The Case for a Quiet Happiness
Across the various and often intersecting spectrums of race and sexuality and gender identity and physical disability and mental health conditions, people everywhere turn on their favorite television shows looking for reflections of themselves. Eight years ago I met the best representation of my own identity in the character of Dr. Spencer Reid on Criminal Minds when I happened to tune in to watch Tim Curry in the episode “Our Darkest Hour.”
I went back and caught up on all the previous seasons, nearly every episode revealing another way that Reid was suspiciously similar to myself. And so — despite the fact that I’m not a huge fan of crime shows or anything designed to scare — I continued to tune in. Because here was someone so very like me progressively getting better at holding his own in situations I only feel confident I might attempt to hold my own because I saw him do it first.
Then the newer episodes continued to reveal ways that he was like me and more ways he was learning to move forward. It was the kind of storytelling experience that’s just perfectly timed for whatever you’re most struggling to do for yourself. It was storytelling that filled a need without forcing an issue, the best kind.
I stopped watching the show after the general storytelling crossed the line for me. But I started watching again when some oddly Spencer-centric episodes starting popping up; an episode revealing yet another way he represents me, and a series of episodes where he is just completely forced through the wringer in a god-awful kind of way.
Today, on the eight-year anniversary of the episode that got me into this, I’d like to offer a storytelling experience for Spencer Reid. I’d like to make a case for a storyline for his character to grow in a way that he may not know, and may not even believe is possible for him.
To Reid from Rose, just returning a favor.
1. establishing the existence of similarities (feel free to skip)
- Reid is wicked smart, to the point where he will go on these tangents of data just related enough to warrant his mentioning them and just “random” enough to incur verbal shushing and awkward silences. Me? That’s pretty much every discussion in which I participate. Plus, I’m working on a collection of poetry with a line of verse for every second in a twelve-hour period with the end-lines of each poem determined by the various crossings of the hands of a clock-face for which I have done all the necessary calculations.
- Reid is socially awkward. I have given up on trying to have any kind of “tact” other than “be neighborly” at this point. My idea of flirting in school was to make very direct eye contact and say “I like you” and then quickly walk away (so I wouldn’t be late to class). Shockingly, there were zero takers.
- Reid and I were both bullied as kids. You need no more details than that.
- Reid and I both have a family history of schizophrenia. You need no more details than that.
- Reid and I both have a family history of Alzheimer’s/dementia. It’s a contributing factor to why I have zero qualms with regards to self-publishing.
- Matthew Gray Gubler — who plays Spencer Reid — has said in an interview that Reid is definitely on the autism spectrum. Given that the character is also about 11 years sober now from an early-series addiction to dilaudid, there’s quite a bit of crossover with regards to behavior- and thought-patterns found on the OCD spectrum. Which I know about because I have OCD and do a lot of research regarding diagnostic crossover for clues regarding OCD-management.
- The socks, the looks, the fairy tales. Need I say more?
2. establishing the pattern revealing Reid’s current/character needs
- Early in the series Reid feels guilty for not doing enough as a son. While taken hostage, he develops an addiction to dilaudid which allows him to escape all the things (temporarily/mentally). He comes to rely on the satisfaction of his work as the primary means of getting sober and making more efforts to mend his relationship with his mother.
- With a better relationship with his mother comes more time with his mother comes more time confronting the very real possibility of what he might become if he himself discovers he has schizophrenia like her. He slowly suffers a progression of migraines which exacerbate his fear that he might have schizophrenia. This reaches a peak which seems quickly dropped in the show, but it is (much later) revealed that he secretly started consulting Maeve Donovan (a later love interest) for ways to treat his migraines which turned out not to be schizophrenia.
- Emily Prentiss (one of his dear teammates at the BAU) fakes her death and everyone on the show mourns. When she returns he is quick to forgive her, but not so quick to forgive the one person who knew she’d been alive the whole time (Jennifer Jareau, aka J.J.). he reveals that mourning Emily had been so intense that he had considered taking dilaudid again but had kept that a secret from J.J. and Emily is ultimately the one to guide Spencer back to reconciling with J.J.
- Reid falls in love with Maeve Donovan (retroactively revealed to be the one who helped with his aforementioned migraines) and he is very concerned with her own troubles which turn out to be a stalker. The affair ends tragically and Spencer is left to mourn. We can only assume that he was too depressed to consider dilaudid as he ultimately returns to his work to completely fill his life.
- Reid learns his mother is beginning to lose her memory. Having been very fortunate in his not having schizophrenia, and still feeling guilty over not being able to save Maeve, he is obsessed with finding a way to save his mother from Alzheimer’s/dementia. This causes some not-great decision-making leading to his being framed for murder, going to prison, and doing terrible things to survive until the BAU can get him out.
He is still not over what has happened to him when the team is disassembled for political? reasons by a superior agent. He is still determined to do things on his own and with more force than we are used to seeing from him when the team is reassembled. But there is the hint of his awkward/light-hearted self when he is shown teaching seminars to new agents.
Basically, he’s at the point in his pattern where it is time for him to heal, and it looks like the classroom/school is the opening for that healing to take root.
3. developing the character/relationship/role model to fill current story needs
- Just as “meeting” the character of Spencer and learning his back-story and watching him grow was helpful for me, so too would meeting someone new and getting to know their similarities and differences would be good for him. It is very human/natural to be drawn to those who appear to mirror us while also having key characteristics we admire and to which we can aspire. This has also proven useful to him in the past with the (albeit retroactive) introduction of Maeve who was similarly intelligent, not nearly as socially awkward, and needing help with her stalker situation.
- Now, the Maeve storyline did in fact end the way that it needed to end. While she was in hiding to avoid her and her stalker she and Spencer complemented each other with regards to their strengths and weaknesses. This helped to keep them equal. However, had she survived their storyline, the primary way in which Spencer’s character had been able to be strong for her would have been neutralized and their relationship would have been out of balance. Though Maeve was his intellectual equal, it was than in combination with their complementary strengths and weaknesses that was required to sustain their equilibrium.
- It’s important to note here that any woman with which Reid has engaged within the context of a case has come to naught; the actress, the bartender, J.J., a medical examiner (though I may be the only one who pegged her as a potential love interest), and an agent working surveillance who speaks Russian. The none of which storylines/characters being substantial enough to get his character out of his current funk. Plus, his work is his primary tool for dealing with his addiction, and the team is already there to “lighten” that load.
- Meanwhile, Spencer’s personal life largely revolves around keeping his mother safe and fighting to help/save her. He needs someone separate enough from his work life to give him a little shake of reality. And, between his mother’s and his own mental health, it would be good to have someone in similar mental health boat who could offer a fresh perspective on his situation and who — from time to time — might need him to be the strong one in their pairing. Because — as in life — storytelling and mental health are all ups and downs.
- However, Spencer isn’t likely to go out of his way to meet new people. He goes only where he needs to go; home, the BAU, the seminars he teaches, and wherever his errands take him. To meet anyone and see them regularly enough for any kind of relationship (platonic or romantic) to develop — and not meet them within the context of a case — this new person in his life would need to be a new neighbor or a new teacher (or semi-retroactively new, since Maeve has previously proven that the right outside-of-work retroactive introduction is totally doable). It shouldn’t be anyone he meets at an addiction meeting or a support group for family members of those with conditions under the umbrella of dementia unless the relationship is kept strictly platonic.
- But should the needed relationship be kept strictly platonic? Probably not. Just as Spencer doesn’t go where doesn’t need to go, he isn’t going to start putting in the effort to maintain a new friendship. He may appear to do so on the surface, but that extra motivation of being romantically-inclined toward another human being is something he is much more likely to require in order to maintain motivation to continue building some sort of relationship. A thing which is more readily-facilitated if this new person in his life is a fellow teacher rather than a neighbor.
- Coming full-circle, there should be an established precedent to signal that Spencer and this new person are equals, both so Spencer will take her seriously and so fans of the show will take her seriously. Being a fellow teacher/instructor/lecturer of new FBI agents is pretty straightforward way to do that. Her own academic standing could be strong enough that she is regularly published on certain mental health topics that serve to develop the field of behavioral analysis while also — philosophical preference here — helping to break the demonization of people with mental health conditions among law enforcement officers and related groups. Because Spencer would not go for some MPDG who’s sole purpose is to make his life better.
So what Dr. Spencer Reid needs in his life is a fellow teacher with complementary back-story and mental health condition who doesn’t work cases (but may be called in to consult given that she knows enough to teach new FBI agents), and with whom he shares romantic chemistry that helps motivate him to shift his perspective as part of his healing process. What she needs from him is another story …
Also published on Medium.