Hunting monsters: Criminal Minds as Beowulf

Modern cop drama investigative teams: for when you need someone to metaphorically rip a monster’s arm off.

We never get tired of hearing about Beowulf.

No, I’m not talking about the actual Geatish hero or the eponymous poem in Anglo-Saxon, or even the attempts at movie versions in recent years (I haven’t seen the one with Angelina Jolie, though if that’s the only one you know, check out Sturla Gunnarsson‘s original take on the story in Beowulf & Grendel with Gerard Butler and Ingvar Eggert Sigurðsson).  I’m mainly interested in the basic trope of Specialist Warriors From Away Swoop in to Deal With Monster.

It’s the basis for most of the hunting-the-psycho cop shows out there, in particular Criminal Minds.  CSI and NCIS incarnations have it too, particularly when they’re about a killer; and Silence of the Lambs may as well have just been called Grendel, since the inhuman monster, Hannibal Lecter, is the overpowering star.

The basic plot is this: horrible, usually fatal things are happening somewhere pleasant to innocent people, and local law enforcement is helpless to stop it. In swoops Hotch and his specialist team, usually with a deep line from literature or philosophy in the voiceover. It’s not quite an epic in verse, but you can’t be too pretentious on TV.

It’s usually the same — some gruesome string of crimes, right up there with Grendel’s habitual visits to King Hrothgar’s sleeping court, cannibalizing his people. And the only relief in sight is when the special agents arrive. Unlike the regular police (read: Hrothgar’s men-at-arms) they pick up the monster’s trail (like Beowulf finding the monster in the darkened hall) and eventually catch and overpower him (though not, it must be said, in an epic wrestling match in which the “unsub”  has his arm ripped off).

The term “unsub” — for “unknown subject” is actually a telling dehumanization of the person the team is trying to catch.  They might as well call him the creep, the psycho, the pervert, the killer — or what is really meant in terms of the narrative: the monster.

Of course, in the space of an hour-long show, there is only time for the adventure of catching the monster, not the aftermath.  There’s no Grendel’s mother to deal with — perhaps in modern terms that would be the legal fallout, which, given the number of people the Criminal Minds team puts away, would involve many, many hours in court, I would think.  It would at least put the whole struggle against the monsters in context.

Similarly, I doubt we will ever see the end-of-career final battle against a beast that undoes the team, or at least shows Hotch can’t hack it anymore — our modern sensibilities for narrative, at least on network TV, don’t really allow for hopeless-battle endings.  It’s too bad.

But then, I suspect the underlying assumption of shows like Criminal Minds are that the system works, the monsters are always dealt with, and well, that’s just the way it’s going to keep working.  Not that, say, glory is fleeting and even the greatest among us will eventually die.  But maybe the Anglo-Saxon audiences thrilling to recitals of Beowulf didn’t have the short attention span required to avoid thinking about basic truths like that.

P.S. If you want to see a surprisingly entertaining and non-stupid iteration of the Beowulf story, watch Outlander.

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56 comments on “Hunting monsters: Criminal Minds as Beowulf

  1. Andreas Heinakroon

    March 11, 2012 at 1:14 pm Reply

    I like this post! It is true: we tend to demonise television killers in order to justify playing ‘hard ball’. Perhaps because we view the real life legal system is becoming too weak?

    • I think narratively it just ties up the “everyone gets their just desserts” storyline, which rarely seems to happen in real life. I suspect a series like Criminal Minds in which the bad guy got away more often than not would not last long. Not saying I want the monsters to win, literally or figuratively; just that since the idea of trolls doesn’t really scare us anymore, we need entertainment/stories that target those whom we fear most.

  2. This is a great post. May I use it in my classes when I teach BEOWULF?

    • Absolutely! I have another interview with the actor who played Grendel — I will post that when I can, if that’s of interest to you.

    • Whoops, I mixed up which post this was on. But yes, please go ahead and use it. I have another post in mind, examining the movie Predator in the context of Beowulf (as well as other contexts), but it’s not ready quite yet.

  3. I’ll use this one. 🙂 Thanks!

  4. A show from the perspective of the “monsters” would be an interesting counter to Criminal Minds (a Grendel in addition to a Beowulf). I think nowadays with so many shows following the basic Beowulf plot line, one that made us watch from the side of and perhaps sympathize with the monster would be worthwhile. I always did like Grendel more than Beowulf.

    • Hi Taylor!
      That’s an interesting idea! I haven’t seen the new show based on Hannibal Lecter, but I wonder whether this is an attempt to do that — to get inside the mind of the monster.
      Such a show or story would humanize the monster — and, I think, remove the “monstrosity” of the character.
      Part of what makes Grendel so terrifying (and, I would argue, the constant revolving door of monsters in a show like Criminal Minds) is that they are thoroughly “othered” — made out to be inscrutable, beyond human comprehension, so we don’t know what they are going to do next.
      A standard villain has some human motivation, even if he/she uses it as a basis for evil acts. But a monster, I think, is disquieting because it is like us but on some level unknowable.

      • I have in fact seen the new show Hannibal and I must confess I am a diehard fan. Aside from the incredible cinematography and talented cast, the show is incredibly compelling in its evaluation of the concepts of monsters. It bears a great deal of resemblance to the Beowulf story in its character parallels: Will Graham is a modern Hrothgar and Hannibal offers a chilling Grendel component. Will works for the FBI as a consultant. He is absolutely brilliant, but the unique perspective he offers is not glory-based. He works by psychologically infiltrating the minds of the killers (much like the BAU team in Criminal Minds) except that his method of choice is to imagine killing the victims. Clearly this is a very dark process and it eats away at his psych. It allows him to be successful in his job, but it also is his failing characteristic, his major flaw that leads to his downfall. Like Hrothgar he is a leader (he is the most crucial component to the success of his FBI team) but he falters in the face of his personal Grendel: Hannibal. Hannibal challenges Will by creating every possible obstruction to his mental recovery. In fact, Hannibal inserts himself into Will’s team and then commits the majority of the murders that they investigate, then proceeds to work under the guise of Will’s psychiatrist helping him to recover from the scars that Hannibal himself is creating. Hannibal, like Grendel, takes a keen interest in Will who functions as the Danes as a whole. He takes pleasure and pride in controlling Will’s mind and every decision he makes by wreaking havoc on his life (**spoiler alert!!! — and eventually framing him for a murder and landing him in jail). And these are really only the surface parallels. All in all, it’s a program with immense depth that fully evaluates the concept of a monster, both in its most common sense (a manipulative, sociopathic murderer like Hannibal) and the tragic hero (Will Graham — part of him must be a monster in order for him to catch a killer by becoming him). I fully recommend the show, for both entertainment and its relevant topic!

        • Wow, that’s quite a thoughtful analysis, Cameron, thanks for providing it. It makes the Hannibal series sound much more interesting. I did like the original Silence of the Lambs movie with Anthony Hopkins, but had heard such terrible things about the movie sequels I never saw them. Sounds like the TV series is hitting a lot of marks.

    • Ack, I just realized “Dexter” is probably a better example of the “monster as main character” show — and maybe that’s part of why it was such a big hit.

      • I’ve never seen Dexter, but maybe now I’ll check it out!
        I see what you mean by the terrifying part – the main appeal in Criminal Minds – being the inhuman part of the “bad guys.” I suppose that’s the reason we’re so scared of them: they’re humans, yet capable of operating on a level most people can’t understand. I guess we’re scared because it could be anyone, because they have all the disturbing parts of a monster but the packaging of a human. So it’s not just the inhuman or “regular” human parts, but both in one.

        • Yes, exactly! That’s why Grendel is so terrifying — he’s manlike in form, but more powerful and cannibalistic. In ANglo-Saxon, he’s referred to as a(n) “eotan” — which means essentially “troll” but is related to the Old Norse “jötunn” or giant. But the etymological root of the word means “one who eats” — in other words, one who eats humans. He’s meant to combine that monstrous behaviour in a manlike form.

        • And to be honest, I haven’t seen “Dexter” either 🙂 I can’t handle watching too much gore. But I’ve heard a lot about it and I think the central concept hinges on making the monster the main “hero.”

          • “The series centers on Dexter Morgan (Michael C. Hall), a blood spatter pattern analyst for ‘Miami Metro Police Department’ who also leads a secret life as a serial killer, hunting down criminals who have slipped through the cracks of justice.” -Wikipedia
            I suppose he’s a vigilante then; for me that sets him apart from Grendel in that we’re supposed to like him. The Blacklist is a new show about this criminal who suddenly turns himself in to help the FBI: I’ve only seen one episode but it seems like he’s more like the character we’re thinking of. Although he’s helping the FBI, he still does some pretty awful things in order to help them. However, it’s not really from his perspective, so it retains some of that unknown factor.

          • David Jón Fuller

            October 24, 2013 at 6:31 am

            I think what is telling is the role the “monster” must play in the stories a culture tells about it. It’s as if it must stand for whatever the people in that culture feel is beyond their standards of what is right or familiar, so the monsters that truly frighten us must change with the times.
            For example, prior to a modern understanding of psychology, for a person to be called “mad” or “possessed” was usually a way of demarcating him/her as a monster beyond human comprehension. Nowadays, in some parts of the U.S., homosexuals are still demonized this way (at least in some extremists’ rhetoric).

  5. I’m not really much of a television watcher besides sports and news, so I don’t know much about these TV shows, and especially not enough to comment on their similarities to Beowulf. But I do see a striking similarity between Beowulf and my favorite movie character, Batman. I’ve always thought that. Christopher Nolan especially, the directors of the Batman movies have made an effort to make Batman almost a political figure, as he rescues the innocent people from that which their government cannot contain. He’s like their savior when the government can’t uphold their end of the social contract. But after reading Beowulf, I think Batman can just as easily be compared to Beowulf, since both do not possess odd super powers, they’re the only ones who can defeat the “monsters” that they fight, they fight for unselfish reasons, and they fight with their intellect. I wish of course that I were more up to date on today’s TV shows like Criminal Minds, but this is a comparison that I just realized and that I’ve never really heard anybody else make. Batman is one of those very rare “superheroes” who doesn’t actually have odd powers like say, Superman or Spiderman. And according to Google internet polls (obviously one of the less credible sources, but still), Batman is the most popular searched superhero on the internet. I find that very interesting. Batman is perhaps the most relatable hero, since he has no superhuman powers, and perhaps that is why we glorify his character.

    • Yes, I think Batman does epitomize that “super-warrior” figure, as does Beowulf. Beowulf is a mighty warrior but not superhuman; much like Batman. And you make a pointed comparison that the political/traditional authorities (eg. Commisioner Gordon) must turn to the outside warrior, Batman, to deal with the human monsters plaguing the city. All of Batman’s foes are grotesque versions of people — the Joker, the Penguin, KIller Croc — like Grendel, human in form but abominations in spirit.
      BTW, I don’t think you’re missing much by not seeing too much TV — to me, all cop shows with a team of experts/warriors endlessly repeat the Beowulf tropes, and not nearly as well.
      For a more interesting version of Beowulf, I like to watch Predator. The alien in it is very much like Grendel — unseen, it hunts people to dismember them, and it destroys the elite team that attempts to battle it until only Dutch (Arnold), standing for Beowulf, matches it.

  6. I really like what you have to say about the term “unsub.” On occasion I watch Criminal Minds and I never really thought about what that term meant. I feel like especially in Grendel, Grendel is portrayed as the unidentified subject because Beowulf, Hrothgar and his men don’t see any human qualities in him at all and have no intentions of treating him humanely (as we see when Grendel tries to initially befriend the Danes). They only ever see Grendel as the monster, as you say. But I feel like there is a striking difference between how the special agents of Criminal Minds see the “monsters” on the show and how Beowulf, Hrothgar and his men see Grendel. The special agents are able to analyze the killer and figure out (most of the time) why the killers are the way they are and to some extent they can understand that. Beowulf, Hrothgar and the Danes are not interested in the psyche of Grendel and don’t ever think from his point of view. To them the only way to solve their problem is to kill Grendel, not to understand him.

    • Very good point! It may speak to our differing perspectives from that of the Beowulf poet’s original audience. In those days, understanding a monster’s motive may have been irrelevant compared to simply ending the threat. However, I think the anonymous poet undercuts this simplicity by showing that even someone like Grendel has someone who cares about him (ie., his mother) and also, that mere martial prowess is ultimately not enough (as we see when Beowulf must face the dragon). Nowadays, perhaps we are willing to explore that possibility of understanding the “monster” as a way to deal with him/her/it over the long term; in the time when Beowulf was written, I’m not sure this could be articulated.

  7. I agree with you when you say the aftermath of catching a monster (or criminal) would put the whole struggle of the situation in context. Truly terrible monsters don’t stop affecting their victims after they’re dead; in some way or another, they continue to haunt the victim, whether by revenge through their kin or even PTSD. Obviously, we see revenge in Beowulf, when Grendel’s mother takes her revenge on the Danes.
    I think a show (or even episodes of currently running shows) about the aftermath of catching the “monster” would be very interesting because it’s a take that we haven’t explored. It’s true that this could be a risky move; maybe people won’t find the legal fallout from Criminal Minds or a victim’s PTSD that interesting, but it would also make the stories more realistic and less clean-cut than they are now.

    • Hi Noopur!
      Personally, I would love a show like that. I probably would not want to watch it many times, but it would have more “truth” to it than a tidy “welp, we caught the bad guy now let’s jet off home” ending.
      I think your point about the revenge from relatives is an interesting one; this is something that crops up again and again in medieval literature, particularly the Icelandic sagas. You start to feel that revenge and honour are auto-catalytic as one family does one thing to grieve another, and the other retaliates, and back and forth down generations of conflict. We don’t seem to like that kind of story as much anymore — we like the bad guy to get caught, end of story. In Beowulf, Grendel is terrible — but I also don’t blame his mother for being enraged after Beowulf & company hang his severed arm up like a trophy.

  8. I think your point about the lack of a monster’s aftermath is spot on: there really is no time to do so. And its not only the fact that you have to fit it into a 60 minute show – most viewers are focused on how something happens, whatever happens before.

    Additionally, I thought that your idea about not having hopeless-battle endings was interesting. I never really put that into perspective, but thinking about it now, that is what I look for when I watch TV shows or movies. I don’t want the monster to win, and I always push for those being attacked.

    • I don’t think it’s impossible to handle the aftermath in a 60-minute show, but it would definitely change the nature of the story. Much like a graphic novel like Watchmen is on one level a mystery — “who killed the Comedian?” — but as a whole it’s much more a deconstruction of superheroes and the nature of heroism, ie. what is justifiable for “the greater good.” So for a show like Criminal Minds, the first half of the story might be catching the killer/abuser/monster, whereas the second part might be the aftermath — media fascination (which the show never addresses, though it clearly serves the same fascination with atrocity); legal proceedings which might well undo the capture, psychological toll on the victims and investigators. It would be a vastly different show.

  9. I really like your point comparing Beowulf and his Geats to Hotch and his crew. I find most interesting that local law enforcement in the case of modern crime shows and local kingdoms in the case of Beowulf are a completely separate beast from the flown in warriors from far away lands. What makes this intriguing to audiences? Is it the fact that the monster is so monstrous that only a specialist can kill it? Or is it that audiences like the switch in the balance of power? Or is it just that audiences were bored of the usual local warriors?

    And why is this plot structure, despite the fact that it has been used over and over, not yet mundane? What makes it different from the stories of the local king killing the evil other-than-human being? Why do audiences not care that every episode of Criminal minds is literally a repetition of the previous?

    • Those, I think, are great questions.
      I think it’s worth asking, as well, WHEN this plot structure becomes popular — what else is going on in society that makes audiences eager to hear this? I personally think that the concept of the “great hero team from away will solve our problem” speaks to a lack of faith in one’s one community, or something that’s broken, perhaps, that requires an outside solution. I wonder whether, in the early 21st century, audiences feel their local law enforcement, or basic trust in society, rings so hollow that the hero-cop motif feels necessary?

    • Aine, these are awesome questions. I hadn’t thought about many of these questions before. I would think there would be only so many twists you could throw into a story to continue to make the same plot line interesting, but we haven’t seemed to have reached that limit yet. Perhaps we don’t get tired of it because we never find a shortage of things/ideas to be afraid of. Also, if anyone has heard of it, I think this plot line could relate to the show Castle–he doesn’t come from very far (in fact, he lives in New York like the rest of them), but his skills are definitely helpful when it comes to finding and defeating the criminal. A similar case could be made for Sherlock Holmes.

      • I think Sherlock Holmes could have been the Beowulf of his day — solving problems and smashing monsters using those Victorian ideals, pure reason and logic (which, in the way they are represented in Doyle’s stories, are just as fantastic as Beowulf’s strength).

  10. Wow, I never thought about the generic crime fighting show to be so classic… Thank you for this post! It’s true that we have become accustomed to outside people coming in and saving the day — we almost see it as MORE heroic than if the original people in the town had done something about it. This post brings to light the fact that while versions may have shifted, humans in essence haven’t changed too much — we are still attracted to the same stories, centuries later.

  11. I like your point about how crime-fighting shows usually don’t address the aftermath of their search for the criminal. A couple of my favorite shows actually include SVU and Law & Order; although many episodes of both shows do actually deal with the legal fallout, the ‘unsub’ typically isn’t humanized. I agree that shows should try and include more of this, as the rare episode where the criminal is humanized is much more interesting. I hadn’t really paid attention to how the criminal is dehumanized and especially in relation to Beowulf! It’s a really interesting comparison, and I can absolutely see the similarities.

    • Interestingly, I think the original version of Beowulf WAS more concerned with the aftermath of violence and the effects on society, given that a) not only does killing Grendel not solve everything, because there’s still Grendel’s mom to deal with but b) in Beowulf’s old age, he’s still called upon to deal with the dragon, ie. perhaps the problem isn’t as simple as killing the bad guy and we all live happily ever after.
      In terms of other, later medieval literature, the Icelandic sagas take this up in more detail — the cyclical nature of violence (eg. generations-long blood feuds, attempts to solve problems like this legally but frequently failing) and provide a longer view. Not sure what the equivalent of this would be in modern pop culture, aside from the Law & Order series you mentioned, I find even those ones truncate the aftereffects.

  12. I really enjoyed reading this post! I never saw any correlation between Grendel and fighting crime before. Although through these crime-fighting shows we are still attracted to stories of heroes coming to save the day, disbanding evil, and restoring peace, I think that in today’s world we are more driven to root for the reserved hero. For instance, in today’s images of superheros, they often wear masks and cover their identities with glasses or a different name. It’s much different then Beowulf flaunting his lineage and destroying a monster only to increase his fame. A superhero’s humble image is similar to that of the police detectives in shows like Criminal Minds; the detectives never draw much attention to themselves or their personal lives, but the show is mostly driven by the crimes and bloody scenes they encounter that episode.

  13. I think this idea of “Specialist Warriors From Away Swoop in to Deal With Monster” that you used throughout your post actually tells a great deal about humanity and the nature of mankind. Whenever faced with a grave problem that threatens our safety and well-being (be it the horrific, bloodthirsty Grendel or the psychopathic, serial killer on the latest episode of Criminal Minds), human beings express a lack of self-will and self-confidence; it is never us, the people affected by the problem, who have the power to end the conflict; it is the outsider, the band of Geats, the big-shot detective and his specialist team who can solve the problem. Someone else, someone stronger, someone more experienced always bears the responsibility for ultimately ending the unrest. And the fact that this idea pervades throughout literature and art supports its essence. As you pointed out, this basic trope, this fundamental plot line has existed and has been used ever since Beowulf in the 11th century to Criminal Minds and any number of other crime shows in the 21st century. We, as humans, always tend to devalue our own potential; instead, we pass along our burdens and seek out the help of others.

    • Yes, and I am starting to view classic superhero stories in this vein, too — say, the early adventures of Batman. Bruce Wayne = millionaire industrialist who could meaningfully impact the poor of Gotham City and kick-start any number of food and work programs… but the story audience wanted was “elite bat warrior swoops in to clobber bad guys.” Nothing wrong with that, but it does point to the notion that a suitably removed-from-the-norm hero is called for to deal with monsters, rather than someone from the actual community (ie. Bruce Wayne) taking action within the community.

    • Maybe there is a recognition that if you are inside the problem, what is required to solve it is outside thinking? Not just expertise, but a totally outside perspective? I wonder. That could be empowering (“What we need here is some fresh ideas!” = innovation) or possibly a hindrance (“We can’t solve this, we’ll have to wait until someone else does.”).

  14. Being the infamous geek that I am, I’m going to add onto this a little bit in terms of actually being the specialist – in video games. The diversity of the hero position of the player in the MMORPG World of Warcraft and the players’ reaction to it has intrigued me for a long time, and I think this post puts it in really good perspective for me. Blizzard (the game developer) has always walked a careful line between putting the player in a “Mary Sue” positions, allowing them to directly defeat legendary villains without consequences or drawbacks, and allocating them to a sideline view as they watch the legendary lore heroes do the deed. Naturally, as a player, you want to feel like the main protagonist; however, in a game played by millions of people with servers populated by thousands of individuals, it is difficult to allow each person to feel like the one true hero. Many “boss” encounters are completely driven by the group of raiding players; these are usually accepted well. Some fights, particularly the final fight of the /Cataclysm/ expansion, are very character driven, essentially having the players clean up the work of a lore hero; these are widely known as the worst raiding experiences in the game, quite significantly due to this fact: people hate not being the hero. However, they also don’t like to be the all-powerful savior: the best-received fights in the game are those that allow player to fight alongside the lore heroes as specialists, not before or after the story characters arrive. Players don’t want to be Beowulf (they aren’t easily convinced enough to believe they could be, anyway), but they don’t want to be his Geat entourage either. They want to all wrestle Grendel at the same time, with nine other Geats and Beowulf too (an accommodation which probably explains why the game’s bosses are blown so far out of physical proportion).
    As for the Mother situation and career-ending battles that you referenced, these are details that, though rarely risked by developers/producers, the audience relishes in my experience. The upcoming World of Warcraft expansion, /Legion/, features the invasion of an essentially omnipotent and infinite demonic army, and players are begging for realism in the setting. They don’t want to the game to end, of course, but they want to lose, to suffer, to run away because they cannot fight. They want lore heroes to die in droves; they want player actions to have devastating consequences. Since the game has never enacted that kind of storyline before, I can only predict people’s actual reactions, but even these early requests show something really interesting about how people want to experience storytelling.

  15. Interesting parallel! Despite having seen every single episode of Criminal Minds (often more than once), I never noticed the similarities between the BAU and the Geats. It’s the type of realization that sort of blows your mind for a second because it’s so clear in hindsight. I wonder if one could extend the idea even further and draw parallels between members of the BAU and characters in the epic. Spencer Reid reminds me a little bit of Unferth due to his cowardice—he can’t even shoot a gun for several years—although he does admittedly outgrow the comparison in later seasons. Hotch’s battle with the decidedly Grendel-esque “Boston Reaper” requires the type of the superhuman strength Beowulf so often displays. JJ reminds me a great deal of Wealtheow in some ways as well, mainly in how much she cares for her team and the overall amount of mothering to them that she does. Some of the comparisons are admittedly a little stretched, but I figured it was an idea worth exploring.

    • I admit my comparison between the two was more macro than micro, but I’m fascinated there are also parallels in the details of what roles the different characters fulfill. I wonder if that’s part of making this type of story work?

  16. After reading this article I wonder what it is we’re losing for not having that “mother” conflict. TV shows now-a-days usually are vying for that “season two” and everyone (even myself) want that. If we got that same sort of “oh the mother’s dead, the deal is finished” conclusion would we still want/need that next season? Does having this more continued narrative allow for more to be said, or does it limit the amount of resolution we as watcher obtain, and the meaning behind that resolution?

  17. Killer first sentence: “We never get tired of hearing about Beowulf.” We always want that hero to win; nothing is better than watching that new special agent fly in and save the day.

    This is exactly why I find John Gardner’s Grendel so peculiar.

    The novel is told from Grendel’s point of view. We know him on almost a personal level. His early life, family troubles, and loneliness are all explained from his point of view. And as a reader, we should get attached to Grendel. So why do we want Beowulf to take Grendel down?

    Granted, Grendel does commit some atrocious acts. But are the humans much better in the novel? After all, they would lay waste to other villages for the sake of laying waste.. Not to mention that Beowulf is practically only coming to the Danes’ aid in the name of glory; helping out Hrothgar’s kingdom is nothing more than an afterthought.

    Personally, I just like the idea of a Beowulf: a new guy—possibly even the underdog— who comes in, surprises everyone, and saves the day. On a more analytical note, I can understand Beowulf. Grendel, as with other “unsubs”, is the “other.” Grendel is a creature, and despite the fact that Grendel narrates the novel, he still feels like a creature. Perhaps even a monster.

    Humans might also be monsters at times; but from my perspective, we are not creatures.

  18. I’ve found that in watching even a show like Mr. Robot, where we as watchers don’t know how much of the show is or isn’t in Eliot’s head, there’s still this appearance of “Specialist Warriors From Away Swoop in to Deal With Monster” in Mr. Robot and in the team of fsociety.

    My question (and this is shaped by only having watched the first half of season 2) is what happens when the monster can begin to dismantle the specialists? The first few episodes of the show point out the failures and chaos that come of “vanquishing” the monster.

    Where Mr. Robot differs from crime shows that just “kill Grendel” is that the second season is, I think, dealing with the aftermath of wounding the monster. The specialists didn’t get the job done. It’s an interesting question to think about, in my opinion. What happens to Beowulf if he thinks he’s defeated Grendel (and mom) but he actually just makes them angry? It’s just a thought.

  19. Great post! I have watched hundreds of episodes of Criminal Minds, and after you pointed out the plot similarities, I am seeing a lot of other connections between the show and Beowulf. I see Hotch as the Beowulf of this series. He begins the show very confident and passionate about his job but as he grows older and personal issues and conflicts sidetrack him, Hotch is still called upon to lead the team and protect innocent people from new monsters (unsubs). Similar to Beowulf, he is constantly called upon to show extreme mental fortitude and physical strength. They are also both the leaders of a skilled group of crime fighters that swoop in to save the day. What is even more interesting is that Hotch was recently fired after an altercation with a writer prior to the start of Season 12. I haven’t seen it yet, but I wonder if for once we’ll actually get to see the end-of-career final battle that removes Hotch from the series.

  20. This is very interesting! When I first read Beowulf, I did not notice its similarities with modern crime shows. I think it shows a lot about society and how humans as a whole want to believe that good will always prevail over evil. However, in most of our modern crime shows, there is never a final “battle” against evil. Some seem to go on forever. For instance, the show Supernatural is still going strong after 11 seasons, and it doesn’t appear to be closing any time soon. Every evil fighting show has the same premise: a new criminal or monster shows up, the good guys hunt him down, and the heroes always win. It shows that we as a society don’t like to or even want to think about what would happen if the monsters could win or what that would mean for the world if good did not always triumph.

  21. Thank you for writing such an awesome post. I have not seen Criminal Minds, although from reading others’ comments and other context clues, I can definitely see the similarities. I agree and think it’s fascinating how we (as a society/culture) are so afraid to let the “unsubs” win. Even using such a dehumanizing phrase, as you point out, shows how drastic we are in our measures to not think of the monster as having any similarities to us humans, let alone the ability to be better than humans. When watching a show or reading a book (like Grendel) which takes the point of view of the monster, it’s intriguing how our perspective and opinion of that character alters very little. At first, when I started reading Grendel, I felt sorry for him, and I wanted to be on his side. But I still find myself routing for Beowulf in the end. I wonder how far a monster’s backstory would have to go for an opinion to be completely changed. I have not finished reading Grendel yet, so maybe by the end of the book, I’ll have changed my mind. However, I doubt it because in our culture, it is very very hard to be on the side of the devil, despite the character’s true intentions or thoughts.

  22. I really enjoyed this post! I think you bring up a good point in how modern day stories always seem to resolve nicely, never dealing with the aftermath. I think this is mostly due to, like you alluded to, how short the attention span of society has grown to be today. Although it may be more realistic in the context of defeating monster for crime shows to show the likely long hours of court after they catch the “unsubs,” it probably wouldn’t be too entertaining. To me, at least, watching a drawn out court scene describing all the legalities involved with fighting these “monsters” would get pretty boring. Imagine if Batman had to deal with the legal trouble of subduing all the bad guys he has dealt with; that guy would be in court forever. This contrast between the tidy endings of today and the longer, drawn-out fight against evil in Beowulf hints at how much society has changed over the years. Our attentions spans are definitely a lot shorter.

  23. I never thought of this before! I can see now the pattern of these popular story lines. I think it is pretty accurate to say that while people have a curiosity (and sometimes an obsession) the darker forces in the world (including evil people, monsters, the devil, etc.) that their interest lies not only in seeing the evil itself but also in seeing the evil defeated (especially if it is difficult by standard means such as in Beowulf). I think this basic story plot is so popular because it is one that satisfies the majority of people in both subject and in outcome. While most of these TV shows don’t have “hopeless-battle endings” (because its entire purpose is to keep going and keep making money), the idea is generally the same. I really enjoyed reading these ideas. Thanks for sharing!

  24. I believe that this is a very important to make and an influential trend in pop culture. Somewhere out there it is always popular to believe of a bad character doing horrendous things to good people. Then, to the reassurance of the audience, in comes a heroic figure to save the day. The victims even become more relatable if the figure that haunts them is unidentifiable in some form, or just purely “other”. If this is the case, then we, as observers, or more willing to support violence acts upon the monster in order to either kill or hinder it. This idea however is not only iterated in popular tv or movie storylines— it also occurs in real life. In wars nations use propaganda to pain the enemies as “other”. In WWI, the US implemented propaganda to depict germans as gorillas carrying a women away in distress. While I have not specifically seen Criminal Minds, I do recognize the importance of this plot structure in other instances such as WWI Propaganda.

  25. After reading your post, I guess I should go watch some Criminal Minds! I have seen, on the other hand, Silence of the Lambs, and I had not thought about the similarities it has to Beowulf until reading this. It is awesome to see how modern films can take the themes of such an old text and make a captivating story for the public of today. Seeing how you put it, most crime shows in today’s day in age are painstakingly similar. I do love how sometimes the most interesting character is, in fact, the antagonist — such as in Silence of the Lambs and in my opinion in Beowulf. For this reason, I cannot wait to start reading John Gardner’s Grendel to delve deeper into this monster’s story.

  26. Thank you for this post! It seems obvious now that I have read Beowulf after watching all of Criminal Minds, that they follow the same recipe. I find it interesting that so many modern crime shows or thrilling movies follow the same “formula” for success, and that it always works. We have been discussing “willing suspension of disbelief” in class, and I believe this plays a huge role with the audience of major modern crime shows on TV. Like you said, they never have paper work pile up, or have to go to court to fight with a family member. Law enforcement and justice just doesn’t work that smoothly, but this is what draws in the audience. While there may be two part episodes or finales that force the conflict to linger (such as the Scratch storyline), the unsub is caught at the end of every episode. How long did that take? Maybe 3-5 weeks condensed into a 45 minute episode? We get the highlights, the major finds, and the big conflict. But that is just what makes us come back the next week to watch the next episode. People are in it for the unbelievable aspects and they want the action, not the logistics.

  27. Very interesting post! I will admit, while reading Beowulf, I did not think that the plot of the story had modern parallels, but now my perception of the text is forever changed. While I have never watched Criminal Minds, one similar show I have seen is Sherlock on BBC. Holmes and Watson are always there to save the day when Lestrade and the rest of Scotland Yard fails to do so. Sherlock can be seen as the modern equivalent of Beowulf, Scotland Yard serves as Hrothgar’s guards and court, and Grendel is the seemingly immortal Moriarty. I think this plot structure is so popular because its satisfies its audience through intrigue and a happy resolution. I find your comment on the aftermath of these episodes, or battles very accurate- the audience simply does not want to be exposed to the realistic conclusion. They enjoy the possibility of a happy, definite ending the minute the TV is turned off or the last page of the book is turned. Thank you for sharing, you have given me something new to think about!

  28. I liked your point about how the aftermath is something missing from Criminal Minds, and present in Beowulf. This made me think about how Criminal Minds is like a microscope that never zooms out to reveal the larger picture. In Beowulf, we get Grendel’s perspective as to why he torments Hrothgar’s hall. He feels as though he lineage isn’t his fault but the fact that he’s descended from Cain is the ultimate reason why he’s an outcast, and thus a monster. And while we get a glimpse of the unsub’s reasoning, there’s never much of a compelling argument and an odd sympathy for the unsub. While I don’t try and root for the antagonist, I always think there’s more to the story and want to hear both sides, and I feel like Criminal Minds doesn’t do this.

  29. I thought this article was so interesting, especially to me because I am the biggest Criminal Minds fan! I have always noticed that Criminal Minds follows a certain patter: the bad guy kills innocent people, local cops can’t handle the crime, the BAU is called in, they pick at the unsub’s mind until they solve the case and save the day. Although, I have not connected it to Beowulf until now. I agree with almost everything you say but, I would have to disagree with the part you mentioned about TV shows not being able to capture what happens after Grendel dies (Beowulf battling his mom and the dragon) because in every series finale for criminal minds, they do just that. The season finale is usually split up into the last two episodes and it demonstrates how the BAU struggles with capturing the unsub or how there is more too it than they think there is. For example, The Reaper appears in multiple episodes and demonstrates how the BAU sometimes struggles with capturing and maintaining their victims. He also comes back and kills Hotch’s wife causing Hotch to mentally fall apart, almost getting fired. This observation just makes Beowulf and Criminal Minds even more similar, and if you think about it, Criminal Minds is just a modern Beowulf. Also speaking of modern Beowulf, if you think about it, almost all video games are also a modern day Beowulf. In video games there are monsters to defeat who harm innocent civilians/creatures. The only one who can defeat the monsters is the player. The player must battle the monster, find their weakness and destroy them. Similar to Beowulf, there are also boss levels where once you defeat the monster, there are even more monsters to defeat. I find it very interesting that even though Beowulf was written over 1000 years ago, it is still relevant to modern society.

  30. This is such an interesting comparison! Even though I’ve never seen the show, I think it’s really cool how you drew a connection from a text dating back to so long ago to a very modern show. You mention that each episode essentially follows the same structure: there’s a devastating crime followed by people coming in to save those affected by this detrimental act. I think it’s really interesting how even though each episode follows this model, audiences keep watching because of the satisfaction is provides with the resolution. Beowulf does this same thing, and readers are intrigued with the story because we like seeing happy resolutions where good defeats evil. Thank you for this post, it proves the relevance of such an ancient text in our modern world.

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