Thoughts on Criminal Minds season eight part two

The second half of Criminal Minds season eight wrapped up a few weeks ago, and it was definitely one hell of a ride.  The various subplots set up in early episodes all came to a head, beginning in the mid-season opener “Zugzwang.”  Spencer Reid (Matthew Gray Gubler) had, over a period of months, been developing a relationship over the phone with Maeve (Beth Riesgraf), a geneticist who was in seclusion due to her being menaced by a stalker.  Just when it seemed that Maeve was in the clear, and she could finally meet Reid, the stalker finally surfaces in the persona of a very loony Michelle Trachtenberg.  Maeve is kidnapped, and is soon the tragic victim of a murder/suicide, killed right in front of a horrified Reid.  As a viewer, it was a real kick in the gut.  The socially awkward BAU agent finally found his soul mate only to have her cruelly taken away like that.  Maeve’s death would continue to haunt Reid for the remainder of the season.

Derek Morgan (Shemar Moore) also went through the emotional wringer, as his past came back to haunt him.  In the episode “Restoration,” the BAU is investigating a series of brutal beatings in Chicago, and they soon realize that the UnSub is a past victim of Carl Buford, a sexual predator who molested dozens of teenage boys, including a young Morgan.  The BAU is forced to turn to the imprisoned Buford to get his help in narrowing down the suspect list, bringing Morgan face to face with his childhood tormentor.  That’s the interesting thing about Morgan.  On the surface, he appears to be this confident, happy, handsome guy who has it all.  But underneath all that there is this painful past which has led him to join the FBI in order to aid other people who have been victimized.

Spencer Reid and Derek Morgan both went through an emotional gauntlet in Criminal Minds season eight.
Spencer Reid and Derek Morgan both went through an emotional gauntlet in Criminal Minds season eight

Another member of the BAU with layers is Jennifer “JJ” Jareau (A.J. Cook), the BAU’s former communications liaison turned profiler.  JJ often comes across as having a very laid-back, casual demeanor.  But she is also a mother to a young son, Henry, a role equally important to her.  In the previous season, we saw hell hath no fury like a mother scorned, as she engaged in a vicious hand to hand fight with Tricia Helfer’s serial killer bank robber in order to keep Henry safe.  This season, another case hit home for JJ’s maternal instincts.  In “Nanny Dearest,” we learn that the BAU has been attempting to solve a case for several years.  Each year, a nanny and the child in her care are abducted by an UnSub.  The child is typically returned unharmed within 24 hours, but inevitably the tortured & drowned body of the nanny is found disposed of in Los Angeles on the exact same day of the year.  Hoping to prevent a new killing, the BAU fly out to LA, only to learn the latest abduction has occurred ahead of schedule, except this time the child has yet to be recovered.  JJ is reminded of her son, who due to the work schedule of herself and her husband, is often left with a nanny.  Following a number of leads, JJ and Morgan finally locate the UnSub, and a determined JJ kills the murderer in a tense shoot-out.

By far the biggest plotline of Season Eight was the emergence of the Replicator.  In the first half of the season, the BAU was being stalked by a mysterious figure, an individual who then began committing copycat killings of various cases the team had recently solved.  As the second half of the season progresses, the Replicator steps up his game, actively taunting the members of the BAU, as well as manipulating another individual into carrying out some of the killings.

As I mentioned in my write-up of the first half of the season, I was wondering if there might be some connection between the Replicator and A) the person stalking Maeve or B) the fumbled FBI investigation that nearly ended the career of Alex Blake (Jeanne Tripplehorn) twelve years ago.  Well, I was wrong about the first connection, although the Replicator did take advantage of Maeve’s abduction to offer his first taunt of “Zugzwang” to Reid.  However, I was totally on target on the second point.

After nearly a year of build-up, I was hoping that the reveal of the Replicator wouldn’t be a let-down.  Criminal Minds definitely came up with pitch-perfect casting, as the BAU’s arch-foe is revealed to be portrayed by none other than Mark Hamill.  And if you thought he was creepy as the voice of the Joker on Batman: the Animated Series, here as the Replicator he is downright scary.

The Replicator revealed: Mark Hamill as FBI agent turned serial killer John Curtis
The Replicator revealed: Mark Hamill as FBI agent
turned serial killer John Curtis

Who is the Replicator?  He is FBI agent John Curtis, and a dozen years previously his career suffered a major setback as, along with Alex Blake, the blame for a botched investigation into a series of anthrax attacks was shifted onto him by Assistant Director Erin Strauss (Jayne Atkinson).  Curtis blamed Strauss for delivering this near fatal blow to his career, he was jealous of Blake for rebuilding her position in the FBI when he was unable to do so, and he resented the BAU for offering Blake a place on their team, something he felt he deserved much more than her.  All that set off his obsessive stalking of the BAU, and the replication of their cases, with the end goal of first humiliating and then killing them.

The character who Curtis directs much of his ire towards, Erin Strauss, is an interesting one.  Early on, Strauss was an ambitious, ruthless figure who often maintained an adversarial attitude towards the BAU.  As the series progressed, Strauss gradually mellowed, becoming more of an ally.  When it became apparent that Strauss was suffering from alcoholism, the members of the BAU helped her to both enter recovery and to save her career.  So the Strauss who the Replicator confronts is a very different woman from the person who threw Curtis and Blake to the wolves back in 2001.

Unfortunately, the vengeful Curtis takes Strauss prisoner and forces her at gunpoint to drink, destroying her hard-won sobriety.  Having taken her dignity, the Replicator then murders Strauss.  Hardest hit by this is David Rossi (Joe Mantegna).  Over the past year or so, there had been a number of hints that Rossi and Strauss had become involved, and it is confirmed here, as Rossi mourns and rages at the death of a woman he has come to care for.

The final episode of Season Eight really was riveting.  As events hurtled towards the confrontation between the BAU and the Replicator, I was wondering if the finale would actually end in a cliffhanger.  I also was seriously worried just how the BAU was going to outwit the Replicator, who all along was shown to be several steps of them.  I was a bit worried that there’d be some sort of cop-out, that he would conveniently make some sort of silly mistake at the last minute.  Fortunately that is not the case.

The Replicator very nearly does succeed in trapping most of the team in a room with a bomb rapidly counting down to zero.  However, he does make two slight miscalculations.  Penelope Garcia (Kirsten Vangness) manages to reboot her crashed computer network quicker than anticipated, enabling her to jam the countdown.  Rossi, who was earlier poisoned by the Replicator, also recovers sooner than expected, and the delay caused by Garcia gives him time to get the rest of the BAU out of the locked room.  A fleeing Curtis leads a pursuing Rossi back into the booby-trapped room, determined to take at least one of the BAU out with him.  In an act of poetic justice, though, Rossi has used Strauss’ one year anniversary coin from Alcoholics Anonymous to wedge open the lock.  Rossi makes his exit, leaving the Replicator to be blown up… probably.  Because, y’know, we do not actually see a body.

With the Replicator presumed dead, the members of the BAU gather at Rossi’s house to hold an informal memorial service, remembering the fallen Strauss, who in the end they counted as a loyal friend and colleague.

I thought the second half of season eight was quite good.  Despite the fact that the Replicator storyline was a major feature of the season, it did not dominate events, and we did get plenty of stand-alone episodes.  The mystery was resolved quite satisfactorily.  And I’m actually glad that Jeanne Tripplehorn will be returning in season nine.  At first, I wasn’t sure about Alex Blake, but in the end I warmed up to her character.

Thoughts on Criminal Minds season eight part one

Over the last week or so, I’ve been watching all the Criminal Minds season eight episodes that I had saved on the DVR. I think there must have been at least five of them. I’m finally caught up with all the episodes that aired in 2012, ending with “Perennials,” after which came the mid-season break.

One of the things that I’ve noticed is that the series is perhaps beginning to show its age, in that the writers are presenting even more bizarre & twisted cases for the Behavioral Analysis Unit to solve. It seems like the creators are upping the ante to try and top what they’ve done in the previous seven years. This season, for instance, we’ve seen a doctor who is kidnapping victims in order to conduct limb transplants, a hypochondriac cannibal single mother who grinds her victims into fertilizer, a pair of antisocial brothers who hijack a school bus and force the students to re-enact an ultra-violent video game, a man who believes he is the reincarnation of a slain serial killer, and a puppeteer who turns his victims into human marionettes.

That last unsub is portrayed by the underrated Brad Dourif, who excels at playing bug-eyed crazy loons. I’m genuinely surprised that it took eight years for him to appear on the series! At least when he finally showed up, it was in a role that really suited his abilities, bat$#!+ insane yet at the same time pathetically tragic.

I think one of the things that keeps Criminal Minds from descending into ultra-violent camp is that, despite the almost ridiculous nature of some of the cases, the writing treats everything with dead seriousness. At the same time, the scripts continue to feature excellent material for the main characters. On one case, David Rossi (Joe Mantegna) encounters his former Marine Corps sergeant from Vietnam who is now alcoholic & homeless. The two have a troubled, but ultimately rewarding, reunion. In the process we get to see some of what shaped Rossi into the man he is today.

The biggest change to the series is the introduction of Jeanne Tripplehorn as Alex Blake, the newest member of the BAU. In her first episode, there is an allusion to an FBI investigation that Blake was involved in which ended badly, and that she was forced to fall on her sword to save others’ heads from rolling. As a result, it’s taken her years to rebuild her career, and her assignment to the BAU is finally a major step in that direction. I would not be surprised if this was followed up on at a later date.

Jeanne Tripplehorn as Alex Blake on Criminal Minds
Jeanne Tripplehorn as Alex Blake on Criminal Minds

We’ve also seen the “will they or won’t they” question hanging in the air for a reconciliation between Penelope Garcia (Kirsten Vangsness) and Kevin Lynch (Nicholas Brendon). Last season, Kevin asked Penelope to marry her, but she was unable to make that sort of permanent commitment. So instead they ended up breaking up. But as we see in this season, the two are still attracted to each other, despite their attempts to move on. I hope Kevin sticks around, if only because I’ve been a fan of Brendon since his days playing Xandar on Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Besides, Penelope and Kevin make a cute couple.

There have been two major mysteries that have been slowly building up in the first half of season eight. The first is that an unseen individual has been stalking the members of the BAU, covertly photographing them, and amassing details of their cases. This figure has now graduated to replicating crimes that the BAU has recently solved. As “Perennials” comes to an end, the team begins to realize that they have a serial copycat on their hands.

The second puzzle involves Spencer Reid, played by Matthew Gray Gubler. Reid has been “seeing” a therapist via phone for several months, and over the course of their lengthy conversations, he has gradually developed an attraction for this woman. Reid wants to meet her, but she is afraid to go out in public because she is being stalked.

Presumably both of these subplots will be addressed when Criminal Minds returns later this month. I find myself pondering whether or not it’s possible that the two are connected. It seems a bit convenient that the BAU team is being tracked right at the exact same time that the psychotherapist treating one of its members is also being stalked. I suppose it could be a coincidence. After all, as this show likes to remind us, there are a hell of a lot of crazy people out there! That said, I’m also wondering if the past investigation that nearly ended Alex Blake’s career might also tie in with all of this. If I have a suspicious mind, perhaps it’s because I’ve been watching this series for too long.

Despite some outlandish premises to several of the cases, on the whole the first half of Criminal Minds season eight has been quite good. Let’s see what’s next.

Reflections on Criminal Minds

I’ve been a fan of the type of mystery stories commonly referred to as “police procedurals” since I was a teenager, reading Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct novels.  In my college years and twenties, I was a huge fan of the television show Law & Order.  I watched CSI for a short time.  But within the last few years, I have really gotten into the series Criminal Minds, which is broadcast on CBS, as well as re-run in syndication.  With the Season Eight premier scheduled to air on September 26, I wanted to take a glance back at the show’s past.

Criminal Minds follows the adventures of an FBI division known as the Behavioral Analysis Unit, or BAU.  The agents of the BAU use a combination of psychology, forensics, and computers to track down an assortment of criminal “Unsubs” or unknown subjects.  The majority of the BAU’s targets are serial killers, although they have also tackled rapists, arsonists, mad bombers, kidnappers, religious cults, and terrorists.

What I find most interesting about the series are the characters.  The members of the BAU are all very well written parts, played by a group of talented actors.  There is a lot of real chemistry on screen, as we see this group of profilers working as a team to crack a case.  A large part of this is that the BAU has bonded into a surrogate family of sorts.  Dramatically, this makes a lot of sense.  The criminals they pursue, who are among the most depraved examples of humanity, often come from extremely dysfunctional, broken backgrounds, or they are sociopaths, individuals who are incapable of true emotional attachment & connections.  Given this, it makes sense that the BAU members would form a kind of family unit to hold themselves together and retain their sanity in the face of unremitting horrors.

If there is one character on Criminal Minds that I can identify with, it would have to be Spencer Reid, portrayed by Matthew Gray Gubler.  If I was a much, much, much smarter man, I could see myself as Reid, who possesses an uncanny encyclopedic knowledge, yet who is both extremely socially awkward and who is haunted by fears of mental illness.  Gubler really does a superb job making Reid a three-dimensional character.

I also love the character of Penelope Garcia, a former computer hacker who was recruited by the FBI to be the BAU’s resident tech whiz.  In a way, Garcia sometimes veers dangerously close to being a plot device, with her uncanny ability to near-instantly access any electronic information just in the nick of time.  But she’s saved for becoming a deus ex machina both by the writing and the acting.  Kirsten Vangsness makes her into a lively, sassy geek girl who is a mixture of attitude and innocence.  I was once talking over Criminal Minds with a friend who also watches the show, and she was not at all surprised that I like the character of Garcia, as she saw similarities between her and my girlfriend.  Had not noticed them before, but yeah, I guess she’s right about that.

The cast of Criminal Minds from Seasons Three to Six.

The original lead character on Criminal Minds during the show’s first two years was Jason Gideon, portrayed by Mandy Patankin (yep, Inigo Montoya from The Princess Bride).  When we first meet Gideon in the pilot episode, he is returning the BAU after suffering from a work-related nervous breakdown.  After an intense manhunt for a mass murderer who had claimed over a hundred victims, Gideon finally realized he was once again suffering from burnout and abruptly quit the BAU.

His replacement could not be more different.  Whereas Gideon was cerebral and low-key, David Rossi, played by Joe Mantegna, could be described as something of a hot shot, career-driven superstar profiler.  One of the agents who helped establish the BAU, Rossi subsequently left the FBI for a time to write true crime books, becoming a bestselling author.  But eventually he came to have a crisis of conscience, realizing that his books were immortalizing the monsters that he had helped capture, while causing the victims to be forgotten.  Rossi returned to the BAU to tackle a twenty year old unsolved case that had haunted him, and stayed on in hopes of making amends for putting his ambition ahead of other considerations.

The head of the BAU is Aaron “Hotch” Hotchner, portrayed by Thomas Gibson.  An intense individual, Hotch spent many long hours on the job, much to the consternation of his wife Haley, who finally divorced him.  Tragically, Hotch became caught up in a game of cat & mouse with a serial killer who took on the alias of the Reaper, and Haley became one of his victims.  After killing the Reaper in a brutal hand-to-hand fight, Hotch was left to raise his young son Jack by himself.  Choosing to stay on with the BAU, Hotch juggles the demands of job and family, while trying to re-establish a personal life for himself in the wake of his tragic loss.

I would say that the majority of the episodes of Criminal Minds do adhere to a certain formula, in that a series of killings take place somewhere in the United States, and the BAU is called in.  While the team carries out their investigation, we see the parallel plotline of the killer at work, stalking his latest target.  It soon becomes a race against time, with the BAU attempting to identify and locate the Unsub before he can finish off his current victim.  What makes the show work, despite the repetition, is the aforementioned high quality of writing and acting.  In addition, there is the fascinating look at the BAU assembling psychological profiles of the criminals, methodically deducing through actions and evidence just what makes these twisted individuals tick.

Admittedly, there appears to be a certain amount of, shall we say, exaggeration for dramatic purposes.  The majority of episodes of Criminal Minds take place within a matter of days.  In real life, it might take the FBI or other law enforcement agencies weeks or months, perhaps even years, to crack a particular case.  Obviously events are truncated, otherwise Criminal Minds would be a very slow moving show.

Criminal Minds is often an extremely dark show.  And, certainly, I sometimes think the on-screen violence gets too intense.  So I would not recommend it for everyone.  But it is definitely a very well produced series, and I’m looking forward to its return to television later this month.