Criminal Minds has been in the news a lot lately, what with Thomas Gibson’s firing for violence on the set (No!), Aisha Tyler’s move to a permanent spot on the cast (Yes!), Adam Rodriguez’s addition to the cast (Jury’s still out!), the news that Paget Brewster’s return will be permanent (Double hooray!), and the fact that this will be the first season without Shemar Moore (Boo). Since the new season starts in a few weeks, now seems like a good time to revisit what gives this show its endurance.
It’s not the depravity of the crimes, despite the hype. The “Unsubs”—unknown subjects who commit them—are usually pretty horrifying, it’s true, and can take their toll on the viewers as well as the actors. But it’s the heroes of the Behavior Analysis Unit (the BAU) that make the show what it is. In the face of Unsubs who kidnap, torture, and torment, our behavioral analysts step in week after week to put themselves in harm’s way, face down the awfulness, and save the day. Are they perfect? Nope. But sometimes they come pretty damned close.
Here are our 15 Most Heroic Moments From Criminal Minds.
15. Reid in “Elephant’s Memory”
When high schooler Owen Savage goes on a killing spree, it’s Spencer Reid (Matthew Gray Gubler) who knows how best to profile him, because he knows what it’s like to be him. The whole town is ready to find Owen and gun him down, but Reid alone remains sympathetic, remembering what it was like to be the loneliest kid in the school, publicly tormented and abandoned. When they start closing in on Owen, Reid hands his bulletproof vest over to Hotch, saying he won’t be a part of what’s to come. He knows Owen is going to force the police to shoot him.
But when the showdown comes, Reid walks into the middle of it, handing Prentiss his gun before he steps right into Owen’s path, his hands outstretched. When the BAU shows up, he positions himself between them and Owen, blocking their shot. He offers up sympathy instead of condemnation: “I know the harder you tried, the worse it got, and it felt like everybody just stood there watching you suffer. Not a single person even tried to help,” Reid tells him.
14. Gideon in “Plain Sight”
The BAU is asked to help stop The Tommy Killer, a serial killer who rapes and murders women, then glues their eyes open. When the police failed to connect his first few murders, he started leaving snippets of 16th century ballads at the crime scenes to help them connect the dots. He desperately wants his 15 minutes of fame.
At one of the the crime scenes,Jason Gideon (Mandy Patinkin) puts himself in the exact same position as the attacked women, realizing that they are always made to face the telephone pole outside. The Tommy Killer works for the phone company and can see right into their windows. By identifying with the victim, Gideon is able to understand what makes this killer tick.
They pin down the neighborhood of his next target and split up to check out individual houses. Gideon hits the right one. He goes in alone, gun drawn. Franklin Graney, AKA The Tommy Killer, is upstairs, holding a woman at gunpoint. Gideon tells him Graney that if he shoots her, Gideon kill him and his reputation will die with him. Gideon tells Graney exactly what he needs to hear: that if he survives, everyone will know who he is, for all eternity.
It works. Graney, desperate for notoriety, makes Gideon promise to tell everyone all about him, and hands over the gun. And Gideon, who knows that it’s the victims we’re supposed to remember, doesn’t keep his promise.
13. Hotch in “Tabula Rasa”
Tabula rasa means “blank slate” in Latin, and in this case it refers to Brian Matloff, a serial killer who ends up in a coma after running from Morgan. When he wakes, he has focal retrograde amnesia, and therefore no memory of his identity or his crimes. He is put on trial anyway.
His lawyer, Lester Sterling, insists that he was wrongly arrested in the first place, claiming the arrest was based more on the BAU’s profiling than on concrete evidence. While Aaron “Hotch” Hotchner (Thomas Gibson) is on the stand, Sterling calls profiling “intellectual guesswork” and scoffs that Hotch couldn’t even tell him the color of his socks “with any greater accuracy than a carnival psychic.”
With the reputation of the BAU at stake, Hotch picks up the gauntlet. Without a change in tone or facial expression, he gives Sterling a laundry list bio, beginning with the color of his socks and the reason he chooses them. After he has calmly outlined Sterling’s failing finances, his reason for taking the case, the lifts in his shoes, and his fake Rolex, he tells the court that Sterling is betting on horse races, and judging by his increasingly bad mood, is not doing very well. “If I’m not mistaken,” he says, “the results from the fifth race should be coming through any minute.”
12. Sarah Jean Mason in “Riding The Lightning”
This time, it’s not a member of the BAU who does something extraordinary to save someone. Sarah Jean Mason (Jeannetta Arnette) and her husband, Jacob Dawes, have been convicted of the murders of over a dozen young women and sentenced to death. On the day of their execution, the team comes to the prison to ask them if there are any victims they haven’t found yet, and to get to the bottom of what happened to Riley, their son. The story has it that Jacob forced Sarah Jean to kill him, but the details don’t quite connect.
Jacob is unrepentant, while Sarah Jean is calm and gracious, even gentle. As Gideon questions her, he realizes that she didn’t know Jacob was torturing and killing women until he was caught. She has been on death row for 15 years for crimes she didn’t commit. He discovers that Riley is still alive, living with a family and completely unaware of who he really is. Sarah Jean is protecting him, not just from Jacob, while he is still alive, but from his parents’ legacy after their deaths.
If Gideon proves that Riley is alive, Sarah Jean will be saved, but she insists on dying to protect her son from becoming Jacob’s last victim. Gideon embraces her before she goes to the electric chair, and pulls the team back from revealing the truth that would stop her execution. Grateful, she asks if his face can be the last one she sees before she dies.
11. Rossi in “Damaged”
David Rossi (Joe Mantegna) has been haunted by a case for 20 years, and when the team rally around him to help. He’s still tormented by guilt about not being able to solve it, but they refuse to let him bear that burden on his own any longer. JJ has the power to put any case she likes on the BAU’s roster, and insists on doing so.
The murder victims were the parents of three young children who are now in their twenties and still living in the shadow of the crime. The now-grown kids tell Rossi to back off; staying in contact with him is preventing them from moving on with their lives. Then they add that he should stop sending them gifts. Gifts? Turns out he hasn’t been sending them anything. The gifts are cheap carnival toys, and provide the missing clue to help lead them to the killer.
All of that is very nice and gives them closure, but it turns out Rossi has been doing more than brooding for the past 20 years. He bought the house they had lived in and kept it in pristine shape. When the crime is solved, he hands over the keys, and tells them they will get a good price when they sell it. He has been keeping it for them for decades, and is now giving them a fresh financial start to get their lives in order, finally. They ask if they can keep in touch. Grateful, Rossi agrees.
10. JJ in “The Longest Night”
Tim Curry plays a killer terrorizing Los Angeles during a series of rolling blackouts in “The Longest Night”. Billy Flynn has an obsession with the Spicer family that goes back decades. He kills Detective Spicer (after having killed his parents when he was a child), rapes and beats his sister, and kidnaps his daughter Ellie. In the midst of this cruelty and terror, there are multiple acts of heroism to be found.
Ellie, forced to become Flynn’s accomplice, betrays him and tells a little boy to warn the entire neighborhood. Morgan takes on Flynn alone, though he’s still tormented by the vision of Detective Spicer being shot dead in front of him. But the biggest moment comes right before that, when Jennifer “JJ” Jareau (A.J. Cook) is asked by Hotch to make a personal appeal to Flynn over the radio.
This isn’t familiar territory for JJ. She’s usually the press representative and team coordinator, not the person who talks down Unsubs. She’s terrified, clearly wishing Hotch would step in and handle it with his usual expertise. But it has to be her; he can’t get there in time.
She stumbles at first, and then she reaches deep into her soul and appeals to him as a mother and human being. It’s her biggest moment in the series so far, when she has to step outside her comfort zone and find some humanity in a killer no matter how heinous she thinks he is. She succeeds and he lets Ellie go.
9. Kevin Lynch in “Penelope”
In two-part episode it’s really hard to hone in on a single act of heroism: should it be Garcia helping former crime victims get closure in her off hours? Or Morgan insisting on staying at her side when she comes home after being shot?
The winning moment belongs to Kevin Lynch (Nicholas Brendon), a data analyst who’s almost as good as Garcia. He’s there to fill in while she’s recovering, and they engage in a flirtatious battle of computer skills, both trying to determine who shot her. They identify Jason Clark Battle, a deputy sheriff who shoots people so he can get credit for saving them. Too bad he doesn’t always succeed, and when he thinks Garcia is onto him, he tries to silence her… permanently.
At the office, Agent Fuchs orders Lynch help Battle delete his case files from the FBI’s computers. But Lynch has seen Battle’s photo and recognizes him instantly. He stalls as much as possible and sends Garcia a video feed of the office, where Battle is hovering over his shoulder. She warns the rest of the team and thanks to the video feed, Prentiss is able to tell from Battle’s body language the minute he realizes they’re onto him. When he takes Fuchs at gunpoint, we get a burst of heroism from JJ, who shoots him through the doors of her office. While she did the actual shooting, it’s still Lynch who saved the day by risking himself to warn them.
8. Ashley Seaver in “What Happens At Home”
Three women have been killed within one gated community, and the BAU is down a member, with JJ forced into a new job with the Department of Defense. Enter Ashley Seaver (Rachel Nichols), an FBI cadet with a unique family history that makes her a perfect candidate to help catch a serial killer: she’s the daughter of one. Seaver’s unique perspective might be just the thing they need.
She’s only a cadet, but she’s as brave as the rest of them. She visits the husband and daughter of the most recent victim, hoping to offer some comfort. Seaver tells them that she knows the family of the murderer will feel shame and want to apologize to the victims, and the father keeps asking her how she knows. His intense questions give him away, and she realizes that he’s the killer.
Here’s where the heroism comes in: while Seaver has a knife to her throat, she’s not thinking about herself, but of the killer’s daughter. She doesn’t beg for her own life, but instead for him to send his daughter out of the room, so she won’t spend the rest of her life haunted by the vision of her father killing someone. Seaver has suffered her whole life because of her father’s crimes, and when her own life is in danger, she is focused only on preventing the same guilt from haunting another killer’s daughter.
7. Hotch in “The Fisher King: Part 2”
This scene is a powerful one, and even though it’s not about saving lives or preventing tragedy, it’s still a hero’s moment, and it’s all Hotch. It comes at the very end of the series’ first two-parter. Each member of the team has been pursued, threatened, and made vulnerable, but none more so than Greenaway, who was shot by the Unsub and then lay there bleeding as he wrote the word “rules” on her wall with her blood.
After the killer has been caught and Elle is recovering in the hospital, Hotch comes back to her house, alone. We watch him snap on gloves, fill a bucket with water and soap, take it to the living room, and slowly start scrubbing. It’s going to be an arduous task, now that the blood has been there for a while. It’s physical, it’s painstaking, it’s emotional, it’s powerful. Not a word is spoken. As he works, you can see he’s going to be there for hours, because he believes that Greenaway should never have to see what’s there. It’s Hotch, so he’s going to be meticulous; there won’t be a trace of the blood left when he’s done. And it will take him all night. Not all heroic moments happen in peril.
6. Nancy Riverton in “Safe Haven”
Every once in a while, a Criminal Minds victim finds a way to get some control over their situation. In “Safe Haven”, Mare Winningham plays Nancy Riverton, a nurse with two kids and a heart of gold. She picks up Jeremy, who she thinks is a lost teenager. Unfortunately for her, he turns out to be a psychopath, hated by his mother even before he was born when she learned he’d devoured his own twin in the womb, and now extremely dangerous at only 13 years old.
Jeremy wakes Nancy’s kids up in the middle of the night and ties them up, hoping to scare her for a while before killing them all, but she surprises him. When the BAU frees the kids a few hours later, they report that their mom left with Jeremy. They ask why she told Jeremy that he was a good kid who did nothing wrong, and why she left with him while they were still tied up. Prentiss explains that their mom understood how dangerous Jeremy was, and did what she had to do to get him out of the house and save their lives.
Cut to Nancy and Jeremy in the car. He’s holding a knife, toying with her, and she’s doing her best to pacify him. She’s offered to drive him wherever he needs to go, and while she gets stabbed when they finally arrive, she survives. Pretty primal stuff, risking your life for your kids, and as heroic as it gets.
5. Prentiss in “Minimal Loss”
Remember the Waco siege? So does the BAU, and that’s exactly what they want to avoid when Reid and Emily Prentiss (Paget Brewster) go undercover as “child victim interview experts” investigating possible child abuse within a religious cult in Colorado. Luke Perry plays Benjamin Cyrus, the leader of the cult.
As often happens with cults who live in self-sufficient compounds, things go south, and Reid and Prentiss find themselves in the middle of an armed conflict. Rossi sends in medical supplies, planting some microphones in with them so the FBI can hear what’s going on.
When the news reports that an FBI agent has infiltrated the compound, Cyrus–who has a TV, of course–holds a gun on Reid and demands to know which one of them it is. Prentiss makes a quick judgment call and tells Cyrus that it’s her, saving Reid and recognizing that he has a better chance of communicating with Cyrus than she does. Cyrus proceeds to beat the living crap out of her.
It’s a brutal beating, but no matter how hard he hits, kicks, and punches her, she keeps saying, “I can take it.” Cyrus thinks she’s baiting him, but the BAU, who can hear every word, know she’s telling them not to come in yet. The long term goal is to keep as many people alive as possible, and if the timing is wrong, no one’s going to get out alive. So Prentiss takes it, again and again, as she gets more bruised and more bloody.
4. Reid in L.D.S.K.
At the beginning of this episode, Hotch is helping Reid practice his shooting, because he keeps failing his firearms qualification test. Reid is still the only unarmed member of the team, isn’t comforted when Hotch reminds him of Gideon’s philosophy that you don’t have to carry a gun to kill someone. “And yet you carry two of them,” he tells Hotch. Remember this: it’ll come in handy later.
In Texas, the team is tracking down a sniper. Once they realize that their killer works at the local hospital, they head over and Hotch describes him to a harried staff member. “He’s in his thirties. He’s vain, rude, arrogant. He works out. He shows up to work late. He blames others for his mistakes, doesn’t take responsibility for his behavior. All of his coworkers detest him.” We get one of those classic Criminal Minds moments of recognition, when the light dawns. “It’s Philip Dowd.”
Dowd quickly takes hostages, including Reid and Hotch, who he disarms. With the SWAT team gearing up to burst in, Hotch pretends to identify with Dowd and goes on an angry rant how useless Reid is. Dowd eats it up, and encourages Hotch to kick Reid as he reels off a litany of complaints. Reid gets it. As he’s being kicked repeatedly in the stomach, he grabs the gun from Hotch’s sneaky secret ankle holster (his second gun, remember?) and shoots Dowd right between the eyes. The SWAT team stops in their tracks.
3. Morgan in “Mayhem”
It’s an undeniable Criminal Minds fact that Derek Morgan (Shemar Moore) is the guy you’d want protecting you if you were in mortal danger. In “Mayhem”, he saves a hospital from blowing up by driving a bomb-rigged ambulance away from the city at top speed. It’s practically superhuman.
Garcia is on the phone, directing him, as he drives, so she knows what he’s doing and how dangerous it is. It’s a very Jack Bauer-like moment for Morgan as he speeds away, knowing that he has 30 seconds left before the bomb goes off. “Why does it have to be you?” Garcia asks him, oozing distress. She keeps telling him to get out of the car, put he puts it off until the last possible second, waiting until he can get to an isolated spot. “You know what you are, Garcia?” he asks. Then the ambulance explodes.
A long, long moment later, Garcia hears his voice again. He’s standing just outside the explosion, panting and out of breath. “I’ll tell you what you are to me. You’re my god-given solace.”
2. Prentiss in “Hit/Run”
We could’ve easily filled half the list with this two-part episode, but the big moment is when Will—who happens to be JJ’s boyfriend and the father of her child—is taken hostage and left chained up with a bomb strapped to him. JJ has just finished kicking the living crap out of the woman who took their son Henry, but doesn’t know that Will is still in peril, or that one of her best friends is about to risk her life to save him.
Prentiss find Will and refuses to leave his side, no matter how much he begs her to. She starts making educated guesses at the four-digit code that will stop the countdown on the bomb. With less than a minute to go, she finally makes the right guess and the timer stops, but the moment it does that, another timer snaps open with only thirty seconds on it, and four wires connecting it. Prentiss has to decide which wire to cut.
She does it with literally one second to spare. The whole time she’s with Will, she never falters for a moment, and not for even a millisecond does she consider any other course of action.
It’s a bittersweet episode about the ties of family, as JJ fights for her soulmate and her son. At the end, Rossi throws JJ and Will a surprise wedding, and Prentiss leaves the BAU. This show has plenty of life-affirming moments, and this one goes out on the highest of high notes.
1. Morgan in “Empty Planet”
If you’d never watched Criminal Minds before and stumbled across this scene, it would hook you immediately. You don’t need to know anything else about the episode or even the series to see the courage, integrity, and humanity that Morgan has; it’s all right here in this scene, and in his eyes.
Dr. Brasier has just gotten into her car when she’s stopped by the FBI– there’s a bomb under her seat. Getting out of the car or turning off the ignition will trigger it, so her only hope for survival is to sit there and wait for the bomb squad to remove it safely, which is going to take some time. She is terrified, and quietly tearful. When she hears Hotch order Morgan to step away from the car, Dr. Braiser tells him to listen to Hotch, but he won’t. He’s staying by her side, her hand in his, as he looks her right in the eye with strength and courage, telling her that they are in this together. It’s a beautiful, brave moment that brings out the very best of Criminal Minds and all of its characters: they will all do anything to protect the innocent, no matter what the risk to themselves… until they leave the show.
The 12th season of Criminal Minds premieres Wednesday September 28th at 9:00 ET/ 8:00 CT on CBS.