Spoilers behind the cut, all the way through end of second season.
So, through the magic of the internets, Bea and I watched some first season episodes together the other night, and had something of a gab fest in the process.
One of those episodes was "The Popular Kids," which--if you haven't seen it--is one of the episodes that establishes one of the lovely WTF things about CM.
You see, they lose. The Knights of the Table Round spend all episode trying to find a missing girl.
They find her.
She's dead. And has been all along.
They never had a chance.
And one of the things I noticed upon this viewing was that--the major thematic/character development point of this episode is about nightmares. Reid has started suffering insomnia, and goes to Morgan for advice, afraid that if he tells the senior agents they will think he can't do his job. Morgan tells him to talk to the bosses. When Reid refuses, Morgan does it himself. (Shades of the current PTSD/drug addiction/I'll never miss another plane plotline? Heh. Yes. We plot on spirals here.)
Anyway, eventually, Gideon tells Reid that they *all* have nightmares, and when Reid confronts Morgan on a matter of betrayed trust, Morgan is backed into a corner enough to tell Reid about his own. A girl he couldn't save, one he feels responsible for. And her "...dead eyes. Accusing eyes."
Morgan also tells Reid that Gideon intervened for him. Morgan never told him: Gideon just knew. (Do I think that will be turning up again in third season? Well, I would not take really good odds that it won't. Let's put it that way.)
Which of course is what we see when Morgan enters the barn and finds the girl they could not save this time, either. It's Morgan's nightmare made manifest, and we're meant to understand that. What's subtler is that it's also Reid's nightmare made flesh--the one of racing a monster to an innocent, and never knowing if you are going to make it in time. And in this case, there was never any chance. The monster had had his way with the victim before the team ever arrived.
This gets even more interesting when it's tied in to the advice that Gideon eventually gives Reid for coping with the fear and helplessness. Concentrate on the ones you can help. (Another goddamned starfish. Story of my life.) And he gives Reid a photo he carries in his wallet, of somebody whose life he saved. And Reid takes the photo, and apparently fades off to sleep.*
Of course, that's the interesting thing. They didn't save this one. Try as they might, they cannot save them all. Sometimes all they can do is bear witness. Sometimes they are complicit in the deaths, through failure or error or just because it is, in fact, beyond human strength. You cannot get to all the starfish in the parable. There are too many of them.
And this season, we learn some other things. One is that Hotch and JJ, between them, decide which starfish the team will even attempt to save. They spare the others that responsibility, the knowledge that there are always more. They shoulder that burden.
And another is that sometimes, saving them is not enough. Sometimes the victims are destroyed by their experiences. Sometimes the members of the team are destroyed by their experiences. Sometimes the victims--or the team members--become the monsters. Sometimes they're just ruined. "She'll never be the same!"
And sometimes you snatch somebody from the very hand of death, and that somebody takes the chance at life and builds a pretty good one--and another monster comes along and takes it all away. And you are right back where you were, moving their name to the other column, wondering what you could have done better, wondering if it matters at all.
So there goes that coping device.
And the fact that it doesn't really work is set up in the very narrative of the episode that introduces it.
This all leads into another very interesting thematic spiral: the choosing of life and death. It's stated explicitly at least once, in "Revelations." "Choose who dies." And Reid bargains. He'll choose who lives.
Which the monster thinks is an irrelevant distinction, but it isn't. Reid is still being made complicit, but he's being made complicit in something different than the monster wants to make him complicit in.
Because that's what they're always doing. It's what they do every day. Chosing who lives. And they choice is always "As many as we can possibly save." Every starfish we have strength to throw back into the ocean, every pair of lungs we can blow air into. Gideon does it before we ever see him: we're treated to the story, early on, of him fighting for the life of a man who has already bled out all over his hands, continuing CPR until he has to be dragged from the body. Morgan chooses to allow two men to live who might richly seem to deserve to die--Carl Buford, and the killer in "Fear & Loathing." Reid chooses to save Nathan's life, even knowing that he might be making a choice with a terrible cost. Gideon chooses not to kill the Footpath Killer, though he dearly wants to--even snarls at him to give him a reason.
Even when he cannot save Johnny, Gideon stays and comforts him, as Reid stays and comforts Tobias, whom he has been forced to kill. (That killing is another example of a choice of who lives: in that case, it's Reid. Reid chooses to live, and to accomplish that, Tobias and Raphael and Charles must die. [meta on why Raphael must replace Reid here.] Notice the first thing Reid says the second time he's offered the choice of who dies is "Me." And Raphael won't accept that choice. Because Raphael has to cause Reid to fall so that Raphael can take his place. And choosing self-sacrifice is not a fall.)
And that's another answer to Prentiss's question--What's the difference between us and the monsters?-- and the reason for Elle's fall as well. Elle chooses who dies.
That's the monster's choice.
Not the hero's.
Which brings us to "North Mammon," of course. In which the victims are forced to choose who dies, and it comes down, again, to a choice of who lives. The girl who kills, in the end, does so in self-defense. She chooses to live. And so we can forgive her, on some level.
Even if she can never forgive herself. (As we can forgive Reid for institutionalizing his mother, because he did it to save his own life; as we can forgive Morgan for burying Carl Buford deep and never saying a word, because he did it to save his own soul. And yes, others paid the price. Because, as Stephen Sondheim reminds us, no-one is alone. Everyone's actions affect someone else. And sometimes you will never know who paid for what you did. Or, in Morgan's case, failed to do.)
Which brings us to the Fisher King question, the big thematic statement of the second season. "The only important question is: can you forgive yourself?" Can JJ forgive herself for all the people she has to choose not even to try to save? Can Reid forgive himself for--despite appearances and all his gifts--not, in fact, being superhuman, but in the end just a man? Can Morgan forgive himself the boys that Buford raped, exploited, or murdered? Can Gideon forgive himself... well, everything? For getting Elle shot, for getting Rebecca Bryant killed? Are the times he gets it right, and his boundary-breaking saves a life ("What Fresh Hell," "The Fox," "Broken Mirror") enough to pay for the times when he pushes too hard and somebody pays?
What about the times when nobody could have gotten it right? "We did everything we could."
That need for absolution runs through the whole thing. It's a wound of the mind. A wound only you can find, and only you can heal.
*But notice who the guy with his eye on the ticking clock is in "What Fresh Hell," two episodes later. Reid has not forgotten his nightmare, or the dead eyes of the girl in the barn. He knows he's racing a monster. "Believe it or not, we're already late in the game."