[25 June 2013]
“What is an abnormal brain and how does having one affect behavior?” As neuroscientist Daniel Pierce (Eric McCormack) queries his university class at the beginning of Perception‘s second season premiere on 25 June, his students listen attentively. He is mesmerizing, full of kinetic energy, and for those of us who know, manifesting his own struggle with an abnormality—his schizophrenia.
This struggle is, of course, the centerpiece of the series, a point underlined in Pierce’s work with the FBI to identify other individuals with “abnormalities,” that is, criminals. Much as Pierce might be able to see—literally, in visible behaviors and research data—how a suspect is abnormal, he is also repeatedly concerned to repress such signs in himself. The difference between him and them is that Pierce means to control behaviors, while the criminals do not.
All this is familiar to anyone who watched last season, and despite the new episode’s title, “Ch-Ch-Changes,” not much here is different. Again, Professor Pierce’s excess energy is countered by the enduring calm of his former student, now Special Agent Kate Moretti (Rachael Leigh Cook). And again, like most people in Pierce’s life, Moretti is always on the lookout for symptoms, concerned that these may affect his investigation for ill rather than good. Her concern provides viewers with a view of Pierce outside his own, so that we too might wonder about relations between mental illness and criminality, behavior and perception.
Pierce’s self-awareness complicates his position, and ours too. As a neuroscientist, he focuses on the physical indicators of abnormality. In his casework with the FBI, he uses brain scans time and time again to help solve crimes. As the show takes his cue, pinning criminal behavior to a physical location in the brain, it argues that criminals cannot be changed or rehabilitated. Just like the mentally ill Pierce, they can only be treated.
This idea becomes salient in his episode when Pierce, Moretti, and Assistant US Attorney Ryan (Scott Wolf, new to the show this season) visit a state prison so that Pierce can evaluate confessed murderer Billy Flynn (Evan Jones). They find a quiet, articulate man who is more interested in drawing roses than he is in talking about violence. The doctor remembers a video recording of Flynn shooting himself in an attempt to evade arrest. When a brain scan reveals that his brain is actually changed after this shooting, Pierce has an explanation for his changed behavior.
This confirmation of Pierce’s idea, that behavior has physical causes, is subsequently reconfirmed as we see him battle with his own illness. As he did last season, Pierce interacts with hallucinated figures at moments when he feels particularly beleaguered. In this episode, McCormack’s portrayal of these interactions seems slightly changed from before. His facial and body tics are more pronounced and happen more frequently.
These behaviors remind us that sick people must be constantly monitored, Pierce included. When his assistant Lewicki (Arjay Smith) chastises Pierce for staying out too late (suggesting that they have yet to work out a mutual trust), Lewicki looks exactly like a worried father whose daughter stayed out past her curfew. We know that he’s right to be so concerned, because we’ve earlier seen Pierce decide to quit taking his psychiatric meds. And now we see that this choice has made Pierce’s behavior less visible to him.
We also know, however, that Pierce relies on scientific evidence to reach his conclusions, and it’s only a matter of time before he sees what we do. He’ll see because he is not like the criminals he pursues, as much as his illness might mirror theirs. As the show insists on this legibility, it repeats what cop shows have said for decades, that there is something essentially, physiologically different about criminals. By identifying these physical characteristics, Pierce is able to provide the police—and the rest of us—with an easy way to identify current and potential criminals. If criminality is the result of brain chemistry, according to the show’s logic, then any brain can prove a case.
At the beginning of the episode, Pierce says, “Like it or not, we’re stuck with the three pounds of cauliflower we were born with.” Such immutable faith undergirds Perception‘s argument linking criminality and abnormality. By displaying his illness through tics and hallucinations, the show has Pierce embody the unpredictable, ill subject he pursues for the FBI. While he will never be free from schizophrenia, he can become a productive subject by relying on science to guide his path and by working closely with friends and colleagues who monitor his mental state. Beyond what it says about one individual, this narrative has troubling potential implications, as it justifies intrusive police power and professional control of the mentally ill. While Pierce allows himself to be monitored, we’re encouraged to worry about those other ill subjects who are less cooperative with institutions.