Criminal Minds: 25 to Life

So it’s been a year since Haley’s murder and all the associated awfulness (which I’ve decided to collectively refer to as the Hotchpocalypse), and Hotch is taking some time off to be with his son. Ergo, this is a Hotch-free episode.

No Hotch? At all?

…The hell?

Twenty-five years ago, Donald Sanderson (Kyle Secor) was convicted of murdering his wife and daughter in their DC-area home. He’s now up for parole, and he’s been a model inmate, so Morgan heads to the prison to determine if it’s safe to release him into polite society. Sanderson tells Morgan he’s innocent, claiming a trio of unknown assailants broke into his house and killed his family. “Do you have any idea what it’s like to be accused of something you didn’t do?” he asks. Why, yes indeedy, Morgan certainly does. So Morgan goes off and thinks some really deep thoughts about the appropriate course of action. Seriously, we get a pre-credits montage of Morgan furrowing his sexy brow while thinking, and it’s already obvious this episode is going to be padded out all the way to hell and back. After much soul-searching, he recommends parole for Sanderson.

And two days after his release, Sanderson goes out and kills some dude.

Morgan interrogates Sanderson, who claims he killed the man, Tom Wittman, in self-defense -- he visited Wittman to grill him on his suspected involvement in his wife’s murder, Wittman attacked him, and Sanderson had no choice but to stab him. Morgan gets shouty with him, and Sanderson continues to maintain his innocence, and they have one of those long, flabby scenes where both parties talk in endless circles and very little pertinent information comes out.

As with last week’s episode, this premise is filled with plenty of good potential. Also, Kyle Secor (remembered fondly by many for Homicide: Life on the Street, though he’ll always be Veronica Mars’ Jake Kane to me) is a swell guest star. Despite all that, it’s a tedious mess. It’s tempting to point to Hotch’s absence as the source of the problems -- he anchors the show, after all, and it quickly becomes rudderless and adrift without him -- but more to the point, they’re all working off of a weak and unfocused script, and thus this episode is doomed to go nowhere good.

At the time of the murders, Tom Wittman was a teenager who worked at the corner grocery store and who continually perved on Sanderson’s wife. During Sanderson’s incarceration, it (somehow) dawned on him that Wittman was one of the home invaders who killed his wife and daughter, though he never bothered to pass along this information to, like, a lawyer or someone and instead waited patiently in prison for years and years until being granted parole so he could rush out and confront Wittman himself.

Morgan and Rossi take Sanderson back to his old house to revisit the crime scene and try to recall what happened. Sanderson remembers Wittman, plus another man and a woman, attacking his wife and daughter. Garcia identifies the woman as a petty criminal named Mary Rutka. When Prentiss and Morgan head over to Mary’s place, they find she’s been brutally murdered. While examining the body, Prentiss gets Mary’s blood on her hands, which she then cleans off obsessively, to the extent that it draws Morgan’s attention. This bit of oddness is never mentioned again, and while I’m sure it’ll be revisited sometime down the road, probably as an indication that Prentiss is starting to unravel from the stress of the job, it still seems glaring and weird.

Oh, also? Young Agent Ashley Seaver is still along for the ride, having been granted permission from Hotch to finish out her training in the BAU. It was hard to find a graceful point in this recap to mention this, because she’s given very, very little to do in this episode.

Prentiss and Morgan find a dusty VHS tape in Mary’s apartment, which shows Mary and Wittman and an unidentified man breaking into the Sanderson home. The team starts working to find the third man, who presumably also killed Mary to make sure she stayed silent about the Sanderson murders. Extrapolating wildly, they determine he’s an asset-based lender (?), and from there pinpoint him as Congressional candidate James Stanworth (Philip Casnoff), whose family used to own the Sanderson home. Stanworth’s current campaign slogan is “Let’s Do This,” which is a phrase the unidentified man on the tape is heard saying before attacking the Sandersons, and… this is weak, guys.

Section Chief Strauss twirls her mustache in a villainous manner, cackles a bit, and, for no good reason other than to throw some conflict into the paths of our stalwart heroes, refuses to let Morgan arrest Stanworth. Unpopular opinion: I secretly dig Strauss and quietly admire her borderline-nonsensical attempts to undermine and discredit the BAU at every turn. Her open scheming to bring down Hotch in seasons past was so weirdly over-the-top that it ended up being sort of hilarious.

Anyway, the team ignores Strauss’s orders, as usual. Morgan and Rossi and Prentiss crash a fundraising gala at Stanworth’s house, whereupon Morgan needles him into confessing to the murders. Sanderson’s name is cleared, Morgan’s judgment is validated, and Criminal Minds heads off into its winter hiatus a little worse for wear.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to get my delayed weekly Hotch fix by heading over to YouTube and watching one of the several billion fan-made music videos featuring the FBI’s very own ultra-grim angel of death running around in a bulletproof vest while shooting everyone. I’m partial to this one, if only because it’s set to that awesome Chris Cornell song from Casino Royale. New episodes return in mid-January, and Hotch, buddy, please don’t ever leave us again.

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