I suppose I got what I asked for. With Paget Brewster taking her leave perhaps permanently from Criminal Minds, comes a storyline to give her character, Emily Prentiss, a proper send off. An enemy from her past, Ian Doyle, mysteriously breaks out of a North Korean prison, intent on playing out his vendetta against her. Prentiss and her then team put him away while under deep cover during her time with Interpol, her role was to become as close to him as possible *wiggles eyebrows*. He was supposed to have never known who she really was – her persona, Lauren Reynolds, died in a car crash – but somehow he does and comes to D.C. to enact his vengeance. Its exactly what I said I was looking for, a true test of character. Or is it? Well, its a test of someone’s character, but no one I know.
This story is about Lauren Reynolds, not just the identity Prentiss assumed to meet an end, but the life she left behind when she left Interpol. This woman, as it turns out, is quite different from the Emily Prentiss we thought we, at least vaguely, knew. Prentiss up to this point is a woman who once struggled with acceptance and personal identity in her youth, watched as a dear friend spiraled into self-destruction as a result of the cognitive dissonance her own circumstances might have caused in him, and had a mother in politics who’s work took her all over the world. As an adult she held a defined sense of right and wrong, and viewed politics as something toxic that divides people. These things only occasionally manifested themselves in her work and life. Prentiss has had frequent struggles with what is the right thing to do and what she has to do, nothing too exciting though. We’ve never seen her really stick by her principles to the point of personal risk or undermining the rest of the team, like say the way Spencer Reid has, she just sort of shuffles her feet a bit and pouts and then decides her job is more important.
Ah, but if only we had known what she was really willing to do to get the job done. Seduce a terrorist? Tie a kid up and point a gun at him? Not a problem, for Lauren Reynolds anyway. However, a point that does stick out is when one of her former comrades, Clyde Easter, claims that she’s in the habit of running away from problems. There’s nothing in her known history in the show to suggest this, and honestly its rather mind boggling. A highly ethical FBI agent who hunts serial killers but runs away from conflict? Huh? Doyle also makes a comment consistent with this by saying that the only thing that she values is her life, though admittedly he was probably just trying to be mean. But what does she do at the end of the episode, “Valhalla”? Run away. Its supposed to be an effort to protect her team – its not fear for herself that makes her walk out the door, but a fear for them. In the moment it makes sense, but really what is happening is an effort to tell a story of female self-sacrifice that just comes off as cliche.
The concluding episode of this arch, “Lauren,” brings Emily Prentiss out in whole new ways. Broken away from her team, she shoots a man’s ear off, and throws a flash bomb into an occupied SUV in order to bring Doyle out into the open. The team is both stunned and mystified by her actions, and in the case of Derek Morgan, he actively tries to dissociate himself from her. He starts referring to her as “that woman” and her entanglement with Doyle as her “dirty laundry.” You know, rather than a job that probably saved lives and put a dangerous man behind bars. The situation seems extremely familiar to me. In much the same way Elle Greenaway was flushed out after her true colors were revealed, when Emily Prentiss is granted some depth of character, it alienates her from the rest of the cast. Of course, Morgan does go back on what he said by telling her he was proud of her, but that’s only when she’s dying.
The conclusion of her story in fact not only separates her from the team, but from the rest of the world when she’s forced to fake her death and go into hiding. We never see her make this decision – for all we know it was made for her – only the reaction of the rest of her team, which naturally is total devastation. The scene feels like a kind of cruel, coerced fridge-stuffing, even though Prentiss isn’t actually dead. Actually, the fact that isn’t really only makes matters worse. The purpose of fridge-stuffing as a trope is to use the death of a female character to manipulate the emotions of a male character, something Criminal Minds has plenty of experience in. In this case, it was the whole team, her family, and because her death was fake and we don’t get to see her own emotions regarding the decision, all we have is the reaction of those being manipulated. Its a cheap shot, this audience is smart enough to know that she isn’t really dead (at least, I hope so), but still the writers do a fake out anyway even when it left the ending feeling empty. After everything she went through in this episode, and the ones preceding, at least give her the opportunity to show what doing something like this does to her.
For what it’s worth I actually quite liked the character that was presented in “Lauren.” She’s not only ruthless and strong, but thinks several steps ahead in the game. She’s also able to keep her sense of compassion without becoming overly sentimental, and though it was hinted Prentiss had some skill at compartmentalizing in the past, sentiment definitely caused her to fumble on several occasions. Honestly, in the four seasons up to this point, the character that showed up for “Lauren” was nowhere to be found. The writers were too preoccupied with creating a woman that was likable, they forgot to have her make sense. This woman was an international spy! She was brutal, calculating, not to mention had the chops to make a terrorist believe she was in love with him, and whether she actually did was never even addressed. A whole part of her career was based around deception and subterfuge, and this is a woman who is supposed to value sincerity of character and intention. Not that these things are inconsistent, but this would be something that would present itself regularly in her personality.
This has gotten me worried for Ashley Seaver’s prospects. Having J.J. come back in “Lauren” did less for furthering the plot and pandering to fans, and more to emphasize how much A.J. Cook and Rachel Nichols resemble each other in styling, at the very least. The fact that J.J. was eliminated from the lineup should not make people wonder what crazy pills the Criminal Minds execs are taking, but rather why that was such an easy option for them in the first place. Prentiss, J.J. and now Seaver are all tailor-made to be disposable. They may be interesting at points, but they lack a real position within the story. While the male characters plus Garcia can fit into archetypes that mesh effectively into an ensemble cast – Brains, Brawn, Heart, Ego, and the one and only Fearless Leader -, J.J. and Prentiss weren’t much more than Blonde and Brunette. Their positions are almost always presented in relation to the men in their lives, rather than with each other or on their own. J.J. and Seaver were never even formally introduced to eachother. Oh, and I suppose my previous assumption the CM didn’t want to exploit their female characters using tactics of sexual violence got thrown out the window when Doyle pulled open Prentiss’ shirt to give a new “tattoo.”
Not to mention, I feel like a great opportunity was squandered in this story arch regarding Seaver. Seaver’s storyline began with a developing relationship between she and Prentiss, and Emily was supposed to be her primary contact for her training, but since then while they are often in the same shot there’s rarely any significant interaction. If Seaver is supposed to be shadowing Prentiss, and is supposed to be an exceptionally talented cadet, shouldn’t she be noticing the quirks in Prentiss’ behavior that manifested when word of Ian Doyle began to circulate? While the rest of the team would be aware of how Prentiss’ behavior differs from the norm because they are her friends, Seaver should’ve picked up on cues as an FBI agent. It would’ve been a great way to make this new character – which the fandom has had a hard time accepting – shine in the fans’ eyes. Instead, the writers decided to accentuate both these characters’ relationships with their male counterparts – Prentiss with Reid and Morgan, Seaver with Rossi. There’s some female/female interaction between Garcia and Prentiss, but because Garcia is coming from a purely emotional standpoint, the interaction feels greatly unbalanced and almost condescending when Prentiss implies that she knows what’s good for Garcia and the others to know and not know. Seaver’s point of view isn’t brought in until late in “Lauren,” and it has to be asked for, bullied out of her actually, by Rossi. Add that with the moment of Rossi having to tell her to duck when a man is shot in front of her, and this new character is coming off as nothing more than melting butter.
The reason for all this strong criticism of this show’s treatment of women is that I am sick of the assumption that a character is bad ass just because she carries a gun. That’s her job, not her identity. I won’t miss Prentiss, the same way I haven’t missed J.J. since her leaving the show (for the record, I do occasionally miss Gideon and Greenaway), but I’m not going to celebrate their leaving. Because its not going to do the show any good if they don’t step up the writing and learn to create female characters that not only embody their history, but also have a tangible, iron grip on their position in the present.