The Plot of Every Episode of Criminal Minds


Criminal Minds is a cop show police procedural drama that deals with the Behavioral Analysis Unit (BAU) of the FBI, and how they profile and catch serial killers. It’s well-written, interesting, action-packed, and has a great cast. During the 2010-2011 TV season, it was the tenth-highest rated primetime show – and if you consider just the dramas (removing American Idol, Dancing with the Stars, and football), it’s number 4 behind NCIS, NCIS: Los Angeles, and The Mentalist. Gail loves this show and I enjoy it as well, but some episodes seem a little formulaic. If you’ve never seen it, fear not – here is a plot summary of the majority of episodes thus far:CriminalMinds 

Opening: We meet the psycho killer (usually a man) and his most recent victim (usually a woman). The victim is killed and the body dumped.

Cut to someone finding the body and the subsequent police investigation. Hey, this killing is similar to that one last week, and that other one three weeks ago. We better call in the FBI.

Opening credits.

Fade in on a small airplane in flight. Someone, usually Hotch or Rossi, does a voice-over of a meaningful quotation. It’s a little-known fact that Thomas Gibson, who plays Hotch, is contractually forbidden from smiling on Criminal Minds – he’s been really grumpy since Dharma left. Joe Mantegna (Rossi) is the older veteran who frequently gives advice to his younger colleagues. He doesn’t seem old enough to be grandfatherly, but he’s at least friendly – he replaced Inigo Montoya Mandy Patinkin after a couple of seasons because it was decided that having two actors who weren’t allowed to smile was a total downer for the audience.

After the quotation, we cut to the plane’s interior, where the members of the BAU are examining how the victims were abducted and the locations of the body dumps. I’m always impressed at how they can talk about whatever town they’re going to like they’ve lived there all their lives. They can look at a map and know what the locals call each part of the town, and whether a particular section of town is industrial or residential or new or old or rich or poor. They talk about the “unsub” (short for unidentified subject) and what’s making him do these terrible things based on who he’s selected as his victims and how they are abducted, tortured, killed, and disposed of.

Cut back to another person who is vaguely similar to the first victim we saw – usually in looks, occasionally in some other way like occupation. We see the killer stalking and eventually abducting her.

The BAU has arrived at the crime scene and is finding all sorts of clues that the local police missed. Police across the country must hate this show, since they are frequently portrayed as well-meaning and willing to help but not very effective on their own. The team adjourns to a meeting room in the local police station, where they find links between the victims with the help of über-hacker Penelope Garcia. If you ever watch NCIS, Garcia is the Abby of this show – both are sweet, extroverted women with mad haxor skillz and an outlandish wardrobe. Abby loves all her co-workers like family while Garcia is flirty with the men and never talks to the women. Garcia seems to be just a hacker, while Abby is a general forensic scientist with advanced knowledge of other things like chemistry, molecular biology, and weapons. Just like all other computer forensic people on TV, Garcia types queries in English and never uses a mouse. She can instantly cross-reference things in any database in the world, with vague references like “look for someone with an unfinished degree in American literature, who owns a gray or silver Honda sedan, and whose mother died of lung cancer in the mid-90’s.”

After another glimpse of the killer and his next victim, we have a big meeting with all the local police officers and the BAU team. The team explains the profile to the cops, telling them what kind of person they are looking for, and giving hints as to what kinds of behaviours they might see. “We’re looking for a white male, 40-45, probably tall, say 6’2″ to 6’4”. He’s confident but not very friendly; not the life of the party, but not a loner either. He may work as a welder or in construction. When eating an Oreo, he doesn’t pull it apart and scrape the filling off with his teeth. [“What a psycho” says one of the cops.] His victims are tall dark-haired left-handed women 25-30 with glasses. He meets them at Citibank – they start to talk when she borrows his pen.”

Back to the killer. We get a little bit of insight in to how he thinks or why he’s doing this, usually a flashback to his childhood as he remembers something his mother / father / teacher / caregiver did or didn’t do, or some traumatic event like when his brother died in a bizarre gardening accident.

The team splits up. Some go to interview people associated with the crime – hotel managers, store owners, taxi drivers – while some stay behind and continue analyzing the existing evidence. Some of the people interviewed are quite obviously innocent, but at least one matches the profile and seems shifty. Another major clue is found – a link between the victims or crimes that wasn’t noticed before. The suspect pool gets pared down, but they still don’t have a name.

Another cut to the unsub and his victim. His torture is almost done and she realizes she’s likely going to die soon.

At this point, Derek calls Garcia again asking for more information, and she flirts shamelessly with him, usually on speakerphone. Strangely, none of the other team members is uncomfortable about listening to this, even though her version of “flirting” might get her fired from most jobs that don’t involve phone sex. Someone on the team has has just discovered some little tidbit and when Garcia adds that to her query, she finds the unsub’s name. He’s either someone they have already talked to (but not the shifty guy), or he works or used to work at the same place as someone they’ve already talked to. Another query and Garcia finds his address. They go there. He’s not home.

Now that they know the killer’s identity, they try to figure out where he might be holding his next victim. The killer, who usually doesn’t know his identity has been discovered, sticks to his MO thus making him easier to find. He’s generally holed up in the house he grew up in, or a cottage or business left to him by a dead relative, or an abandoned building near where he used to work, before he was fired a few weeks ago. Eventually Derek searches the house with his gun drawn, showing off his sculpted muscles. Hey Derek, you’re obviously an XL, so you really should stop buying those L sized T-shirts.

After a standoff with Derek and/or Hotch, the killer is cornered and usually arrested. Unless: he’s not just a killer, he’s a sadistic torturer and general whack-job, in which case he’s killed. Unless: he’s a sadistic torturer and general whack-job who gets under the skin of someone on the BAU team, in which case he’s arrested and will escape from custody in a future episode.

Regardless of what happens to the killer, the abducted person survives and after another meaningful quotation, the team flies home.

So there you go – six seasons of Criminal Minds in one handy place. You’re welcome.

Postscript: When this article was mostly done, I decided to watch an episode of Criminal Minds from beginning to end while paying attention to what I’d written, just to confirm the order of events and such. We didn’t have any recorded, so I started looking through the PVR guide for upcoming episodes. For two weeks I looked for one that might match my “summary”, but I couldn’t find one. “Nope, that’s a season finale with a cliffhanger, that’s an episode focussed solely on Reid, that’s one where one or more members of the BAU are themselves kidnapped, that’s one where they know who the killer is from the start, …” Here I am with an article on how formulaic this show is, and then I couldn’t find an episode that matched the formula. More irony for you.

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