Don’t worry, Penelope Garcia is a Good Guy

Like most police procedural shows, CBS’ Criminal Minds often takes a hostile view toward civil liberties. Due process and warrants and the Bill of Rights are frequently portrayed on such shows as troublesome obstacles that hamper law enforcement in their efforts to keep us safe from the monsters threatening us all.

This is particularly insidious on Criminal Minds for a couple of reasons. First because the heroes of the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit never seem to face any difficulties after catching suspects due to illegal, warrantless searches — mainly because they tend to end up killing those suspects after catching them red-handed (often literally red-handed). The team’s leader, Agent Aaron Hotchner, is a former prosecutor, but I don’t remember ever hearing him express any desire to focus on evidence that would be legitimate in court. I suppose if you usually end up killing suspects without a trial, you don’t have to worry about what would or would not be admissible in court.

This is how the NSA’s PRISM program works.

But Criminal Minds’ casual disdain for civil liberties is also insidious because it’s embodied in the lovely, friendly person of Penelope Garcia. Garcia is the show’s magic hacker — or “Techno Wizard” — a character whose quirky fashion and personality serve as TV shorthand for her apparent ability to hack into any computer database quickly and without leaving any trace.

Let me say that I enjoy Criminal Minds and that I like Penelope Garcia. Kirsten Vangsness and the writers make it almost impossible not to like Penelope Garcia. She’s kind and loyal and emotionally vulnerable and unfailingly well-intentioned. But it’s exactly this — Garcia’s kindness and benevolence — that makes her routine disregard for civil liberties all the more pernicious. Because Penelope Garcia is the personification of the NSA’s PRISM program.

What happens on the show is that the BAU team is tracking a serial killer or a predatory sexual sadist — there’s a new one every week, suggesting that the world is filled with such dangerous people. And at some point in most episodes, the team asks or hints that Garcia should work her hacking magic — there’s no time for warrants or other legal measures — to help them locate the killer. She hacks into the databases of credit-card companies, cell-phone providers, ISPs, ATM networks, tax records, medical records, sealed court proceedings — you name it.

Note that Garcia does not, herself, create any of these files or databases. She’s not Big Brother, recording or compiling data by snooping on private citizens. She simply helps herself to all the data compiled by the perfectly legal snooping that has long been practiced by a variety of private, corporate entities. She’s not tapping anyone’s phone, but merely tapping into the records of the phone company. She’s not creating a surveillance state in which every individuals’ every movement and transaction is being tracked and recorded. The cell-phone companies and credit-/debit-card companies set all of that up on their own. She’s just borrowing their data and putting it to some other use.

A benevolent use, of course, because Garcia is good and kind and honest and she would only ever use her otherwise-unaccountable and unchecked power to protect the innocent and to punish the guilty.

That is essentially the same argument being offered to defend the otherwise-unaccountable and unchecked power of the NSA. And it’s a lousy argument. A presumption of benevolence is never a sufficient check on power.

Penelope Garcia is fictional, and in fiction we can agree to play along with the impossible notion of an unfailingly benevolent person. But we know real people are not like that. And real institutions are nothing at all like that.

The danger Criminal Minds portrays is not fictional. The monster-of-the-week format of a procedural series may serve to exaggerate the prevalence of lurid serial killers, but such dangerous people really do exist in the real world, where real FBI agents and real law enforcement agencies really do perform a heroic service in protecting public safety. But we quite sensibly do not cede law enforcement agencies unlimited and unchecked power to fulfill their necessary role, because power can always be abused and unchecked power is a license for unchecked abuse.

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  • Carstonio

    I like Sherlock and I feel the plotting was better in the second season. I haven’t tried watching Elementary, partly because 45 minutes seems too short for this type of story, and partly because I’m less willing to trust US writers and producers with a British icon. From what I’ve read about the Downey movies, these make Holmes more of an action hero.

    I should also give a plug for Granada’s series starring Jeremy Brett. These set such a high standard for according-to-Doyle that I don’t expect any new adaptations of the stories for at least a couple of generations.

  • She certainly did, but the show just keeps going out of its way to assert that the boy who will grow up to be the corporate overlord who runs the world is heroic and noble and a good person who will rule world benevolently, while OccupyLiber8 are a bunch of murderous thugs most of whom don’t really have an agenda beyond sociopathy.

  • Daniel Björkman

    While there is something in what you say, I have read Lex Luthor: Man of Steel, and I thought that while it very successfully showed where Luthor is coming from, it didn’t really change who he was. In fact, the view of Luthor I expressed above comes in large part from LL:MoS.

    Here is the point Luthor is trying to prove in that story: Superman is completely good. You, random human being, are not completely good. Therefore, Superman is enforcing a moral standard that is not yours, and therefore he is a tyrant who needs to be overthrown.

    Which makes perfect sense if you want to believe that you are exactly as you ought to be, warts and all – that being in tune with your inner nature, for better and worse, is more important than being good. If you believe that we should aspire to get rid of the bad in us, on the other hand, Luthor’s love of his own vices becomes obscene.

  • Daniel Björkman

    Yes, that’s one point that gets missed a lot when discussing Superman. He’s not actually unbeatable except in the same way Batman is unbeatable. Sure, ordinary weapons don’t hurt him, but the DC universe is filled to the brim with alien technology and mystical spells and cosmical weirdness that’s perfectly capable of laying Supes down for the count. In our world he’d be unstoppable, but in his own world, there’s plenty of things to balance him out.

  • That said, it’s hinted that just maybe said corporate overlord is planning to subvert the entire basis of his power. He left a very very long note for his younger self, and his younger self seems to still be working through the ramifications of that note.

    (Incidentally, is it just me or was there a very nice symmetry in the scenes of old and young Julian being taken from jail and brought to trial?)

  • arcseconds

    Well, he is portrayed as an action hero in the sense that the film has a great deal of the action-film nature.

    But how the character is portrayed beyond what one might mention in a plot synopsis, in terms of how he dresses and behaves, and the nuances of Downey’s performance, is very much that of a Romantic artist.

    And this is a perfectly defensible interpretation of the figure that appears in the books: his late-night violin playing, his messiness, his moodiness, the odd hours he keeps, his drug habit, and in general his eccentricities and non-conformist nature, and especially the way he talks about his ‘art’ all speak to this interpretation. It’s not at all hard to draw this figure out of the books, and it’s quite a different figure from the more cerebral, clean-cut Holmes of Brett, and even more classically, Rathbone.

    The man-of-action is also well attested to in the canon: as you know he’s described as being an expert pugilist, single-stick and ‘baritsu’ practicitioner, and well as being a pretty good shot with a pistol. It seems to me that this is an aspect of Holmes that could be explored more in adaptations, and I was actually glad to see it done in Ritchie’s movie. He is shown participating in a bare-knuckled match in some seedy dive. Holmes is definitely described as doing this sort of thing (possibly in his younger days) by Doyle, so again this is basically canonical, and again, quite different to how he is normally portrayed (even by Doyle, for the most part).

    (Ritchie, the director, is a brit, by the way, if that helps at all. It didn’t prevent the film from suffering from a bad case of hollywood blockbusteritis)

    It’s also clear from the books he’s well acquianted with the seedier side of life, although normally it’s portrayed as being in the service of a case. Violent passtimes and slumming are of course also part of the Romantic hero thing (think Byron).

    So I think all of this works very well.

    I also rather like the portrayal of Holmes in Sherlock as a ‘high-functioning sociopath’, which can also be drawn from the books. Moffat dresses like a bit of an ‘anorak’, in keeping with that interpretation, while Downey is more of a dandy, in keeping with his.

    The fact that Holmes is capable of supporting such differing interpretations is one of the things I like about the character, and the fact we’re seeing these differing interpretations now is a good thing.

    Ritchie’s movie has obvious flaws, but it has some really good stuff in it, too. What’s especially irksome is that it wouldn’t have been difficult to fix them: the overall plot, while not really what Doyle would have come up with, is not a bad idea at all, it just needed to drop the James Bond death trap, and the Dan Brown/symbolic serial killer stuff.

    Oh, and do something better with Irene Alder. A fantastic character from the books, turning her into a cat-burglar for hire was a travesty.

  • Dain Q. Gore

    In fact, the Closer dealt directly with the consequences of foregoing due process, and how it nearly ended the career of most of those who were involved in it.

  • arcseconds

    I find Jeremy Brett to fairly often show a degree of affectation and over-dramatic delivery that irks me somewhat. Sometimes it manifests itself as a kind of hyperactive staccato delivery punctuated by weird pauses.

    This kind of verbal eccentricity we might expect from a ‘maths nerd’ type, maybe, and perhaps that’s a valid way of interpreting Holmes too, but it’s not my favourite, I must confess.

    You can see it on display to some extent here:

    at around the four minute mark. It’s not the worst example, but I’m not spending all night looking for the most annoying Brett clips.

    Matt Frewer, of course, turns this sort of thing up to 11:

  • arcseconds

    As far as the Sherlock plots go, in the first series the first episode was by far and away the best. For the most part I really liked it, but it was spoiled a tiny bit for me because I worked out who the perpetrator was a long time before Holmes himself did. That’s a bit of a blunder, as I shouldn’t be smarter than the World’s Greatest Detective. I worked it out based on something Holmes said, even, so it’s not as if I picked up something he didn’t: I just thought about it for five seconds, while i was distracted by watching the show.

    The second episode was somewhat mediocre (not bad, just mediocre). I can barely remember what happened in it, but I do remember the watch being set back 2 days, which doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.

    The third episode was just silly. It’s as though the writers thought they had to top every detective story ever by having Holmes solve a superlative number of crimes in a single day, and many of them were really stretching credibility an awful lot. The last one was particularly unsatisfactory as (*Spoiler*) it entirely depended on knowledge he just happened to pick up earlier in the show.

  • Man, young Matt Frewer there really looks the part. Possibly better than anyone has in decades. I never noticed that before. He’s like a Paget illustration made flesh.

    But his performance adds exactly nothing to the sum total of the cinematic experience of sherlock holmes portrayed

  • arcseconds

    OK somehow got confused between Moffat and Cumberbatch there.

  • arcseconds

    should probably note that for the most part I like Brett’s performance. I just don’t see it as being the be-all and end-all.

    I wonder whether the affectation is a way of making his Holmes distinct from Rathbone’s? Rathbone’s Holmes seems like an obvious way to go, which is probably part of why he’s remembered as being the Sherlock Holmes (and of course he does it well).

  • Consumer Unit 5012

    If the cops were effective, who needs Batman?

  • Lori

    Exactly. If the cops were effective Bruce Wayne could have just been Bruce Wayne and the end of the 3rd movie would seem to indicate that that’s a preferable state of affairs.

  • Consumer Unit 5012

    As TVTropes said, “without his powers, Superman is batman with better social skills:.

    This seems relevant. The Five Ugly Lessons Hiding In Every Superhero Movie.

  • Consumer Unit 5012

    but I personally don’t see what hate accomplishes.

    Those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it.