I’ve been on a Criminal Minds kick lately. This is odd, since I’m pretty indifferent to both crime procedurals and shows or movies or books about serial killers. Still, while the subject matter of the show doesn’t push my buttons, I sure do like the major characters. They’re smart. They’re good at their jobs. They’re likeable. They’re certainly attractive (two of the six current regular cast members -- Shemar Moore and Matthew Gray Gubler -- are former male models. Those are my kind of odds). Ergo, this list of my top episodes.
One caveat: This is a Top Ten list, not a Ten Best list. I’m not going for quality here. In fact, some of these episodes are distinctly… ungood. These are simply the ten episodes I view with the most fondness at this moment. I make no claims that this list is either comprehensive or balanced. I rewatched Season One most recently, so it’s freshest in my head and thus is disproportionately represented. I also have a discernable pro-Hotch bias. Grimness mixed with competence works like catnip on me, and FBI unit chief Aaron Hotchner (Thomas Gibson) is the most awesomely bleak character on television since Edward James Olmos scowled his way through five seasons of Miami Vice. Consider yourself warned.
Here’s my list, warts and all, in chronological order:
“Broken Mirror” (Season One)
After a young woman (Elisabeth Harnois) is kidnapped, the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit (BAU) moves in to find her assailant and protect her twin sister, whom they suspect will be the next target. This is a rock-solid early episode, which makes my list largely on the strength of one outstanding scene: In an attempt to provoke the kidnapper into doing something reckless, lead profiler Jason Gideon (Mandy Patinkin) intercepts a taunting phone call to the father of the twins… and hangs up on him. When the unsub (unknown subject) repeatedly tries to call back, Gideon disconnects each subsequent call as well, cutting him off in mid-sentence again and again.
Whipped into an apoplectic froth by this show of disrespect, the unsub calls back once more and launches into a venomous tirade, in which he provides his own spiteful -- yet not inaccurate -- profile of each team member: Gideon is arrogant and bonkers, Hotch is callous and ambitious, socially-maladroit genius Spencer Reid (Matthew Gray Gubler) is borderline autistic, new recruit Elle Greenaway (Lola Glaudini) is out of her league in “the BAU Boys’ Club,” and hunky Derek Morgan (Shemar Moore) is a “pumped-up side of beef” who desperately wants to be taken seriously.
In general, exposition-heavy dialogue like this is a bad idea -- information about characters should emerge through their speech and actions, not from the writers spelling it out for viewers -- but this diatribe was a clever way to spotlight the flaws of the major characters in one fell swoop. It was also funny. The team members react to the criticism: Reid is baffled, Hotch is unfazed, Elle and Morgan are disgruntled and secretly wounded, and crazy old Gideon is delighted, since the only way the unsub could know so much about them is if he’s someone close to the case. With this bit of information, Gideon and the team track down the kidnapper, who turns out to be an agent at the local FBI field office, and recover the missing twin.
“L.D.S.K.” (Season One)
An L.D.S.K. -- a long-distance serial killer, more commonly known as a sniper -- shoots several random people in a park. Meanwhile, back at Quantico, gun-shy Reid falls into a funk after he botches his weapons qualifications exam, despite Hotch’s patient attempts to coach him at the shooting range.
The BAU investigates the shootings and deduces that their suspect has a background in law enforcement. The unsub turns out to be Philip Dowd, a gun-crazy, narcissistic, paranoid ex-cop, played by Timothy Omundson, who is best known as gun-crazy, narcissistic, paranoid Detective Lassiter on Psych. Psych is a comedy, whereas Criminal Minds is decidedly not, but really, there’s only the merest whisper of a difference between Dowd and Lassiter. This adds to the bizarre hilarity of the climax, in which Reid and Hotch are taken hostage by Dowd in a crowded hospital. Drawing upon the information the team has gleaned from profiling Dowd, Hotch slips into a spiteful, bitter, Reid-hating persona to win his trust. All the profilers do this sort of thing to some extent, particularly during interrogations, but Hotch (and Gideon, before Mandy Patinkin left the show) does it best. Just watch him turning submissive and sycophantic to coax information out of alpha-male unsubs in “The Perfect Storm” and “The Tribe” -- it’s startling and more than a little creepy.
Dowd falls for Hotch’s act and grants him a final request: Kicking the crap out of poor Reid. While Hotch does precisely that (with gusto!), Reid swipes Hotch’s spare gun out of his ankle holster and kills Dowd with one clean shot to the forehead. Consider his weapons examination passed.
“Riding the Lightning” (Season One)
The team heads to a Texas prison to interview Jacob (Michael Massee) and his wife Sarah Jean (Jeannetta Arnette, fondly remembered from her days as Ms. Meara on Head of the Class), who are on death row for raping and murdering at least fourteen young women. It’s a matter of hours before their scheduled executions, so the BAU seizes one final opportunity to grill the couple about possible additional victims.
Gideon interviews Sarah Jean, who turns out to be a gracious and thoughtful woman. While Sarah Jean seems to accept her fate, Gideon becomes convinced she was an innocent party to her husband’s murderous exploits. Against Sarah Jean’s protests, Gideon tries to find proof of her innocence and stop her execution.
Meanwhile, in the next room over, Hotch interrogates Jacob. Hotch tends to be a magnet for unsubs of the extra-creepy variety, and Jacob is no exception: “I like you,” Jacob tells him, “I do like you.” Jacob exerts a fair amount of effort trying to get Hotch to crack a grin, but it’s an exercise in futility: Hotch doles out smiles at the rate of about one per season, and he’s not about to squander one on the likes of Jacob.
Hotch gets nowhere useful with Jacob, so the BAU’s communications liaison, Jennifer Jarreau, commonly known as J.J. (A.J. Cook), joins the interrogation. J.J. is Jacob’s preferred victim type -- blonde and lovely -- so Jacob suggests a hand of poker: If Hotch wins, Jacob will tell him where to find the bodies of his remaining victims. If Jacob wins, he gets to smell J.J.’s hair. Hotch, bless him, shoots down this idea before the suggestion is even fully out of Jacob’s mouth, but J.J., who has nerves of steel, is game for it. Hotch wins the hand, and J.J.’s hair remains safely unsniffed, but Jacob still refuses to give up the locations. He goes to the electric chair after letting Hotch know he killed four additional women the FBI knows nothing about.
Gideon figures out Sarah Jean’s secret: Her young son, whom she was presumed to have murdered, was raised in secrecy by another family, safely away from Jacob. This information is enough to grant her a stay of execution, but Sarah Jean, desperate for her son to remain unaware of the nasty truth of his parentage, convinces Gideon to let the matter drop. She, too, is executed as scheduled.
“The Tribe” (Season One)
A group of partying college kids is massacred on a construction site in New Mexico in ways that mimic antiquated Native American war rituals. Since there’s been some animosity between land developers and the inhabitants of the local Apache reservation, suspicion initially falls on an Apache activist, John Blackwolf (Gregory Cruz), whose father was killed by federal agents in the 1973 Wounded Knee incident. Blackwolf is soon cleared of any connection to the crime, but the team asks him to stick around to contribute his insights into the killings. Blackwolf, who distrusts the U.S. government in general and the FBI in particular, butts head with quintessential G-Man Hotch. They slide into that time-honored “outward antagonism and sarcastic insults masking grudging admiration” routine familiar to aficionados of buddy-cop films. It’s cute.
The killings turn out to be the work of a murderous cult, comprised of idiot white college kids and headed by a psychotic twerp (played by former child star Chad Allen) who bases his philosophy upon mismatched scraps of knowledge about various Native American cultures and who wants to spark a race war between the townspeople and the Apache. When heavily-armed cult members swarm the reservation schoolhouse intent on slaughtering the Apache kids, Hotch and Blackwolf are first to arrive on the scene. Blackwolf, who eschews firearms, convinces Hotch to apprehend the cultists without using his gun. By the time the rest of the team arrive, they find Blackwolf and Hotch sitting triumphantly on the steps of the school, surrounded by a slew of hogtied cult members.
Fine stuff. Points deducted for a hackneyed subplot in which Hotch squabbles with his hunky younger brother Sean (Eric Johnson, of Smallville and Flash Gordon fame) -- Hotch wants Sean to enroll in law school at Georgetown, while Sean wants to follow his heart and become a chef in New York, and you know, I’m pretty sure I’ve already seen this episode of Dharma & Greg. Also, the Hotchner brothers’ light banter about what their late father would have wanted for his sons seems wildly incongruous, coming as it does just a handful of episodes after “Natural Born Killer,” in which Hotch makes an oblique reference to his scarily abusive childhood. Sean is erased from the show’s continuity after this episode, never to be seen or mentioned again. I’m okay with that.
“The Big Game”/"Revelations” (Season Two)
Sometimes it seems like the Criminal Minds writers spend a lot of their time reading fanfiction about the show in search of plot ideas.
This should not be interpreted as any kind of criticism.
You know what I mentioned earlier about these being my favorite episodes, but not necessarily the best in terms of quality? This is what I’m talking about, right here. This two-part episode is a mess. However, it’s something of a delightful mess.
Tobias Hankel (Dawson’s Creek star James Van Der Beek) is a tech support specialist who plants hidden cameras in his prospective victims’ houses, which he then secretly monitors. As soon as he spots one of his targets committing a Biblical sin (greed, adultery, the usual), he breaks into the house and slaughters him or her, then uploads a video of the murder to the internet. He also likes to call the police from the victim’s house before starting in on the carnage, just to give them a heads-up about the attack. Oh, also? Hankel has three separate personalities: mild-mannered Tobias, his abusive father Charles, and, er, the archangel Raphael.
Yep, it’s a mess. But I mean that in a good way. I think.
(Tobias’s abusive father appears via flashbacks, in which he’s played by Don Swayze. Swayze is a fine actor, but due to his strong resemblance to his more-famous sibling, his presence tends to add a weird veneer of surreality to any project. See also: Frank Stallone, Joe Estevez.)
The BAU (now featuring Paget Brewster as smart, gutsy new profiler Emily Prentiss, who joined the team after Elle went rogue and started stone-cold murdering suspected unsubs) investigates the killings. Reid, who has an unerring knack for wandering into bad situations, promptly gets kidnapped by Hankel, who shoots him up with drugs and brutally tortures him over the course of a couple of days, all while trying to get him to confess to a sin so he can murder him with a clean conscience. This proves difficult, as Reid has led a pretty squeaky-clean life, everything considered. While frantically searching for Reid, the rest of the team watch his drama unfold on live webcam.
The Sturm und Drang builds: Hankel plays Russian Roulette with Reid! Reid suffers drug-induced flashbacks to childhood traumas! Hankel forces Reid to dig his own grave! Hankel makes Reid choose one of his teammates to die in his place! Reid picks Hotch (heh), but manages to pass along a secret message to him via the webcam, which helps the team find Reid and rescue him from Hankel’s clutches.
Like I said, it’s a delightful mess. I can almost forgive it for the way it then kicked off a Very Special “Reid struggles with his newfound drug addiction” plot arc, which wheezed along for several episodes before losing steam and fading away.
“Profiler, Profiled” (Season Two)
Morgan goes home to Chicago to visit his mom and sisters (his cop father was killed in the line of duty while Morgan was a kid). The opening scenes of this episode, in which Morgan tangles with his former gang-member nemesis from his hardscrabble childhood and acts as the cool big brother to some at-risk inner-city kids, are as weirdly wholesome and retro as an A-Team episode, with Morgan subbing for both B.A. (the soft-hearted tough guy) and Face (the ridiculously good-looking chick magnet). Remember how the A-Team spent much of their time helping out at orphanages and community centers? Yeah, that’s pretty much what’s going on here. The goony good fun soon ends, though, when one of the kids turns up dead and Morgan is arrested on suspicion of, yep, being a serial killer.
Well, that seems unlikely.
The rest of the team zip up to Chicago to straighten out all this nonsense. They find out about Morgan’s troubled childhood, which involves an extensive (and improbable) juvenile criminal record for gang activity. Morgan strongly resents his teammates mucking about in his past, even in the interest of helping him out of his present troubles. Distrustful of everyone by nature, he can’t bring himself to confide in the people he’s worked closely with for the past several years: He was sexually abused as a teenager by Carl Buford, a respected community leader/child murderer, who is now attempting to frame Morgan for this most recent killing. In fact, Morgan never does unbend enough to disclose this information. Instead, he slips out of police custody and confronts Buford on his own, extracting a confession for the murder and clearing his own name.
Side note: One of Morgan’s sisters is played by Fame’s Erica Gimpel, who also played Wallace’s mother on the much-missed Veronica Mars. In the epic Veronica Mars/Criminal Minds crossover episode that exists only in my brain, in which Veronica interns for the BAU for course credit while working on her Criminology degree, Morgan turns out to be Wallace’s cool Uncle Derek. Makes sense to me.
“Lucky”/“Penelope” (Season Three)
Not really a two-part episode, per se, but actually two successive episodes, in which a minor subplot in “Lucky” burgeons into the main plot of “Penelope.” In “Lucky,” the team hunts down a cannibalistic serial killer (Jamie Kennedy). It’s a by-the-numbers episode, though it’s worth mentioning the presence of new cast member Joe Mantegna as wry, laconic Dave Rossi, who joins the team as the lead profiler after Gideon leaves at the start of the third season.
Meanwhile, back at Quantico, Penelope Garcia (Kirsten Vangsness), the team’s eccentric technical analyst, meets a handsome stranger (Bailey Chase) in a coffee shop, who takes an immediate romantic interest in her. Garcia confides her uncertainty about this possible new relationship to her good buddy Morgan, who urges her to be cautious. Upset at the implication that she’s not conventionally appealing enough to attract a hot guy unless he has a diabolical ulterior motive, Garcia throws a hissyfit and dates the stranger just to spite Morgan. All goes well… until the stranger drops Garcia off at her apartment at the end of a magical evening, then shoots her in the chest and leaves her for dead.
“Penelope” concerns the team’s attempts to track down Garcia’s attacker and unravel the reason behind the attempted murder while protecting her from further harm. Morgan moves himself into Garcia’s apartment and sleeps on her couch to keep a close eye on her, and I tell you, I am an enormous sucker for the Morgan-Garcia odd-couple relationship, which somehow manages to be cute and sexy and funny and touching all at once. They’re adorable together. The episode is also notable for the first appearance of Kevin Lynch (Buffy’s Nicholas Brendon), Garcia’s fellow FBI technical analyst and eventual long-term boyfriend.
“Pleasure is My Business” (Season Four)
General rule: Any episode where someone calls Hotch a whore is automatically going to rank high among my favorites.
This is a bit brighter and fluffier than the typical installment, but it’s got a lot going for it, starting with Brianna Brown’s guest turn as Megan, a smart, charming, sexy high-class escort who slinks about in frilly lingerie and murders her wealthy and influential johns (but only the ones who are behind in their child support payments -- she’s got standards) with poisoned Perrier-Jouet. When the BAU arrives to investigate, Megan monitors them from afar and develops a sweetly inappropriate crush on Hotch. Hey, you and me both, girlfriend. Because Megan is gobs more likeable than the average unsub (granted, that bar is set pretty low), it hurts to watch her devolve into senseless violence. Throw in a cool appearance from vintage SNL cast member Nora Dunn as a madam-slash-real estate agent who schools Prentiss and Reid in the world of high-priced prostitution, and you’ve got a keeper.
“Faceless, Nameless” (Season Five)
In the Season Four finale, the team solves a grisly, grueling case in Canada, then flies back to Virginia, exhausted and emotionally drained. Hotch returns to his apartment, pours himself a Scotch… and discovers at-large serial killer George Foyet, known to a frightened public as the Reaper, whom the team last encountered in the fourth-season episode “Omnivore,” hanging out in his living room.
Season Five opens with the team, sans Hotch, working on another case. Hotch isn’t answering his phone, and while the team members are a bit surprised by this, they’re not especially concerned. Even for FBI profilers, “overslept and forgot to turn on his phone” is a more logical assumption than “ambushed by a serial killer.”
Prentiss eventually heads over to Hotch’s apartment to drag him out of bed. She finds evidence of a struggle and blood on the carpet, but no sign of Hotch. With Garcia’s help, she finally tracks him down: He’s in the hospital, Foyet having thoughtfully driven him straight to the emergency room after stabbing him nine times.
The team wraps up their current case (which barely warrants mentioning in light of everything that goes on with Hotch in this episode) and rushes to the hospital. When Prentiss asks Hotch about the attack, he claims he can’t remember much. He’s lying.
Hotch flashes back to the attack. It’s awful: Foyet overpowers Hotch, then keeps up a friendly, intimate line of patter with him while stabbing away, making sure to inflict only non-lethal wounds. There’s a tasteful cutaway, and it’s left purposefully vague, but contextual clues in this episode and the ones that follow suggest Foyet rapes him as well. (Interesting tidbit: The CBS teaser promo for this episode overdubbed Foyet’s line, “It goes in so much easier if you relax” to “The blade goes in so much easier.” When combined with the sexually suggestive staging -- shirtless Foyet pinning Hotch to the floor -- the original line was probably a bit too on the nose.)
The episode ends with Hotch’s ex-wife Haley (Meredith Monroe) and son whisked off into protective custody to keep them safe from Foyet (spoiler: it doesn’t work), while Rossi reassures his friend that they’ll find his attacker, someday. Hotch is unconvinced of this.
It’s a hell of an episode. There’s something invulnerable and untouchable about Hotch -- he’s been compared to Captain America more than once in the series, and it fits (see also: the behind-the-scenes featurette where Shemar Moore affectionately refers to Hotch as a Ken doll). Seeing him brought down by Foyet is jolting. Former teen heartthrob C. Thomas Howell -- Tommy Howell to those of us who read a lot of Tiger Beat in the Eighties -- acts his socks off as Foyet: smart, sadistic, obnoxious, and thoroughly nuts (this, after all, is the guy who stabbed himself repeatedly, just to pose as one of the Reaper’s victims and throw the police off the trail).
The next eight episodes deal with the aftermath: Morgan takes temporary charge of the team while Hotch goes rather entertainingly wonky, of the “wandering into a volatile hostage situation without a gun” variety. Still, Hotch more or less manages to keep his marbles together, even as Foyet continues to taunt him from a distance. Events reach a bloody conclusion in “100” (the show’s 100th episode), in which Foyet tracks down and murders Haley, before Hotch beats him to death with his bare hands to prevent him from attacking his son as well. The FBI usually frowns on this sort of behavior from their agents, but in this instance, the top brass considers the circumstances, shrugs, and agrees it was probably a reasonable response.
“The Uncanny Valley” (Season Five)
A mentally ill and badly abused woman named Samantha (Jennifer Hasty) kidnaps young women, injects them with paralysis-inducing medications, dresses them in elaborate hand-sewn costumes, and keeps them as a collection of living dolls. The women remain awake and painfully aware throughout the entire process, unable to do much more than widen their eyes in terror. It’s seriously creepy.
Tempering the creepiness is Reid, who informally takes the lead in the investigation to find the missing women. He’s at his very best here. Reid is always whip-smart, of course, but in this episode, he’s also level-headed and compassionate; his interactions with Samantha, who lacks the mental capacity to realize her actions are wrong, are oddly touching. Special added bonus: an icky guest turn from Commander Riker as Samantha’s pedophile father.