My favorite television show (Criminal Minds) has succeeded in fascinating me again with last night’s episode, which explored the concept of empathy. The more I think about the show, the more amazed I am at the depths of what they did in this episode; it is not the norm, at least in today’s visual media, to explore any abstraction so significantly.
Last week, in a two-part episode, Reid was kidnapped and tortured before being rescued by the team. The genius of the group, he is a logic machine who relies almost entirely on his mind and struggles with emotion and relationship. During his ordeal, Hotch remarks to Gideon that he has failed in helping Reid learn to deal with the job emotionally, and he is concerned this may now be a problem. Reid’s kidnapper injects him with a psychotic drug several times, and at the end, Reid steals two vials of the drug before rejoining the team, leaving us to wonder if he will turn to drugs to stop the pain that has now been stirred up, both from his past and from the effects of the torture.
As the episode last night began, Morgan greets the new woman on the team, Emily Prentiss, and asks how her weekend was. She is reluctant to answer and Morgan casually gives her the freedom not to – at which she spills out the story of a bad date and they find a connection in their mutual enjoyment of Kurt Vonnegut’s literature. It is Morgan’s ability to allow her to speak or not, and his attentiveness and empathy when she does, that allow her to finally begin revealing herself so that she can become more than just professionally a part of the team.
The team is called in to help find a serial killer targeting black high school girls who like to sing. Their profile says that the killer is a black man, and the town mayor goes ballistic, fearful of rousing further racial hatred in a town that already thinks the killings are racially motivated. The black detective running the local investigation decides to make the profile public over the mayor’s objections, and he and Morgan (who is mixed race) go out on patrol together.
During this scene we see Morgan again practicing empathy – with the detective’s position of having to make a decision against his employer’s wishes, with the detective’s frustration that it should matter to anyone what race a profile gives, with the detective’s desire to do his job well but have dignity. Morgan shows his understanding of these frustrations and talks about accepting reality as it is and doing the job one is given the best way possible, without worrying oneself over the politics of others. It’s a clear and realistic picture of one person reaching out to another from his own experiences to help the other come to grips with his circumstances.
Reid, meanwhile, is having flashbacks when he looks at the pictures of the murdered girls lying in the leaves. (He was digging his own grave in a small cemetery in the woods when the team rescued him.) At one point, he locks himself into a men’s room and takes out the – as yet still unopened – vials of the drug, but Gideon yells for him and he returns to the investigation. He does his job, helps the team solve the case and save a girl’s life, but his fear and confusion are frequently evident.
On the plane ride home, Morgan asks Reid if he’s all right; he’s clearly concerned about him and becomes more so as Reid uncharacteristically lashes back at him. He doesn’t walk away as he started to with Prentiss earlier; he has an established relationship with Reid and knows him well enough to know that he needs to talk. Instead, he reminds Reid that anything he says will stay confidential, and presses him to speak his mind.
Reid finally tells him about the effect of the photos and says, “It’s that now I know – I mean, I really know – what they were going through, what they were thinking and feeling, right before . . .”
“It’s called empathy,” Morgan tells him gently.
“So what do I do about it?” Reid answers. “It makes me not focus; it makes me not do my job as well.”
Morgan says, “You use it. You use it to be a better profiler, and to be a better person.”
The episode ends with Reid staring at Morgan and saying, “A better person?”
I am not sure where this will go, of course, but from what I’ve seen of the characters, I think Reid is asking how he can possibly be a better person if he now has emotional responses to his work. And I hope we are in for a “course” in how to control and use emotion in conjunction with reason to be fully human. There’s great potential here – and I salute the writers of this show for their insight and talent in bringing such depth to it. And, by the way, Shemar Moore is a really good actor, as is Matthew Gray Gubler. Wow. Anyone would have to love having the talent on this show collected in one place.