Top 20 Saddest Criminal Minds Episodes
Welcome to MsMojo, and today we’re counting down our picks for the Top 10 Saddest “Criminal Minds” Episodes.
For this list, we’ll be looking at the most tragic BAU cases that continue to break our hearts. Since we’ll be covering major plot points, a spoiler warning is now in effect.
What do YOU think is the saddest episode? Let us know in the comments.
#20: “True Night”
Some of the most tragic cases on “Criminal Minds” involve subjects who’ve experienced significant trauma. This one is no exception. LA comic book artist Jonny McHale goes on nightly killing sprees motivated by revenge. He tracks down members of the gang who made him watch as they killed his fiancée Vickie. The fact that he had proposed after she’d revealed she was expecting just moments before only adds to the tragedy. His actions are reflected in his work, but he’s unaware of the crimes he’s been committing. Jonny unknowingly suffers from severe Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and when interrogated by the team, the awful memories come back to him. The episode heart-wrenchingly ends with him hospitalized, looking to hear Vickie’s voice by repeatedly calling her.
#19: “The Big Wheel”
Brace yourself, this one hurts. As a kid, Vincent Rowlings saw his dad murder his mom. As if that weren’t traumatic enough, there’s a video of it. Now an adult, Vincent records himself killing women resembling her. The most devastating parts of this episode involve Stan, a boy who was home when Vincent took his mom’s life. However, Stan is blind, and couldn’t identify him as the perpetrator. Feeling a connection to the boy, Vincent bonds with him to the point where Stan wishes he was his father. While they’re atop a Ferris wheel for Stan’s birthday, Vincent dies of previously sustained injuries. In the end, Stan realizes that this is the man who killed his mother. In other words, the story is downright gutting.
#18: "Dorado Falls"
During his time as a Navy SEAL, Luke Dolan was part of Operation Dorado Falls. He was ordered to kill two witnesses as part of the mission, which seemingly led to PTSD. After being involved in a car accident later on, Dolan became extremely paranoid, and came to believe his wife and daughter had been taken. Reid eventually deduces he’s actually suffering from Capgras syndrome, a condition that makes someone think imposters have replaced those they know. Tragically, the delusion was so strong that he killed several people, including his parents. It’s extremely tough to see it unfold. Had the BAU not put his wife and daughter in protective custody, he would’ve likely harmed them, too. Just the thought of it has us shuddering.
#17: "The Uncanny Valley"
In her youth, Samantha Malcolm lost her mother and began being abused by her father Dr. Arthur Malcolm. He then notably subjected her to electroshock therapy. Though he claimed it was to help her, it was really to keep her from exposing him. The extreme and unnecessary procedure had lasting psychological effects on Samantha into adulthood. After seeing her father giving her three special dolls to someone else, Samantha sought replacements. She began taking petite women to be her new dolls, putting them into drug-induced paralysis until they died. Whether or not you find her sympathetic, there’s no denying the physical, mental, and emotional trauma Samantha endured is horrific. It adds a dark, awful layer to a deeply shocking case.
Luke Alvez joined the BAU in season 12 after the team enlisted his help to track down escaped serial killers, including “The Crimson King” Daniel Cullen. We learn that his longtime Army buddy and former Fugitive Task Force partner Phil Brooks once had a horrific encounter with Cullen that left him seriously injured. We meet Phil the next season when Luke visits him at physical therapy, where he’s struggling to regain his ability to walk. He returns in Season 14 having made progress only to get targeted by Jeremy Grant, a former sniper out for revenge. Luke finds Phil murdered and almost kills Grant in retaliation. Seeing him lose his best friend, who’d overcome so much, in such a horrible way is always beyond heartbreaking.
SSA Emily Prentiss isn’t one to let her emotions get the best of her. But here, she’s heartbroken over the death of a close childhood friend Matthew Benton. As teenagers, he supported her through an abortion and she feels responsible for causing him to doubt the Church. Matthew also battled substance use disorder and his religious parents blamed Emily, convinced she was a harmful influence. He became paranoid, leading them to believe he was possessed - which culminated in an exorcism. The team discovers Matthew died of a heart attack caused by the ritual. Not only did Emily lose a friend, but she knows he passed terrified and in pain. Though the priest responsible for his and other deaths is apprehended, it’s painful to watch.
#14: “The Replicator”
BAU Section Chief Director Erin Strauss had been an antagonist. She always had it out for the unit, questioning Hotch’s leadership and the team’s efficiency in general. Throughout the seasons, she softened, especially after she went into recovery for alcohol use disorder. By season 8, Strauss was on much better terms with everyone – especially Rossi. Unfortunately, we didn’t get to enjoy the redemption arc for long. John Curtis, aka “The Replicator,” poisons her and makes her consume alcohol, ensuring she won’t survive. Hotch then locates a disoriented Strauss outside and consoles her as she slowly passes away. Many probably weren’t expecting to be this sad over a previously unlikable character dying, but her fate hit hard, making the episode all the more poignant.
#13: “Nelson’s Sparrow”
In this season 10 episode, the team deals with the death of their former colleague, Jason Gideon. Gideon was revisiting an old unsolved case and got a lead. But Donnie Mallick, an unsub operating since the 1970s, killed him before he could catch him. At the scene, everyone tearfully grieves him, especially Spencer. It’s hard not to tear up alongside them. However, they have to push some of those feelings aside to focus on solving the case. Still, the BAU members take moments to remember Gideon throughout, with the loss seemingly hitting Spencer the hardest. The raw emotion is impossible to ignore. “Nelson’s Sparrow” was a powerful memorial for the character fans missed, as actor Mandy Patinkin exited the show in season 3.
#12: “Sick Day”
The BAU has seen some awful things, but some affect them — and us — more than most. In “Sick Day”, JJ returns home after a case involving youth — those are always heartbreaking. She recounts the string of abductions by serial arsonist John David Bates. It was a race against the clock trying to find missing teen Francesca Morales. And while speaking with the girl’s family, she bonded with her little brother Roberto who was later taken, too. JJ and Luke caught Bates with the victims, which also included his sister Trisha. Ultimately, they rescued both Trisha and Berto but weren't able to save Francesca. The events themselves, and the toll they take on a guilt-ridden JJ, make this an excruciatingly difficult watch.
#11: “Riding the Lightning”
Jacob Dawes and Sarah Jean Mason were known as a serial killer couple, despite Sarah Jean allegedly not participating in the crimes. The BAU interviews them on death row in a bid to locate more victims. Though Sarah Jean confessed to murdering her son Riley years ago, Gideon puts the pieces together. Riley actually lives with an adopted family, unaware of his infamous birth parents and their crimes. Sarah Jean wants to keep it that way to protect him. Though Gideon tries fixing things, he ultimately respects her decision. At this point, we’re emotional messes. In the end, Gideon is there as the innocent woman is executed. We can’t help but feel all sorts of complex emotions watching the tragic story unfold.
#10: “Ashes and Dust”
This Season 2 episode begins with a family desperately trying to escape their house as it’s burning. It’s one of the show’s best openings but also one of the most visceral. Hotch and Prentiss go to speak to Mrs. Cutler, the only survivor of the fire. Covered in serious burns, she’s just minutes away from dying. Unfortunately, she has to relive the harrowing experience in order to help the BAU find the unsub. The woman’s cries for help and pleas to see her family are agonizing. Hotch sits with her as she takes her last breaths, leaving him and the audience grieving the deaths of this innocent family.
Emily Prentiss joined the BAU back in season two, quickly becoming a fan favorite as well as a dear friend to the team. In this episode, we learn about her past undercover work with Interpol, and her relationship with Ian Doyle. Now that Doyle has escaped a prison camp, he’s out for revenge. After he attacks her, she’s taken to the hospital as her life hangs on the line. Hotch tells the team that she died on the table, leaving everyone devastated. Of course, we know she’s not actually dead, and she later returns to the BAU. But seeing the team mourn her supposed death is still heartbreaking. This also marks Paget Brewster’s temporary absence from the show.
#8: “Sex, Birth, Death”
High schooler Nathan Harris approaches Reid near the subway, saying he attended one of his talks about sadists. He’s afraid of his own urges and dark thoughts, worried he’ll actually hurt someone one day. The team has dealt with a few unsubs who want to understand their own psychology. But for Nathan, he needs to know BEFORE he acts on them. The team discovers that Nathan isn’t the unsub-killing sex workers around D.C. However, it’s recommended that he’s hospitalized. At the end, the teenager attempts to take his own life, feeling that this is the only way to save others he may harm in the future. The late Anton Yelchin gives an unforgettable performance as a young man in fear of himself.
Near the seventh anniversary of her daughter’s disappearance, Monica, a member of Garcia’s victim support group, goes missing. Bill, another member of the group, reveals that he is the one who abducted Hope. He promises to take Monica to her. Desperate to see her daughter again, she agrees to go with him. Later, he admits that he joined the support group after Hope took her own life in captivity. As if it wasn’t twisted enough that he kidnapped a child, Bill lures Monica with plans to “create” another Hope. While at Bill’s house, she’s faced with Hope’s life as a prisoner, and eventually finds her body. Seeing a mother mentally tortured by her daughter’s captor is sickening to watch.
#6: “Seven Seconds”
This intense episode begins with a frantic search for young Katie Jacobs, who disappeared while at the mall with her family. Her parents are obviously distraught, but there’s something off about her aunt and uncle. The team searches the Jacobs’ home and finds evidence that Katie’s been hiding a terrible secret. When she’s found, medics have to revive her as the parents watch. Katie’s dad finds out his twin brother harmed his daughter, and that his sister-in-law almost killed her out of jealousy. Both Susan and Richard are arrested, leaving their son Jeremy without parents. By the end, an entire family is destroyed.
Many fans have a soft spot for Spencer Reid. So, when he began a romantic relationship with Maeve, we wanted all the happiness in the world for him. Because of Maeve’s stalker, the two only spoke covertly over the phone. But despite the distance between each other, their bond was strong. Sadly, the couple never actually meet face to face until they’re at the mercy of Maeve’s stalker, Diane. Reid does all he can to save her, but Diane shoots herself along with Maeve right in front of him. This scars Reid, and us, forever.
#4: “Profiler, Profiled”
Derek always appears tough and somewhat guarded. But when he’s accused of murdering young boys in his hometown of Chicago, he’s forced to open up to his team. When Derek was just a kid, his father (a cop) was killed while on duty. Growing up without a dad was difficult, but Carl Buford, a youth center director and football coach, stepped in to supposedly help out. To others, it looked like he did. But behind closed doors, Buford abused him. Now Derek learns that he’s done the same with other boys in the neighborhood. He confronts Buford in a powerful, vulnerable scene, leading to his arrest.
From witnessing the death of his girlfriend, to being framed and imprisoned for murder in Mexico, Spencer Reid has gone through hell. His first traumatic experience as a member of the BAU comes in Season 2 when he’s captured by an unsub with a dissociative identity disorder. Tobias Hankel’s two other personalities — Charles, his deceased father, and Raphael, an angel — torture Reid for “his sins.” Tobias himself empathizes with Reid, giving him Dilaudid to help with the pain. This causes Reid’s struggles with substance use disorder long after he’s rescued by his team. Seeing him suffer physically, mentally, and emotionally for an entire episode is excruciating.
#2: “Mosley Lane”
Any case involving children is incredibly sad, and this one is up there with the worst. For almost a decade, Roger and Anita Roycewood abducted youth from public places, including Charlie Hillridge. As a teen, Charlie is now forced to aid in the capture of others. However, he does what he can to help his “brothers and sisters.” When a girl disappears from a festival, the team thinks it could be connected to Charlie’s case. Parents of other missing children gather at the BAU office while the team searches for the unsubs. Some are found, while others have been cremated in the Roycewood’s incinerator. Between the distraught parents and the terrified kidnap victims, this is undoubtedly one of the show’s most tragic episodes.
Before we unveil our top pick, here are a few honorable mentions.
Three Teenage Girls Are Forced to Make an Impossible Choice
Soldiers Overseas Return Home to Find Their Families Murdered
“The Tall Man”
JJ Learns What Led to Her Sister’s Death
Rossi Is Haunted by a Horrific Double Murder
“The Bittersweet Science”
An Unsub Says a Tearful Goodbye to His Son with Cancer
Arguably the worst unsub the BAU has ever faced is George Foyet (aka the Reaper). The serial killer returns after over a decade, when his “contract” with the Boston detective on his case. This was also one of Hotch’s first cases in the BAU. After he’s caught, he’s sent to jail, which he quickly escapes. Fearing for their safety, Hotch puts his ex-wife Haley and son Jack into witness protection. But in the show’s 100th episode, Foyet tracks them down. Hotch is on the phone with Haley when she realizes Foyet is going to kill her. Hotch and the whole team listen as Foyet shoots Haley. Seeing Hotch hold Haley’s lifeless body is one of, if not the most heart-wrenching scenes in the entire show.