If you’ve heard me talk about anything for more than 30 minutes, it’ll likely come up that I’m a massive Criminal Minds fan. Though I’ve grown up with a fascination of true crime, this show really solidified that for me. The psychology, watered down as it was, gave me insight into people and their minds. In a strange way, it gives me comfort to know that there are psychological explanations for why people do bad things.
For years, this has been my comfort show. No matter what, I’m always in the mood to watch Criminal Minds. Happy? Sad? Angry? Stressed? It can all be made better by a healthy dose of Reid’s genius, Garcia’s sass, Morgan’s flirting, and JJ’s general awesomeness. I frequently reference Reid as one of my top fictional boyfriends too.
If you ask any of my college friends what I watched, chances are that they’ll say it was this. I put it on in the background after a long day, used it as a reward in between homework sessions, and generally had it playing pretty much all the time. One of my proudest moments was when Jemi asked to watch it with me and slowly became invested in the show too. Finally, I had someone to ramble to about all my Criminal Minds trivia and the way I’ve somehow managed to remember over 200 different fictional criminals and their MOs.
With 5.75 re-watches under my belt and many reruns on TV, there are some episodes I’ve seen enough times to know the exact dialogue. It only makes sense to have some favorites after almost a decade of following the show.
Narrowing down only 10 from 323 episodes was hard, but I was careful about how I chose each one. It had to be an episode I thought about a lot, I had to know the case well, I had to get excited each time it came on during a rewatch, and there has to be some kind of character moment I love from the story.
After a lot a careful thought over several months, here are my top 10 Criminal Minds episodes.
Warning: spoilers ahead.
Riding the Lightning (SEASON 1 EPISODE 14)
From the moment I first watched this episode, it became one of my favorites. The concept of someone on death row being innocent isn’t a new one, but the way this episode explores that story is fascinating.
I remember it being one of the first moments I loved JJ as a character. Her interrogation scene with Jacob Dawes is haunting, to say the least. His creepy interest in her while she remains composed and unaffected by him. It still gives me shivers when I watch it.
What I love about the episode is how it becomes one of the earliest examples of the writers slowly revealing that things aren’t what they seem. There’s a moment where you don’t know who is telling the truth. It makes the last 10 minutes so much more intense, especially as you realize that someone might die unfairly.
To this day, I have such conflicting feelings about how it ends. On one hand, I love the way the writers turned things around, but on the other hand, I wish it was slightly happier. Then again, the show isn’t really known for its happy endings.
The Tribe (SEASON 1 EPISODE 16)
There are very few shows that feature Native American characters and plotlines in a non-offensive way, but this is the rare instance of it being done.
What I love is how the writers very openly called out white people for their utter lack of understanding of Native American culture, how everything gets blurred because there’s no real desire to learn. John Blackwolf is likely one of my favorite one-off characters because of how blunt he is in speaking about cultural appropriation.
It’s also to the show’s credit that they made him the expert in this episode. Everything the BAU did or knew, he could do better and know more. The fact that he arrives at a crime scene and immediately corrects everything the cops said only goes to show how great he is. He wasn’t there for the sake of diversity, but to challenge the characters in their thinking and their actions. There are many great scenes of him scolding the white characters for their ignorance, which I greatly appreciated.
Plus the episode has one of my favorite scenes involving Reid and his endless wealth of information.
The Big Game & Revelations (SEASON 2 EPISODE 14 & 15)
There are few episodes that truly scare and disturb me, but this was one of them. When I first watched it, the episode ran in the back of my mind for days on end. The writing and plotting was so incredibly careful, it does wonders to watch the whole thing unfold.
It was the first time we saw the show dive into Dissociative Identity Disorder, something that’s controversial in real life as well as fiction. This was also the beginning of the writers putting Reid through hell and giving him some of the darkest arcs among all the characters. As a two-episode arc, it was one of the strongest the show ever put out, in my opinion.
These two episodes break my heart for so many reasons. Not only do we see Reid go through a really difficult time that follows him for the rest of the season, it also gives us an antagonist that we truly feel bad for. Each new person that I bring through my re-watches always marvels at this episode, both for the complexity of the story and how heartbreaking it is.
I often come back to these two episodes as one of the first examples of Matthew Grey Gublar’s acting skills and how he transformed his character. Him crying in the shed, begging to stay conscious, is a scene that still causes me heartache to this day.
True Night (SEASON 3 EPISODE 10)
Unlike pretty much the rest of the episodes on this list, I love this one purely because it features a comic book artist with a tragic backstory.
Most of the episode focuses on the comic book artist as we see him struggle to get his work done and find restful sleep at night. There’s a lot of confusion about what’s going on until a small piece of the puzzle gets unlocked. It’s from there that we see everything else fall into place and realize that what’s been going on is far more upsetting than we initially realize.
There’s something incredibly sad about the way the episode ends. It’s a case where there was no happy ending possible, no way things could have gone differently. Whenever I think about the closing scene, it saddens me. In fact, that’s how I often remember this episode.
To Hell...& Back (SEASON 4 EPISODE 25 & 26)
For some reason, these specific episodes was frequently rerun in Hong Kong through…I forget which channel it was. Not that I’m mad about their reruns, but these aren’t the episodes I would put on often if I’m trying to get people to watch the show. The story is one of the darkest, creepiest, and most disturbing, in my opinion.
The first time I watched this around Jemi, I warned her that while I love it a lot, it was darker than a lot of the previous episodes we had seen. Even my parents have expressed discomfort because it features a killer who is so unrelenting in his belief that he can get away with doing horrific things.
One of the scenes where he talks to Rossi about his crimes is so perfectly cold and detached. No matter how many times I watch this, it frustrates me that a character like him exists. That there are real people who lack that remorse because everything is entirely about them. I imagine that real killers have that kind of arrogance.
The Company (SEASON 7 EPISODE 20)
Cults! This falls right into my fascination with them and how people end up in cults. In this case, it’s mostly men who want to control women, because obviously that’s the goal in life.
More than that, I love this episode because it dives into a bit more of Morgan’s extended family. Already, we knew that his aunt had been looking for her missing daughter, his cousin, for years. This adds to a story that seemed closed. In typical crime show fashion, nothing is ever fully closed when it comes the family of a main character.
One of the things I love about this episode is that despite the cult being about men forcing women into submission, it’s actually a deeper story about how strong women are. The strength it takes to survive a cult like that, to drops hints about where you are without anyone realizing it, it’s the woman who gets the final say.
Also, I really like seeing disgustingly awful men get what’s coming to them.
Strange Fruit (SEASON 9 EPISODE 9)
I’ve talked about misogny and cultural appropriation already on this list, so let’s add racism to the mix as well.
At it’s core, this is a really sad story about how racism affects generations. It’s an extreme version, but it’s a concrete visual idea of how people react when they’ve been treated badly for being born with a different skin color. How that kind of treatment turns some people into living embodiments of rage and mistrust.
One of the most compelling moment is during an interrogation with one of the suspects. As a Black man being interrogated by a white man, the suspect begins taunting Hotch. It’s not what you’d expect in the moment, but it’s surprisingly refreshing. It’s the flip side - a Black man taught to hate white people so fervently because his father raised him to believe all white people were bad.
The ending is also quite heartbreaking. Finding out what set everything in motion and how that changed generations of children’s lives really makes you think about how Black people were and are still treated now. None of it justifies murder, but it makes you wonder about how people are still more concerned if something happens to a white person than a POC.
Blood Relations (SEASON 9 EPISODE 20)
We’ve got another creepy episode on our hands with a strong spoonful of highly questionable morals. I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for this episode because the storytelling is excellent. Some horrific deaths, but let’s focus on the storytelling.
This is the Criminal Minds version of Romeo and Juliet but with a far darker twist. There’s something so interesting about how the story unfolds, how we spend the majority of it watching an unknown figure killing people with seemingly little logic. Adding in the immense family feud and we’ve got a very tense story that keeps you hooked the whole time.
I don’t condone pretty much anything in this episode, but it makes for such good writing. I can’t help enjoying the plot every time I get to this episode. There might even have been a point in a re-watch with Jemi when I had to calm down a little and explain that while there are disturbing things in this episode, it’s so well done that I can’t help but love it. It’s also a weird one to love when you realize what’s really going on.
Everything about the killer’s explanation for his crimes is so interesting. What might normally feel like an info-dump is concisely written and perfectly polished. I would love to spend more time talking about this moment, but I’d rather you watch the episode for yourself and see how it unfolds. I guarantee that it’ll keep you on the edge of your seat as more and more gets revealed.
Mr. Scratch (SEASON 10 EPISODE 21)
There are only three episodes of Criminal Minds that make me nervous about going to bed and this is one of them. It starts a long arc of Mr. Scratch, a recurring villain who torments Hotch (because who else is there to torment except Hotch and Reid?) and his son.
The opening scene is what gets me. The first time I watched it, I had to watch through my fingers. Yes, that’s how scared I was. That pretty much never happens after a decade of watching this show and many, many other crime shows, but this episode got me. Even thinking about the sound in that opening scene sends shivers down my spine.
To me, it’s always fun when we get an antagonist with genius-level IQ. Not only does it challenge my favorite awkward genius Spencer Reid, but it makes the story far more interesting. It’s rare to find someone formidable enough to bring him back into different arcs across three seasons, but Mr. Scratch is 100% worthy of that.
The episode also touches on what I think is a fascinating moment in history, the Satanic panic and how that affected children.
The Tall Man (SEASON 14 EPISODE 5)
Of all the background arcs that we get throughout the show, this one has taken the longest to come to a conclusion. It focuses on the story behind JJ’s older sister and her death. The first time we hear about it is in Season 5, but there are small mentions of it sprinkled throughout the following seasons.
When I watch this episode, I had no idea the writers had planned to actually give an ending to the pieces of the story we had gotten over the last decade. Some thing just don’t get fully resolved because they are so small, but I should have known better. Criminal Minds surprised me with this well thought-out episode and made it feel satisfying.
Perhaps the thing that stands out to me so much about this episode is how emotional it is. How much meaning it has after seeing all the little pieces of the story from a decade of episodes. The death of her sister has always been a touchy subject for JJ, but this is where we realize just how much happened that she wasn’t aware of because she was so young.
I think the emotional payoff is what makes this episode so special to me. I’ve always loved the moments where we dive into the backgrounds of the main characters and this was no different. I’m glad that they paid such careful attention to crafting a good story, even if it took 10 years.
There we go! My top 10 episodes.
Obviously there are more than 10 episodes that stand out to me, but these are the ones that came to mind the most when I was thinking about it. I spent a lot of time going through IMDB and the wiki page to read each description and write down the ones that I’ve thought about a lot after watching them. It was easy in some cases and harder in others.
Having seen the show so many times, it’s occasionally hard to tell what I truly love because of the story told vs. what I love because it’s a part of a show I love. What counts as a favorite and what is out of pure familiarity.
I’ll definitely do a post like this again in the future because I’ll make any excuse to talk about Criminal Minds anywhere on the Internet. It’s also fun for me to think through all 323 episodes and find the ones that stand out the most. Maybe I’ll even come up with a list of my least favorite episodes because I definitely have those too.
In the meantime, did you think any of these were interesting? Would you watch any of these based on how I talk about them? And if you watch the show, what are some of your favorite episodes?