7.11.08

Criminal Minds 101: Extreme Agressor

As I announced on the recent Avod, I'm beginning a project wherein I watch every episode of Criminal Minds, the most profiler-y show on television, and judge just how much profiling is actually used to solve the crimes (I'm guessing just serial killings, but who knows?) depicted.

To examine each episode, I'll be recapping the plot, and then asking three simple questions:

1 - Was profiling in any way helpful in solving the crime?
2 - If so, was the profiling plausible, or was it more magical and out of left field in the way it helped?
3 - Could the crime have been solved just as easily using conventional police methods given the known facts of the case?

With no further ado, I present to you a critical examination of Criminal Minds episode 101: "Extreme Agressor"

Synopsis: A man selling a sweet hot rod lures a woman named Heather out of her office with the promise of a test drive. She's then brutally beaten and kidnapped. Then a montage shows various agents being called in to work on the case. They include Greg, from Dharma and Greg, a black guy I'm unfamiliar with, a young guy, and Mandy Patinkin. In the show's first hilarious attempt to let the audience know a little more about profiling, he insists that they 'don't just do serial killers'. He then attempts to back this statement up by giving a few examples of other people they'd profiled, like the beltway snipers (who were serial killers), and the Unabomber (who killed people in a serial fashion). When Patinkin is introduced, he's profiling someone called the 'footpath killer', who likes to murder people on hiking trails in Virginia. He quickly finds out that the 'Seattle Strangler' has kidnapped another woman, and he's off with the rest of the team to work on the case.

While the investigation begins, we learn just what troubling incident in his past motivates Patinkin - six months ago he captured a wanted criminal, but six agents were killed in the process. Based on the victim count, I'm guessing the villain must have been the Joker. They quickly grab a suspect based on the profile - a suspect who was already on their list. How the suspect got on their list is never made clear. A few mindgames are played between Patinkin and the killer until they figure out that he's got a partner.

Then it's off to prison in the hopes of finding out more about the suspect's time there. They talk to the prison guard who he palled around with, and are instantly suspicious of him. Back at the lab, some agents are interrogating the suspect while others try to crack the password on his computer. They're successful, and discover via webcam that the victim is being held on a boat. The interrogator is able to use this information to coax the boat's location out of the suspect, which is a happy coincidence, because Mandy Patinkin proves utterly incapable of following the guard home from prison. Luckily, being told exactly where to go allows him to get to the boat just in time to save the girl and make fun of the killer's small penis.

You wish I was kidding.

Everyone's happy and alive, and the show can continue thrilling audiences for years to come, except for one minor point - Patinkin still hasn't caught the Footpath Killer, who he was talking about at the beginning. Not to worry, though, a quick trip to some random gas station allows him to serendipitously locate the exact killer that no one else could find. Of course, this proves a dangerous move, as the killer winds up pointing a shotgun at Mandy, leaving us with a heck of a cliffhanger to end the pilot on.

Analysis

There were actually three serial killers in the episode: The 'Footpath Killer' who Patinkin is introduced profiling, and finds at the end, and the team of killers the episode revolves around. I'll deal with the 'footpath killer' first.

"Footpath Killer"

1 - Was profiling in any way helpful in solving the crime?

Yes, profiling was actually used here. Mandy Patinkin announces that the killer is a white male in his 20s who drives a dilapidated American pickup truck, and who will likely have a stutter. At the end of the episode, Patinkin is driving through rural Virginia, and happens to stumble across the exact gas station where that guy works, allowing him to randomly meet the person who exactly matches his profile.

2 - If so, was the profiling plausible, or was it more magical and out of left field in the way it helped?

Utterly magical. The white male in his 20s is a gimmie, since most serial killers are - he could have just guessed that and been right like 80% of the time. The rest of his prediction is just voodoo nonsense. The American pickup has no justification whatsoever. The stutter is a leap based on the idea that although the killer attacks when people are alone in the woods, he still has to use 'overwhelming force'. This means that he's incapable of 'charming them into his car' like Bundy. Patinkin guessing 'stutter' from this is the ultimate shot in the dark. A monsterously ugly person would have had the same problem, as would a non-stutterer with poor social skills. Hell, beating people to death in the woods could have just been the fantasy he was living out.

3 - Could the crime have been solved just as easily using conventional police methods given the known facts of the case?

Oh god, could it ever! There are people being beaten to death by a random crazy person in the Virginia foothills - it stands to reason that the killer will live or work somewhere nearby. The killer is a creepy stuttering guy who works at a gas station right in the middle of the hiking area, and has the unbelievably creepy habit of taking polaroids of people who come to his gas station and pinning them to the wall behind him - collecting people's faces. How on earth did the cops not look at this guy first?

So on a scale of 1 (Dirty Harry) to 10 (Tony Hill), how vital was profiling to solving this crime?

1/10 - Not at all. Yes, a profiler caught him through the magic of profiling, but there's no reason that the police shouldn't have caught this guy a long time ago.

"The Seattle Strangler"

1 - Was profiling in any way helpful in solving the crime?

Barely at all. The suspect they pull in was someone who had come forward to the police offering information - so it didn't really take a profiler to make him look suspicious. The real profiling shows up through the rest of the episode, as they try to figure out a way to get suspect number 1 to turn on suspect number 2.

2 - If so, was the profiling plausible, or was it more magical and out of left field in the way it helped?

Not especially plausible - the key piece of profiling done is judging a man's personality so they can figure out the password to his computer, which allows them to find the victim. Of course, the is based on the premise that someone smart enough to set up a program that would wipe a hard drive if a password wasn't entered correctly would then make that password his favorite song, rather than a random set of characters known only to him.

3 - Could the crime have been solved just as easily using conventional police methods given the known facts of the case?

Absolutely. The one thing they knew about the killer was that he drove a Datsun Z4 - yet no one seemed to have checked car registrations to look over the owners in the Seattle area. When one of them turned out to have been a prison guard (control freak) with a history of violence (ticking time bomb), how long would it have been until they went knocking on his door? Hell, his entire plan seemed to have been based on somehow knowing that his victim wouldn't have told anyone that she was going for a test drive. Not exactly a fool-proof abduction scheme.

So on a scale of 1 (Dirty Harry) to 10 (Tony Hill), how vital was profiling to solving this crime?

3/10 - Regular police methods could have taken care of this one without too much trouble, although the psychological insight necessary to perform a good interrogation can easily fit into the category of 'profiling'.

So that's the pilot of Criminal Minds, a show about profilers that, in its first episode, did a pretty lousy job of explaining to the audience just why they needed profilers. Oh, and for the record, in the two real-life cases the black profiler name-drops, the Unabomber case was solved by the killer being turned in by his brother, and the Beltway Sniper case was solved by a random person seeing the snipers sleeping in their car at a rest stop with a rifle lying around. Interestingly, the FBI profile of the beltway sniper was notable mostly for being utterly wrong about the snipers' identities and motives.

Want to know more about the real criminal referenced in this episode? Then scoot on over to my Criminal Minds FactCheck!

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

I am a HUGE Criminal Minds fan. However, I should explain that I discovered this show pretty recently on A&E and have watched many of the episodes back-to-back and noticed some, well, "patterns" when it comes to the writing style. Hence, I thoroughly enjoy your snarky commentary and wanted to thank you for creating this web site. I have only begun to read your posts and can't wait to see what you have to say about each episode. I should admit that I am too scared to watch this on CBS and prefer the somewhat censored A&E version, so I am currently in the middle of season 7. Maybe we will catch up to season 8 at the same time?

Anonymous said...

I should have mentioned in my previous post that I am a closet CM fan - I am well aware that I'm infatuated with an asinine show - in fact, I think that might be the very cause of my current addiction.