S.W.A.T. forged its way into tragically familiar territory Thursday with an episode centered on school shootings, an all too frequent event in the United States, and the CBS drama appeared determined to add something new to the narrative.
The sensitive topic has been tackled on television before, and while some dramas have fumbled with the complicated dynamics of such an event (Glee) and others have done it more thoughtfully (The Fosters), S.W.A.T. strove to offer new perspectives that we haven’t seen when depicting these tragic events.
The episode, “School,” actually told the story of two shootings. It began with a flashback to six years prior, when Buck (Louis Ferreira) was still head of the team. His squad responded to a 9-1-1 call at a nearby high school where two active shooters were in the process of killing many of their classmates. S.W.A.T. was able to subdue the situation, but not before six students and one of the shooters were slain. The second shooter was apprehended and given a life sentence in prison.
The part of the episode that was set in the present day began with Ainsley (Dawson’s Creek alum Meredith Monroe), the mother of the slain shooter, receiving a letter from a new perspective shooter who had idolized her dead son. She took the letter to S.W.A.T., where it was analyzed, and the team used what they had learned at the previous shooting to try and prevent another before it even began. The hunt for the new shooter took them all over Los Angeles, and included a remorse-filled visit to the surviving assailant from the first shooting, before the team managed to arrest the shooter and prevent him from harming any of the students he was targeting.
In previous dramatic interpretations of school shootings, the drama tended to follow the shooters and focus on their motivations. It makes sense because we, as a society, continue to struggle to understand what could drive someone to commit such atrocities. But S.W.A.T. took a different approach to storytelling and instead chose to focus on the victims of the attacks and the people who were left behind. The show did this by refusing to show the shooters’ faces during their heinous act; we only saw the face of the surviving shooter in prison later, and even then his face was only shown when he was expressing regret for the horrifying crime he’d committed. We also never saw the face of the new potential shooter. This purposeful choice allowed the show to truly focus on the victims. During the flashback portions of the episode, for instance, we spent time with the students who were being held hostage in their school, seeing how they coped with such a traumatic event.
The show was also careful never to have Ainsley try and cast blame on anyone for what her son did on that terrible day. Her character walked the fine line between being a mourning mother who lost her son and not making excuses for what her son did. It’s clear that after he died she became an advocate to try and prevent future shootings from happening at other schools. She’s a crucial part of the reason why S.W.A.T. was able to find and apprehend the present day shooter before anyone at the school was hurt. (Unfortunately, he was able to murder his own mother before law enforcement was able to find him.)
S.W.A.T.’s attention to these sometimes overlooked perspectives added a new dimension to this type of story. As often as we unfortunately have to experience school shootings (or any mass shooting), whether on the news or via TV shows, not enough time is spent with the victims or those the shooter leaves behind. “School” asked the hard question of what we could possibly do to prevent these events in the future. In the age of Peak TV, it’s encouraging to see shows use their power and platform to advocate for real change in the world we live in. S.W.A.T. delivered with “School,” and it should be considered important viewing.
S.W.A.T. continues Thursdays at 10/9c on CBS.
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