All art invites the viewer to consider values and ideas. However, Criminal Minds does this more explicitly than most television shows or films through a voice-over at the show's beginning and/or end of a quotation from a philosopher or writer that suggests the episode's theme and perhaps how we are to think about it. Sadly, I haven't been able to locate a website that gives these quotations, so I rarely manage to keep them accurately. At least the gist often stays with me, though, as they frame my response.
One example: A woman who was horribly abused becomes a serial killer, taking out her bitterness by hurting others as she was hurt. The team identifies her as the killer -- instead of a male suspect -- when they learn about her past. But the quotations at beginning and end are about how suffering can make one great, thus reminding the viewers that the victim of suffering has choices -- there is nothing inevitable about bitterness, about repaying evil for evil.
In this week's episode, the voice-over was about the dark oppression of secrets -- and in the course of the show, Morgan is forced to reveal the secret of the sexual abuse he endured as a boy and had told no one. But when he finally speaks out, it is to save another boy and end the abuser's exploitation. "[Not telling] was my mistake," he tells the boy. "You don't have to make the same one, and I've got your back -- forever." The episode also deepens Morgan's character by showing him interacting with his widowed mother and sisters, revealing some of his past, and showing us why he is especially enraged by crimes against children. "You are responsible for who I am," he tells the abuser; "I became an FBI agent to put b**s like you away."
The characters also often reflect on and discuss the nature of their job, inviting us to consider with them the values we hold, our assumptions about good and evil, right and wrong, the sanctity of life. At the end of one case, for example, Hotch muses to Gideon, "What makes people do such evil things? Is it the parents' fault? Society's? Neither?" Rather than merely driving us to a single conclusion, we are invited to think about it ourselves, and the show's actions leave it open for interpretation even while critiquing various policies and positions having to do with crime and punishment.
In an episode where the team finds a vigilante who has been killing people guilty of criminal acts but who have not been convicted because their actions were blamed on parents or society, we find that Hotch still second-guesses himself about the first case he and Gideon worked together. They had identified a man who had abused and killed two young boys. They had confronted him, armed and desperate, and Hotch had "talked him down," preventing him from killing himself or forcing them to do so. Then he was found not guilty on the basis of his wife's perjury -- and was only sent to prison after he killed again.
"You did the right thing," Gideon tells Hotch, and Hotch agrees -- but we are invited to think long and hard about our justice system and whether it might ever be right to at least not prevent the death of a known killer.
Yet the show does always come down on the side of life: one never, under any circumstances, kills except to save the life of a victim or fellow law enforcer. It is not the law enforcement officer's job to execute justice in any but a desperate situation, no matter how flawed the courts may be. And thus the horror of the team members to realize that Elle has taken justice into her own hands, has killed with pre-meditation an unarmed man. The sick rapes he has committed are no excuse for her own lawless act.
In another episode, a brilliant high school boy approaches Reid, implying that he might be the serial killer that is terrorizing D.C. prostitutes. They find he is not the killer, but he is obsessed with death and crying out for help. Gideon does a psych evaluation and tells Reid afterwards, "It's not a matter of if he kills; it's a matter of when he kills." Later, the boy tells Reid that he has realized that the only way to keep from killing someone else is to kill himself.
Yet his mother puts off hospitalizing him. Finally, he comes by to tell Reid he is going into the hospital the next day. "You know I'll never get out," he says, and Reid -- who "knows what it means to be afraid of your own mind" -- tries to encourage him to be hopeful. A few hours later he receives a phone call: the boy has solicited a prostitute, fantasizing murder, but he doesn't try to kill her. Instead, he lays Reid's business card on the table and slits his own wrists. Reid and Garcia race to the apartment to try to help him. Later, as the ambulance drives away, Gideon tells Reid, clearly as a compliment and encouragement, "You saved his life." Reid answers, "And what about the lives he takes someday?" Gideon: "Profiles can be wrong. But if this one's not, then . . . you'll bring him in."
The unspoken message: you must always presume on the side of life and hope, never except in the direst circumstances taking into your own hands the decision that someone else must die.
Before and after this episode, Gray Gubler voices over quotations from T. S. Eliot's "The Hollow Men":
"Between the idea
And the reality
Between the motion
And the act
Falls the Shadow.
[. . .]
"Between the conception
And the creation
Between the emotion
And the response
Falls the Shadow."
And we are invited to consider what the Shadow is, if it can be fought, if idea and conception can be brought to birth without destructive distortion.