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Throwback Thursday - Criminal Minds - Riding the Lightning - Review

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Note - I like procedurals. I like the format and the characters and the fact that I can binge them one after another while simultaneously getting other things done. However, I understand why they are not popular with some, especially the criticism that the episodes start running together after a while. It’s true. Procedurals can become repetitive, which is why the episodes that stand out make such an impression on me. Of the hundreds of crime procedural case-of-the-week episodes I’ve watched, one of my favorites came in the middle of Criminal Minds’ first season. I’d seen random episodes of the show before, but it is Riding the Lightning that made Criminal Minds must-watch TV for me and started my summer-long binge. Although Throw Back Thursday is generally reserved for shows that have ended, this episode aired in 2006 – well older than many shows currently eligible.

The episode begins in a fairly typical way. The team heads to Florida to interview a husband and wife serial killing team about to die by electric chair. Jacob, the husband, is your typical psychopath. He’s narcissistic, arrogant, and completely uncaring about anyone except for how much he can control them. He was convicted of killing and dismembering at least 12 girls and burying them under his floorboards and at construction sites he worked on. His wife, Sarah Jean, is not what is expected though. She’s polite, quiet, and can size up a situation quickly. She also admitted to killing her 2-year-old son and Jacob testified that she helped lure his victims to their deaths. This dichotomy is pointed out by Reid as well, who claims that she profiled more like a war victim than a psychopath, making her automatically more interesting than Jacob. Therefore, Gideon chooses to interview her while making Hotch the lead with Jacob and sending Derek and Elle out in the field to look at the crime scenes. Derek and Elle also interview Sarah Jean’s mother, who shows them a letter Sarah Jean wrote her, claiming that she had no idea her husband was murdering those girls. When Elle reads the letter to Gideon, Sarah Jean flips out, saying that the letter is private. However, it is enough to convince Gideon that Sarah Jean is innocent of at least the girls’ murders. In fact, evidence shows that Sarah Jean actually called the cops on her husband.

Meanwhile, Hotch is not getting anything out of Jacob so JJ steps in to play to his blonde fantasies. She does a great job of acting younger to spark his interest, but it’s a lie that finally gives Jacob away. Hotch tells him that the governor has given Sarah Jean a stay of execution and he loses it. He cannot stand the thought of losing control over her and is determined that they will die within minutes of each other. In the end, he gives them another body, which leads to a place where Sarah Jean worked as a housekeeper. Convinced by now that their son, Riley, is actually still alive, Gideon has Garcia track down all the abandoned babies from that time period to no avail. Then Gideon remembers the paintings that Sarah Jean was so protective over. He convinces the warden to allow Sarah Jean out in the yard to look at the moon one more time, while he searches the paintings for clues. Taped to the back of one is the picture of a musical prodigy. Now all they have to do is track down the kid and prove that he is Riley before time runs out for Sarah Jean.

It is here that the story does a 180 and goes from being a good story to one that is unforgettable for me. See, Sarah Jean does not want to be saved. It is her choice to die and she begs Gideon to let her take her secret to the grave with her. She’s not seeking attention and she isn’t suicidal. She’s a mother, doing what she feels is best to protect her son. She realizes that if people knew who Riley’s parents really were, he would forever live under the stigma of Jacob’s psychopathic tendencies. Instead of seeing a promising young musician, all people would see is his serial killer father. She doesn’t want that legacy for her son and is willing to pay the ultimate price to give him the life he deserves. Gideon maintains that her son mostly deserves is the truth, but Sarah Jean will not waver so Gideon has the team search for her son without her cooperation. They, of course, succeed but Sarah Jean makes one final plea to Gideon and in the end, he allows the mother to die for the son who doesn’t even know she exists. Instead of focusing on the crime like most episodes, it focuses on what a mother’s love looks like in the most desperate of situations.

What I like about this episode most is how much it made me care. Usually the procedural episodes I enjoy most involve my favorite characters in a huge struggle or ones that see those characters changed by the situation. This is not the case here. Instead, it was the guest character that tugged at my heartstrings and made the biggest impact. Although Sarah Jean was only in one episode, she made a lasting impression on me and the acting between Jeannetta Arnette (Sarah Jean) and Mandy Patinkin (Gideon) was superb. The desperation each character felt to make the other see their side was palpable and their hug at the end is the definition of bittersweet. When Sarah Jean smiles and asks Gideon to be there as she dies, my heart broke for both of them. Then it broke again when tears flooded the warden’s eyes right before he gave the order to execute. Typically, it is hard to get viewers invested in one-off characters, but to this day, Sarah Jean is one of my favorite characters on Criminal Minds. She impacted everyone around her and the writers did a great job of using the Jacob character as a foil. By giving Sarah Jean grace in the hardest of moments, they made a bigger impression on me in 43 minutes than most characters do in multiple episodes or even whole shows.

The direction in this episode is top-notch as well. Chris Long, who started in shows like Gilmore Girls and Charmed and went on to be nominated for an Emmy for The Americans, does a great job especially with his transitions. The most obvious one is when he goes from Gideon watching Sarah Jean die to his being in the audience while Riley is playing his cello. A single tear flows down Gideon’s face while the voice-over quotes Albert Pines. “What we do for ourselves dies with us. What we do for others and the world remains and is immortal.” Long also effectively cuts between Jacob and Sarah Jean’s interviews to greater emphasize their differences. Still my favorite set of cuts is at the end when Sarah Jean is begging Gideon to let it go, let her go, and then it transitions onto the face of Riley’s adopted father. He knows what day it is and he can guess why the FBI has shown up on his doorstep right before Sarah Jean is scheduled to be executed. He’s terrified that his son will learn the truth and then it cuts back to Gideon telling them to stand down. The father’s relief underscores what Sarah Jean has been trying to get across all along. Hers is a secret that could tear that whole family apart.

I also love how the case is not black and white. The only true bad guy is Jacob, but both Sarah Jean and Gideon make good points in their arguments. It brings up questions about how justice is best served and whether the pursuit of truth at all costs is wise. To this day, the ending leaves me unsettled. Is it better for Sarah Jean to die although she is innocent in order to save her son? Is her death in vain? Will the truth still come out, given that they asked the media about Riley? (They have to be curious about why the BAU asks about some random teenager after hearing rumors that the BAU wants a stay of execution.) How much should Riley be told about his birth parents? Is it a case of ignorance being bliss or does he have an innate right, even as a teen, to know all the gory details of his past? It’s episodes like this one, whose moral quandaries stick with me long after the story ends, that keep me coming back to crime procedural shows. It’s characters like Sarah Jean that remind me that it is not how long a character is on the show but the impact they make on the viewer. In the end, this episode is just plain good TV.

Grade: A

Best Quotes:
1. Sarah Jean: “I am standing here because of choices I made. Don’t let my son be Jacob’s last victim. Let me go. Let us both go.”
2. Gideon: “Jacob’s gone. He’s no longer any threat to Riley. Tell me where he is. We can stop this madness.” Sarah Jean: “There is no greater gift in life than that of being a parent, but so many of us abuse and squander that gift.” Gideon: “You can change that right now.” Sarah Jean: “I made my decision 15 years ago. This has never been about Jacob. It’s always been about Riley.” Gideon: “That’s why I can’t let you do this.” Sarah Jean: “This isn’t about you or me.” Gideon: “I know it isn’t. That’s why I’m not going to let Riley lose the greatest gift he never knew he had.” Sarah Jean: “But that is my gift to him and I’ll not let you destroy that.” Sarah Jean: “My son is dead, Agent Gideon…. Why can you not accept the truth?” Gideon: “I can. This isn’t it.” Sarah Jean: “What wouldn’t you do for your son to give him a life you could never hope to dream of? I am at peace in the knowledge that my son is free to be whatever he chooses to be.” Gideon: “If he knew who you were, do you think he would choose to allow you to walk in there?” Sarah Jean: “If he knew who his parents, can you imagine the damage my legacy would leave him?” Gideon: “Can you imagine what he would feel, knowing his mother spent 15 years on death row innocent of all charges, just so he could be free of her?” Sarah Jean: “Not me, Jacob. It isn’t just my life you have in your hands. It’s Riley’s life too. You have the chance to save my son’s life.” Gideon: “I choose to save yours.” Sarah Jean: “My life ended the day I met Jacob.”
3. Sarah Jean: “I used to tell Riley that no matter where we were that we had the moon to be looking down on the both of us.” Warden: “We should head back. Sarah, if there’s something you know that can save you…” Sarah Jean: “Thank you, Warden. This has been wonderful. Your kindness to me, I thank you.”
4. Garcia: “You guys do realize that visiting death row is not part of my job description.”

Episode Awards:
Best Scene – Gideon tries to convince Sarah Jean to stop her own execution
Best Big Moment – Gideon hugs Sarah Jean goodbye before telling Derek to stand down
Best Little Moment – the Warden has tears in his eyes as Sarah Jean dies
Best Acting: Jeannetta Arnette as Sarah Jean
Best Moment: Hotch shows Jacob a picture of teenaged Riley right before he dies and says, “You lose.”

Screencaps by Fanforum, YouTube, Side Reel, Shared, Fanpop, Unsub Mary, and Cinemorgue.

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