of them. The narrative serves as a deconstruction of an awful lot of common Hollywood expectations about the role of women in narrative. For example, the best secondary characters are all female, and they’re all strong and sharp in different ways: they include a trophy wife, two lawyers, two call girls, and a madam. And not one of them is what you’d expect, or played for objectification. Also, the cold open consists of the serial killer seducing and murdering a man in her underwear, and it is anything but the oglefest I was expecting. Rather, we have a brief glimpse of her victim’s point of view, and then the narrative shifts him into the object position, putting us in her head as she watches him die and flirts on the phone with another client.

A client who she spares, because he’s the kind of guy who rushes home after sleeping with his mistress to get his kids off to school.

I also found it fascinating that throughout the episode we have two competing explorations of the concept of earning your keep by reflecting and understanding another human being. Because of course that’s what the courtesan does: she makes herself a mirror surface for the men she services. And it’s also what Hotch does for Megan Kane: when she initiates contact with him, he begins reflecting her, allowing her to project what she wants to see onto his surface.

It’s especially interesting because Hotch is often coded female in the narrative: he’s a strong, silent, authoritarian male whose role on the team is as leader and sometimes brute, but in his chosen personal interactions he is ethical, nurturing, self-effacing, and supportive: motherly, in other words. And in this case, the killer identifies with him—she sees him as a fellow whore, at the mercy of the corporate interests. And though he tries to allow her to project onto him, eventually she sees through that protection to the real man behind, and prefers that man, which I think is something else that separates her from her clients. She can deal with unmanaged, unfiltered reality.

Sadly, I had some suspension of disbelief issues with the overly tidy ending—alas, Desdemona must soliloquize after her strangulation—but they pale in comparison to the amazing edifice of the rest of the episode.

Well done, sirs and madams! Well done!

Criminal Minds airs Wednesdays at 9 pm on CBS


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