The 20 Best Criminal Minds Episodes, Ranked
The show Criminal Minds has a long and storied history, and here's our ranking of the top ten best episodes in the entire series.
Through 14 seasons, Criminal Minds has delivered some of the most twisted and shocking serial killer cases to ever hit television. The show, though, is not just about the FBI solving crimes, catching serial killers, and saving lives. This is a show that remained fully invested in the lives of its characters and the mental stress that working a job like this can place on someone.
From the start with Gideon and Hotchner leading the BAU with Prentice, Spencer, and Derek to the additions of JJ, Rossi, and Ashley, plus the always delightful Penelope Garcia, the character moments are what made the show so popular for so many years. With season 15 promising to mark the end, here is a look at the best episodes from the first 14 seasons of Criminal Minds.
With 15 seasons, Criminal Minds came to an end, and by that time, there were 324 total episodes of the hit crime procedural series. This left a lot of episodes for fans to see some of the most twisted unsubs in Criminal Minds history. It also allowed hardcore fans to say goodbye to beloved characters like Morgan and Hotch and watch the eventual fates of people like Reid and Emily. With so many great Criminal Minds episodes throughout the 15 years of stories, we have found more great ones you should check out if you’re wanting to binge-watch the best of Criminal Minds.
The Replicator (S8E24)
The main villain of the eighth season of Criminal Minds was none other than Mark Hamill who portrayed John Curtis, also known as The Replicator. He was an interesting villain since he was a former FBI special agent with a genius-level IQ who turned into a serial killer. In season 8, he started to create copycat crimes of cases the BAU solved in the past.
There have been few deaths of the main Criminal Minds characters, but that changed in the episode “The Replicator” when Curtis killed BAU Section Chief Erin Strauss as revenge when he was left to take the blame on an older case. This season finale featured a huge loss, a great climactic scene, and it was a perfect goodbye for the season.
Mosley Lane (S5E16)
One aspect of crime dramas that can turn people off is a lot of the cases involve children. A point in Criminal Minds’ favor is that it always handles those stories delicately, just as the writers did with “Mosley Lane.”
The episode saw JJ visited by the mother of a missing child when a new, and very similar case, became public knowledge. JJ realized that there was a distinct possibility that the woman’s son was still being held. The storyline involved several kids being raised as a “family” by their kidnappers. It was one about hope for the families of missing people.
Minimal Loss (S4E3)
“Minimal Loss” was just the third episode of the fourth season of Criminal Minds, but it ended up being very important, and it even played a big role in arguably one of the best episodes of the entire series with “300” over 10 years later. The episode pulled its inspiration from the 1993 Waco standoff with David Koresh.
Luke Perry starred in the episode as Benjamin Cyrus, the leader of a cult who goes on the defensive when the FBI comes in to investigate claims of child abuse at the compound. The episode saw Prentiss and Reid captured inside the compound when a gun battle begins between law enforcement and the cult members, and the end is twisted when the victims take the side of Cyrus in the fight.
“Amplification” is a Season 4 Criminal Minds episode and features a terrorist and serial killer by the name of Chad Brown. The unsub in this episode wanted to do one thing — he wanted to show the people of America how vulnerable the county was to a terrorist attack, and to do this, he became a homegrown terrorist who carried out an anthrax attack. What hits home here is that Reid is infected with anthrax and tries to help find the real unsub from quarantine before he dies. Luckily, there was an antidote.
“Mayhem” is the season 4 premiere as the BAU investigates the bombing of an SUV in New York City that was carrying a member of the team. This explosion happened in the season 3 finale, so it had a lot to live up to since fans had to wait till season 4 to learn if someone they loved died. It lived up to expectations, and no more.
This episode was not so much of a search and rescue as it was a nail-biting thriller, with Hotch and NY special agent Kate Joiner forced to keep first responders away after they were injured in the bombing because the attackers targeted first responders. This also started a level of tension between Hotch and Derek that opened the season on a very high note.
Mr. Scratch (S10E21)
While Criminal Minds typically explores the psychology of serial killers, this episode went deeper into the power of suggestion. Three different “killers” were all motivated to commit the acts as a result of someone else.
The Criminal Minds villain, who became known as Mr. Scratch, would go on to target the group of FBI detectives, appearing in three more seasons of the show. This particular episode set his escape, as well as the escape of even more serial killers, in motion for a longer story arc.
“Penelope” was a hard watch because possibly the most beloved character on Criminal Minds, Garcia, fought for her life after she was the target of the new unsub. It was sad and horrifying since she was the one who sees the good in people, and it was her happiness at going out on a date only to end up shot by a serial killer that hurt her almost as much as the injuries that almost took her life. Everyone who watches Criminal Minds knows the close brother-sister styled relationship between Derek and Garcia, so watching him try to contain his fury as he hunted down the unsub was great.
True Genius (S7E11)
“True Genius” is a Reid-centric Criminal Minds episode. This has the BAU head to San Francisco when they believe that the Zodiac Killer might have returned years later. Of course, this wasn’t the real Zodiac Killer, but instead, a child prodigy named Caleb, who was fascinated with the original murders the police never solved. As a prodigy, this put him in Reid’s wheelhouse, and the episode had him working hard to recapture the confidence he lost when he believes he hasn’t lived up to his own expectations in life.
“Damaged” is a Rossi-centric episode and follows him as he sets out to finally solve a case that haunted him for 20 years. Someone killed a couple, leaving their three children without parents, and the murder went unsolved for two decades. Through the years, Rossi continued to check in on the kids and made sure they had everything they needed.
It was the regret from this unsolved case that brought Rossi back to the BAU to begin with. In this episode, the team is called in to investigate a similar case, and Rossi eventually gets a lead to his cold case. He then sadly learns his years of assistance has continuously reminded the kids of their parents’ unsolved murder. In a truly touching moment, Rossi finally captures the killer and lets the kids know so they can finally have closure.
Spencer Reid tends to be the subject of hostage situations a lot, but that’s likely because he’s a fan favorite, and he’s the character most likely to talk his way out of a situation. In “Entropy,” he had to do more than that; he had to outsmart an assassin.
The episode began allowing fans to think Reid was on a blind date. In reality, he was pretending to be a client of an assassin, trying to catch her. Aubrey Plaza as the “Black Widow” assassin was a great guest star, and one whose intellect was a match for Reid.
10 years after the BAU stopped a cult leader named Benjamin Cyrus, his followers returned for revenge in the 300th Criminal Minds episode. They now followed a new cult leader named Benjamin David Merna who restarted it with one of Cyrus’ wives. He was also known as The Strangler—a serial killer with 299 victims.
In this episode, The Believers kidnap Reid and Garcia, and this is made even worse when the cult actually has members within the FBI. The plan was for Reid to be the 300th victim to make a point. As a 300th episode, this had it all, from callbacks to the previous 299 episodes to a mystery that had its origins over 10 years before.
“Zugzwang” is a Season 8 episode and is a huge Reid episode as a stalker abducts his girlfriend, and it is up to the BAU team to find and save her before it is too late. The unsub here was very twisted, as it was a woman named Diane, played by Buffy the Vampire Slayer actress Michelle Trachtenberg. Diane was someone that damaged Reid more than almost anyone when she killed herself and Reid’s girlfriend Maeve at the same time, leaving him broken for most of the rest of the season.
Spencer Reid is one of the most interesting characters on Criminal Minds, a brilliant young man who has trouble dealing with his own insecurities and whose own mother is institutionalized for paranoid schizophrenia. Much of his neuroses are explored in “Revelations” in season 2 when he is captured by split-personality serial killer Tobias Hankel.
The BAU frantically tries to find Reid when a live feed of Hankel abusing the agent airs. Meanwhile, Reid is drugged and is flashing back to his childhood. This episode saw Reid forced to kill his captor, knowing that inside the multiple personalities was someone who needed help and this changed him for a long time.
The Tall Man (S14E5)
It’s always interesting when an episode is less about the case at hand and more about delving into the backstory of a main character. In this case, it’s JJ.
When two people go missing in the woods, and a third is found, the team investigates a small town ghost story. In order to better help with the case, JJ goes home to her own small town where her big sister died when she was 11. That aspect of JJ’s past was explored early in the series, but this episode provided more details, fleshing out the character a bit for the fans.
The Fisher King (S2E1)
The Fisher King was a two-part case, the season finale of season 1 and the season premiere of season 2. The case surrounded a man named Randall Garner who was badly burned in a fire that took almost his entire family and ended up institutionalized at the same asylum that housed Reid’s mother Diana. Despite his clear mental illness, he was released and set his sights on Reid and his partners in the BAU. Through season 1, he stalks the BAU members and then starts to torment them. This ends with him shooting Elle as a season-ending cliffhanger. Elle lives, and it is Reid who finally finds Garner, who can only watch as the killer blows himself up.
Date Night (S15E6)
Date Night is one of the best episodes of the final season of Criminal Minds. This episode brings back one of the most memorable unsubs for her third season in Cat Adams, played by Aubrey Plaza. She first appeared as a hitwoman that Reid helped bring down. She returned when she set up an elaborate plan to frame Reid and send him to jail. This episode has her preparing for her execution, but she has one more move, as she demands one date with Reid before she dies and has his girlfriend’s father and sister kidnapped to force this to happen.
The most demented, dangerous, and hated villain in Criminal Minds history is easily The Reaper. Portrayed by C. Thomas Howell, had killed 20 people and was the unsub on the first-ever case that Hotch worked as a BAU senior. No leads came, and The Reaper stopped killing. 11 years later, the lead investigator in the case called Hotch and said that he was dying and believed The Reaper would start killing again. It was true.
Through season 4 and 5, The Reaper made Hotch’s life a living hell. This started in “Omnivore” and launched one of the biggest and best cases in Criminal Minds history. It ended in “100” and resulted in one of the most horrifying moments in the show’s history when the team had to answer for Hotch killing The Reaper after he murdered his ex-wife Haley.
This episode was supposed to be the beginning of the end for Emily Prentiss. Revealing her job before she joined the BAU, the episode was the kind of adrenaline-fueled ride that most crime dramas only dream of achieving.
In it, the team has to band together when Prentiss goes missing. As they realize she’s tracking a dangerous enemy from her time undercover as a woman named Lauren, they also realize how little they know about her past. Some of the team deals with it better than others. Though this mission was supposed to culminate in her death, fan outrage saw it as a fakeout later in the series. It didn’t lessen the emotional punch.
Jason Alexander turned in one of the most chilling and despicable villains in Criminal Minds history. He was Henry Grace, a narcissistic serial killer who believed he was born to be a master killer. Rossi captured his brother William, another serial killer, and this ruined Henry’s life, which made Rossi someone he wanted to destroy and “Masterpiece” gave him the chance.
He admits to killing seven missing women the BAU had been hunting and that there were five others, including three children, that would die if they didn’t find them and one would die every two hours if they didn’t. The thrilling conclusion saw Rossi interrogating Henry and hearing in horror that his entire BAU team died in a trap Henry laid. However, the twist was they knew what he was doing and saved everyone with no casualties, and Rossi chillingly tells Henry he will be there when they execute him for the other murders.
In Season 13, the episode “Believer” was the season finale and the 299th episode of Criminal Minds. The unsub here is called The Strangler, someone a former profiler believes the team missed and had been tracking since he quit the FBI. The Strangler is the serial killer and cult leader who targeted Reid along with his followers, a spin-off group from Benjamin Cyrus’ old cult that the BAU helped bring down a decade earlier. Reid has to choose between helping a double agent in the group or doing nothing and allowing Garcia to die.