essential episodes

18 Essential Episodes of Criminal Minds

Photo: CBS

One thing was clear when Criminal Minds premiered in 2005: The show was horrific. That’s not a criticism — it was the initial appeal. The CBS series was the most psychologically gruesome of its early-to-mid-aughts procedural counterparts, at times even surpassing SVU in the kinds of disturbing crimes it featured. This was the very nature of the show, which followed the members of the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit as they tracked down the country’s most disturbing unknown subjects (“unsubs”). Each week introduced a fresh serial killer and an alarmingly creative new way for humans to hurt each other.

The grim nature of the show did not go unnoticed, including by cast members, and the series was characterized by several major actor shake-ups. Mandy Patinkin, who led the team in the first two seasons and abruptly left over “creative differences” at the beginning of the third season, shared his concerns about the darkness of the show in a New York Magazine profile published five years after his departure. He lamented how “destructive” Criminal Minds had been for his soul and how concerned he was about the effect it had on audiences.

But the show, defined not by its terrifying look into the criminal psyche but instead by the found-family aspect of the series, managed to endure and gain a devoted following. Throughout the seasons, the agents of the BAU went from being colleagues to dear friends to de facto family members, carving out a closeness in the day-to-day tragedies they endured. Character-driven episodes began to take precedence, and the series put a focus on long-term, multi-season unsubs who served as personal foes to the team members. The show’s success spanned 15 years, with a final season airing in early 2020, and the series continued to dominate the streaming charts. A Nielsen ratings report revealed it was the most viewed television show of 2021 (per total minutes viewed) among the U.S. streaming platforms tracked by Nielsen, so it was no surprise when Paramount+ announced a revival with most of the cast slated to return.

Criminal Minds: Evolution hits Paramount+ on Thanksgiving Day and boasts a slow burn of a thriller with the entire season tracking an unsub (Zach Gilford) and the new network of serial killers he created during the pandemic. From the creepiest of unsubs to the most devastating main-character arcs, we’ve compiled 18 essential episodes in honor of the return of Criminal Minds.

Criminal Minds is streaming on Paramount+.

“Riding the Lightning” (season one, episode 14)

Although the BAU is usually called in to help identify unknown subjects, they occasionally lend their hand in dealing with particularly tricky known criminals. In “Riding the Lightning,” the team travels to a Florida penitentiary to interview a husband-and-wife serial-killer duo just days before their execution. What starts as a run-of-the-mill attempt to get interview-based profiles for the VICAP (Violent Criminal Apprehension Program) quickly turns into a race against the clock when Jason Gideon (Patinkin) realizes the wife may be innocent. While the husband is a prime example of the most volatile of what the BAU handles, the wife provides the series’ first look into the softer side of what their work can uncover (and how things are rarely black and white).

“Sex, Birth, Death” (season two, episode 11)

Working for the BAU comes with the caveat that your mind has to work a certain way. This plagues the agents over time, especially Dr. Spencer Reid (Matthew Gray Gubler), who is the youngest and most conflicted member of the team. When Reid is approached by a teenager asking a few too many questions about murder, the team learns of a new serial killer in Washington, D.C., who is killing sex workers. The episode allows new team member Emily Prentiss (Paget Brewster) to show she can bite back in an impressive speech to unit chief Aaron Hotchner (Thomas Gibson).

“Revelations” (season two, episode 15)

When an unsub gets the drop on Jennifer “JJ” Jareau (AJ Cook) and Reid, the latter is taken hostage. The team is forced to watch as Reid’s kidnapping is livestreamed by a killer (James Van Der Beek) with three dueling, religiously fueled personalities. It’s certainly not the first time a team member has been in peril, but it is the first time other members of the BAU are privy to seeing one of their own get tortured. Reid is injected with the drug Dilaudid while he’s captive and begins to hallucinate scenes from his childhood. Although the team eventually comes to his rescue, the experience sparks a small drug-dependency arc for the young doctor.

“Seven Seconds” (season three, episode five)

“Seven Seconds” is as close to a bottle episode as Criminal Minds gets. The episode takes place shortly after Patinkin’s sudden departure and keeps the agents almost entirely contained to a local mall where a young girl has just gone missing. As the BAU combs through the locked-down mall, they take turns picking apart the girl’s family members, who quickly begin to buckle under pressure. The high-stakes nature of the episode leaves little room to acknowledge (or even notice) the lack of Gideon and served as proof the show would be just fine without him.

“Penelope” (season three, episode nine)

Tech genius Penelope Garcia (Kirsten Vangsness) proved to be the beating heart and conscience of the BAU within the first few episodes of the series, and her bubbly and idealistic persona served to strengthen the team throughout the next few years, which is why it’s so terrifying when she’s shot point blank by a date in season three. While Garcia fights for her life in a hospital, the team rushes to find the man who shot her and discovers a bit more about the tech specialist’s grief-filled past. The highlight of the episode is Garcia’s friendship with fellow BAU agent Derek Morgan (Shemar Moore), an affectionate but platonic bond that manages to bring levity throughout most of the show’s run.

“Masterpiece” (season four, episode eight)

One of the show’s greatest assets is its stellar guest-star lineup, which saw many big names buck typecasting by playing some truly nefarious characters. One of the best surprises comes in the fourth season, when a narcissistic psychopath (Jason Alexander) approaches Reid and David Rossi (Joe Mantegna) after a university-recruitment lecture. The man shares that he has already killed seven people and that, in a matter of hours, five more will be dead unless the BAU is able to save them. The episode turns into a battle of wits between Reid and the unsub, but it fundamentally breaks down into a challenge for Rossi, the season-three replacement for Gideon. “Masterpiece” allows Rossi to flex his stuff and bring his decades of criminal-profiling experience into play.

“100” (season five, episode nine)

The aptly named 100th episode of Criminal Minds is also the show’s most personally devastating. When the Reaper (C. Thomas Howell), a longtime foe of the BAU, locates Hotchner’s wife and son in witness protection, the team races to their rescue. The story is excruciatingly told in two timelines: in the moment, as the team tries to save Hotchner’s family, and after the fact, during an internal FBI review, when it’s clear something terrible happened. The crushing ending puts a crack in Hotchner’s stoic façade and reminds the team of the personal danger of their work, highlighting the fact that no one is truly safe — especially the ones they love most.

“Mosley Lane” (season five, episode 16)

Criminal Minds is gruesome and often upsetting, but some cases are more devastating than others — especially those involving children. While “Seven Seconds” was a snapshot of a couple of hours with a (somewhat) successful ending, “Mosley Lane” looks at the long-term effects of child abduction (and the families left behind). When a girl goes missing at a fair in Virginia, the mother of another abducted child shows up at the BAU under the impression the same people kidnapped her son. Although the team initially writes off her theory, similarities between the cases point to a pattern of child abduction.

“Lauren” (season six, episode 18)

Season six saw the most sudden and upsetting cast shake-up of the entire series when CBS cut both Cook and Brewster from the cast. JJ is written out in the first few episodes of the season, and Prentiss’s time comes to an end when her past catches up with her. Ian Doyle (Timothy V. Murphy), the IRA terrorist Prentiss had put away when she was doing undercover work as “Lauren” for Interpol, comes back with a vengeance. Prentiss attempts to handle the situation on her own in an effort to protect the team, but the rest of the BAU is soon drawn into the fold. Although Prentiss appears to die in front of Morgan, it’s ultimately revealed that she is alive and in hiding.

“Hit” and “Run” (season seven, episodes 23 and 24)

After much fan outrage, JJ and Prentiss were brought back to the show at the beginning of season seven. The season is strong throughout and helps to solidify the familial closeness of the BAU. In “Hit” and “Run,” the season’s two-part finale, the team investigates a group of murderous bank robbers while Prentiss considers her future with the group. When JJ’s son is taken hostage by the robbers and her partner, Will LaMontagne (Josh Stewart), is drawn into the fold, the case becomes personal. In the end, the team gathers in Rossi’s backyard to watch JJ and Will get married, and Prentiss decides to leave the team and rejoin Interpol. Prentiss dances bittersweetly with each team member, marking the end of an era for Criminal Minds.

“Zugzwang” (season eight, episode 12)

Prentiss’s loss is felt in season eight, and despite a solid performance from new cast member Jeanne Tripplehorn, the new season smartly focuses on fleshing out existing characters. Reid begins an emotional affair with Maeve Donovan (Beth Riesgraf), a geneticist with a stalker, and the two quickly fall in love — despite never meeting in person. In “Zugzwang,” Maeve’s stalker kidnaps her, and Reid attempts to negotiate her survival. The episode concludes with one of the more upsetting outcomes in the series, permanently altering Reid for several years to come.

“The Replicator” (season eight, episode 24)

Season eight is also a solid one for Rossi, who had been serving as a sort of fun uncle for the previous five years. The new era of Criminal Minds allows him to have some true emotional depth and build out his personal life and struggles. He begins sleeping with section chief Erin Strauss (Jayne Atkinson), the prickly but well-meaning supervisor of Hotchner, and discovers one of the most intense unsubs to date: the Replicator (Mark Hamill). The Replicator, a former FBI agent, kills in the style of other serial killers in an effort to attract the attention of the BAU. When he murders Strauss, Rossi confronts him in a final, explosive showdown.

“Mr. Scratch” (season ten, episode 21)

After a mostly Jennifer Love Hewitt–focused tenth season, “Mr. Scratch” serves as a return to form for the BAU. When three people kill their loved ones after hallucinating a creepy, clawed “shadow monster,” the team figures out a new unsub is using psychoactive drugs to get people to commit atrocious acts without even realizing it. While Peter Lewis’s (Bodhi Elfman) actions are initially a revenge effort, he becomes obsessed with Hotchner and successfully gets inside the agent’s head by the end of the episode.

“Entropy” (season 11, episode 11)

It’s hard to keep a show fresh after more than a decade on air and even harder to make a nearly endless supply of criminals seem interesting. But Criminal Minds, with the help of Aubrey Plaza, managed to do just that with “Entropy.” In an effort to take down a group of hit men who are after Garcia, Reid meets with hit woman Cat Adams (Plaza) in an attempt to trap her. The entire team quickly realizes they’ve instead walked into her trap, listening as Reid and Adams try to outsmart each other over a life-or-death dinner. The episode also gives the BAU’s newest member, Dr. Tara Lewis (Aisha Tyler), a chance to flash her skills.

“A Beautiful Disaster” (season 11, episode 18)

Morgan’s tenure with the BAU comes to an end in “A Beautiful Disaster.” Despite being kidnapped and tortured, it’s the threat to his new family that finally convinces him to leave. When his pregnant wife, Savannah Hayes (Rochelle Aytes), is shot in a parking lot, she and the baby must fight for their lives while the BAU attempts to figure out why someone is targeting Morgan. Although the episode has a happy ending, it’s bittersweet for the team since Morgan decides to leave the FBI for a safer career in order to look after his wife and newborn son.

“Elliott’s Pond” (season 12, episode six)

“Elliott’s Pond” is by no means an amazing episode of Criminal Minds, or even one of the better parts of season 12, but it represents a transitional moment for the series. The episode takes the team to Delaware, where three children have gone missing in the exact spot where an abduction took place 30 years prior. Complex and disturbing, it’s a run-of-the-mill case for the BAU. Meanwhile, the team learns that Hotchner (who’s been away “on special assignment” for the past few episodes) has actually gone into witness protection with his son. A threat emerged from Mr. Scratch, and Hotchner ultimately resigned (in reality, Gibson was dismissed from the show after an on-set altercation). Prentiss, who had been on loan from Interpol and temporarily helping out the team, is named the new BAU unit chief (marking Brewster’s final, official return as series regular). The change launches the show into its newest, final form.

“And in the End” (season 15, episode ten)

The original ending of Criminal Minds allows the BAU to wrap up a long-term case with Everett Lynch (Michael Mosley), a multi-season serial killer with a personal vendetta against Rossi. Reid, meanwhile, struggles with a brain injury and hallucinates encounters with former prominent Criminal Minds characters (including Maeve, who lets him know it’s his choice whether he wants to continue living). While the case leads to a fiery and explosive final shootout (with a decidedly Die Hard 2–esque ending), the focus of the episode is on the BAU’s party at the end. The team once again gathers in Rossi’s backyard, this time to celebrate a departing Garcia (who is leaving to work at a nonprofit), and the group toasts their family members and promises to keep one another in their hearts.

18 Essential Episodes of Criminal Minds