Mar 052020

Criminal Minds S10E17 “Breath Play” First aired March 11, 2015 IMDB

The second episode of Criminal Minds to deal with BDSM (that I know of) is “Breath Play”.

“Breath Play” treads much of the same ground as the earlier episode “Limelight”, though at least in this case there are actual victims from the beginning. A serial killer is strangling women to death and leaving them tied to their beds. Somehow, the killer is welcomed into the homes of his victims. 

Examining the bodies reveal that the victims were tied to their beds and strangled for hours before their deaths. Dr. Reid speculates, in one of the leaps of logic that seems typical of this series, that this is actually about erotic asphyxiation, or breath play. 

Another crime scene leads of the discovery of an extremely popular erotic novel called Bare Reflections, a knock-off of Fifty Shades of Grey. All of the victims had the book, and the “saucy texts” found on the victim’s phone were direct quotes. However, if the book is that popular, it increases the likelihood that it’s just a coincidence and not the key clue. 

During the agents’ briefing, we cut to the perp reading the book alone. Superimposed on that shot is a woman in lingerie wearing a fancy blindfold, being caressed by a man. 

The briefing summarizes the book which sounds very much like FSOG.

Agent Rossi: “We believe the unsub and his victims are consensually recreating a scenario from this book.”

Black agent: “In that scene, Carson introduces Amber to BDSM by binding her to a bed as they have rough sex.”

Brunette agent: “The unsub uses this roleplay to get his victims into a vulnerable position before his own fantasy takes hold.”

Intercut with perp and another victim, tying her to the bed.

Rossi: “This has provided the unsub with a victim pool who have dropped their guard.”

We also learn that the perp has a large family, all daughters, and a too-stressed-for-sex wife. Their nanny, a college-age blonde woman, leaves a copy of Bare Reflections for the wife. This makes the perp stare at her for too long, intercut with visions of women in red silk bondage.

The chain of logic gets weaker when we learn the book doesn’t mention erotic asphyxiation at all. 

Reid: “Somehow he makes his victims feel safe enough to abandon their hard limit.”

Local agent: “What’s a hard limit?”

Rossi: “That’s a common BDSM practice. Hard limits are anything that’s an automatic no-go. It differs by person and taste.”

Reid: “And a soft limit is an action in which a submissive hesitates or places strict conditions on.”

Local agent: “I had no idea that world had so many regulations. Where does he find somebody like minded?”

Reid: “In Bare Reflections, Carson Bare takes Amber to an event known as a munch.”

Local: “Which is?”

Reid: “According to the book, it is a social gathering for people interested in BDSM.”

Local: “Where the heck do you find that?”

Reid: “You should call Garcia.”

Rossi: (holds up his phone) “I found one.”

The actors sound like they’re appearing in a diversity-training video or public service announcement. 

The agents visit the hostess of a munch, a black woman, why says she sees high powered professional women. “After barking orders all day they need a submissive outlet.”

This is an interesting spin on the stereotype of the “male CEO in the streets, French maid in the scene”, but it does acknowledge that both genders can feel the pressures of public life and seek relief in submission in private. 

Rossi: “How has Bare Reflections influenced the Scene?”

Munch hostess: “By completely ruining it. Interest in the Munch I host has gone up.”

Brunette agent: “Wait, that’s a good thing, isn’t it?”

Munch hostess: “It’s amateur hour. They flaunt their red scarves and they act like Carson Bare is real. My group is a safe haven for true dialog.”

Brunette agent: “And instead you see desperate soccer moms looking to impress their friends.”

Munch hostess: “Exactly. They’ve taken over. They act all risque but they really aren’t and they ignore our rules.”

Rossi: “‘Cause despite its popular image as dark and orgiastic, BDSM play has complex rituals, roles and dynamics that frame the experience. Am I right?”

Hostess: “Yes. We feel the key ingredients of good BDSM play, communication, respect, trust, result in the same connection to body and self found in positive traditional sex.”

Brunette: “So the end result is like yoga, sort of.”

Rossi: “Has anyone come in wanting to discuss breath play?”

Hostess: “No. That topic’s forbidden, and any attempt gets a lifetime ban.”

I guess this is positive, but it sounds more like a lecture than natural conversation. The hostess and the brunette agent understand BDSM as a kind of self-cultivation practice akin to yoga, not as a sexual activity. There’s no explanation of why breath play is banned, or any discussion of the relative risks of breath play, which is a highly controversial topic within the BDSM community.

Having confirmed that the perp did not find his victims via the organized Scene, the agents search for other female strangulation victims outside the local community. They make another huge leap in logic and decide that the long gaps between killings is because of births in the perpetrator’s family. They compress weeks or months of research into minutes and find the perp, including unsealing a sealed court document to reveal that the suspect as a boy witnessed a neighbor kill his wife by accidental strangulation. Though it isn’t mentioned in the dialog, a document shown on screen says that the boy was peeping on his neighbors. Just like in “Limelight”, the perp is explained by reference to a childhood sexual trauma. 

Reid: “Even though he was only a witness, that moment created a single event imprint on his love map and probably started his interest in breath play.”


Brunette: “If the unsub’s trigger was the birth of his kids, why would he change the victimology and accelerate the kills now?”

Reid: “I think the guilt he has felt has been alleviated by Bare Reflections and the intense female interest in it has justified his impulses.”

In other words, pornography, even if it is primarily consumed by hetero women, made him do it. 

This leads to another race to track down the perp, while he closes in on another victim, the nanny. He quotes the book at her, while she dismisses it as “that lame-ass book”. 

He goes to straight-up rape of her, tying her to her bed,  interrupted by the arrival of his teenage daughter, and then the arrival of the FBI agents. The nanny and the daughter are saved. The perp is chased down and caught in a neighboring cemetery, just like in Tightrope and 8MM

Breath play has been a controversial topic within BDSM for decades, and we can’t reasonably expect that to be adequately addressed within a one-hour TV episode. This episode instead bends over backwards to emphasize the safety and consent of BDSM culture, while still providing the standard women-in-peril thrills. This makes the investigation of BDSM kind of a side trip, not really tied to the main plotline. The perp does not find victims via the organized, face to face BDSM culture. Instead, he bypasses that and goes straight to book fans via forums and personal sites. 

The episode seems to say that female submissive erotica like Bare Reflections has a role in encouraging his attacks, both in making women vulnerable to this line of seduction and by validating the perpetrator’s rape beliefs. Charlotte, the nanny, dismisses the book as an entertaining trifle, but the killer took it as a blueprint. However, you can’t really blame the book. There is always a population of people new to BDSM who don’t know the rules, or who don’t go through the educational process of munches and organizations. Moreover, there’s a whole world of culture pushing that kind of female-submissive/male-dominant ideology. 

Just like in “Limelight”, the story focuses on the killer’s individual psychology, stemming from a single childhood trauma, instead of a broader perspective on society. The episode is at pains to normalize BDSM; even Agent Rossi says he “dabbled in senior year”. But the story is still focused on a rapist and murderer.

  One Response to “Criminal Minds S10E17 “Breath Play”: The Celluloid Dungeon”

  1. […] Criminal Minds for another police procedural TV show which referenced Fifty […]

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